Some days, I don’t think I remember very much about where I came from, or at least I think I only remember as much as what affects my life today. Sometimes, I feel all I remember about Asia are the worn floral patterns dancing across sofas and the tumblers of hot water on plastic trays, the way dust dances across heavy curtains. It’s familiarity that makes this a ballet of slow decay. It ruins itself in its same-ness. But, as it turns out, perhaps that’s just my memory.
Every winter break, my sister and I return to Singapore to visit our extended family. My anticipation of this trip is never positive. After all, I spent twelve years growing up there in an extremely sheltered, rigid environment before moving to London to attend an all girls’ Catholic boarding school. Needless to say, it was quite the change. I like to say that Singapore left me with many neuroses I don’t need in this stage of my life – and that’s still true. I was told I was stupid because I wasn’t great at math and science, that I was fat because I didn’t fit an Asian standard of slim-hipped beauty, and that to be a ‘good girl’ I had to first and foremost protect the reputation of my family – something, of course, that my own behavior reflected heavily upon. Individuality was never really in the cards for a nice Chinese girl like me – and it’s something I’m still chastised for when visiting home.
However, this trip, while I was in Beijing, on my way to Hong Kong to visit my maternal grandmother, I saw an collection of paintings by contemporary Chinese artist Liu Xiaodong entitled ‘Hometown Boy’ at the UCCA. The premise was simple – the successful, urbane artist, grown cynical, returns to relive the simple life in his hometown, to paint the distances between his memories and current realities. To see the beauty in a jar of homemade sauce sitting static on a plastic kitchen table. The humor of two farmers, shirtless, in Wellington boots marveling at an X-ray of one of their sets of ribs. To wonder at a watermelon pickling in a bucket right next to the bathroom. It began with a sentence – ‘This time, I made up my mind to really go home’.
This got me thinking – what would it mean to ‘really’ go home? Sure, like Liu Xiaodong, I’d technically been home, physically every year, but this didn’t mean ever mean much since I willed myself to constantly remain in the mindset of a more contemporary me – feminist, college student, westernized, to some degree, and contemptuous of the traditional values that surrounded me as a child. And yet, I thought, still in awe of the myths and traditions I climbed out of. Things that echo the in types of food I crave when under pressure (always congee and fried dough), the way I serve a cup of tea, or in the jade bracelet I wear on my left wrist.
So this time, I’ve resolved, too, to ‘really go home’. To embrace the persons and environments that were all I knew when I was a child. To accept rather than completely deny. And it’s paid off – after a couple of weeks of making more of an effort to hang out with my family, particularly my maternal grandma, I’ve realised how much more similar we are than I thought. That I come from a tradition of strong women who have always worked to have their choices, but also accepted that they’d have to make compromises because of the times they lived in. Who didn’t necessarily identify as feminist, but had worked, in their own small ways towards increasing agency in their own lives, whether in refusing to give up a career, or having to sacrifice their own happiness to ensure harmony in a large, rowdy, and emotionally complicated family. Despite their conservative values, they taught me about exercising my agency and speaking up for myself, regardless of context or double binds.
Realizing this, for me, was an important reminder that my own imperatives and aspirations towards individuality, independence and creative autonomy grew exactly out of watching the tiny tenacious resistances of my own female relatives. That my own beliefs stemmed from wanting to expand and extend these liberties in order to remedy the traditional oppressions that were becoming increasingly visible to me. My feminism is not a rejection of my culture – my cultural background is where my feminism necessarily begins.
Indeed, I’ve found it difficult, as a feminist of color, to integrate my cultural background with my future goals and a feminist cause, particularly when often the two seem so antithetical to each other. Unfortunately, it seems more intuitive to associate feminism with a ‘Western’ ideal of independence. But feminists such as Cherrie Moraga, Audre Lorde, significantly, understood their own backgrounds and ethnic identities as integral to their political, feminist ones. To ensure diversity and inclusivity within the wider movement, but more importantly, to claim one’s cultural background as the reason for one’s assertion of agency, and the root of your questioning societal norms.
So this winter break, I’d highly recommend ‘really go[ing] home’. Think about what influenced your development as a feminist, and where your willingness to assert your own agency comes from. Hug your grandma! Ask her about her experiences as a girl. Start the new year with some self-reflexivity in the context of your family.
After all, it’s your assertion of agency that’s the most important in bringing about widespread change – particularly when it’s exercised in terms of sexual boundaries and consent. I for one am excited to keep working towards these goals in the 2011 – this time keeping my family and its traditions in my mind.