A Growing Transformation

Caie KelleyDecember 16, 2016The Soul of GenderAwesome Moments

Females have long been regarded as the lesser gender in Chinese culture. In a classic Chinese work, Pan Chao writes, “Let a woman modestly yield to others… let her bear disgrace; let her endure when others speak or do evil to her.”

Yet as China continues to modernize, and the influences of the Internet, Western culture, and the unplanned shortage of women due to the one-child policy begin to have their effects, the traditional roles of females may be beginning to change.

It is very possible that the idea of equality for all is finding an audience with the Asian populace, and, on a personal level, altering the way I am treated as a young woman. I discovered this during a dinner conversation while visiting family in Hong Kong.

As is usual in my big Chinese family, we were seated at a large, circular table crammed with steaming dishes of rice, noodles, tofu, and mysterious meats. Gradually, the clatter of plastic chopsticks died down and the usual exchange of “do je sai,” meaning “thank you,” in Cantonese, faded away, and we began to converse.

“These days it is so common to send our kids off to the United States to study,” my uncle, seated at the head of the table, explained, “and they return home heavily influenced by American ideals. I’ve been working internationally for a long time, so my views on gender equality differ from that of my parents. I think as that becomes more commonplace, the way traditional Chinese parents raise their kids and view their daughters will adapt.”

My male cousin chimed in, “And really, when you think about it, all this bias is pretty outdated. China’s government obviously has to deal with the male-to-female ratio, but it already seems like in the big cities of China, those ‘traditional roles have largely faded. Women have more and more of the same opportunities as men.” They turned to me, “What job are you considering, Caie?”

As a junior in high school without concrete career plans, this question always induces panic, but as I paused and tried to prevent myself from incoherently mumbling, I thought about how his question underscored the changing gender roles for Chinese girls. Having grown up in California with American values, I don’t often think about these traditional restrictions.

My mother, however, was the first female in her family to obtain a college degree. Before she left home for an American education, none of her sisters had even completed high school. While her little brother remained in school, her four older sisters took jobs at the local factory when they turned 13. In contrast, my sister and I plan on attending college, and never even considered dropping out of school to support our family. “You would never have heard about high-achieving females when I was growing up,” my mother explains. “I was a very lucky exception, because my sisters realized the value of school, and they worked very hard so I could keep with it. Fortunately, these standards are changing fast in China, and girls are reaping the benefits.”

Until relatively recently, a woman’s role was always in the home. My great grandmother had bound feet, so she was physically limited in her ability to move around or work in the fields. Instead, she was expected to cook and clean, maneuvering only the small area of her living quarters. In that light, the fact that today I am expected to achieve just as much as my male cousins is incredible. I did not have an answer to my uncle’s question, but I found myself smiling. I may not know who I will be, but I know what I can be, and that I am no longer limited by tradition.

Our world is truly progressing, and a new perspective is taking over not only the countries of Asia but also the rest of the globe. For me, the change is reflected in conversations with my male family members where I am treated as an equal, and I am all too happy to be part of this new wave.

Caie Kelley is a 16-year-old high school student living in the San Francisco Bay area. In her free time she enjoys public speaking, swimming, running, music, and spending time with friends and family.