A Chinese Feminist, Made in America
How four years at Amherst College changed my perception of my home country, and myself.
In August 2010, two weeks after turning 18, I traveled about 6,700 miles from Beijing, China to attend Amherst, a liberal-arts college in Massachusetts in the northeastern United States. I packed a copy of Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw’s textbook Principles of Economics in my carry-on luggage to peruse on the plane. Having aced both the Scholastic Aptitude Test and the gaokao, China’s college entrance exam, I expected to continue my straightforward path: I would study hard, major in economics, and get good grades. Upon graduation, I’d enter investment banking, a much sought-after and lucrative career option among Chinese students in the United States.
China U. is an FP series devoted to higher education’s role as a major and growing node of connection between the world’s two powers. How will a new generation, fluent in China and in America, shape the future of bilateral ties?
But in May 2014, when I graduated, I did so having completed a degree in political science and a senior thesis on the gender injustice wrought by China’s so-called “One-Child Policy”. On my flight back home to Beijing, I devoured Americanah by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Even though the novel discusses the Nigerian diaspora rather than my Chinese one, the woman author who titles her talks “The Danger of a Single Story” and “We Should All be Feminists” manages to capture my own experience.
Before coming to the United States, I thought I was already quite Americanized. In fact, I knew very little about this place. Like a typical Chinese middle-class millennial, I had been a consumer of American pop culture — music, TV shows, and Hollywood movies — long before college. My version of the American life was singular: people were affluent, lived in urban places, and looked like the cast of Friends, a 1990s sitcom that’s still unbelievably popular in China.
That did not prepare me for life in the United States. Whether it was talking to fellow classmates about their lives in places I had never heard of, or listening to upperclassmen talk about safe sex, the kind of displacement I felt during my college orientation would continue to smash the simple narratives I’d been fed. When I found myself on a school-run trip to the nearby Holyoke, Massachusetts, I encountered pockets of post-industrial poverty that looked nothing like the “America” I had previously watched on How I Met Your Mother or Big Bang Theory.
Even though “class struggles” was a ubiquitous jargon in the Marxist-themed textbooks I had read growing up, I had never actually had to think about class before I arrived at Amherst. I am the daughter of two professors and rarely left our middle-class, college-educated neighborhood. Amherst, renowned for its diverse student body, instead taught me about “class” as a lived reality through the socioeconomic disparities manifest among my peers. On the one hand, I was appalled by the wealth, status and access to power enjoyed by some Amherst students, who would attend debutante balls worthy of a Gossip Girl episode or off-handedly mention “servants” at home. On the other hand, friends who were first-generation college students or hailed from working-class backgrounds amazed and humbled me. While my family is not rich, I had never had to think twice about the cost of a good cup of coffee or a movie ticket. I had never thought I’d be the spoiled middle-class only child — but there I was, comparing myself to peers working to support themselves (and even their families) while undertaking the same course-load as mine. By sophomore year, I’d decided to cross investment banking off my list of career options.
Studying in the United States has complicated my perception of China, and of my own years there. I appreciate the irony that I have learned more about Chinese social inequality and political turmoil while in the U.S. than I ever did at home. Thanks to freer access to information and a heightened awareness of my Chinese identity in a foreign context, I have started to ask questions about urban-rural disparities in China, to think about the migrant workers in my home neighborhood, who used to be invisible to me, and to read about the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen, and ethnic injustice that no amount of forced amnesia can erase from history.
I have also come to see my identity as a Chinese woman in a new light. In March 2015, five Chinese feminists were arrested for protesting against sexual harassment on public transportation, which led to domestic rallies and international outcry, which apparently resulted in their release — quite unusual, given the government’s usually refractory response to international criticism. I worried anxiously about the feminists, two of whom I met through mutual friends while studying at Amherst. I was frustrated and terrified — though ashamed to feel terrified — when I learned my e-mail and wechat (a popular Chinese messaging app) were being monitored, since I had been actively involved in calling for the activists’ release and translating their words. I am enraged that, rather than addressing prevalent gender injustice, the Chinese government prefers to silence the brave few who dare to speak out about it.
I gradually become a feminist after coming to the United States. It was a natural and empowering process. Having studied feminist theory, co-directed the Amherst rendition of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, and served as a sexual respect advocate on campus, I had obtained the vocabulary and framework to analyze why some of my earlier experiences in China felt wrong. It’s because they were wrong, and the manifestations of gender injustice. I could see it in how teachers would openly comment that boys were “superior” to girls at math and science; how my loving father would express his unconscious preference for a son by intending “if only you were a boy” as a compliment; how my female cousins and I were encouraged to stop eating after a while to “keep in shape,” while male cousins were left alone at the dinner table; and how my 22-year-old female cousin was set up to go on series of blind dates, while her male counterpart was expected to go to graduate school.
As a result of being vocal about my feminism, I have been repeatedly asked by Chinese acquaintances, “why are you a feminist?” in an accusatory, privy or pitiful tone. I have occasionally heard another more direct and less polite version of the same inquiry: “have all of you feminists been hurt by men?” The truth is that I was sexually assaulted by a family acquaintance at age 7. Despite experiencing shock, discomfort and tremendous guilt at the time, I did not know what it was because I had not been taught to recognize it. In 2012, when my former Amherst classmate Angie Epifano’s account of sexual assault was published, I had a conversation with a friend about traumatic early experiences, and I named what happened to me as an “assault” to myself for the first time.
I am not defined by my assault, even though I have struggled with internalized shame and guilt. I certainly don’t ascribe my experience to bad luck. In a recent Chinese Internet survey of over 17,000 anonymous respondents who self-reported having been sexually assaulted as children, over 94 percent of the victims were female, and respondents identified over 97 percent of the perpetrators as male. Like me, over 82 percent of respondents say they did not recognize their experience as sexual assault at the time, even though many were aware that something was wrong. Over 70 percent of the victims say they have never disclosed their experiences to anyone.
Being a vocal feminist exposes me to unexpected challenges whenever I interact with my Chinese communities in the States and back home in China. I have been told by multiple heterosexual male Chinese friends — many also U.S.-educated, I must add — that “women should keep their grievances private.” I have been lectured by a high-school-classmate-turned-popular-blogger that “sexual assault doesn’t happen in China; it only happens in promiscuous societies like America.” My own family worries about my public identification as a feminist. Women relatives ask me if I can be a feminist “silently,” lest I drive all the boys away. Like any topic that could potentially become political in China, apathy and avoidance are the highest hurdles.
Today, feminism constitutes my core identity. Not only has it given me an understanding of my early experiences, it helps me navigate my position as a woman in a male-dominated world. Feminism has also freed me from the fear of becoming a “leftover woman,” defined as a single woman over the age of 27 by the state-run All-China Women’s Federation. Having researched problematic dating and marriage norms in China and having written about them for an English-language outlet, I can separate love from the pressure to marry in my personal life. I no longer feel guilty about enjoying singlehood.
This fall, I will remain Stateside to study law. I already have a long feminist wish list for the Chinese legal reforms I’d like to see, ranging from formal legislation against gender discrimination in hiring practices, to nation-wide access to temporary restraining orders for victims of domestic violence, to official acknowledgement of LGBTQ rights. Perhaps my ideals result from my immaturity, hubris, and ignorance. But I feel inspired by Chinese peers who are utilizing their privileges to fulfill their social responsibilities.
During her commencement speech to the Wellesley College class of 2015, Adichie reminded graduates of their educational privileges. Having found a role model in novelist Adichie, I believe her when she encourages younger women to at least try to dream big. The transformation I underwent through my elite liberal-arts education is a painful bliss: it entails the loss of simpler narrative and a coming to terms with personal history. But it’s also given me tolerance, empathy, and more nuanced ways to situate myself in my world. I am privileged, and grateful.