by Yanshuo Zhang
Opening my Chinese textbook as a six-year-old girl new to school, I found the character for woman, 女, everywhere. Hao, the word for “good,” is “woman” and “son” together: 好. Nu, 奴, means “slave” and is composed of “woman” and “again.” 娇 is the word for jiao—“tender” and “charming.” It is a woman either tall or in disguise.
These ideographs accompanied me as I grew up. I have also written my own character “女” with strokes sometimes smooth, sometimes strenuous. Entering middle school at twelve, girls were required to cut their hair short. I had to abandon my girlish dream of flowing black hair until the last year of high school when girls around me started to tie their hair with flowery pins again. I still remember how my heart lightened when the flowers bloomed that spring, and my hope for the future grew, as did my hair. Leaving high school at eighteen, Mother’s teaching was still haunting: “Girls should reserve themselves. Never give yourself out.” Chinese culture teaches girls that waiting is a virtue.
For two thousand years, the birth of a boy was the great joy of the Chinese family. It is still true in some families. Yet a woman, or a daughter, is also treasured as “jian jin”—a thousand pieces of gold. Some parents would not trade their girls for ten thousand pieces of gold.
“I just don’t believe that girls cannot be great achievers,” says Baba when he recalls how he had decided to raise a great daughter from the moment he knew Mother was pregnant. To him, no son could have been more cherished than his daughter. From the time I was young, he held me to high standards. When I was three, Baba taught me not to litter even though I wondered why other kids did. “You are different, my daughter.” That was his explanation. When I was twelve, Baba resigned from his college professorship to return home and mentor me. When I finally made my trip to America for college three years ago, Baba’s hair grew grey overnight when I failed to call home after my arrival.
Seventy years ago, my great-grandmother could hardly leave her house, her feet bound into tiny “three-inch lotuses.” A housewife all her time, the old lady would totter near the front door, tend to the silkworms, and call my father home. Popo, the grandma, loved my father deeply and turned all her dreams into nurturing a household of life. But today, as a young woman without bindings, I have traveled thousands of li away from home. I have studied in both Europe and America. In my American classroom, “woman” has been redefined. While I was taught that love of any kind, even among women, is natural, my Chinese friends still frown if I bring up the topic. While Western feminists teach me the social constructionist idea that “One is not born a woman, but becomes one,” I had grown up with Grandma’s caution that “Girls should naturally be ladylike”—she would not be happy if I only wore a tank top on hot summer days. When I graduated from college at twenty-two, two of my cousins, close to my age, were already married and were starting families.
Woman. 女. When I write down this character again, stroke by stroke, I see my life being folded into this simple yet incredibly complex ideograph. As a young woman shaped by different cultures and traditions, I carry with me the inescapable baggage of my past. Yet at the same time, one can never uproot herself from her native land. A shorthaired girl in school, I faithfully recited the poetry written by generations of Chinese poets, about women’s yearnings, men’s pains, peasants’ tears, and soldiers’ sufferings.
In the past when I went away
Poplars and willows fluttered at home
Today when I look back
Rains and snows cover the land. Slowly and heavily I go
Craving and thirsty
My heart is filled with pain
Who can understand my yearning?
This ancient poem, from the Book of Poetry, captures my experience of being a wandering child. Home, the noblest image in Chinese culture, continues to nourish me no matter where I go.
女: putting down this character on paper, I see a dancer merrily stretching her arms and legs, free from any shackle. It is a complex process of becoming and understanding woman. This process also takes up a woman’s entire life, and varies from one person to another. Life itself is a process of negotiating different identities: while reaffirming our roots, we embark upon new beginnings all the time. We are the products of the multifaceted forces of culture, instead of black-or-white answers to an ultimate question of who we are. It is indeed painful to negotiate our different parts, but pain itself elevates our soul and enriches our existence.
女: it is a different character every time I write it. It is the dancer embracing new forms of freedom. No matter how you write your own character, make sure that it is eventually able to dance elegantly, joyfully, and freely.Tags: Kelly Vicars, Volume 6 Issue 2, Yanshuo Zhang