Monday, January 23, 2012

Feminism with Chinese Characteristics

W has been - not exactly complaining, but talking a lot lately about male and female differences, and in particular actions or attitudes that I have that make her feel more or less feminine or make me seems more or less masculine to her.

I should state for background that W is Chinese, and she grew up in Sichuan in a family of pure intellectuals.  So her sense of proper gender roles is basically out of The Story of the Stone.   In this model, women are objects of beauty, art, and culture.  Their role is to create a harmonious environment for those around them - primarily the family.  Women are not supposed to be useful, in the sense of doing specific things.  What a westerner might consider a traditional female role - say, cooking, cleaning, or doing laundry - are not considered feminine in this culture.  Those tasks are very low status, and are suitable for a maid or servant.
Men in this model are basically the deciders.  They are responsible for bringing in income and maintaining social status.  They are leaders, of both men and the family, and they are expected to make the decisions for the family and rally the rest of the family around them.  As in the female case, many of the traditional western roles (such as being a handyman around the house or doing yard work) are considered jobs for servants and not particularly masculine.
I on the other hand am basically a normal American male, with a protestant work ethic underlying a liberal education in so-called feminist propaganda.  So while I intellectually and emotionally absolutely believe that men and women are vastly different creatures, I am culturally programmed to think that ignoring those differences will somehow be good for both me and the female involved.
This disconnect has led to countless misunderstandings between W and me over the years.  It started when we we first going out.  When we met, I owned a house, and I would do all of the cleaning and maintainance of the home, including home improvements like removing walls or putting in Ethernet.  This was just baffling to W.  In her mind, only a pauper would act this way.  It was particularly perplexing to her because I didn't had any special talent for these things.  I took ten times the amount of time to do the job at half the quality compared to a professional.  The idea that there was a certain satisfaction in doing the job yourself was completely alien.   I know now this pride in self-self-sufficency is a uniquely American value.

In the western world, we often think of the male female difference along emotional lines.  In short, females do the emotional work and men do the practical work.  This is not the case for W.  in her model, emotional work is really the only work that matters.  Both male and females do mostly emotional work, and the difference is just in the nature and domain of that work.
This was a very hard concept for me to grasp, and I struggled with it many times over the years.  For example:  let's say that we are planning a vacation.  My first attempt is to plan in together.  We figure out a budget, look at places to go, and start evaluating options.  This highly practical approach went over like a lead balloon.  W felt I was trying to remove emotion from this, which was true.  For her, though, emotion is what you want to maximize, not minimize.    So next I told her that she could figure out where to go and let me know, and then I would decide how we were going to fund that.  In my mind, that was being nice to her.  But this felt like I was abandoning her to do all of the work and that I was doing nothing.  Next I offered to figure this out myself, and just let her know the result.  You know - stepping up as the male and getting things done.  But then she felt excluded.  There was some fun part about planning this - some emotional warmth - and she wanted to be part of it.  After several more attempts, I finally figured out that what she wanted was for me to decide where we are going, and to completely own that decision.  But that decision I make should take all of the emotional concerns of the family into account, not merely the practical concerns.   And where she wanted to engage was in the conversation with me on determining what those emotional concerns might be.

One time we were watching a video in a Karaoke room.  In the video (whose name I forget now), there was a sequence of a man in the water, pulling a boat along, while a girl (the singer) sat in the boat holding a parasol for shade.  Periodically the man would become exhausted from the work.  When this happened, he would sit in the boat himself and the girl would wipe his brow and fan him.  This seems to me to be an example of the chinese ideal.  If no one is pulling, the boat goes nowhere.  But if the girl gets in the water and pulls herself, there is no one to help cool them down and relax.

Since the time when we met, we have met many other couples where one person is from China and one from a Western country.  I think many of them struggle with these issues, and very few of them realize this gender expectation difference is at the heart of it.

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