This past summer, my high school classmate, who is now an English lecturer, invited me to the university she works for in Macau to give a talk. We were not close friends during high school. Lately, however, we had been chatting over social media messaging platform about common intellectual interests—feminism, racism, pedagogy—and more mundanely, venting our anger to each other about the people who had hurt us—a random male classmate in a cooking class, a student, a friend, or a family member. As we brainstormed on topics for the talk, we asked what some of the most pressing and relevant issues faced by women like ourselves were. I wanted to find themes and ideas that most capture our lived experience and redress grievances for the daily micro-aggression that we so regularly complained to each other about. It was not an easy process—complaining was much more convenient; it doesn’t require us to reflect on ourselves, as long as we point our fingers to others. At the end, we settled for beauty standards. Because beauty, and the constant striving for it, felt most intimate, personal, and, innately, hurtful.
On the day of the talk, I made a last-minute decision to wear a long-sleeve striped turtleneck top with black pants and a pair of round metal glasses on my makeup-free face. I put aside my black sheath dress—I wanted to make a feminist statement with my fashion choice, but ironically, I also thought I looked fat in the dress. It was a rainy day. The humidity made my hair curly and frizzy. I didn’t like the way my hair look. During the talk, I stood in front of thirty some college students and professed how concepts of beauty have changed along with social political conditions—how foot binding symbolized wealth and grace in imperial China, how modern skin-whitening practice has its origin in European colonialism. I invited young women to challenge the beauty standards that are imposed on us. During the Q&A session, a young female student with short hair and glasses eagerly raised her hand. She thanked me for the talk and commented, “my family often makes negative comments about my body—you’re too fat; you need to exercise more.” Then she asked, “how should I respond to this kind of attacks from friends and family? How should I deal with them?” I froze for a second. Then, I was suddenly reminded that my father, who was excited to see me giving a lecture for the first time, was there. I glanced at him. I wondered if I should suggest that she called out on such toxic behavior or if I should tell her to forgive her family because we are all somehow damaged by the same culture of sexism. “I’m sorry that you have to hear those comments, and thank you for being so open and honest about your experience” I replied. “I’d wish I had simple answers to your question, but I don’t. You see? Fighting against oppressive beauty standards is a struggle. It’s a process.”
What I didn’t tell the student is that I am also a victim of my family’s sexist attacks. I didn’t tell her—because I still feel hurt and shocked when I hear those comments. I didn’t tell her—because I feel ashamed that I come from a family who seeks to control my body. I wish I was the woman who has overcome her family’s expectation. I wish I was the feminist who refuses to negotiate her self-worth with anyone else but herself. But I am not. I’m struggling.
A month ago, Aunt Marcia came to Philadelphia to visit me and my family while getting her certificate to work as a medical interpreter—she hasn’t worked in years and told me that her husband wouldn’t want her to become financially independent. I often enjoy her company. When I first moved to the United States at the age of nineteen, Aunt Marcia’s house in Orlando was the only place that felt like home. After living with a host family who fed me TV dinner trays every night, I thought Olive Garden was the nicest restaurant that this country could offer when she took me there—I was happy for the first time after a very long time. Last month, before she flew back to Orlando toward the end of her trip, I took her to a family-owned Italian restaurant for lunch. The restaurant sat at the corner of one of my neighborhood’s streets. It had creamy yellow walls, hardwood floor, and high-gloss wooden furniture. Frank Sinatra was on the playlist. There were black-and-white family pictures and art deco posters on the wall. When we arrived, I said hi to the boss lady who carried short blonde hair and an Italian accent. I have fond memory of her—she gave me two pieces of chocolate cake when I went to the restaurant during my pregnancy; she said one was for me and one was for my baby. Being a chocolate lover, I gladly accepted her generous offering. The cake was delicious.
While my aunt and I were waiting for our chicken parmesan and sausage pappardelle in this mid-summer afternoon, we somehow started talking about our bodies. “You have nice hip. Do you work out?” asked Aunt Marcia. “Maybe the stairs in your house are good for you after all.” “No, I don’t work out,” I replied. “I got grandma’s hip bone.” “I once overheard two [white] American men discussed Chinese women,” she continued. “They said they look nice but they all have flat butt. It’s nice that you don’t have the Chinese butt. If you could lose the belly, that would be perfect.” I understood that it wasn’t her intention to harm anyone, but her comment made me feel sad, not so much because I wish I was perfect, but because I felt the pain about the intergenerational cycles of self-doubt, self-blame, guilt, and shame that have plagued the women in my family, including myself.
Indeed, I don’t hear much about the pain that women endure. I have not learned about it in school. History has forgotten about it. Older women in my life rarely speak about their pain. I wonder why. Is it because we don’t think we are worthy enough to express our pain? Is it because we think our pain shouldn’t take up space in this world? Or because talking about our pain and drawing attention to ourselves would make us “bad women”? Even as I am writing this, a sense of self doubt creeps up on me. My inside voice asks me to stop being “dramatic” or “emotional” about these seemingly trivial offenses. It tells me that such pain cannot be legitimate, because after all, they aren’t that bad—The same voice that berates me whenever I think about how my classmate and I were molested by a strange man during third grade on our way home from school. I worried that my mother would scold me if she found out. I worried that I would make my parents sad if I told them. The same voice that silenced me when a man groped my breast while my husband danced in front of me at a friend’s wedding where I was one of the bridesmaids two years ago. I worried that I would ruin my friend’s wedding if I spoke out. I worried that my husband would feel ashamed if he knew he couldn’t protect me. I tried to ignore my pain. I convinced myself that my pain was insignificant. Not worth mentioning. Maybe it didn’t exist. Maybe it wasn’t even real.
“If wars and colonialism had forced my grandfather to flee China and ultimately returned to his homeland as a Communist hero, wars and colonialism had only taught the women in my family about the way they should look.”
This month, I had been working with a Vietnamese Chinese woman in her 70s at the hospital as a medical interpreter. She was admitted to the inpatient rehabilitation center after a stroke. Every morning, except for the weekend, I accompanied her and did translation for her during her occupational, physical, and speech therapy sessions. Ms. Tran has a small stature; she wears magenta nail paint and a pearl necklace. She likes to comb her short grey hair meticulously and rapidly in the morning. And she smiles, a lot, perhaps too much. She smiles when she sees me. She smiles when she sees the doctor. She smiles when she sees the nurse that she complains about. And she smiles when she is in physical pain. During one of the latest speech therapy sessions, she whined about the difficult math questions that were presented to her. “I haven’t gone to school. I didn’t go to school,” she kept repeating. “Why would you expect a woman like me in her 70s from Vietnam to have gone to school? To learn math?” I continued to translate for her as she spoke. “You see? I am a woman. Women during my days…women, like me, they were treated like chicks. Like little chicks!” Her words became mine as we spoke instantaneously. “You see? Women like us were meant to marry off to men. If we ran away, if we dared, they would kill us.” As she rambled on about her lack of schooling and the way women in Vietnam were treated, the male speech therapist in his 20s stopped her. “That’s so very sad,” he said. “But let’s not talk about things that are so depressing on a Friday morning.” Ms. Tran paused and smiled. We finished the session shortly after, but the lump in my throat never went away. The next morning, I woke up crying on my bed. I was mad at the world. I grieved for Ms. Tran and all the women who came before me—my mother, my aunts, my grandmothers, my great grandmothers. I let the pain run through my body as I felt warm the tears dripping down my face.
If wars and colonialism had forced my grandfather to flee China and ultimately returned to his homeland as a Communist hero, wars and colonialism had only taught the women in my family about the way they should look—what kind of shoes to put on, what shade of skin color was deemed more beautiful, what facial features were most desirable, and what body type was seen to be the most attractive. It is pathetic. Perhaps that was why I couldn’t stop crying the morning after I uttered the words of Ms. Tran. Because despite her lack of schooling, she was right about something. That for most part of history, society had treated women as “little chicks”, dancing around powerful men and making their stories more glamorous. Consequently, our problems were seen as unimportant. Our pain, unreal. Our voice, non-existent.
When my grandmother met my grandfather who was more than thirty years older than her, her mother encouraged her to “follow” him. She was a teenager, a child. He “chose” her because she was beautiful—“the most beautiful woman in the village.” Subsequently, my grandmother took her mother’s advice, getting involved with a man who already had two wives. Society can judge my grandmother. People probably judged her. My grandmother most likely judged herself. But given the destitution that most indigenous people faced in Bonanza, was that decision really a choice for an 18 year-old mixed race woman in Nicaragua? Being beautiful was the only way to survive. Her beauty lifted her out of poverty, out of starvation, out of death. My grandmother, like Ms. Tran, did not have a choice—marrying off to a man was the only viable path for a woman like her. Ms. Tran and my grandmother did not have the privilege that I so fortunately have—to go to school, to think, and to learn to be free.
As I began doing research with my family to write this essay, I became curious about our family name—Castillo. Naturally, I asked my dad and my aunts if they knew why we adopted grandma’s last name instead of grandpa’s. In turn, I got three different responses. My dad said that it was a legal issue— Somehow my grandfather’s last name—Chang—was left out when they applied for citizenship in Macau. His explanation reminded me that a while ago, he encouraged me to change my last name from Castillo to Castillo-Chang. At that time, I ignored my father’s wish because I had been a Castillo all my life; I also didn’t want to change my name for a man I never met. I didn’t change my name for my husband, why would I do so for my grandfather? Aunt Marcia offered another explanation. According to her understanding, it was my grandmother’s strategic decision to have all her children adopt her last name—she wanted to ensure that my grandfather would not take her children with him and run away with his other wife. I find her reasoning most comforting, because it emphasized my grandmother’s free will. It gives her agency. It allows me to imagine my grandmother as a woman ahead of her time—a feminist who challenged the sexism in patriarchal naming traditions. My youngest aunt, Aunt Carmen, offered yet another rationale. Being an unapologetically direct woman like herself, she gave me the simplest but most shocking answer—they were illegitimate children; my grandparents were never officially married to each other. I wondered what led them to have these different perspectives and why there seemed to be so much burden surrounding our family name. Is it fear? Is it shame? Is it anger? In a sense, I recognized all of them as legitimate answers. It offered meanings to my family’s realities, however unclear, depressing, or outrageous.
Having lived with her children and their families since my grandfather passed away over 40 years ago, my grandmother, who is in her 80s, is currently looking for senior housing in Philadelphia. She is excited about the idea of living alone. I remember when she visited my mother’s house a few years ago, her face lit up like a little girl in a candy shop. Aunt Marcia told me that grandma longs to have a house like my mom’s—a place to call her own. I wonder if she envies my mother’s independence and self reliance. What are her true yearnings and desires, underneath her almost totalizing reputation as a beautiful woman?
Growing up, I was the kid who paid too much special attention to everything around me—the burning cigarette butt left by the construction worker on the sidewalk, the frown between the storeowner’s eyebrows when his wife shouted his name, the classmate who was wiping the sweat off of his forehead during an exam. I saw the way my father and my aunts adored their mother—they rarely questioned her decision or purpose. Then, I noticed the way my mother and my uncles invalidated their mother’s dissatisfaction—her requests were often minor and inconsequential. I wanted to be more like my grandmother on my father’s side (and less like my maternal grandmother)—I wanted to be loved and respected. In my small and undeveloped mind, I reasoned that the only way to achieve love and respect is to become beautiful, because my paternal grandmother was beautiful and loved, and her beauty was all that she was. How could I have come to an alternative conclusion? That was the only thing I heard people talking about women—their beauty or the lack of it. There was no story. No experience. No pain.
Just like how I learned about my grandmother’s beauty, I learned about my mom’s disgrace through other people’s comments about her. At the age of 27, she divorced my father, three years after she was persuaded by those around her to give birth to me—a child that she didn’t want. To others, she was crazy, ungrateful, and selfish. My mother rarely talks about her divorce, but when she does, she still sheds tears over it and moans about the woman she was before and the woman she could have become. I have never seen her dated anyone ever since. My mother has raised me almost single-handedly—she is a strong woman. She taught me that tears and pain are for the weak—people who are unworthy. Yet, she also taught me that ugly women are unworthy—women who are too lazy to work out; women who don’t care enough for themselves. A few weeks ago after she read what I wrote about my dad’s family, she opened up to me for the first time about her unfreedom as a woman in her 20s—she felt that divorce was her only way out of a bad situation in which she found herself. She’s glad that I have more options because of my education. Then, to make the conversation more bearable, we started talking about T—my daughter and her granddaughter. “Your daughter has long legs,” said my mother. “It’s nice that she doesn’t have chubby short legs like most Chinese do.” “She has big eyes and a v-shaped chin,” she continued to comment. “I wish her nose would be taller and more pointed,” said my mother. “I recently taught her to squeeze her nose so her nostrils won’t grow too big.” Then, immediately, together, we were dragged back into the abyss of unfreedom.
Writing about the women and men in my family makes me feel tremendously sad and painful. I want to make the pain stop. I want it to go away. But if I can’t stop the pain, I need this pain to mean something—something for the better; something that doesn’t continue to trap us in this endless cycle of sorrow, regret, guilt, and shame. I don’t exactly know how to do that. I’m struggling. At the very least, I hope that one day my writing will help my daughter figure out her identity. I wish she would know that all of this—being colonized, being subjugated to racism and sexism—despite all its nastiness and difficulty, does not make her flawed or less. That she’s ok. That it’s ok to be a racial other. That it’s ok to be a woman. That it’s ok to be who she is.
I hope someday she will read this love letter I have prepared for her and feel my love for her.
From me, to you, my daughter, my love.
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