by Mandy Day
Asian American women often find themselves teetering between two worlds. If their families consist of newer generations of immigrants, the battle between traditional thinking and the more progressive ways of life in the United States can often fracture relationships. For Asian American feminists, outspokenness and failure to conform to expected behavior, challenges the community mindset that pressure them into silence. A student in the public education system may never learn about the few Asian American feminists. For millions, that knowledge is delayed until they join Asian American associations, or embark on more detailed studies in higher education.
Americans like Helen Zia, Grace Lee Boggs, or Yuri Kochiyama are not the portrait of mainstream civil rights activism. In the average public school classroom, these names are never mentioned. For Asian Americans, these women, and the dozens of lesser known activists are the groundbreaking pioneers who represented Asian American women in the first wave of the modern American feminist movement. Twenty-first century APIA feminists look to these women as inspiration for their own activism.
To be East Asian, generally speaking, is to be held to standards so high, failure can seem like the inevitable conclusion. As societies evolve, as we become more global citizens, the “old” expectations become more and more difficult to live up to. Millions of people across the three major economies in East Asia live in a world of conformity, fierce competition, and upholding the family name. The pressure to excel and earn the top spot, be it in school, sport, work, or even just the neighborhood can be too much. South Korea and Japan have among the highest rates of suicide in the world. The consensus is that standing out for the “wrong” reasons, is due to selfishness and a lack of discipline.
Activism is generally frowned upon, especially in areas like LGBTQIA+ rights, gender equality, and even animal rights activism. Notable Asian Americans have faced severe criticism from their own communities for deviating from the socially accepted norms. Idealism often expressed by activist-minded APIAs is counter to what many older Asians and Asian Americans believe. One cannot change the world so one should accept that fact and conform to the world they live in. The small victories against bigotry, misogyny, or inequality in any way can be marred by negativity from those around activists. This mindset can kill the motivation of budding activists or function as a catalyst.
East Asians are socially conditioned to maintain harmony within the community. In many ways this has benefitted countries like South Korea and Japan where the lowest crime rates in the world exist. Yet, this mentality has left women behind in a world rapidly changing. The sacrifices women are expected to make for their families have contributed to the rapid decline in birth rate. Instead of choosing a life at home raising children, women choose their careers and forego motherhood. Or they delay procreating until much later in their lives. Women in the United States face as many obstacles in managing career and family life but fewer societal judgments about choosing both. Feminism has played a pivotal role in the options women have for their futures, and progress continues to be made because the feminist movement has been unrelenting for decades. Yet there are still areas where positive change has been at a near standstill.
As women are the primary face of domestic violence and human trafficking, crime statistics indicate that Asian American victims are less likely to report instances of violence, sexual assault, rape, and harassment according to the American Bar Association. Among immigrant victims, rates of reporting were even less. Some communities face higher rates of violence, specifically intimate partner violence, than others. Asians make up more than half of human trafficking victims in the United States each year as stated in this report by the American Bar Association. The need for vocal Asians and Asian Americans break down the walls of silence millions of us have been taught to preserve. There have been courageous women and men who have spoken out, chiseling away at the barriers that have kept generations of people from getting justice. Those people are inspiration to victims to open the lines of communication in their families and communities.
I’ve been very lucky in the last few years to meet incredible APIAs who have inspired those around them to be outspoken, to be the voice of what they believe is right, despite the criticism, harassment, and violence that often threatens to silence them. From the idealistic college student fighting for gender equality and body positivity, to the Asian American women working in state and national government while advocating for women’s rights, I’ve met dozens of women from all ethnic backgrounds who are changing their worlds. The beauty in the progress we have made, lies with the women and men who leave behind the old ideals so entrenched in the culture of their ancestors. Where women are liberated from the constraints of silence and acceptance for the injustices they face, women will be leaders in changing the status quo.
Mandy Day is a freelance journalist with Korea Daily San Diego and AsAmNews.com. She loves to travel and graduated with a BA in Public Policy from Mills College after spending a year studying abroad in NorthEast Australia. She’s an outspoken activist for gender equality, civil rights, and environmental preservation. You can reach her on Twitter @mandynday.