BETWEEN CULTURE AND AMERICA by FRANKIE CONCEPCION

My friend Phoebe is the first person I ever heard say the word ‘feminist’ in real life.

“You know,” she had said, “I think the feminists really ruined it for us women.”

It was the first time I had encountered the word outside a YouTube video, or a Tumblr post—my peepholes into American culture in that final summer before leaving the Philippines and coming to Boston to pursue my undergraduate degree.

“You know,” she had said, “I think the feminists really ruined it for us women.”

Like me, Phoebe moved to America when she was a teenager; she is from China, and I am from the Philippines. Though we had both visited the U.S. many times before college, there were still some things about our adopted country we didn’t understand—aspects of culture which, no matter how thoroughly we immersed ourselves in E! News or The Daily Show with (then) Jon Stewart, were still elusive to us. Like corndogs, or skiing. Or Rate My Professor. For Phoebe, feminism was another one of these things. I knew what she was thinking: just another strange American phenomenon, a trend really, rather than a lifestyle or ideology. In our countries, the word ‘feminism’ has been associated with fringe activism at best; at worst it is hardly spoken at all.

Yet in America, in this country which is the self-proclaimed embodiment of freedom, I myself saw feminism as simply another facet of that liberal lifestyle which I had, in my four years at university, become so accustomed to living. It was a movement which was at least partially responsible for my American education, my ability to develop an American career.

“Yes,” she replied. “But it’s the fact that I have to do all those things that bothers me. I mean, why can’t I be a housewife? What’s so wrong with that?”

>>>

Ask me six years ago what the word ‘feminism’ meant, and I can assure you my answer would have been wrong. Ask me six years ago what it felt like to move to America, to become a minority, and I would have told you it didn’t feel different at all, that that kind of thing didn’t matter anymore.

In fact, as an Asian woman, and a recent immigrant, I felt even more alienated by the way it had been used to make me feel things I did not want to feel. Like the time a man asked me why I wasn’t a feminist, after I told him I didn’t want to sleep with him.

Ask me again a year later. Perhaps I would have told you about the food I missed, or the language I could no longer speak, though I still knew how. Perhaps I would have told you that ‘feminism’ was really more of a western concern, absolving western women of lives plagued by guilt or judgement.

I emphasize this word, because in the beginning, the feminism I knew had done nothing to absolve my guilt. In fact, as an Asian woman, and a recent immigrant, I felt even more alienated by the way it had been used to make me feel things I did not want to feel. Like the time a man asked me why I wasn’t a feminist, after I told him I didn’t want to sleep with him.

“I get it,” he said. “You’re one of those conservative types. You want a husband.” He cut me off before I could tell him just how wrong he was. “Don’t you want to feel liberated?”

Or the first time I spoke to my American peers about my mother’s life in a Women’s Studies class, and registered the expressions of pity and displaced frustration on my classmate’s faces. With my circle of progressive, young, white women, I shared what I knew of her life before me, her first child. I told them about the woman who had spent her 20s traveling the world as a flight attendant, who had lived in San Francisco and New York for a year; and the other woman, the woman who had hired a nanny to take care of her children full-time, so she could spend her days drinking and playing badminton with the other women in our village. I told them about this great shift in her life from full-time flight attendant to full-time wife, which seemed like a pretty good deal to me, the daughter whose relationship with her mother was built largely on the unlimited shopping trips paid for by my father’s money. It was a progression which seemed nothing more than the natural rhythm of women’s lives in the Philippines—a rhythm which might be mine too, eventually.

But what the looks on these women’s faces told me was that there was, clearly, nothing natural about what I had experienced. Blame towards my father, pity towards my mother, and for me—a silent condemnation. That was what was necessary, was justified. Their faces said, how could you allow this? How could you aspire to it?

Fearful of perpetuating an incomplete and oppressive impression of my country (or worse, being seen as someone to ‘pity,’ someone to ‘save’) I did not speak of it again for many years.

>>>

Today, I can tell you my identity as a feminist began by coming to terms with how my race and my culture fit into America—the ‘real’ America—the one I have been living in for six years instead of the America my young-self dreamed of before moving here for college. It grew from the knot in my stomach when men said they loved the color of my skin. It fed off the fear of being called the ‘token friend’ at parties with my two white girl friends. But in the end, it was strengthened by the bonds I have made with women just like me—international students and recent immigrants, who know the pressures of being asked to represent your entire culture by simple virtue of living in America.

Last year, I transferred to an all-women’s college in Boston to pursue my graduate degree. I met women from Japan, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Korea who, like me, were struggling to create an identity that fell somewhere between our homelands and the country that had adopted us.

But in the end, it was strengthened by the bonds I have made with women just like me—international students and recent immigrants, who know the pressures of being asked to represent your entire culture by simple virtue of living in America.

Together, we spoke of our countries’ food, our accents, our clothing… and how our American peers reacted to them. We quizzed each other on immigration rules, how to get driver’s licenses, and the sheer terror that is filing taxes in a foreign country. We dreamt of daughters, the differences between being Asian-American and Asian in America, and the experiences we might have had if we’d gone to an American public high school (Just like in the movies! we would joke).

We spoke of all this because we knew that no one else could understand so completely what it is like to wake up every day to a country that is not your own. And together, we began to parse through the parts of our culture we had been too afraid to see, like examining our skins through a magnifying glass. We were no longer afraid that others might notice only the parts we had been trying to cover up. Instead, we dissected them, and began to learn the difference between cultural differences, and what we, as women, needed to change.

In finding each other, we gained not just new friends, but new ways to speak, to think; new words to convey what we previously could not. That our countries were not floating islands, or stranded cities. That culture was a living thing that should be respected, but could also be recreated. That knowing this, and acting upon it, was in itself a kind of power. After all, if there is one thing coming to America has taught me, it is that change is something I know how to do.

—–

Frankie Concepcion is a 22 year old writer from the Philippines living in Somerville, MA. She is the founder of GUNITA (www.gunita.org), a collaborative community for Filipino artists and writers, and has been published internationally both online and in print. Follow her at www.frankieconcepcion.com.

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Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, poetry, and creative nonfiction from marginalized creators.

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