Teaching My Asian Daughters to be Strong and Confident
A few years ago, I took a seminar called, "Raising Strong and Confident Daughters." My husband laughed at me. "Could our daughters be any stronger or more confident?"
The class was an eye-opener for me, not just in how to raise my girls, but also in understanding my own Chinese-American childhood. I had no memory of dealing with a lot of the issues the instructor talked about as being so important to pre-adolescent girls, such as friendship and physical appearance.
At first I thought that I must have been just so low on the social totem pole—because of race and nerdiness—that I had given up hope of competing in those arenas; I never even tried.
Teenage girl holding skateboard via Shutterstock
Then I came across a Wellesley College study of Boston middle-school girls’ self-esteem along racial and ethnic lines and discovered that girls of different ethnic backgrounds based their sense of self-esteem on different factors. It found that the Caucasian girls were obsessed with dieting and body image, the Puerto Rican girls were very attached to their friendships, and the Chinese girls based their self-esteem on how well they spoke English. I started noticing in the media and in casual conversations that Caucasian women cannot talk for more than five minutes without making some self-deprecating comment about their appearance or weight. The Chinese women I know do not talk weight or appearance, except in the context of health, as in, "You’ve lost a lot of weight, have you been sick?" So it wasn’t me, it was a cultural thing.
Equally terrifying was the study’s conclusion that the Chinese girls had the lowest self-esteem. This shocked me because it is one thing for Chinese-Americans to have had low self-esteem a generation ago, when I was growing up and there were not many Asian-Americans around, but we should have made more progress by now! Interestingly, however, African-American girls had the highest self-esteem, followed by the Caucasian girls, followed by the Puerto Rican girls. So, the goal is not to aspire to be like the Caucasians—they have their problems too.
Although African-American girls see the same media images of emaciated supermodels as all the other girls, because the supermodels are almost all Caucasian, instead of aspiring to be like them and developing all sorts of body-image neuroses, the African-American girls chose their own African-American role models and developed their own fashion sense. Who cares about Britney Spears when you have Beyoncé?
So what is the program for raising strong and confident Asian Pacific American (APA) daughters? We can start with the plethora of books and experts in the mainstream—after all, our daughters are subject to the all-powerful influence of mainstream media (and problems like anorexia, bulimia and eye surgery are on the rise). However, we should temper those approaches with a sensitivity to our own Asian and Asian-Pacific American cultures, and the unique needs of our APA daughters. At the same time, we cannot use a strictly Chinese or Indian or other "old-world" approach because our daughters still have to live and work and compete in the American mainstream.
So here are some of my best suggestions and practical techniques for raising strong and confident Asian-Pacific American daughters and instilling APA Girl Power. They include rewriting stories, critiquing characters, finding role models, developing alternative beauty standards, learning to speak up, and preparing for sexism from both sides.
When our girls are young--preferably before they can read and figure out what you are up to--read them lots of stories about Asian and Asian-American girls. Can’t find any, you say? Change the words in the stories that you do have to make them Asian-American stories! For example, when Little Red Riding Hood goes to see her grandmother, change the word "Grandmother" to "Po Po" or whatever your child calls her grandmother. Instead of bringing a basket of cookies, have her bring a basket of steamed buns or manju or samosas. Instead of "Little Red Riding Hood," use her Chinese name, "Xiao Hong Mao," or whatever it is in your ancestral language. You can even change exclamations like "Oh my goodness," to appropriate exclamations in your own language like, "Aiya!"
This editorial license is especially effective for animal stories when gender and race are not prescribed by the pictures: I change the boy animals to girl animals, and Chinese girl animals at that, because there are many more books with boys as the main character than girls, and many of the girls characters are either passive onlookers watching the boys or victims waiting to be rescued by the boys. What difference does it make to the story if PJ Funnybunny is a boy or a girl?
Other words to change are words like "mankind," "all men" and "my brothers." Change them to "humankind," "all people" and "my sisters and brothers." That's what the words really mean, after all. English is a gendered language, but our thinking does not have to be.
It takes a little practice, but once you get the hang of it, it is a great way to rehabilitate mainstream books.
Subvert and Rewrite Endings and Characters
Sleeping Beauty spends most of the story asleep, waiting for the Handsome Prince to rescue her with a kiss. Snow White also spends much of her story sleeping, waiting for her Handsome Prince to rescue her with a kiss. Little Mermaid takes one look at the unconscious Handsome Prince and falls in love with him, forsaking her family and identity as a mermaid. Rapunzel agrees to marry the first man she ever meets (a Handsome Prince, of course) during their first conversation. Pandora and Goldilocks are punished for being curious. Little Red Riding Hood is too dumb to tell the difference between her grandmother and a wolf, and has to wait for the huntsman to rescue her and her Po Po.
If you do not like these types of one-dimensional characters or themes, discuss alternate endings with your daughters. Or sneak in qualifying phrases like, "After they got to know each other really well and became good friends, they decided to get married." Or add additional virtues to the description of the kind and beautiful princess—she was also brave, smart, honest, generous, and compassionate.
When your daughters reach their teens and start noticing how many Asian women fall in love with the white male lead for no reason or end up dead by the end of the movie, talk to them about stereotypes in television and the movies. Teach them to be movie critics.
Always be on the lookout for Asian and Asian-American women who can be inspirational and exciting role models for your daughters, like figure skater Michelle Kwan, violinist Sarah Chang, astronaut Kalpana Chawla, actress Tia Carerre, Disney’s Mulan, and the cartoon character Jade in Jackie Chan Adventures.
American schools do not teach much about Asians and Asian-Americans, but you can work these into your child’s own curriculum. For example, for chess class, my second-grader was asked to write a biography on a chess grandmaster or world champion. The instructor suggested a bunch of old white guys and dead white guys. My daughter said that she wanted to write about a Chinese woman chess champion. After some searching online, we found Xie Jun, a four-time Women’s World Champion from Beijing. We learned that Xie Jun was so good because her father taught her to play Chinese chess before she learned to play standard chess. Soon after, my daughter was trying to learn to play Chinese chess, too. Wow.
Also, let other people know about the incredible achievements of Asians and Asian-Americans so we can begin to change their possibly stereotyped assumptions. During the Olympics, only the Chinese girls in my daughter’s first-grade class knew who Michelle Kwan was. However, as they talked about her latest performances, the other girls slowly learned about the skate champion and were soon all cheering for Michelle by the end of the Games.
When my daughters’ school put up a bulletin board for Women’s History Month and neglected to put up a single Asian-American (unconscionable in a school that is 30% Asian), I protested and gave them some suggestions. Immediately, Kalpana Chawla’s face and bio were added to the display for the whole school to see, and my daughters knew that it was because I had spoken up.
Alternative Beauty Standards
Point out beautiful Asians as an alternative standard of beauty. Surround your child with dolls and books and pictures and videos with Asians who are beautiful and not blond. Point out similarities between those beauties and your child, like their straight black hair, their big brown eyes, their golden brown skin. Be careful what you say about your own preferences for lighter skin and against epicanthic folds. It might be obvious to you that Asians are beautiful, but it might not be so obvious for a child growing up amid Barbies and a mainstream saturated with beautiful, buxom blonds, especially if her mostly white classmates are telling her every day, "You’re ugly." (Unfortunately, a true story.)
However, be careful to not focus exclusively on beauty. Beauty is important for girls but remember to also praise your child for her intelligence and good character. Reinforce the qualities that are important to you. If strangers are constantly telling you how beautiful your daughter is (very common with hapas, I guess because they are so "exotic"), respond by telling them that she is smart and funny and kind, too.
Now, many Asian cultures are not big into praise, but you need to counter the negative messages in the mainstream. Besides, if "all the other kids" are praised by their parents and yours is not, and she does not understand that the reason you do not praise is cultural, then she might conclude that she is not praiseworthy, which is not true.
Encourage your Daughters to Speak Up
Many cultures—not just Asian—reward the "good" girl who is nice and quiet and obedient. As a parent, it can be a huge pain to have intelligent, articulate daughters who question everything you say (I know, I have three), but in the long run, those are characteristics that are critical to their success in America. Encourage independent thinking, and allow them to speak their mind and give their reasons. (If you can’t take it, perhaps encourage them to speak up more in school rather than home… just kidding.) Encourage them to write down their ideas and learn how to justify them. Have them participate in public-speaking contests, school plays and academic contests; have them work on the school paper, get involved in causes about which they are passionate and take on leadership roles. Think of it all as practice and skill development, not as time taken away from traditional academic studies. Since one of the many stereotypes that haunt Asian-American girls is that they are nice, quiet and shy, they will have to speak twice as loud in order to be heard.
However, since the stereotypically brash and loud American-style can be especially grating on Asian and Asian-American sensibilities, teach your child how to be assertive without being obnoxious, and how to speak up and lead effectively in different cultural contexts. They need to learn how to switch styles if they are to be effective (or even just palatable) in different situations.
For example, I used to compete in high school speech and debate contests at the state and national level, but I did not have the same sort of success in Chinese-speaking speech contests. In part, this was because I did not understand that in Chinese speeches, you always have to first thank everyone in the room—the teachers, the parents, the principal, the sponsors, fellow students, etc.—for graciously giving you this opportunity to speak. I thought that was too tedious and always just jumped in and started speaking like I would in English. But that was bad style and the wrong format.
Prepare for Sexism from Both Sides
Despite advances in recent years, many American and Asian cultures are still patriarchal and sexist. Pay attention to what family and friends and others say to your daughter; and if you do not agree, talk to your daughter about it.
When my second daughter was three or four, our Caucasian relatives started teasing her about her "boyfriends" and making comments like, "She likes boys so much, she’s going to be trouble." I told my daughter that she can have friends who are boys and that it is no big deal; I do not feel a need to sexualize her relationships so early. On the Chinese side, I have two cousins whose grandmother vastly favors the boy over the girl—to the extent of giving the boy $200 red envelopes and giving the girl nothing. My aunt explained it as old-world prejudices that can be hard for the older generation to give up, and the children always chose to share the money equally.
Yesterday, I asked my daughters if they had any suggestions for parents who want to raise strong Asian-Pacific American girls.
My six-year old responded immediately, "Lift weights!"
I tried to clarify, "No, I mean strong and smart girls."
She said, "Oh, lift weights and go to school!"
I thought it a fitting analogy. To be physically strong, you must train your muscles by doing varied exercises that work all your different muscle groups. With repetition after repetition, the exercise becomes easy for your muscles. Then you increase the amount of weight you use. It is not hard, and some people find it fun, but it does take commitment, focus and regular practice.
If you think about the type of person you want your daughter to grow into (taking into account, of course, that different girls have different temperaments, and that her dreams may not be the same as yours), you can help her by training and developing the different skills she will need, the most important of which is self-esteem. This does not mean long lectures about racism and sexism if she is too young (don’t want to break her spirit). Instead, think about the hurdles she will have to jump, the obstacles she will have to overcome, and prepare her so that when they do come, she will have the right muscles to carry her through.
And, of course, keep going to school.