I’m transfixed by a line I’ve seen drawn multiple times, in varied angles and tones, for girls and young womxn. On one side, I have experienced countless examples of strong, multi-dimensional womxn who were and are vocal leaders. But sometimes, those womxn also veer into the other side. And why shouldn’t they? They are human, after all. But, it is troubling that the side that often wins out in times that matter is the one that tells us that our voice may matter, but it doesn’t matter quite as much as someone else’s [read: a man’s]. We are told more times than not to be strong, vocal, and fearless only to an extent–to not let our bravery and strong-will frighten or emasculate a man. Because if our voices are too loud, they’ll be unappealing. This has been reinforced in both subtle and very overt ways. It would be naïve of me to conclude that my cultural upbringing has no bearing on how such a paradox exists. I feel like if I want to understand this constant struggle on a broader level, I then need to look internally and at my immediate surroundings.
As a child, I don’t recall a time when I was ever told by my parents that I couldn’t do something because of my gender. They never said I couldn’t wear a certain color or do a certain activity or play with a certain toy because I was a girl. And while they never sat me down and said outright, “Christina, you should be able to do or say whatever comes to mind because you are a smart, capable girl,” they told me in little ways that what I thought and what I had to say mattered, even if I didn’t think it might.
This nurtured me into a pretty confident womxn. Not to say I was or am fearless, because fear is a wonderful motivator. But, I became motivated despite fear. The womxn in my family taught me to be that way. Not because they are self-proclaimed feminists, but because I think their very survival depended on their confidence and motivation. Womxn, especially immigrant womxn, are taxed with an incredibly difficult responsibility to nurture, cultivate, and defend. And they do all of this while instilling a strange sense of traditional patriarchy. It is a constant source of confusion for me.
My maternal grandmother raised her children nearly on her own, coming to the US without her husband to raise my mother and her siblings. She worked odd jobs, isolated and unable to speak English. Her determination and tremendous sacrifices taught us all how important it is to value yourself, your family, and your education. My mother was raised, essentially, in a very matriarchal household dominated by womxn. And yet, despite such an upbringing and sense of strength, I believe that culturally, we were still taught that for womxn, speaking up too much or talking too loudly shouldn’t be done often, if at all.
When I visit home and see my grandmother, we can’t exactly understand each other due to language differences, but we understand our tone and we understand the past. We talk about expectations, or rather she tells my mother about her expectations of me as a womxn and as a granddaughter. In one instance, my mother translated that my grandmother said my voice was too loud–like thunder. It would, in essence, detract the right kind of company.
And it’s funny to me, because here is this womxn who had to be thunderous and loud and prove to everyone that she could raise her children on her own and protect them from the perils of the world. Several months ago, I would have taken much more offense to her remark. But I think I get it. She had to fight to be heard, to support our lives here, to just be. She had to be this way in order for us to survive–why would she want that kind of fight for me?
But, what I think she and many other immigrant mothers and grandmothers fail to understand is that having a voice like thunder has helped us more than hindered, and it can continue to help us. We should never apologize for being loud, for protecting our right to be heard. And although they fought and yelled to be heard, it doesn’t mean we have to stop there. I don’t think womxn should just be heard. We should be validated and consulted and included in everything having to do with us. And maybe my grandmother is tired, as any womxn who has gone through her struggles might be. But, her being tired motivates me even more to speak more loudly, more clearly, with more conviction.
So instead of thinking my thunderous voice is a weakness or a criticism, I will say thank you. I will smile and tell my grandmother in broken Cantonese or via my mother that my loud voice is a tribute to her and the sacrifices she never wanted to make, but knew she had to. And if she ever saw thunder* strike the sand, like in that scene from Sweet Home Alabama, she would know that womxn like us create beauty out of our strength and through our voice. And that is not something I will ever want to change nor would I ever apologize for.
*technically in Sweet Home Alabama, it was lightning, but who’s really keeping track?