My story is simply one of an Asian girl, having a pretty conservative upbringing, trying every single day to assert herself as an individual and realize her dreams. Penning one’s story is definitely an intimidating thing to do but that said, I hope mine will resonate with girls who may be reluctant to stand up to social pressure.
Everyone has dreams. Sadly it is common for the society to assign lower values to a girl’s dreams compared to a boy’s. Particularly in most parts of developing Asia, college education is more than sufficient for girls, and marriage, not career, is unanimously regarded as their source of security. They are preordained from birth to be the weak, vulnerable kind who is prone to, and has to be constantly protected from, actions of dishonour such as premarital loss of virginity, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and even sexual assaults. A woman’s marital status is almost always under scrutiny to the extent that all the other aspects of her life are not worth considering. Even if she graduates with first class honours, works as a biochemistry scientist or finds the cure to cancer, if she is not married, she is an abject failure.
Asia is undergoing swift social transformations over the recent decades with fast-paced industrialisation, increasing exposure to Western cultures and education, and the changing role of women as independent earners. Foreign observers, such as Roger Cohen of the New York Times, have noted of the “American dream” among the rising Vietnamese upper- and middle-class which entails American lifestyle and education for their children. Nonetheless for millions of Vietnamese young women, defying patriarchal norms continues to be a day-to-day struggle. Escape is not an option, even for those like me who are able to: we do not wish to be alienated in our own home, we yearn to connect with our families, and we want to gain a legitimate place in the community without losing ourselves.
The day I got admitted to a university in Singapore, I knew it was not the end of a year-long “battle” to fulfil my dream of seeing the world. My parents let me sit the entrance exam perhaps because chances were I would fail, or because they were ambivalent about letting go of me. And when they knew I passed, they threw me tons of questions to which I had no answer: am I going to survive college overseas?, am I going to be able to protect myself (for marriage)?, will I be able to find a job and pay off the student loan?, and so on.
Since a very young age, I had been keenly aware of their overprotective tendency toward me and built up a strong and even cold façade with the hope that they would think I was totally capable of protecting myself. But my tough façade apparently did not guarantee satisfactory answers to these questions. Ultimately it was going to be a four-year period of uncertainty.
My childhood could be described as a series of attempts to break out of the “mould” my Mother had for me. She had always wanted me to excel in maths and science and to become a doctor or a pharmacist. By contrast I sucked at both and instead went on to major in literature and later on English. For university degree choices, I went for Business, Economics and International Relations instead of Medicine and Biochemistry, and I was admitted to read Economics.
Gradually they toned down their stance as their friends and colleagues talked them into letting me go. And so I was allowed to leave for Singapore on the implicit condition that I would preserve myself for marriage.
I love my Mom more than anything else in the world. One time I saw her hit by another motorbike and my heart literally stopped beating until it became clear to me that she was okay. Although it was virtually impossible in my childhood, slowly and surely throughout my college years, I opened up to her and showed her who I really was. I told her about how I loved my major and how wonderful my professors were, about my very first jobs, and the guys I saw.
And after Singapore, it was and still is my incomplete “mission” to show her who I want to become.