Challenges faced by non-conforming Asian women
In many East Asian cultures, including those in China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia, the social pressure to conform is huge. Being hierarchical and collectivistic as opposed to ‘individualistic’, these cultures value conformity above individuality. People are pressured to do all they can to maintain the status quo, or the outer harmony, even at the price of individual autonomy, voice or needs.
For women, in particular, there are many unwritten rules; they need to look a certain way, study in specific fields, marry a particular type of person and by a certain age. The pressure to conform to rigid social standards can be abrasive and coercive for all women, but it's especially challenging for those who do not fit into the quiet, submissive and studious stereotype.
Are you the Asian woman who does not fit in?
- From a young age, you have a sense of knowing that goes beyond your immediate surrounding. You were curious about the endless possibilities lying beyond where you were. You have a desire to move out, to explore the world, to have adventures or to break out of the social and cultural confines of your hometown.
- You have multiple interests and are always hungry for intellectually rigorous, sensually intense and culturally extensive experience.
- The imposed standards on appearance, dating and marriage make no sense to you and no matter how hard you try, you struggle to comply.
- You are introspective and sensitive by nature and are more aware of social and psychological dynamics than those around you. For example, despite the facade of joyous unity and normalcy, you notice the tension, hierarchical pressure, hidden comparisons, envy and stifled resentment amongst relatives during family or community gatherings.
- You have always felt older than those around you. As a child, books, music or arts were your closest friends. You travel in your mind by reading, watching movies, or researching on the internet to negate the sense of being trapped.
- You have always been an independent thinker and, as much as you can, take actions according to your own judgment; even when they go against the school rules, family instructions or social norms.
- You had always wondered about existential issues such as the meaning of life, even when you were pressured to be driven by money, status and social recognition.
- You were discouraged by adults in your life, teachers or parents, to stop ‘dreaming’ or to cut out the abstract and philosophical questions to focus on the pragmatic.
- You have a strong sense of justice. Issues in the world bother you deeply and you feel emotionally overwhelmed when you witness suffering in others. You struggle to find people who share your concerns, as they generally seem apathetic towards global issues.
- You have been puzzled by others’ obliviousness to the inner world of psychology and imagination, and their content with only the material world.
- You have vivid and exciting career aspirations and dreams; some of them transcend gender stereotypes.
- Despite the pressure to focus on a single academic or vocational discipline, you feel pulled in many directions.
- You strive to find your own answers, rather than what has been handed out to you.
- You feel the double-bind of on the one hand being pushed to be ambitious in achieving academically and career rise, while at the same time being told 'not to compete', 'not to try to act like a lady’ and be submissive and subdued.
- You have the ‘fear of success syndrome’, believing that your peers may reject you or become sexually undesirable if you are too competent or successful.
- You have the perfection complex - believing that you must be perfect in everything you do in all aspects of your life.
- You have the ‘imposter syndrome’ - having low self-esteem despite outward achievement and attributing your success to outside factors such as luck. You are unable to take any compliments and feel undeserving of your success and abundance.
The call to break free
Some people could spend their whole lives living a script that has been handed down to them, but that is not for everyone. When you decide to break away from your family or cultural heritage, perhaps by disobeying your parents’ prescribed plan, walking away from family members who guilt-trip and manipulate or going against society’s dogma, you are - explicitly or implicitly - led to believe that you are doing something that is unjustified, disrespectful, or even immoral.
Having internalised judgments from various sources, you may carry a sense of guilt all the way through into adulthood. It shows up as harsh self-criticisms, chronic anxiety, low self-esteem and the consistent feeling that you have done something wrong. You may even hold yourself back from career success and loving relationships because you feel you do not deserve them.
However, as you psychologically and spiritually grow, you will experience more and more invitations from life, pushing you to become more of who you are. These invitations often start as unwelcome guests, like boredom at work, the break down of a long-term relationship, dissatisfaction in life or a lack of motivation.
When life poses an existential crisis, you might ask:
- Whose stories am I living?
- Am I living my parents’ un-lived life, compensating for their fears?
- Am I simply going along with the values of the herd, of the cultural ‘shoulds’?
Despite what our cultural conditioning had led you to feel, going against the herd is not a selfish act. As one moves towards authenticity, what you actualise along the way are gifts to the public and collective life. By being able to thrive as who you are, even when it means for a while you stand on the fringe of society, you open doors for all the original, creative, and intelligent girls who come after you. Ultimately, it is a courageous and noble act.
If you are facing any of the challenges above, you may find talking to a counsellor will help you.
This article was written by Imi Lo.
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