Guest Blogger: "Hannah" (Educating Gender's guest blogger wishes to remain anonymous this week given the very personal nature of the reflections.)
My elder sister was the first in our family to graduate from university. My grandfather was bursting with pride. He and my grandmother had emigrated from India when their children were small, and they straddled an interesting line between traditionalism and feminism (terminology they would not have understood). My grandmother had not been allowed to attend school as a child due to her gender, and was illiterate her whole life. The granddaughters being literate was important to them. At my sister’s university graduation, my grandfather said to my mother (a white, Western woman): ‘This? This. This is why we came here.’
Gender in my family has always been complicated, and the consequences of our upbringings are far-reaching. As an adult and an educator, I see the story of my family unfold in other families of immigrants. It begins with my father’s generation, who in my family were all male. Their parents were Indian through-and-through; proud though they were of living in the West, they nonetheless retained Indian culture as much as was possible. They spoke their native tongue at home and ate their native foods and moved in social circles of other Indian families. My father’s generation became the bridge to Western culture. They all went on to have children with Western women. My generation consists of seven people: two men, and five women, stuck somewhere between being second-generation and third-generation immigrants (my father’s generation came over as small children). It is in our generation that the consequences of gendered upbringing have become the most clear, and patterns have emerged that I have seen in other families.
We were loved and spoiled grandchildren, all seven of us, but the differences between the girls and the boys were stark: boys made mess, and girls cleaned it up.
As is the case for many immigrant families, our upbringings were centered around one large family house, in which we all lived for at least some portion of our childhoods. We were loved and spoiled grandchildren, all seven of us, but the differences between the girls and the boys were stark: boys made mess, and girls cleaned it up. Boys requested and received; girls were to be polite about wants. Boys were to play outside and climb trees; girls were to help in the kitchen. If I failed to help out around the house (and as a distracted child, I often did fail), it was commented upon and critiqued. The older granddaughters, who were around the same age as the grandsons, certainly had it worse than the rest of us (as being younger granted us some privilege). Nonetheless, it was a difference I know that we all found rather unfair.
I have lived away from my family now for many years, but for those who still live near the family home, this pattern has continued: the women visit my ageing grandparents and do chores (some visit multiple days a week for this); the women do the cooking; the women do the grocery shopping. The men are consumers of the household. Two examples of this discrepancy that I have recently lived are a standoff I experienced with a male cousin when he asked me to iron his jeans (there was no reason that he could not iron his own jeans, and he wouldn’t have asked had I been one of the men), and a standoff I experienced with an uncle when he attempted to order coffee from my female cousin as if she was a waitress - more rudely, nonetheless, than one should speak to one’s waitress (no greeting, just a snap of the fingers and ‘white with one sugar’).
These differences have been a privilege for the boys, but have become a hindrance in their upbringing and in their adult lives. (And not only because my cousin does not seem able to iron his own jeans.) It is my understanding that this style of gendered childhood made sense in the old country: the boys were doted upon by their mothers and the girls of the household, and then were married off to women who would keep them in the style to which they were accustomed. But my cousins were not from the old country, and so the follow-through never occurred. Instead, they became men who did not know how to put effort into anything. Jobs have come and gone because they have not enjoyed them, and our grandparents would give them money while unemployed, anyway.
We do not help boys grow into men by implying that they need not put effort into life. Those experiences that felt unfair as a girl are precisely the experiences that have shaped us into steady and successful women.
Girlfriends have come and gone, and multiple children have been born to each of my male cousins, but never two from the same woman. The men move in and out of the family house, and borrow regularly from our grandparents. Two of the men in my family have been to prison. The granddaughters of the family have been quite a different story: children have all been born from long-term and steady partners (who have remained together); several of us have gone onto further education and are career-oriented women. None of us have been in trouble with the law.
Now that I have had the opportunity to speak with other second- and third-generation immigrants about their experiences, I am aware that this is an ongoing issue. We do not help boys grow into men by implying that they need not put effort into life. Those experiences that felt unfair as a girl are precisely the experiences that have shaped us into steady and successful women. Some years ago, I might have wanted to teach that we should not treat girls the way that my female cousins were treated within the household. That is an opinion that I now sincerely retract. I believe now that the privileges my family afforded the boys were wolves in sheeps’ clothing. If we want our boys to learn to be healthy and successful men, we must teach them how to become that way.