Photo by Daniel Watson on Unsplash

Not A Familiar Story About Gender

This article started out as a speech that I have given at one of my Toastmasters clubs. However, it has been expanded and revised since then.

There are tons of articles, talks, stories, etc. about gender. However, most of them treat the issue as if things are as simple as comparing two number and saying things like “they are not equal”. But genders are much more complex than that, and gender expectations and roles can affect you, regardless of your gender.

To make my point, I am going a tell different story — mine.

My parents have two children, my sister and me. In my native culture, a child’s name often bears the parents’ expectations. In Chinese, my name literally means “always good”, setting an impossibly high expectation that is doomed for disappointment. On the other hand, my sister got it easy. Her name literally means “lovely and joyful”, laying the foundation on which my parents nurture a happy life.

The culture definitely has a sexist side. Above all other goals and achievements, women are expected to get married, ideally to a husband who is rich and successful career-wise, especially a doctor or a lawyer.

But rarely talked about are the expectations on men. There is tremendous pressure on them to succeed, which is measured in a materialistic way — study hard, get good grades, enter a good school, graduate from it, get a high-paying job, work hard, get promoted, earn a lot of money, etc. Those were the goals that my parents taught me. On every quiz or exam, I was supposed to earn close to 100%. 90s was good, 80s was not too bad, 70s was disappointing. If it was lower than 70%, then congratulations, I just earned myself a beating or some other forms of punishment.

On the other hand, my sister got it easy. She did not do as well as I did academically, but she was never expected or pressured to do very well anyway. At least she was given a happier childhood and a fighting chance of becoming a normal human being. Yes, I would rather have these two things than being pushed hard to become some high-achiever, despite the gender stereotypes viewing people like me as materialist warriors.

The culture has very unrealistic stereotypes about genders, such as that men are stronger and more capable than women. Of course, having stereotypes is not ideal for women. But what is not talked about is that the stereotypes also hurt the other gender. It gives the society a free pass to trash people like me for not living up to those mythical strengths and capabilities. For various reasons, some beyond my control, I have never been physically the strong person that the society thought everyone of my gender ought to be. The stereotypes have made me feel bad, as if I have failed in some way. It does not help that the stereotypes seemingly invite others to shame or insult me. “Look at how slowly you run!” Often, people take issue with my lack of interest in sports and cars, my fear of insects and gross things, etc. “What? Aren’t you a man?” They questioned.

Perhaps it is easier to adopt the equal sign mentality, even when it does not match or reflect reality. For the most part, society talks about issues about gender as if they only happens to one gender but not another. Often, they actually do, just somewhat differently.

An example: The selfish part of me hopes that things like body-shaming would never happen to me, but it does. I have been asked these so-called questions from time to time: “Where are your muscles?” or “Why are you so skinny?” How am I supposed to know? I eat. I feel full. I function more or less normally. I even have a normal BMI (albeit on the lower end of “normal”). That does not stop those judgements. I have never liked mealtime, even though it is arguably one of human beings’ basic sources of joy. When I was young, it was my parents’ favorite time to dish out punishments, especially those physical ones. Even now, I am sometime reluctant to eat with others. I have found that many of them feel entitled to judge how much I eat, even when they do not pay for or cook my meal. “What? You are full already?” Often, people, especially my parents or relatives, would literally take the matter into their own hands, stuff more food onto my plate, and demand that I eat more. It is not fun to keep eating only to see that my plate has more and more food, not less and less food, especially when I am already full. Worse, sometimes I do give in to all these pressure and eat more than I am comfortable with. Unsurprisingly, my stomach would get mad at me for the next several hours. How can one develop a heathy sense of enjoyment for food under such circumstances? I know I have not.

Another example: The society has created a fancy name for behaviors such as interrupting and talking over others, especially in work settings. They call these behaviors “mansplaining”, as if it is always done by men to women. Really? I am physically not built to speak as loud as my gender’ stereotypes demand. My throat literally hurts from speaking loudly even when not yelling. People who have given me simplistic feedback such as “speak up” might never understand. They do not feel the burn in my throat, and some of them do not seem to know or care how much I have tried “speaking up” already. In particular, as I have learned, any sort of speaking up is useless if the other side is not ready or motivated (or both) to listen. I really do not understand those invented words such as mansplaining. I get “mansplained” all the time, by people of both genders. Why do they name it “mansplaining”? I know that somewhere out there, people are actively creating opportunities for the those of the oppressed gender to speak. Unfortunately, these opportunities are not available to me, as if nobody cares if I have the same rights to speak out as others. It seemed like I felt through some crack between the stereotypical men who talk all the time and take everything and the stereotypical women who don’t get to take anything and are oppressed.

I work at a university environment. I am aware of the headlines. I am sympathetic to all actual victims of sexual misconduct, regardless of their genders. I also hope that the offenses, which is of course always a possibility, would not happen to me. But I know that the prevalent stereotypical mindset is that victims must be people of a particular gender, and perpetrators must be people of another gender. I remember arriving early at a meeting. Only a woman and I were there. When the door of the meeting room started to close itself, it was me who instantly jump up from my chair and rushed to the door to keep it open. Stereotypes might suggest that I had nothing to worry about, unlike the other occupant of the room. Of course, not every human interaction or encounter results in sexual misconduct, but if we are talking about possibilities, then why cannot something possibly happen to me? Besides, I have figuratively burned up much of my life to chase my passion and get to where I am, with a job that lets me do what I love and a positive reputation among my peers. All it takes is one unsubstantiated accusation or even rumor in the court of public opinion, without any official actions or processes, to smash everything that I have into ruins. How can I not live in fear? It is not about “ego getting hurt” as some might say. It is about the fear of stuff that can happen to me even if I have done nothing wrong. And I really hope that none of that would happen to any of my peers either. Suppose I know a colleague for years, and suddenly they get accused, by someone who I do not necessarily know, of something that falls under that emotional category of sexual misconduct. According to some advocates, I am supposed to immediately cut all ties with the colleague and publicly denounce them, just because of the accusation, no matter how substantiated or not it is? I do not think I can do that. But then I will probably be painted as a co-conspirator who harbor whatever toxic culture that the advocates rally against. It would be a no-win situation for me.

Some years ago, my sister got married. At the big wedding dinner at this grand cathedral, I got emotional for the wrong reasons. It just hit me that the cultural expectation to get a woman married also rendered me a object which existence is to fulfill the wishes of others — I am pretty sure there is a word for that, and who says that it cannot apply to my gender as well?

When I was in graduate school, I was trying to focus on finishing school and finding a full-time job. Yet my parents and my future in-laws bombarded me with questions like “when are you and [my companion] getting married”, often with an accusatory tone like I was shying away from some duty. To them, I was there to fulfill some duty, whenever they wanted, however they wanted. They were so obsessed with this topic that they did not seem be interested in any other kinds of conversions with me anymore. Nobody asked or cared about what I wanted, as a person and with my life, even as everyone else cared a lot about what the bride-to-be and the parents wanted. The pressure on me was so much that strange thoughts (this might or might not be an euhemerism) kept popping up in my head. Of course, nobody cared about that either. I was just a thing after all.

As a result of my upbringing, I have become somewhat successful at school and at work. Yet, I have also become a shy introvert, who does not speak very well or very much, who often keeps it to myself, who does not seem to be able to be as happy or cheerful as others no matter how hard I try. These attributes continue to be disadvantageous, career or otherwise. They seem to matter more than many other attributes, at a time when people of different genders and races can all thrive.

I have tried my best to overcome the situation. I have pushed myself to talk more and keep talking until hit by overwhelming tiredness, but that does not make me as charismatic and attractive as others. Between sleeplessness and nightmares at night, I channeled my energy towards going the extra miles at programming and writing. That has not made me stand out among my peers either.

At school, boys who were perceived to be physically weaker (and they always exist since weakness is relative) would be physically bullied, getting beat up and so on. For the most part, the school, the parents and everyone else did nothing. Some people saw the situation as normal. At most, adults would suggest that the boys fight back, knowing that even if they could, they would be punished for fighting.

People of my gender are told, trained, and forced to suppress our feelings and emotions. As a child, I would get beat up as punishment, sometimes for some made-up reasons. Then, as I cried in pain, adults (usually my parents but not always) would yell at me. “Don’t cry! You are a male!” Then they would use this excuse to beat me up some more. To sweeten the deal for me, some of those who beat me up also made me believe some mythical nonsense, that Mr. Satan himself resided in me and my suffering who extend beyond this physical world because of my supposed mischief. I guess whoever did this succeeded, at my expense. Sometimes, even when I thought I was smiling, I had to make sure that I was indeed smiling, because people would tell me that I looked upset instead. On the other side of the emotional spectrum, for the most part, I lost the ability to cry when being sad. I could not shed a tear even when I wanted to, whether it was at a touching movie or at a close relative’s funeral.

Stories like mine do not appear in the mainstream media or discussions. Not a chance, as long as they do not fit the numerical comparison narratives. I wish that one day, gender roles and stereotypes would no longer exist, and gender would no longer be a barrier to people’s success or happiness, regardless of their genders. I do not think I will see that goal accomplished. I do not even know what I can do to help. At least, I could tell my story and make it known that people like me do exist, so here it is.