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UCI Forum Explores Cultural Problems of Asian-Pacific Women

January 24, 1986|LYNN SMITH | Times Staff Writer

"For as long as I can remember," the Chinese woman college student wrote, "my parents have been calling me a banana. 'Yellow on the outside, but white on the inside. . . .' "

"My dad is constantly reminding me that I'm a Korean girl," wrote another. He "would always tell me that I talk too much for a girl and I should be doing something better with my time, like reading or cleaning the house."

Another student, a Japanese-American, wrote: "I was always attracted to the all-American male or dashing European male. Asian males rarely held an attraction for me. . . . Over the summer, however, a white male friend of mine casually said that he would never consider dating, much less marrying, a nonwhite female. . . . For days after that I thought about how other people, especially whites, saw me. . . ."

These writings by UCLA students show some of the unique pressures on Asian-Pacific women, according to psychologist Judy Chu, an instructor in Asian-American studies at UCLA. Wednesday, Chu read them at a workshop called "Challenges Facing Today's Asian Pacific Woman" at UC Irvine's Asian Pacific Awareness Conference.

The conference, the first of its kind at UCI, was organized to illuminate the needs and concerns of Asian-Pacific college students so that fellow students, faculty, staff, administrators and community members can understand them better. This year, UCI's student body is 26% Asian and the freshman class is 34% Asian--the highest concentration of Asian students in any U.S. college or university outside of Hawaii.

Some are the already acculturated second- or third-generation descendants of Asian immigrants. But a large percentage belong to the recent wave of immigrants who have had to learn English and who still retain the cultural values of their homeland, said Suecheng Chang, a professor of history and American Studies at UC Santa Cruz who led the morning general session on "Who Are the Asian-Pacific Students."

Cultural stereotypes affect American-born as well as foreign-born Asian-Americans because most Americans do not make the distinction, said Irene Hirano, executive director of THE (To Help Everywoman, a health clinic in Los Angeles. "I get asked all the time, 'Where did you come from?' I say I was born here. They say, 'No, where did you really come from?' "

Sometimes, Asian women are assumed to be like the sexy "Suzi Wong" or the hard, aggressive "Dragon Lady," she said. Most often, however, they are presumed to be quiet, passive and unassertive, said Hirano, who spoke on the women's panel.

The stereotypes handicap Asian women from moving up at work, she said. "They are seen as good workers, but not management material. Often there are sexual overtones." Despite the highly visible academic success of Asian women as well as men, there are still very few in management, she said.

"We do tend to be unassertive. We do tend to be smaller physically, that is, some of us," said Nadine Tang, another panelist. Tang is a psychiatric social worker at UC Berkeley who directed an immigrant and refugee student services program for two years.

Those who are closer to the sacrifices their immigrant parents made have more conflict between pleasing their parents and finding a niche for themselves in American culture, Tang told the two dozen men and women who attended the workshop on women.

The panelists said that while Asian daughters--like sons--are taught respect for authority and responsibility for the well being of the entire family, daughters are treated as "second-class citizens" in their own society.

A native of Hong Kong, Tang said that when she came to Berkeley to study, her mother and grandmother insisted that she visit her brother in San Francisco every night to cook him dinner. So for a year while she was studying at the university, she said, she drove every night to San Francisco and made him dinner.

Conflicts Over Intelligence

Though encouraged to succeed academically, she said, Asian women can experience conflicts over being smart. Tang said she never thought of herself as smart because she was not supposed to be smarter than her brother. Even when she was named Phi Beta Kappa, she said her parents' reaction was: "Oh, well, it's only Boston University."

For reasons of economic stability and status, she said, Asian parents often encourage their children to go into engineering, medicine or business, rather than liberal arts or social fields. She said that in choosing social work, she risked losing her family. "My parents still don't understand what I do," she said. "They are irritated, frustrated and angry that I'm not doing something to benefit the family group."

It was partly because they did not support her career choice, she said, that she married "a nice Jewish boy" instead of another Asian. She noted that the top female Asian writers Maxine Hong Kingston and Betty Bao Lord--who achieved success in non-traditional work--also married outside the Asian community, an act that may be labeled "selfish."

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