My Feminist Awakening in Hong Kong
I have long been interested in feminism, but I didn’t fully understand the importance of feminist thought until I moved to Hong Kong to work as a high school English tutor. Before I came to Asia, I was aware of male dominance in China and in my home country, the United States. But I was surprised by how much experiencing Chinese patriarchy affected me.
I first noticed patriarchy in the unequal gender roles enacted at the school where I worked. It was a local and fairly prestigious secondary school, located across from the Shing Mun River in bustling Sha Tin District. When I arrived at the school, I was struck by the somewhat elaborate way in which the other teachers dressed. The female teachers in particular dressed immaculately, and the majority of them wore high heels and frilly skirts. In getting to know the students, I learned that they dissected certain teachers’ outfits and ever-changing arsenal of handbags. At first I shrugged this phenomenon off as a slight cultural difference. Although the female teachers at my high school in Missouri were more likely to wear jeans and t-shirts than dresses and flashy accessories, students with nothing better to talk about likely still analyzed their appearance.
Yet the emphasis placed on the female teacher’s appearance reflected something deeper about the disparate gender relations at the school. I found that the female teachers’ ultra-feminine clothing not only reflected the harmful gender binary enforced by the school, but also revealed the lack of administrative power accorded to women there. Likely deeply rooted in Confucian beliefs about social order, the school implemented rules that segregated the genders and reinforced some harmful gender stereotypes.
Among the most restrictive rules was a strictly enforced dress code. Boys wore a dress shirt and slacks and could not grow their hair past their ears, while girls could not wear jewelry or makeup or leave their hair untied if it was longer than shoulder length. Girls also had to wear a crisp white dress everyday, unless it was a day with a scheduled P.E. lesson. Although school uniforms can sometimes equalize students by leveling differences in socio-economic backgrounds, at my school they seemed to limit students’ potential instead. I remember watching as a teacher cornered a female student in the hallway, accusing her of being “defiant” for wearing her P.E. uniform too often. I knew the student well enough to know that her clothing preference was not defiance but a desire to exist outside of the narrow gender role the school prescribed for her.
She was not the only female student who questioned the school uniform policy. Others complained that the uniforms were uncomfortable and made them feel self-conscious. Because the dresses were white and see-through, the students had to wear a bulky slip dress underneath, which added to the cruelty of Hong Kong’s brutal summer heat. While the male students rolled outside to play basketball during recess, I rarely (if ever) saw a female student join them. The female students’ uniforms were not clothes of action, but were made to slow them down.
The female teachers in particular dressed immaculately, and the majority of them wore high heels and frilly skirts. In getting to know the students, I learned that they dissected certain teachers’ outfits and ever-changing arsenal of handbags.
Although the female students’ uniforms subdued them, the extravagance of the female teachers’ clothes was perhaps a way in which they claimed their own agency or power. At the school, there were no women in high administrative roles. The principal and vice principals were all men, and the secretarial and teaching assistant positions were almost exclusively women. There was also a clear gendered aspect to how the subjects were divided and taught. The majority of the math and science teachers were men, and women taught most of the elective classes. In the English department where I worked, all fourteen of the teachers were women. Gender segregation in employment is nothing new, but I had never before seen such a glaring example of it. In this environment, perhaps some of the female teachers felt they had no way to assert their authority, other than through an exaggerated emphasis on appearance.
Sadly, the gender politics I observed at school were just a small-scale example of the broader picture of gender inequality in Hong Kong. Beyond the valuation of women based on appearance, I witnessed many other patriarchal practices that contribute to making Hong Kong women second-class citizens. From the preference for sons in Chinese society, to institutionalized mistress-keeping, to the shocking working and living conditions of female domestic helpers, I realized that the sexism I had been encountering ran deeper than school regulations. Sexism was instilled in the very fabric of society.
The female students’ uniforms were not clothes of action, but were made to slow them down.
My realization about structural sexism had a profound effect on me. At first I was angry. I didn’t want to be part of a society that puts so many limitations on human potential. I began to examine my own beliefs and to question those that were informed by patriarchal values. Doing so forced me to reflect on the gender inequality in the United States, and to challenge parts of my own culture that once seemed so intrinsic. I also now have the confidence to stand up to people who reinforce sexism in my daily life, because I have seen the horrors institutional sexism can reap on the lives of both men and women. I didn’t expect to have a feminist awakening when I moved to Hong Kong, but I know that I’m better off for it.