“Are you serious?” my little brother asked with his face scrunched up. My parents were throwing a dinner party for their friends, and I had told him to go sit at the men’s table.
“Yes, I’m serious,” I replied as I walked away to sit with my mom and the other women.
I had just finished helping my mom set up the two separate tables. For some unspoken reason, all the men gravitated to one table, and the women to the other.
One woman quipped, “It’s just like Vietnam!” She seemed both amused and pleased by the similarity, as if she had a piece of home restored to her.
A little surprised by the situation, one man said, “No, no, we should all sit together!” to which another woman replied, “It’s fine. This table is closer to the kitchen! We’ll stay here.”
If I’m being honest, I was pretty amused. It was the first time in a while that I had seen my family’s traditional ideas so blatantly implemented. Although I hated the inequality and sexism associated with these ideas growing up, I’ve learned to deal with it. It’s not that I’ve accepted these ideas, but that I realized my parents and I will never agree.
The lady sitting next to me asked, “So you have two brothers? How is it being the only girl? You always come first, right?”
It took me a moment to reply, and I don’t remember what I said. Come first? Well, I was the first to learn how to do most of the chores, how to cook, how to convince my parents to let me stay out past 6 p.m. As the girl, I was expected to be the most polite and sociable at family gatherings, and make friends with whoever my mom introduced me to. My brothers got away with standing at the side and playing on their Game Boys.
Once, in high school, my mom was driving me home and asked me how I felt about these gendered differences. In a deadpan voice, I simply said, “I think it’s wrong that I’m treated differently just because I’m a girl.” As a businesswoman who is always willing to argue with my dad when she finds something unfair, you would think that she would reply in agreement.
Instead, she said, “It’s not right or wrong. It’s just the way things are.” I should mention that in addition to working, my mom also wholeheartedly takes on the role of a good housewife; she does all the cleaning and cooking, and handles most of the problems that have to do with us kids.
I tried to explain that it’s not simply “the way things are,” but after a few sentences our conversation completely halted. Neither of us was going to be convinced.
The rest of high school basically consisted of me trying to rebel against my parents the best I could. I didn’t do chores, saying that I was busy with school and extracurriculars (which I was), and I picked fights over things like my parents expecting me to cook dinner for my brothers when they were away for meetings.
Going into college, I was tired of arguing with them. More importantly, I started to see myself in my friends when they argued with their parents, and I realized that wasn’t the type of relationship I wanted with the people who raised me. Nearing my twenties, I didn’t want to still be an angsty teenager when dealing with my parents.
I started trying to look at things from their side. They grew up in Vietnam, where cultural and familial expectations take precedence over everything else. I’m pretty sure this was so deeply ingrained in them that they never–and probably still do not–think of much else. Like the woman who said that sitting at different tables was “Just like Vietnam,” my parents simply long to live the way they were raised to live. Because of this mindset, they are probably confused about why I don’t think like them, when they hoped to raise me to live a certain way as well.
The most important realization I made was that as much as I think their ideas are wrong, they think the same of mine. I’m as likely to accept that women should be treated differently from men as they are to think that genders should be treated equally. This applies to every other topic that we disagree on, not just gender roles.
Knowing this has made it easier for me to deal with situations like family dinners. Although I always initially feel a little offended, I can normally calm down and apply myself to the situation.
This might make it sound like I’m giving in. But what’s the use in trying to waste my breath arguing? The best rebellion is to not carry on their ideas to the next generation. The way I look at it, as long as I never actually come to think like them, I’m not losing anything. I’m aware when I’m willing myself to act differently for their sake, and I remember that I’m doing it for them, not because I believe that’s who I should be. But to their credit, it’s pretty useful to be able to cook, clean, and interact with adults in social situations. My little brother is currently worried about having to cook for himself when he goes off to college.
I’ve come to apply this silenced disagreement to many parts of my life. It’s not that I never pick fights or try to make changes when I think something wrong. I have strong opinions and I’m often not willing to compromise them. But I know when other people are not going to be convinced. In a time when everyone can receive an education, retrieve information through various forms of media, and formulate their own solid opinions, I’m not going to be the one to invalidate their ideas simply because they disagree with mine.
Michelle Bui is a second year biological sciences major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.