Tag Archives: society

Boys Can Wear Dresses Too

31 Aug

“Look, the woman is free now,” Leila describes an American Indian man in the animated film.

“That’s a man, Leila,” I say, knowing full well where this would go.

“But, but he has long hair, and…”

“Men can have long hair,” I was a little too stern with her about this, fed-up with all the stereotyping.

“But look at the hair bands in her hair.”

“Leila, men can wear hair bands.”

I would get nowhere with my attitude, and of course my two-year-old’s are only trying to make sense of the world and figure out how they fit in it. Their gender differences are a part of that. I relax, try something different. “OK, you remember our friend in Koh Samui? He has very long hair. Sometimes he used hair bands to tie it up. Remember?”

She laughed and agreed.

My daughter is going through a phase where she needs to define herself as a girl. Quite normal I suppose.  It was after she repeatedly heard an older girl telling Rahul, “but that’s for girls,” as the doll and hair clips that he was playing with were snatched out of his hands, that it became as issue.

Since then, L often says similar things to her brother. I have a feeling that other than it being a gender identity thing, the issue is magnified because they are boy / girl twins who are almost always together. I am not yet sure how or if I even need to do something to help Leila with this question.

On a walk around the mall one day, Leila saw a shop full of pink things, she half stated, half asked if it’s only for girls. I disagreed. Rahul has often asked me the same question, “This is only for girls, mum?” He used to like pink. I doubt that it was a natural instinct; it was probably because his sister liked it. And then I’m not so sure that her obsession tendency for pink is natural either. More recently Rahul has constructed that “yellow” and “green” are his favorites. I see him consciously choosing those colors because he is a “boy”, and then also maybe a bit because it sets him apart from his twin sister.

“But I only want yellow nail polish,” he begged in their fight discussion this afternoon. He looks at me, almost in tears.
“NO, it’s only for girls,” she barks at him. A moment later she turns to me, “It’s only for girls mum?”
“Boys can also use nail polish guys, but neither of you can until you are older.”

A few days ago it was about toy make-up. “I want to play with this,” Rahul said as they were tugging and pulling on the toy eye-shadow. A man in the room, probably just trying to ease the tension, said, “Make-up is for girls Rahul.”

“Hey come on guys,” I couldn’t help myself, “some men use make-up.” I got some questioning looks from the men in that room. “Men who dance, act on stage or in movies use make-up.” I didn’t even touch those who might use it just because they enjoy it. Our home is a rather gender neutral space, the children have a range of toys, but we are immersed in a host of cultures all of which segregate gender roles and behaviour in the obvious, traditional sense.

An openly gay friend of mine in Lebanon, oriental-dance performing artist and teacher posted this little story on Facebook about a man who wears dresses in solidarity with his little boy. It reminded me of a conversation I overheard between my children and a couple of close Swedish friend. “Boys can wear dresses too,” my friend’s husband explained to them.

My children will have many influences in their lives and they’ll make their own choices. I still try to play my bit in keeping them open. I’ve always been grateful to the exposure I had growing up, to people of different cultures and way of thinking. My own parenting decisions and choices come from imitating those I respect and trust, as well as trying to realise my own mistakes.

A few weeks ago I saw a couple of sticker books that I thought my children would love. One was of an Indian girl, the other was an African girl. The idea is that the child plays designer. She can stick bags, and necklaces on the girl, colour in the clothes the way she wants. I bought both. For Leila. How was I to choose between an Indian and an African princess? And I had an inkling that Rahul might want to play with one at the same time. To be fair though, I bought Rahul a couple of finger puppets.

Rahul enjoyed his puppets, but luckily Leila agreed to share one of her princess design books with him. They both enjoyed sticking the bangles, bindhis, and chitenge prints on their models. In the sense of learning alone, he was doing well with focusing, sticking the handbags on the girl’s arm, and the flowers in her hair. So just because it’s a girl in the picture why can’t he play with the book? Maybe he’ll become a clothes designer one day. Why didn’t I just buy one princess book for each one of my children?

Over the weekend we went to a toy shop. Rahul chose a baby doll. He likes to change dolls’ clothes, rock and kiss them goodnight. Of course, he was shown the transformer cars and the Lego, but he was adamant about the baby doll. Only at the very last minute did a laser sword change his mind. Regardless of the outcome, I was glad that I would have proudly walked out of that shop having bought both my children dolls.

Related links:
From TV to toys: What shapes boys into boys and girls into girls             
Parenting the Enemy
– blog post by Janice Lindegard of Snide Reply
Boys Will Be Boys? – blog post by reanbean

I live in Chengdu with my husband Maher and our two-year-old twins Leila and Rahul.  I was an Ashtanga Yoga teacher until Our Little Yogis became the teachers.

Teaching My Son to Write

29 Feb

I’m a graduate student in educational theory (Master of Arts, Integrated Studies, to be precise).  For several weeks, I’ve been immersed in feminist theory, race theory, Marxist theory, the birth of sociology, the jargonistic musings of Judith Butler on the intentionally difficult to comprehend Foucault….  And I have the kind of cold that kept me awake until 4am last night with fever chills and has left me giddy and directionless, today.

Forgive me if this post is somewhat less than concise.

Kwame Anthony Appiah has written and spoken often about his reasoned disavowal of race.  He doesn’t believe there are any races, and deconstructs both the original concept – as defined in North America with the African slave trade – and the current relevance of this sort of cultural leftover in his Tanner Lecture on Human Values (1994), among other papers, interviews and speeches.  I mean, we’ve established that people of all ethnicities are equally capable, moral, feeling, loving, hurting people….  Right?

So, why do we need to talk about it anymore?

Well, because race is socially determined.  Our culture tells us what race we are, establishing visible majorities and visible minorities and an increasingly difficult-to-determine mix of bi-racial, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, mixed-race, erm… people.  Black and white, gorgeous and beige, my kids fall into that last category.  And while I’m hoping hard that the strident voice of bell hooks and the educated bluesman musings of Cornel West remain sources of profound pride for American black people; here in Canada – in multicultural Canada – I’d like to see my kids’ generation drop their divisions, deny racial solidarity, and embrace something more like Appiah’s cosmopolitanism.  There is something so calmly appropriate about a theory of philosophy that refuses race, encourages knowledge of other cultures, and denies cultural relativism.  You don’t have to be just like me to be my brother.  I will love you, just the same.  And through my love I’m committed to learning more about you.  But I will NOT stand by and let you hurt people.  We have a human responsibility to protect each other from harm, even if it’s you – my brother – who is doing the harming.

To me, that sounds just about perfect.  Multiculturalism without assimilation.  Globally situated learning and citizenship.  And the outright refusal to allow nations to commit crimes against humanity just because their culture or their religion says that they can.  Does it GET better?

And so it was from this warm, fuzzy, I’d-Like-To-Teach-The-World-to-Sing perspective that I sat down with my kids and a bowl of popcorn to watch Discovery Atlas’s China Revealed.

Now, this film was done in 2006.  China was going crazy with preparation for the 2008 Olympics, and aside from a few ethnic Chinese family members, extra kids, students and friends, I really don’t know very much about Chinese culture.  I am NOT an educated observer, here – let me make that very clear.  But it was hard not to stare at the sheer focus demanded of children, in that film.  It was hard not to cover my mouth when a father spoke of beating his young daughter because she didn’t want to return to gymnastics boarding school, in that film.  It was hard not to just stare in fascination at Wushu city, and at thousands of workers performing calisthenics together to ensure an injury-free day at the factory; at adult children with the same single-minded focus to please their parents, to serve their parents, as appears on the faces of elementary school kids.  At the drive.  At the SOLIDARITY – in that film.  (I’m repeating this phrase because I do know that one film cannot adequately capture the depth and nuance of any culture.  There is so much more I need to learn!)

But, HOW can one deny the existence of race in the face of that?  Even while considering the vast differences of language and tradition within China’s borders.  Do we relabel it “culture”, and continue to reach out, hold hands and sing Kumbaya?  My kids will be competing with children from families with similar cultural influences for scholarships, jobs and promotions.  My kids, who have been raised without corporal punishment, who have been encouraged to cooperate before competing, who walked early, talked early, and were reading by age three….  They can’t do simple multiplication, like some of their first generation Chinese Canadian friends can.  My kids have always been given the option to work on reading, work on writing, work on language study, science or do anything else we come up with together in our afterschooling home.  (It really is up to them.)  And they have always been rewarded for their efforts in these areas.  Not punished for their shortcomings.

I’m a little worried that they won’t be prepared for their global reality, fifteen years from now.

Anyway, this post was about teaching my son to write.  I’d decided to post about that before diving into race theory and watching that documentary, and now our little writing exercises read with a decidedly different flavour.  I do apologize.

My Bug asked to learn how to write his name, so I told him I would help him.  I wrote out his name for him to copy, and that was difficult for him.  Frustrating.  I wrote out a letter for him to copy.  Still frustrating.  I printed out a preschoolers’ letter-tracing page from some website we found together.  Didn’t like it.  The dots were overwhelming and made no sense to him.  So, I wrote a letter, just one, with a highlighter and asked him to keep his pencil on the green line.  He took the pencil with some hesitation.  Standard pencils are small and awkward for his three-year-old hand; fat round or triangular pencils are too big and clumsy.  (He’s always preferred paintbrushes.)  But then?  He did it!  HE DID IT!  And asked for a page more.  And then I gave him the parts of the other letters in his name, not all together, just a page of lines, a page of curves, a page of initial connections, all written with electric green highlighter….

And I watched him light up with the joy of his own success.

I don’t know if my kids will be able to compete at the global level.  In many ways, I hope they won’t have to.  But, mostly?  I hope this light, this spark they have – that we can keep it going for as long as possible.  I’m hoping hard for forever 🙂

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I’m a mother, corporate refugee, grad student, quiet activist and child care provider.  I live in Canada and write about grace, joy, hilarity, leg hair, living healthy, and learning with kids over at The Valentine 4: Living Each Day.

Afu ge ge, Leila mei mei

19 Nov

“Which twin is older?” The question is absurd. In China, I get it all the time. And it works me up.
“They are twins. They are the same age.” I reply, irritated.
“Yes, but they didn’t both come out at the same time, did they? One had to have been born first.”
They insist, “Is she the older sister or is he the older brother?”
“But they were born minutes apart. What’s the big deal?!”

In Chinese there are no words for sister or brother; only for older brother “ge ge”, younger brother “di di”, older sister “jie jie”, and younger sister “mei mei.”

I don’t want to impose birth-order stereotypes on L and R; they are born 7 minutes apart. When L joined us at home, 3 weeks after R, Maher and I both unintentionally spoke to Rahul referring to Leila as his little sister. It was more in the sense of endearment and physical size than of age. But we quickly realized that it was untrue, and imagined implications of such labeling. We stopped.

When we returned to Chengdu from Hong Kong 5 months after the birth, our ayi (nanny) would tell R, “Look, Leila mei mei is sleeping. Why don’t you sleep as well?” I was upset. Drop the comparison, that issue is for another post. I firmly asked the people close to us – ayi’s (nannies), Chinese friends – not to use ge ge and mei mei; but to refer to Rahul and Leila as Rahul and Leila. Initially, they considered my request strange. I was interfering with cultural norms and habits. I insisted. They complied, at first with an uncomfortable smile, and probably a thought of how the lao wai (foreigners) always do things strangely. Now, they don’t hesitate. I’ve heard our ayi herself telling people in the street – “How can one be older? They are twins.” And if pushed she says, “I don’t know who was born first,” and then she looks at me to save her from the situation!

From what I remember of my Social Psychology 101 class, and various family talks, the oldest child is more responsible, self-motivated, and more dutiful, the middle child struggles for attention, and the youngest child is light-hearted, sometimes babied. It’s not as “straightforward” as that in reality, and certainly not in our household. I hope R doesn’t turn around one day and say a silly thing like, “That’s the way it goes because I am your older brother,” or someone guilt trips him with, “but she’s your little sister.”

When we go downstairs to play with the other kids in the complex, mums often tell their children, “You are her older brother. Let her play with your toy.” In China today, it’s rare that a child has a brother or a sister; so mum is usually referring to her child’s playmate. L and R may not know any of their friend’s names, but they know who is older and who is younger than them.

About half a year ago, R surprised me when he pointed at himself and said, “Afu, ge ge”. (R calls himself Afu. It’s his Sichuanese name.) In another incident, a mum of a two-year old girl asked me if L is a jie jie or a mei mei. Before I could say anything, L pointed at herself and replied proudly, “Leila, mei mei.”

L and R were obviously beginning to understand what people say. I realized that unless they use the words describing their relationships, they won’t be able to refer to their friends or themselves in an understandable, and respectable manner.

I am impressed that they know the words, and maybe the meaning. I don’t think they understand what the words imply in relation to each other, but they know that’s who they are.

A few weeks ago, a pair of 22-year-old identical Chinese twin girls automatically introduced themselves to me as older sister and younger sister. When I dug deeper, probed them on whether they really feel like one is older and if they live by that, “not really,” older sister replied, “At home we call each other by name. It is for others that we use mei mei and jie jie.”

Other than it being a naming issue, it is a cultural one. We live in China, L and R were born in HK, and speak Chinese, so it only makes sense that they follow the social and cultural norms when engaging in society here. Now, when people in the street ask me the question, I answer straight up, R ge ge and L mei mei. Still some days, when I am in a feisty mood, I refuse to answer.

At home, with ayi’s and friends, we stick to L and R.

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Natasha lives in Chengdu, China with her husband Maher, and two-year-old twins Leila and Rahul. She was an Ashtanga Yoga teacher until her little yogis became the teachers. You can read more of her stories at Our Little Yogis. (http://natashadevalia.com)