Updated: May 28
Dear Asian Youth,
Last year on Chinese New Year, my heart broke witnessing an overlooked problem of gender inequality for us women in a traditional Chinese family.
It was the first day of celebrating Chinese New Year at my Grandma’s house. As usual, we gathered together in seas of red shirts and dresses to welcome this new era of prosperity and union. My role was to stand under the heat to welcome and shake my cousins’ hands before we proceed to the second floor to catch up, while the older women in the family prepared the feast.
Half an hour later, we were called down to eat. All sorts of delicious dishes were laid out on the table, the whole thing impressively looked like it took more than three women to prepare. I devoured the last bits of the delicious Chángshòu Miàn before standing up for the sink; leaving behind the dinner table filled with laughing cousins and gossiping aunts. As the first one who finished, I didn’t want to be the one who ended up washing everyone’s plates, so I tried to wash it as fast as I could. Though sadly, it wasn’t fast enough as plates started to pile up on the counter.
A heavy sigh escaped my lips, and at the end, I succumbed to washing plate after plate. After the last plate was hung on the rack to dry, my hands frowned back heavily in wrinkles, and sweat swam heavily along my spine. The dining room was already void of people, except my grandma and mother, both women diligently cleaning up after the mess. It looked like the elders have retired early to smoke and gossip in the living room, while the younger cousins were upstairs playing card games.
Naturally, I was inclined to join the game. But as I headed for the stairs to play, guilt stopped me in my tracks. The feeling of irresponsibility in leaving them to clean up weighed heavily on my conscience, so I decided to turn around and lent them a hand instead. I could always join the cousins later.
They gratefully welcomed my presence, and the three of us started to clean after the leftovers while my Grandmother told us tales of her childhood story during her time in the fishing village. Her humor and wit somehow lifted the mood of the place, making it more bearable for us not to collapse to the floor.
It was a job almost done, until one of my uncles entered the room and placed his empty beer glass on the table, before turning away and stalking back to the living room without a word. I looked at my Grandma for a reaction of disapproval, but she never told him to come back and wash it himself.
Instead, my Grandmother picked up the glass and washed it for him, as if she was expected to do it. I observed with my mouth zipped shut, locking the last container and putting it inside the fridge–– silently trying hard to keep the gnawing questions to what just happened in the dark. If she didn’t have a problem with it, I should not too. Right?
Not long after, my younger cousin ran down the stairs with an empty bowl, almost slipping on her dress for she ran too fast. She was in the middle of a card game, and the rest of the cousins was calling her name to come back up as quickly as possible.
“Wait! Let me put this first! Ants are crawling all over me like crazy.” She shouted back and was met by my grandmother’s stern stare.
“You have to be responsible and wash it. Don’t go up if you haven’t done it,” Grandma said, crossing her arms as she watched my cousin pouted.
“But granny, just this once? I’m needed upstairs, or my team’s losing!” She said, putting the bowl on the table and turning back around for the stairs.
“No. Clean it first,” Grandma said in a lower tone, which usually meant danger.
My cousin hesitated on the bottom step of the stairs as the others called louder in urgency, some even threatened to restart the game. I watched the commotion from the fridge, while my mother didn’t pay any attention as she engrossed herself in scrubbing the stove off oil.
“I can do it,” I offered, but Grandma raised her hand to stop.
“No, young girls like her needed to be trained to be responsible. They can’t afford to slack off, what will their future husband say?” Grandma stated, turning her eyes back on my cousin, “Wash it, now.”
With a deep scowl, my cousin ended up returning to the sink, risking her gameplay as she scrubbed her bowl clean. I turned around, not wanting to be snapped at for looking. Meanwhile, Grandma watched her like a hawk, pointing out the small bits of smudges she missed, prolonging the washing time.
The same uncle returned, this time with a bowl of half-empty cashew. He grinned at us, before putting his bowl on the counter beside the sink.
“Can you please wash mine too? Thanks, kiddo.” He disappeared quickly before my cousin could file a protest.
“Oh, just do it. It doesn’t take long,” Grandma scolded, watching as my cousin’s face reddened with anger and desperation.
“But it’s his bowl, Nai-nai! Why should I be responsible for it, while men in our family never do anything!” She shouted, surprising all of us at the overlooked realization, before stalking away angrily.
Grandma shouted after her to come back, but I slid in quickly to stop her. “I’ll wash this, it’s okay. I’m done with packing anyway.”
She stepped aside so I can wash the bowl. My Grandma looked away and shake her head, disappointment visibly etched as creases on her face as she muttered: Children these days don’t know moral respect and duties.
Out of sheer curiosity, I decided to ask her why she wasn’t upset when her sons never once lift a finger to help around while scolding her daughters to do most of the house works.
“Because we’re women, my dear. Because we are women.” Was her only reply.
The startling protest from my little cousin truly amazed me, it opened my eyes wider to the concerning gender issue that the women in our family –– myself included –– had overlooked.
Women were always the ones expected to do everything, from cooking to cleaning. We all are aware of this, as this is our common role in society. But then again, just because it’s common, doesn’t mean it’s right or fair.
There are some women who protested back like the little cousin, but the vast majority I witnessed only stayed silent and took the role willingly like the Grandma and mother, who were mostly afraid to question their beliefs and values in a confined society. I, however, decided that it was time for this unfairness to come to its end. These roles shouldn’t exist anymore, for times has obviously changed. Women works too, so Men should clean, too.
So, thank you, little cousin. I am looking forward to educate my male cousins to take responsibility as well, and to call back my uncle to wash his damn dishes. Because I’m sure as hell won’t do it for him.
- Rachel Lay
I wrote this piece to spread the awareness of gender inequality between men and women in a traditional Asian household, that I believe need to be addressed.
Biography: I'm Rachel Lay, a nineteen year-old poet and author from Indonesia. Recently, I've graduated from college, and as of now, I'm focusing more in honing my writing skills. Aside from writing, I take interest in reading, studying philosophy and classical music. I do hope that someday, my works will contribute something good to the world.
Cover photo source: Jim Berlucchi, faithmag.com