by Marie Tan
When my parents are dead and gone, one of the strongest memories I will have of them (one that will give my heart the fuzzies), is of both my parents doing household chores together.
You see, after meals Mum and Dad can be found bantering away at the kitchen sink as they wash dishes together (yes, with Mum’s two-sponge system no less, one for the oily dishes and another for non-oily dishes!). Even hanging clothes out to dry on the balcony is a seamless tandem operation.
Dad shakes the clothes to unwrinkle them, puts each one on a hanger and passes them to my typically Asian mother who then performs quality control before positioning each hanger at that precise angle based on where the sun shines that day. Optimal drying power like no other.
This is my parents’ new normal after retirement and post-children flying the coop, but this wasn’t always how things were at home.
Growing up, I remember chores carried out by my parents to be rather gendered. While my mother was the product of a feminist household (my maternal grandfather was avant garde in this respect), she was nonetheless the one doing the lion’s share of the housework despite working part-time herself.
Dad on the other hand would play handyman as and when the occasion arose (his day job was being a school teacher). Seeing my father with a broom in his hand was a rare occurrence! Even so, I later found out that it made my paternal grandmother uncomfortable whenever she saw her son, my father, pitching in with the housework on those rare occasions that he did.
You see, my paternal grandmother had fled China for Malaysia before the second world war. She may have arrived on new soil to start a new life, but she brought with her certain unshakeable patriarchal beliefs about gender - like how men should not be doing housework!
Interestingly this perpetuation of stereotype gender roles at home was by a woman who was herself an equal to her husband in terms of career – both worked full time as educators until retirement - not particularly common for a woman during that era of apparent unequal gender rights in Malaysia. Nonetheless, being the strong female role model that she was, I believe that it was my grandmother herself who inadvertently laid the foundations for Dad’s feminist inclinations.
Such were the combined legacies that shaped my parents’ own attitudes towards values relating to gender, which in turn formed the basis of what they transmitted to their own children. For starters, when it came to household chores my parents chose to no more discriminate between my brothers and I. No stereotype gender exceptions. We were all expected to take our turns to wash the dishes, sweep the floor, fold the clothes – simply no excuses for anyone!
When it came to education and extra-curricular activities like music classes, even though I was female, I was expected to “set an example!” for my younger brothers – if I could excel in a certain arena, there was no reason for them not to either. The converse was true: if my brothers did better than I did academically, or in some kind of sport, I should be able to do it too, never mind that the closest one in age to me was 5 years younger!
And yet even with the intergenerational progression towards gender equality in our family, when comparing other experiences with my younger brothers, I realise that there were differences in how our parents treated us when it came to our individual security - and all this due to gender.
For example, my youngest brother was allowed, and encouraged, to ride the public bus when he was a young teenager to the point where it became a bane for him. I, on the other hand, had to beg each time, promise to take precautions, and stay alert - resulting in each trip being such a thrill.
This leads me to think that as we strive for gender equality in Asia – it is very much neither a black or white scenario, nor a straight road to ‘progress’. Everyone has different physical strengths and weaknesses and other attributes that contribute to how they perceive and are perceived by the world.
While within our respective Asian cultures each household carries its own baggage as to what they believe to be the right way to treat children, it is clear that our own formative childhood experiences play a very pivotal role in shaping our own ideas of what gender equality looks like. What we observe and learn at home, fashions our own attitudes and unconscious biases towards gender even more so than what societal norms and academic instruction dictate.
So if Asia’s wives and daughters aspire for gender equality, it begins with incremental and intentional steps taken by individuals in each household. What gender roles or gender stereotypes are you transmitting in your own home to your next generation?
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