I was cursed from the time I was born.
“Girls born in the year of the tiger are doomed for life,” my aunt repeated throughout my childhood. Though I was born days short of the cat year, which is supposed to be the luckiest zodiac in the Chinese calendar, I ended up a tiger woman—a “bad omen” for female children. The tiger, of course, signifies strength and power; the Vietnamese, like much of Asia, don’t like their women strong.
Coupled with that, I received the tall, recessive genes from both my parents. The refrain continued: “Girls born tall won’t find husbands.” “You’ll outgrow all the men!” They spoke as if my only goal were to get married. The Vietnamese, like much of Asia, don’t like their women tall.
My aunt’s gnawing words were the result of generations before her. Words like these were just ripples of insecurities that lodged themselves in the women of my family, in the way they sit or don’t. Every meal across from me at the table, my mom sits with her legs crossed; she eats her soup using a teaspoon out of a fist-sized bowl. She says she doesn’t need much to be full, but I’ve found half-truths to her words. I know she’s hungry when she starts asking everyone if anyone wants food. I know that she wants me to stop eating when she starts reorganizing her plate. Every movement of her chopsticks, every time she places tofu in my bowl, I see what’s hidden. She eats and even talks the way birds eat, timidly.
Maybe this is why the table feels so empty, for she is so quiet she’s almost invisible. She eats so little she goes unnoticed. She sits legs crossed to take up less space. Similarly, Grandma never sits at the table, even for her own birthday party. She always ushers us out of the kitchen to the table, “Thôi tụi con ăn trước đi. You guys go ahead and eat first.” It’s an unspoken rule that a Vietnamese woman is usually tied to the kitchen, to cooking and service. Petite, timid, and domestic—these are the core values of ideal wives, none of which I inherited.
Instead, I sit like “those men selling fish at the market,” my mom tells me. I hate crossing my legs, yet I am caught in between worlds that I don’t fully belong in: the modern and the traditional, Vietnam and America. I am a lone tiger in a jungle of birds, roaming, trying to find my place, scared of becoming the women in my family: the aunt who imposed unwanted traditions, the mom caged by social norms, the grandmother who passed them down.
Although coming to Holderness freed me from the scrutinizing eyes of my mother, I’m yet again caged by how people view me, a vision of myself that is barely worth fulfilling. There are times when I feel like people don’t see me as an individual with her own choices, but an embodiment of an entire group, which apparently includes being clumsy at English, anti-social and un-athletic. I actually never came to these realizations by myself; others broke the news to me. These conversations all started with: “Oh you know, people like you…should get a native speaker to proofread your work because English isn’t your first language.” Okay, so no one else except for “my people” should get things proofed? “People like you,” they say, “should socialize more, especially if you want a leadership position.” Well here I am, extroverting, striving to earn a leadership. “You know, people like you….always do Arts in the Afternoon.” Well, for someone who really appreciates all different kinds of artistic expression, it feels a little insulting to like art at this school, because you aren’t known as someone who excels at the arts but someone who is unathletic.
“You know, people like you….” No, I don’t actually know. By “people like me,” do you mean the other 34 people at Holderness who come from different Asian countries—and far-distant regions within those countries—who are here at Holderness? Or do you mean the other four billion out there who are also Asians? That’s four billion possibilities of personas that I’m supposed to embody. As John Green puts it, “what a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.”
Sometimes I feel like being part of a minority means that you’re not trying to be like everyone else. Other times, I wonder what’s wrong with accepting that stereotype. And I’ve done both, whether it’s trying to break out of the stereotype or accept it. I’ve broken out of the stereotype by venturing through the rocks at Rumney and discovering my fascination for rock climbing. I’ve weathered negative forty-degree weather in Out Back, despite being born a tropical city girl. I’ve performed poetry on stage, despite struggling with tenses and plurals. I’ve discovered my passion for the sciences, despite sometimes being the only girl in the class. But I’ve fulfilled the stereotype by doing Art in the Afternoon instead of team sports, being involved in STEM, and performing well in all of my classes. Either way, I feel like everytime I get rice in Weld or put an effort in keeping the conversation going, I’m either succumbing to the stereotype, or trying extra hard to defy it. You see, it’s a lose-lose bet; I’m imprisoned by it regardless of what I choose.
Truth is, I shouldn’t have to think about this 20 times a day. On the most fundamental level, I am, as Mr. Carrigan has put it, a victim to the lost of free will, lacking the ability to choose, think, and act voluntarily because of these comments.
I’m not quote unquote “all Asian”; I’m not the submissive girl of my mom; I’m in a different place now, about to go to college. After almost four years at Holderness, I’ve found out who I want to be. So let me continue to find my own path, and let me encourage you to find yours too. Because what I’ve discovered is that I’m so much more than the boxes I’m trapped in. I find that I do and should celebrate “people like me.” Because people like me can be a range of things: whether they are quiet and studious, or outgoing and assertive. Whatever they may be, I hope that they can be seen for who they are, and not be subjected to labels or remarks, passed down from generation to generation, or year to year, like a record on repeat. I find that by not fitting into my family or societal norms, I’m free to be myself. Now, I have room to embrace the fierceness of the tiger within me.
I’m sure that in one way or another, we all grow up learning we are supposed to sit a certain way, grow to a certain height, and eat a certain amount. We all feel pressured to fulfill others’ expectations so much that we cage the tiger within us. Let the tiger out. The way I see it, being a tiger is not so much a curse but a blessing in disguise.