Last weekend, Shanghai's Fudan University hosted China's first ever International Gender Studies Conference. Due to the historical significance of this event, the participant list was really quite impressive, including great scholars of gender studies from the United States, China, Japan, Canada (and I'm sure others, those are just the ones I saw). While much of the discussion centered around China, I learned quite a bit about gender studies issues in other countries as well, including Canada, America, and even Iran and India (thanks to the "jingcai" keynote speaker).
Besides all of the information I absorbed from this conference, it also affected me in a very personal way. Before this year, I had really never been "gender conscious" so-to-speak. Of course I know there has never been a female president of the United States, or other statistics that indicate female equality, but I really believed growing up (perhaps in part thanks to our education system) that men and women were really equal. And from my small experience in the world, why shouldn't I? In my gifted program in school, women outnumbered men (in high school anyways) women got better grades, most of my teachers were women. My mom even had a higher position in her work than my dad.
It wasn't really until this year, when I started to notice these small inequalities in China, did I start to notice them in my own country, culture, and even in my own mind. This opened up a whole new way of looking at the world; the way that small things, like stereotypes, can affect a person, a group, a culture. It is for this reason that I wanted so much to attend this conference (well that, and shamelessly networking). I wanted a more in depth understanding of who I was, and how I fit into the world I lived in.
But before I talk to much about the personal, I would like to summarize some of the most interesting presentations I attended (Disclaimer: this is by no means a list of the ONLY interesting presentations I attended, just the ones that really stuck out in my head). On the first day, I attended a session on male studies (the conference was heavily female-centric, which I think is fair due to historiography's male bias...still, we should talk about men...) The first presentation was about Aluba (what? you say) an all male ritual in Taiwan which in Hong Kong is called "Happy Corner." This particular game which adolescent males play involve many men seizing another man, some grab his legs, others grab his arm, and they spread his legs and jam him into a pole, standing blackboard, other similar types of objects. I had actually witnessed this in Hong Kong; this was one of many cultural activities that us foreigners witnessed and would afterwards get together and say "what the hell was that?" Another such example would be Senior Photo Day. However, this presentation was really interesting, as the presenter explained that this type of game was not the same as "hazing" which we do in America, but instead, the most populat guy is the actual victim, and it is all out of fun, inclusive even, instead of exclusive. It is also a way to be ostentatious in front of girls. Another presentation from that session was about male prostitutes in Shenzhen. The presenter argued that even though we commonly think that the power politics in the customer-client relationship would trump the power politics in traditional gender relationships, oftentimes male prostitutes and female clients would not switch power positions, but instead the gender roles would be maintained, and men would often tell women what to do, or even reject them. I found this particularly fascinating, that in sexual relationships, nothing really changes the power relationship. I wonder if this is true in America as well (certain Law and Order episodes would imply otherwise).
The second day I went to many, many presentations. One panel that stuck out in my head that was really interesting was a panel on women during World War Two in Asia (or the Greater East Asian War). When I think of women during WWII, my mind immediately is reminded of Rosie the Riveter, women working in factories, selling their jewelry, etc. However, the first presentation by Susan Glosser addressed this particular ideological trope we have in our heads about women during the war and argued that, due to the immense amount of strain put on people of Shanghai, it is almost impossible to think that women even had TIME to think about the war effort. Women could barely afford to feed their families, often sleeping in just to avoid having to eat breakfast (and, by the way, sleeping in in houses with often 20 or more people). I found this break from discourse really incredible, as this was probably true not only in Shanghai, but also Britain, or even Japan. We know Japan was incredibly strapped for resources during the war, yet we still have this image of everyone in Japan, including women, throwing all of their energy towards the war effort. It would be fascinating to find out if that were really true. Other presenters on that panel including Cong Xiaoping (fellow Fulbrighter!) who talked about divorce laws in the border region under communism. She talked about the way that oftentimes, women would use the new divorce laws to their economic advantage, and would marry men and then immediately divorce them for finanical gain. She claimed that normal discourse paints the reforms to the divorce law in 1942 as the Communists compromising with patriarchy (as it put certain restrictions on divorce, including a waiting period for wives of soldiers) when really it was dealing with these problems that May 4th ideology never prepared them for.
Another interesting panel was (once again) on male sexuality. While a couple of the presentations were way over my head (about Tang dynasty poetry! Yikes!) one presentation I found really fascinating was about Chinese prostitutes in San Francisco's Chinatown in the 19th century. Zhao Xiaojian took a new perspective on this topic, and instead of focusing on how the women were treated, she focused on how the men understood their relationships with prostitutes. As her source, she looked at the diary of one Chinese immagrant who, in detail, discussed his meetings with prostitutes. What was interesting was that he didn't describe the danger, or excitement, but instead saw it as a necessary regular activity meant to keep men healthy and manly, somewhat like going to the gym. This was an entirely different way of looking at these encounters, especially since mainstream America viewed the Chinese prostitute situation with disdain and disgust, arguing that Chinese were "unfit" for America because they were so uncivilized they treated their women like slaves. While this does not take away from the way women were treated during this time, I find it important to look at the other side, as it illuminates what makes Chinese men "manly" and how that manifests when Chinese move to a different culture.
The next day, I barely made it to the first session (8:30 is early when one lives so far from Fudan) but I'm glad I did, because I managed to catch Feng Jin's presentation about Danmei fiction. Danmei fan fiction is one of many types of fan fiction that Chinese youth read online, and it is particular because it include homoerotic, male and male, love stories, oftentimes using familiar characters from such stories like the 3 Kingdoms, popular TV shows, or even Harry Potter! The interesting thing about these stories that overwhelmingly, they are written by heterosexual women FOR heterosexual women. Feng Jin postulates that perhaps one reason they are so popular is that it allows for women to explore these kind of sexualities in a more removed sense as they are not yet ready to explore their own sexuality in the same way. Similarly, while the heroes are male, they are often idealized, containing characteristics that are extremely feminine (she showed us pictures, and I couldn't have told they were male). In a sense, it was about idealized love, love that transcends genders and the harsh realities of life. It reminds me actually of many of our fairy tales, where heroes or heroines are turned into animals (swan princess?). Their love transcends these types of boundaries, just like some of the heroes in Danmei fiction. This is a fascinating cultural phenomenon, especially since we think of China as being so conservative and even homophobic.
However, the session that I think affected me the most personally was the last session called "Defying the Odds: Lessons from Women of Color in American Women's Studies." The panelists included three African American women, one Taiwainese woman, and one Puerto-Rican American woman, who discussed how feminism and race intersect in American discourse. These women talked about how feminist discourse, at least the discourse that is heard, is almost entirely written by white women. While this does not discredit their views, they are not the only views. I admit, I have certainly always thought about my own self this way, that my racial or ethnic identity and my gender identity are separate parts of my self. But in fact, these sections of our identities cannot be easily separated, and the way that Hispanic women and Black women and Native American women understand feminism varies dramatically. These women argued that all of these discourses need to be brought to the forefront, and by understanding this diversity within feminism we can better understand feminism as a whole. These views were supplemented by incredibly stories, and the journies all of these women have traveled as they watched America change in terms of racial and gender equality and inequality over the last 30 years.
I found this session incredibly eye opening. I always knew that racism has always been a problem in America, and still is. But I don't think I was ever really conscious of race until this year, until I was the racial minority, or the "other." That's not to say I never understood the racial tensions in my own country, but it is very different to live it oneself. And being a white woman in China is complex, and certainly not always easy. Ruth Zambrana, our Latina panelist, explained that one of the problems plaguing Latina females in America was the media representation as being hypersexual (i.e., Jennifer Lopez). While obviously there are many, many, many differences between Latinas in America and white women in China, I could personally emphathize with this sentiment, as I feel I am constantly battling with the "Sex and the City" portrayal of white women. Whites in China are very rarely treated poorly, or discrinimated in a negative way (I've gotten laowai discounts at coffee shops before) but it feels personally frustrating to be seen as Samantha from Sex and the City. It disintegrates our culture, or behavior, and our sense of being feminine to an exaggerated stereotype. And while I will never understand the battle that the panelists have fought in my own country, it gave me a personal connection to the way that gender and race are inextricably linked.
I also found this panel a great way to sum up the entire tenor of the conference itself. The keynote speaker argued that instead of bringing gender into a global context, we should be bringing a global context to gender. In other words, feminism is plural, it is not one separate issue. And by learning about its manifestations around the world, we can better understand our own feminity or masculinity. Of everything I got out of this conference, I believe that this would be the most important piece.