Thursday, May 4, 2017

"Nevertheless, she persisted."

During one of the five games at a Math Pentathlon tournament, I waited for Little Miss to get back to the bleachers to tell me about her last round. As one after another of her team mates joined us with their news, I saw no sign of her. Concerned, I went looking for my daughter.

I was relieved when I found that she was still at her game, but what I saw surprised me. She was the last person there, with her opponent, as the game leaders and other adults descended upon her table, one by one. I wasn’t allowed in the hall, so I could only watch from behind the glass doors, but I was informed later that she had challenged her opponent’s move and escalated it all the way to the director.

In Math Pentathlon, you’re not just allowed to challenge your opponent if you don’t agree with their move, you’re encouraged to as part of your strategy. If you’re not satisfied with the game monitor’s decision, you are entitled to ask for the game leader’s opinion. And if that still doesn’t convince you, you can ask for a second opinion, which will come from the director.

I love that the tournament was not just designed to help kids enjoy math, it was also meant to teach them essential skills like winning/losing graciously and, my favorite, standing up for themselves. It was important to me that they learned that adults can be wrong too, and kids should be empowered to speak against what they feel isn’t right, not stifled from expressing their dissent just because an adult says so.

And that’s exactly what my Little Miss did. I saw the growing number of  adults gather around her as they discussed, and the little commotion it caused as our own school’s coaches were called to the area. I watched as she explained herself to every person who questioned her, and I saw her hands moving animatedly as they usually do when she describes things in details.

I marveled at her confidence.

It reminded me of the time when Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced by Senate Republicans, preventing her from speaking out against attorney general nominee, Jeff Sessions. In defense of invoking the archaic rule that basically kicked her out of the chambers, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “She was warned, she was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Essentially, it backfired on them when “Nevertheless, she persisted” became a battle cry for women still struggling to be heard, and a rallying cry for supporters and participants of the Women’s March. It became my own mantra.

When I saw my daughter stand her ground that morning, it was a revelation. Above academic excellence, above accolades, above athletic prowess, I want my girls to be kind, and I also want them empowered to stand up for themselves.

“Nevertheless, she persisted.”

In the end, her challenge was incorrect - but it was because she was taught a wrong move by our coaches. Through her adamant insistence, her coaches were also called in and the misunderstanding came into light. They were then taught the correct rules, so something good did come out of it. Little Miss eventually won the game - and went on to earn a Bronze Medal that day - but that was far from why I was proud.

I was in awe of her because at 8, she could do what I never could have done myself at 18.

Those of us who grew up in Malaysia will remember how we were only taught to obey the teachers and never question them because they were always right. Always. In classes, they talked and we listened. We were never allowed to interrupt, let alone disagree. I don’t recall discussions or interactions that led us to our own conclusions. Knowledge was always spoonfed.

So imagine what a challenge it was for me when I stepped into a four-year college in America to complete my undergraduate degree. I was surprised when students spoke - were encouraged to speak - in class, and completely floored when they argued with the teachers. It was so far beyond my comfort zone that any time it was my turn to talk, my palms would sweat and my pulse would race. I was afraid of giving the wrong answers, even when we were merely asked to share our own opinions. And I wasn’t sure I’d have anything to say that was worth anyone’s time so I didn’t say anything. As trained in my early years, I was only there to absorb.

But then I took a class in post-colonial literature with Dr. Nada Elia, an unforgettable and inspiring English professor from Lebanon who exuded so much passion for the subject, that in giving voice to the second-class citizens we studied, she gave me my own voice. She exposed me to the marginalized, and at the same time, inspired me to step out of the side lines. It was from her that I learned my voice mattered too.

I was 19 then, and it wasn’t until grad school two years later that I was finally comfortable enough to interject in a classroom with my own thoughts. For those who know me now, they wouldn’t recognize that quiet shadow of a student I used to be in my first few semesters here in the States.

Over the years, I’d learned the value of speaking up, and as a mother of girls at a time when women continue to struggle to be heard, to be treated equally, I feel it’s my duty to help my girls harness the power of their own voice.

However, as much as I’d like to take credit for Little Miss’ ability to assert herself at the tournament, if you think about it, I really didn’t have to do much - children were born to speak their minds. #FromTheMouthofBabes and #ThingsThatKidsSay aren’t just cutesy hashtags that highlight the gaffes that children make in social situations. It’s proof that, without the filter that we place upon them, their inherent ability to verbalize authentically is rather strong. It’s society that makes the rules that determine if they should.

The hard part for me, as a parent, is to help them navigate between what’s acceptable and what’s not. My job isn’t to teach them to speak up -  they already know how. I just need to nurture their innate desire to be heard and create an environment that makes them feel safe to express themselves.

Even when I have discovered my own voice, it’s still a struggle for me to fight what I have internalized from years of being told to conform to expectations - to only accept and never to question. Especially so because I was a girl.

I know it’s different in America. Our children have it a little easier here because free speech is sewn into the fabric of our society.

Back in Malaysia, we weren’t just told to be silent in classrooms. We were never allowed to speak out against the current political leader. We were told to accept the status quo, and if we did need to rail against the current administration, we did so in hush tones behind closed doors.

It’s one of the reasons I moved to America. Even at my young age, I knew it didn’t feel right to silenced. But in my naivete, I thought coming to a country that values equality and free speech would fix everything. Except I was wrong.

Even now, in 2017, I continue to experience sexism and misogyny. I see that women are still expected to act communally and are better respected when saying “we” rather than saying “I” when advocating for ourselves. I have witnessed and lived the double standards that plague women.

But what’s different now is that, far from the girl that I was, I no longer stand on the side lines. I make sure I am heard when I call out the inequalities when I see it. It doesn’t seem that I could affect change with my one voice, but nothing will change at all if no one speaks.

“Nevertheless, she persisted.”

We should all be persisters.

While I certainly hope it would be better for my girls, I am also a realist and a pragmatist, which is why, as tempting as it is to default to a “do as I say” parenting, I spend the time to share anecdotes, provide historical context, and relate to them in a way that empowers them to make their own choices, rather than following a path prescribed to them.

It wasn’t easy for me to unlearn nearly 20 years of being told to just quietly accept the status quo, but I am grateful for the teachers who saw in me what I couldn’t see in myself and helped me find my own voice.

Now, as a parent, I can’t imagine not doing the same for my girls.



Tuesday, April 25, 2017

An Angry Letter

I was considering summer camp options for my girls over the weekend, but what ended up happening was this angry email:

As a mother of two young girls, and as a woman myself, I am fully aware of the challenges of raising girls in a culture that continually entrenches the gender stereotypes that keep our boys/men in dominant roles and girls/women in roles that prize beauty and obedience above courage and intelligence. It starts from a very young age, and we see it, both blatantly and subliminally enforced, every single day. We hope that schools know better and that schools would work harder in ensuring that it's an environment that values both boys and girls, so they know they're valued equally, and that they're encouraged to reach for the same stars, in the same manner. So imagine my surprise when I see a summer camp from RRISD Community Education that offers an art class targeted solely at girls, with this description:

Art: Drawing Fashions, Faces, and Flowers. GR 1-5 by Young Rembrandts
For fashionistas, florists and budding makeup artists, this Young Rembrandts workshop celebrates the beautiful world of girls. Every day students will be challenged and delighted drawing images that exude femininity and loveliness. Students will draw and color faces, stretch their imaginations illustrating whimsical flowers and challenge their creativity when tying them all together in fanciful settings. Prepare for elegance and a heap of drawing excellence! Enroll your child today! I mean, really? FASHION? MAKEUP? FLOWERS? = The Beautiful World of Girls?? Way to reinforce the stereotype in our girls that their world is all about being fanciful and elegant. That they're encouraged to learn about makeup and fashion at first - fifth grades! You know what's in my girls' world? LEGOS. POKEMON. MINECRAFT. MATH TOURNAMENTS. They also want to learn how to be stewards of the environment. At ages 5 and 8, they already know how to recycle and they ask, why aren't there recycling bins in our neighborhood parks? How about an art program that teaches kids to upcycle? Where both girls and boys can work together towards a worthy cause? It's so disappointing / appalling to see that a school district would offer a drawing class aimed at girls, elevating superficial beauty! It shows your inability to understand the implications of such a gender-biased program, and it's an irresponsible decision. I hope you will do better in curating your selections - you can point the blame at Young Rembrandts for offering this program, but in the end, it was RRISD that decided to go with it. Please understand that I don't disagree that little girls like to play dressup and want to be beautiful - but in an academic setting, I would expect you to be hyper aware of your actions. That what you present to our children is what they think the world expects of them, so please endeavor to do better and do right by both our boys AND our girls. ---- I sent this email on Saturday to the organizers and copied My Guy, the school district superintendent, and our school principal - basically, anyone who might listen. At 10:30 AM on Monday, the Director of Community Education called me and apologized for the content. She admitted that they needed to do better. That phone call was likely an obligatory gesture to placate an angry parent. They likely deal with this, in one form or another, all the time. It didn’t make waves, and it certainly didn’t move mountains, but that wasn’t what I was after. I felt heard, and I felt reassured that she meant what she said -- that they’d do better. At least they know that they can’t just get away with thoughtless programming for our kids. Just making them aware that someone is paying attention, and as a consequence, they need to put more effort in what they serve our kids, seems sufficient in this matter. The thing is, I’ve played the role of this passive observer for too long. I see an injustice or, in this case, an irresponsible oversight, I mutter some expletives, and I expect someone else to say something. But then something changed in me. I think our current political climate has a lot to do with it.
I am empowered by the Women’s March. I am more aware now of the implications of not doing what I can. Because that’s how it perpetuates, when we all collectively decide that it’s not our fight.
I am emboldened by my own situation at work, where I continue to face sexism, which led me to read Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”. While I’m not exactly a powerful executive, I found myself nodding to everything she said. The data was irrefutable, and the anecdotes from her own experiences both confirmed my own and appalled me. She had inspired me to not just stay on the sidelines but to step into the ring. Gender issues are complex and insidious, but not insurmountable. It’s like chipping away at the iceberg that’s in your way to your destination with nothing more than a pickaxe. But if that’s all you got, then it’s better than not doing anything at all because then, you’ll surely not reach where you need to go. Also, as a parent, if we don’t look out and advocate for our children, who will? Which is why, if you’re a parent, I hope you will call out blatant oversights and subtle messages that continue to reinforce these damaging gender stereotypes in our girls and our boys. As a mother of girls, I have a lot - A LOT - of work ahead of me, which is why I make it a point to call out and talk about social injustice and gender inequality to my girls. Sometimes, it would seem that we have these conversations every week, but I think they need to be aware. They’re 8 and 5, and already they’re expected to live fancifully with flowers, makeup, and fashion. At this young age, when they absorb everything they see and hear around them, they will internalize these messages, and if I waited for someone else to say something, it may be too late. But this isn’t just a plea to mothers of girls to be vigilant. Mothers of boys need to play their part as well in eradicating these inequalities, which oftentimes begin at home when boys are raised with a detrimental “boys will be boys” attitude. To that I say: FUCK THAT. Boys need to learn respect and be held accountable for their actions too. Because we don’t live on an island by ourselves, everything we choose to do is consequential, and our children - boys and girls - need to be made aware of the effects of their role, their decisions. As these boys grow into men, and many of these men become fathers, they need to step up as well. Sadly, men are still predominantly the leaders in our community and workplaces, so it would make sense that they leverage their influence to support those around them who are not bestowed the same advantages. After all, when we lift each other up, we all win. I was talking to My Guy about the insights I gleaned from the book, “Lean In”, and mentioned that perhaps, as a leader of his team, he could benefit from a woman’s perspective on how the odds are stacked against us. He decided to read it, and several eye-opening data points and anecdotes later, he approached the men and women on his team with his idea to start a book club, beginning with “Lean In”, so they could all discuss and tackle these workplace issues together. What I love about this is that, as a white male, he could choose to ride the wave of his own privilege, or he could empower others to rise up with him to fight the status quo. I’m glad and grateful that he continually chooses the latter. In case you ever wondered why I married him, this is one damn fine reason.
Again, someone has to decide to do something. One angry letter here, one book club there. It’s not much, but it has to begin somewhere. We all know the world isn’t going to fix itself. When we look away, the problems aren’t going to magically disappear. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t actively participate and do our part, however infinitesimal compared to the big wide world of injustices. Even if it seems like our one act alone can’t affect change, let’s do it anyway. Let’s at least be responsible for our little corners of the universe and call out a wrong when we see one. Advocate for one another, especially our children. Stand up for what’s right. As Mahatma Gandhi says, “Be the change we wish to see in the world.” A movement often starts with one voice. Why can’t it be mine? Why can’t it be yours?


image source:

Thursday, April 20, 2017

My Comeback

It’s been one year and three months since I last published a post on the blog. When I’ve been gone this long, it’s undoubtedly difficult to get back to it. My biggest hurdle isn’t the lack of stories. That I have plenty. I think the issue is, where do I even begin?

What warrants a comeback?

Is it the time when I decided to go back to work after a five-year hiatus from my regular corporate job? I was fortunate to land a 30-hour-a-week position that allowed me to pick the girls up from school and continue where I left off as Mommy when I dropped them off at school at 7:30 in the morning. To be able to straddle both roles so comfortably - surely there’s much to say on my return to Working Mom status.

Or what about the time when Pickle, my “baby”, graduated from preschool?

Or when she started Kindergarten (WHAT?! HOW?! Wasn’t it not long ago that I blogged about her birth?) the same time that her big sister, the (not so) Little Miss, started Second Grade and turned a whopping eight years old?

I also had plenty of material when we went on vacation to Florida in November to meet our “new family” - aunts, uncles, a great grandmother, and even cousins! - that My Guy never knew he had until that fateful day when a phone call came from the sister of his biological dad, who delivered the shocking news of his passing the day before. Sad as that realization might have been - that My Guy would never know his biological dad - it was also the beginning of a beautiful relationship with a wonderful family.

Or perhaps I should’ve started when the whole world plunged into darkness, dismay, and disbelief the day Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump in her bid for the presidency. I can never forget the utter betrayal I felt from the part of America that slowly revealed itself to me over the months as Trump campaigned on false promises and despicable truths. How could they do this? Why would someone vote for that incompetent, narcissistic, misogynistic nightmare of a man-child? I remember shopping at the neighborhood HEB the day after the elections and looking at everyone at the store suspiciously - Did you do this? Was it you? On a day when America decided that you don’t have to be virtuous, or even remotely kind to be a leader, any act of kindness - a guy allowing me to cross the parking lot to my car  - would move me to tears. I went from taking for granted the magnanimity and tolerance that I loved about America to desperately seeking those qualities in anyone, anything so I may eventually restore my faith in a nation that seemed so profoundly lost, so divided.

How about the time when I felt compelled to protest the current administration and joined the Women’s March with my eight-year-old, who asked me what “pussy” meant on the signs she saw around us that day, thanks to the President who had uttered that same word in his repulsive comments about women? There were over 3 million of us in over 600 cities across the world, protesting in solidarity that day, and if I am determined to raise strong, rebel girls who can run the world, not participating was never an option. It was not only our right. It was an imperative.

Like I said, I have plenty of stories. But I didn’t have the right words to encapsulate all the feels. I wavered in my faith in my own ability to capture those events of joy - or despair. Each felt so momentous, so overwhelming because it compelled so much thinking and feeling. And I didn’t think I could do any of it justice with mere words.

But sometimes words are all I have, and they help me make sense of a world that’s not always easy to understand. And I realize that if I keep waiting for the right time, the right words, the BIG things to make my comeback, I may never get back to this at all. And I would miss some of the best parts about living - the little things.

The small, insignificant moments that, when woven together, are truly what shape our lives.

And I want to go back to that.

So here I am, starting over again, not to make a big announcement or make a statement, but to make a small tentative movement towards this next phase of the blog. Or maybe even my life. I don’t quite know where this is heading, but I know that I wake to a brand new day, every day, and I’m grateful for the little big things and the big little things that continue to propel me forward, especially My Guy and my girls.
It’s from this place of gratitude, recognizing the abundance even on days when I feel depleted, that I hope to begin again. Honestly, isn't that as good a start as any?



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