By Emma Li
It was not until I was much older that I started to appreciate my parents’ parenting. My parents raised me in gender-neutral way. I never really dressed up or wore makeup when I was a little girl. My mom never put emphasis on my appearance.
My family lived in the countryside of China. I was rather wild growing up. Catching crickets, building glass “houses” for ants, catching obese mice, and playing hide and seek with neighbors’ kids were just a few things I did as a child.
My mom said that I always went to play with my classmates at their houses after school. She had to tell me repeatedly that I should go home first when I got out of school in the afternoon.
When I was little, I always followed my dad and mimicked the things he did. One hot summer afternoon, I was following my dad in the house and playing with him. He took off his shirt and started to throw his fists against his chest like a gorilla. I immediately took off my shirt and did the same thing. My mom had a smile on her face and took my shirt. She said very calmly, “Yanxue, you shouldn’t take off your shirt. You are a girl. Don’t do that in the future.” I didn’t understand why, but I did what she told me and put my shirt back on. My parents just laughed.
I must have been around seven or eight years old the first time I saw a little boy’s penis. He was about my age. He came to visit the town with his parents. He showed me his penis one day when we were playing on our own. I thought it was the biggest discovery I made in life. I would ask my girl friends, “Do you know the one thing that boys have and girls don’t have?” They looked so confused. I would tell them that what makes a boy different than a girl was his penis. I was so pleased that I knew something that my peers didn’t.
When I was nine, my parents sent me to stay with my grandparents so I could go to school in the city where my grandparents lived. I was new to my school and surroundings. The first day after school, I couldn’t find the gate. I had to walk along the fence until I eventually hit the gate.
Making friends in the new place wasn’t that difficult, but I did feel a little bit inferior because I was from the countryside. My friends liked me because I was so simple and sincere, typical characteristics of countryside people. One girl, who was pretty much the boss of the whole class, started to take an interest in me and became my friend. She made me the “number two” girl in the class, which really boosted my confidence. We had a lot of fun together with a group of boys and girls.
Our school was only two blocks away from the big river running through town. We went to the river very often during lunch break and on weekends. One day, a boy said he walked across the river at the place where the water was very shallow. We decided that we were going to cross the river together. There must have been a dozen of us. The river was half a mile wide. We followed that boy to the location he was last time, rolled up our pants, and started to cross the river one by one. Surprisingly, the water there was indeed not very deep. The deepest part was still below our waists. We were able to cross the river and cross back. We could have been swept away by the river if the water was deeper. I wonder what our parents would think about our activities if they knew the things we did back then.
I wasn’t considered pretty or anything like that by my family or by my peers. I don’t think my parents thought I was ugly, maybe just average looking. It didn’t concern me anyway, at least not then.
I did have a strong personality. My parents had trained me to not be afraid to ask for what I wanted since I was little. They would always have me ask the waitress for anything we needed when we ate at restaurants. They would have me give a toast at different occasions as well, such as family gatherings, holidays, and their get-together with their friends. I was known to be outspoken and articulate within my family circle since I was thirteen or fourteen.
I think in elementary school, boys were drawn to me by my personality. They used to tease me, and I would chase after them until I got even with them. I got along with boys really well. For me, they were buddies that I could play with. There were no boundaries and we played on grass, on snow, and on the bed. We were all over the place. It was a fun and innocent time.
In middle school, I got more assertive as I became the leader of my class of sixty people. I would be in charge of the class when my teachers were not there, which gave me a lot of power.
Back then, I learned to be friends with everyone and not to abuse my power. I dealt with students’ issues at my level and did not take them to my teachers, which made my
My face turned red. I didn’t look, but I imagine his face must have turned red, too.
classmates really like me. I also ranked number one on almost every single big exam, which made my classmates look up to me.
I was the center of the class, and I learned that power makes a person attractive. Being excellent at something makes a person attractive. I did know some girls were pretty in my class, but it was no use if you were not excellent in school (so as I was told at least). Trying to look pretty was not encouraged at school. It was a sign of distraction. Teachers and parents wanted us to focus completely at school.
One thing that struck me happened after a final exam; I had my hair down rather than tied back. My teacher told me I shouldn’t do that. That was the only time I changed my hairstyle and did anything to try to look pretty, and I got shot down immediately.
Another time, I wore a pair of boat-shaped boots that looked really colorful and unique. I got them for Chinese New Year. When I went to school, my teacher stared at my shoes like they were aliens. I got so scared that I never wore them again.
Since I was so immersed in my studying, my time to think about beauty or trying to look beautiful was almost zero in middle school. I think it was both a blessing and a curse.
The first year in middle school, I got my period for the first time. I told my mom, and she was pleasantly surprised. She gave me a crash course on periods and how to take care of them. It was a secret between us. I was so nervous about the blood showing on my pants that I went to the bathroom to change the pad every hour. My dad became concerned about me and asked, “Are you ok? Do you have stomach pain? Do you need medicine?”
I just said reluctantly, “I’m fine, Dad. Don’t worry about it.”
By my second year in middle school, I found out about sex for the first time. I was reading a book that was accidentally left in my bedroom by my mom. There were several sex scenes described in the book. Later, I read a magazine that explained more sex. Many years later I thought that maybe it wasn’t an accident that the book and the magazine were left in the house where I could find them. That’s why I say I really appreciated my parents’ parenting, especially my mom. She was so smart.
By the third year of middle school, I could tell my body was changing. For one thing, I gained weight. I used to be very slender. That year I had significantly more flesh on my thighs. My guy friend said to me jokingly, “You already start to wear leg warmers? It’s not even winter yet.”
I wasn’t wearing leg warmers. I just got bigger. I didn’t say anything and just smiled.
I had a middle school sweetheart. He and I shared the same desk. He was just super nice and cared about me. There might have been something between us, or there might not have been since we never really became boyfriend and girlfriend.
One day right after school, he and I were searching for trash to throw out. We didn’t know that there was nothing dividing his section of the desk and my section of the desk. There was usually a piece of wood separating the two sections where we stored our stuff. We were searching, using our hands, and he accidentally touched my hands.
My face turned red. I didn’t look, but I imagine his face must have turned red, too. We never talked about it. We just went along like nothing happened.
In my heart I thought if I didn’t have anyone to marry in the future, he would be the one I would go back to.
When I was sixteen, my parents sent me to the best high school in my province, which was located in the capital and was a five-hour-train-ride away. Again I was out of my comfort zone. The capital was much bigger and more developed than my city. It was like I moved from the countryside to the city all over again.
Students at that school were very familiar with high technology. They liked to talk about Hollywood movies and Japanese animation, which were all new to me. I had a hard time being friends with everyone. Again, I was the naïve one compared to how sophisticated they were.
I had a few girl friends. I almost had no guy friends. I didn’t stand out from the crowd at all. I was not very good at school, as everyone there was very competitive and excelled at their studies. I had no leadership role, and I was not from there. I was quite frustrated at the time and went for runs in the morning to release my anger and pain.
Things didn’t get better the second year in high school. In fact, they got worse. In April 2007, I received the news that my mom passed away due to sudden heart attack. Instead of losing myself, I went numb. I could not feel anything emotionally. I couldn’t even cry. It took me many years to accept the fact that my mom passed away. I knew very well right then, part of me was forever gone.
Mom was my best friend. I used to cuddle with her every night until I was much older. She knew every little detail about me. In the first month after losing her, when even my phone rang, I still thought Mom was calling me. In the first few years, I would dream about spending time with her and wake up realizing it couldn’t be real.
In losing my mom, I became closer with my dad. It was a painful transition because a dad is different than a mom. He was not as sensitive as my mom, and he didn’t know all the details about my life. It was like all of a sudden, I realized that my dad didn’t even know me that well. One
I have come to the age of knowing what being a woman means, what power lies behind it.
time he called me while I was crying by the river, and he couldn’t even tell I was crying when I answered the phone; he carried on the conversation like normal. I was certain my mom would know for sure that I was crying just from my tone of voice.
However, I would have to say that I had (and have) a good dad. The best time I had in high school was when my dad visited me. I skipped classes and went to the mall with him to buy new clothes.
During one of our shopping trips, I tried on a shirt. The lady in the store told me, “You should wear a bra now. It will help hold your breasts up. If you wait, the shape won’t look good.” I was surprised and embarrassed. But I did get my first bra after that.
Socially, high school was a confusing time for me. It almost felt like guys were propelled away from me because I was quite masculine. I ran and played basketball. I didn’t ask for help with anything. I was competitive, even with guys. And I knew I was not that good looking, anyway.
I had no problems with making friends before. I generally felt attractive. But in high school, I felt everything about me was not right.
Life finally took a positive turn towards the end of high school as I planned to go to America to study. Before I left, I sent three or four letters to the guys I liked. I told them how excellent they were. I don’t know why I did that. I guess I was just trying to make an impression on them, even though nothing was going to happen between us. I was trying to make up for the romance I never had in high school.
In January 2009, I came to America for my college education. This was the time when my parents’ hands-free parenting style paid off. I came to America without knowing anybody, without having anybody picking me up at the airport, and without knowing where to stay. Not many parents would let their children do that, but my dad did. As a result, I was able to grow exponentially.
In May 2009, I met my current boyfriend. My boyfriend saved and rebuilt my self-esteem. He told me that I was beautiful so many times that I eventually internalized it.
I went through a transformation both internally and externally. One of the first things I did after I met my boyfriend was to have an eye exam and get contact lenses. Then I went clothes shopping to improve my wardrobe as part of the process of assimilating into American culture. And of course I began to wear my hair down. Nobody could tell me that I needed to tie my hair back any more. I bought eyeliner and watched YouTube videos on how to apply it. I painted my nails. The list went on and on. For me, being able to look pretty is a liberation since I had never been able to do stuff like that.
However, even today, I still feel guilty when I spend time on makeup and clothes. I still have nightmares about that particular middle school teacher disapproving of me. I have been conditioned to think this way. I try to use the minimum time and effort to look attractive. School and academics were such a big part of my life that I’m now struggling to enjoy my life rather than being so absorbed in school. I had to tell myself it was not a big deal to miss a class and occasionally not get the best grades. I’m shifting my goal from academic achievements to happiness in life.
After I “upgraded” my look and was encouraged by my boyfriend, I began to feel much more confident. I feel that my personality as a woman fits well in America compared to China. My boyfriend finds me attractive when I am being strong, assertive, and articulate. Chinese guys want women to be feminine and let them take care of the business. I can’t do that.
Another factor is that I am considered fat in China, as Chinese women are so skinny. Here in America, I am considered small or medium. That’s a big relief for me. I also like working out, which is accepted and encouraged in America, but it’s something Chinese culture would frown upon.
Internally, I feel more like a woman now. I have come to the age of knowing what being a woman means, what power lies behind it, and how to use it tactically. I take good care of myself. I cook and work out. I won’t go out without wearing makeup. I always dress nicely and present myself in the best light I can. I study hard and work hard. I plan on traveling. I go out to the bars occasionally with my girlfriends for a drink. I know how to respond if a guy hits on me. I can smile at things and not be bothered by them easily. I read, I write, I take pictures, and I make short movies. Life as a woman is fun and fulfilling.
One time I was talking with my guy friend from middle school. He said jokingly, “You sound like a girl now.”
I responded, “What do you mean? What did I sound like before?” Then I realized that before he thought I was kind of like a guy.
I was just Skyping with my family the other day, and my step-mom looked at me and said, “You look more like a woman now.” I saw my dad nodding his head, and he didn’t say anything. His eyes were full of love and pride.
Emma Li is a Chinese student studying in America. She moved from California to Minnesota in 2012. Still in her early twenties, Emma likes to recount the events in her life and see how much these events have changed her as a person.