Written by Rosel Kim.
A few months ago, a discussion thread popped up on my Facebook feed, started by a friend who is teaching English in South Korea. She had had a discussion with her students about gender roles and wanted input from the Facebook-sphere about how to continue the conversation. I noticed one person’s response:
“What do you expect? It’s Korea. Women will always be oppressed there.”
I almost said something but couldn’t think of anything coherent to say, so I didn’t.
It did make me think about how people see my home country—the place with all the weird plastic surgeries that made news on This American Life. What does it mean to come from a place like that?
When I heard the anonymous Facebook comment on Korean women, I couldn’t help but feel sad about the fact that nobody seemed to ask any Korean women what they thought. They were simply observing a foreign culture without providing any opportunity for others to speak. Yet it’s hard to articulate why it affects me so much—as someone who grew up mostly in North America, far from other Koreans, I am not sure if I have any claims or stakes in the future of Korea’s gender equity.
But I do know that my feminism came from Korea, and the women that grew up in its culture.
When I lived in Korea, my mother was one of the few mothers I knew who still worked. She went to Ewha Womans University, an all-women’s university that produced many “first” women professionals and feminists in Korea.
She never called herself a feminist, though, and probably never will. But I remember watching her put on a suit, watching the vague scorn of other women who didn’t work and didn’t like that my mother did, and thinking that I wanted to be like my mother.
I remember how happy my grandparents were when my brother was finally born—and I remember feeling confused about why boys were such a big deal. I also remember one holiday season when my grandfather was so happy to take a picture with my baby brother but forgot to take a picture with me, until I threw a tantrum (at the ripe old age of 8, if we’re being perfectly honest).
Twelve years later, I read Judith Butler for the first time for a critical theory class and felt like my life had changed. So my feminism was born officially as I turned 20. My feminism felt great as it edited countless submissions for a feminist review I ran and organized feminist conferences with people from all over the country.
Lately, my feminism has been having a hard time. I remember wincing at another feminist who jokingly called the niqab “vitamin-D deficiency garb.” I remember wondering if all feminists really care about at the end of the day is pay equity for (upper-) middle-class women. I remember learning about the difficulties of women in prisons and women living with HIV, yet nobody in mainstream feminism seemed interested in advocating for their rights, let alone talking about them. For these reasons, I almost wanted to say goodbye to my feminism.
But each time I want to give up, I remember that my feminism grew up with me in this crucial period of my adulthood and I need to let it evolve.
So where is my feminism at these days?
My feminism feels angry every time it sees the “Geisha spa” sign on St-Laurent just past Rachel.
My feminism laughs at all the dick jokes in the “Suck My Dick, New Yorker Caption Contest” tumblr.
My feminism is not sure how it feels about some of the fat jokes on the Mindy Project, or the fact that Mindy’s sole purpose is to find a boyfriend. But my feminism also feels an odd sense of duty and solidarity by tuning into it every week. Because hell, how often do I get to see a South Asian woman be a star, a writer, and a producer of her own freaking TV show?
My feminism weeps at the stories of abortion that were published in New York Magazine.
My feminism has a complicated relationship with beauty standards, in that it still craves approval of others and feels good about weight loss. But it feels troubled by where this need comes from.
My feminism stands in solidarity with public workers wearing religious symbols, sex workers and transpeople.
My feminism loves reading Audre Lorde and admires the tireless efforts of multiracial Indigenous hip-hop feminist of Jessica Yee.
My feminism thinks a lot and feels even more.
And that’s my feminism.