Tradition vs. Modernity

Olivia Choi, Sidwell '19

Olivia Choi describes the role of Asian women in Western and Asian culture. Choi explores both the subjugation and growing empowerment of East Asian women through historical events and her life as a Korean American woman.

Illustration by Eden Taff, Sidwell '19

As a Korean, my family originates from a region which today is now often associated with SAT scandals and Samsung products, but which, when first introduced to the broader American
public, was depicted as a site of constant conflict and instability.

East Asia is home to countries such as Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam: nations which little more than half a century ago were ravaged by war and widespread economic ruin. Consequently, when many Westerners first became introduced to East Asian culture during this period, it was through images of war, poverty, and vulnerability. After the wars, however, followed an era of modernization in Asia, one characterized by industrialization, economic progress, and advancements in technology. Over the past half-decade, East Asia has become a site of rapid progress and is moving closer towards eradicating that image of a war-torn region.

Hand-in-hand with the impression of Asia as a war zone came the perception of its people, and specifically its women, as victims. During the Vietnamese and Korean Wars of the 1950s-1970s, there arose a Western perception of Asian women as fragile and powerless, and the all too familiar image of a Korean or Vietnamese bride bound to a crumbling nation while awaiting the return of her American savior. Such images successfully inflated preexisting sentiments of Western superiority and fueled American pro-war zeal. Asia was barren, rugged, and uncivilized: a place to be saved from, rather than inhabited. Media and popular productions of the time, such as Miss Saigon and Madame Butterfly, proliferated the image of the Asian woman as meek, passive, and delicate, often encompassing all of these traits in her embodiment as a “lotus flower.” As a consequence of these associated characteristics, Asian women have often been viewed as “exotic” and fetishized by Western culture.

In my own experience, on more than one occasion, white, typically older, men have approached me uninvited and bowed to me, have pressed their palms together in apparent “Oriental style,” and spoken to me in Korean or Japanese, boasting that their linguistic skills draw from their experience in war. While men like these are arguably harmless, what these encounters represent is that a large part of Western culture continues to view Asian women as an outside entity, and one that they can connect to that war-torn image formulated in the mid-to- late 20th century.

As these concepts are based in a 1950s war-era culture, this image is naturally fading with time. However, the stereotype surrounding Asian women remains prevalent in society and is both connected to and embedded in notions of U.S. and male superiority. In addition, although the perception of Asian women as war victims may have abated, the lack of strength associated with these women and the tendency to view them as powerless, to assume that they are inclined to yield to the will of others, has prevailed. However misguided these perceptions may be, the image of a submissive East Asian woman unfortunately has deeper roots than its recent Western popularization. Even before this image’s

propagation by American media, East Asian women have long been viewed as obedient and passive in their own cultures, as members of a very traditional and strictly patriarchal society.

Females have long been viewed as inferior in Asian culture, and obedience, especially for women, is a value deeply ingrained within East Asia, drawing from Confucian values of patriarchy and piety.

I believe that Asian society presents a unique situation with regard to gender inequity because of its rapid and drastic modernization in the late 20th century. When considering the conflict between tradition and modernity, few places better illustrate this phenomenon than East Asia, an area which was largely regarded as undeveloped and “third-world” by its Western counterparts, until its subsequent


transformation into one of the world’s wealthiest nations, all within a period of less than 50 years.

Despite this material improvement, however, the people themselves, and the deeply traditional and conservative values instilled within them, have not been able to adapt nearly fast enough to meet that change. This rapid progress, combined with a collision with Western ideals as Asian countries joined the ranks of developed nations, resulted in a culturally conflicted society: one comprised of a new, modern-minded generation struggling to exist in an aging society tied to traditional principles.

It is for this reason that, despite their rapid economic development, many Asian cultures have been slow to progress in their traditional roles for women. Divorce in South Korea was nearly nonexistent until the 1970s, due to laws that made it essentially impossible for women to divorce their husbands. Even after subsequent legal reform, the practice was so highly stigmatized that it remained scarce until very recently (“Divorce in South Korea: Striking a New Attitude” by Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times). The prevailing societal preference for males was further evidenced by the increasingly common practice of sex-selective abortions, popularized in countries like China and South Korea throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 1992, the number of boys born for every 100 girls was as high as 125 in some South Korean cities. The global average is 105 (Science Daily).

In my own family’s experience, growing up, my mother was taught to be submissive and obedient by her mother. Naturally, as a child in possession of her own free will and having been raised in the 1980s in America, she did not necessarily conform to these principles. However, what my mother soon learned was that while she may have had the freedom to disobey her own mother, once outside the comfort of her home these ideals remained so prevalent throughout Asian communities as a whole that she felt she had no choice but to conform to them. When my mother was introduced my father’s parents for the first time in 1990, she was instructed by her mother not to speak at the table, because that was not the right of a woman in the presence of another man’s parents.

Furthermore, also at my grandmother’s insistence, my aunt chose to remain in an unhappy marriage until my mother—the youngest daughter of the family—was married, because the shame of a divorced woman would reflect poorly upon the entirety of the family. My aunt divorced her then-husband just months after the date of my mother’s wedding. Despite prevailing restrictive social roles for women, today the gender gap is closing, particularly in the areas of education and employment, in East Asia. According to a 2012 World Bank Report, women in East Asia and the Pacific had the highest female-to-male enrollment ratio of studied regions at the primary level, and the second highest at the secondary level. Furthermore, female participation in the labor force was reported at over 70 percent, higher than any other region (The World Bank, 2012). Additionally, several of East Asia’s more developed nations, like the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, and Thailand, are among the few prominent nations to have had female heads of state, an accomplishment which the United States has yet to achieve (The Economic World Forum, 2016). By 2016, according to the World Economic Forum’s World Gender Gap Report, East Asia and the Pacific had succeeded in closing 68% of its gender gap, with just 32% remaining, comparative to 28% remaining in North America (World Economic Forum, 2016).

These developments reflect a greater empowerment of Asian women and right to self-determination. Asian women are seeking education, entering the workforce, and effecting a larger female presence in their society as a whole as a result. Although it may take time for these new cultural norms to permeate throughout society, the ultimate goal is to dispel the images of delicate “lotus flowers” and “Oriental dolls,” and gradually replace them with the image of an independent Asian woman with free will and a powerful sense of self: a woman who is educated, empowered, and in possession of a strength that was never before called her own.