Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Role models pt 2; Parenting the Asian-American girl

During my research into Chinese-Americans of note (I would say “famous” Chinese-Americans, but they generally aren’t, our society being more interested in lunatic pop stars than people who've actually done something worthwhile with their lives), I came across Hazel Ying Lee, aka Li Yueying (李月英).  This remarkable woman became a pilot years before World War II at a time when less than 1% of pilots in our country were female.  She tried to fly for the Chinese air force after the Japanese invasion, but was turned down.  Instead, she became a civilian airline pilot in China.  Those who have seen the John Wayne film “The Flying Tigers” have some idea of what airline flying was like in China at the time.  Let’s just say that it wasn’t the boring commuter flight from New York to DC!
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Lee returned to the United States and, along with Maggie Gee, became one of two Chinese-American WASP pilots.  This was a rough, hazardous job: the women flew the same aircraft as male pilots (including bombers such as the B-17 and B-24, which required a lot of muscle to control), frequently under difficult conditions and for very low pay.  In one case, Lee made a forced landing in a Kansas field and was chased by a pitchfork-wielding farmer who was convinced that she was a JAPANESE pilot and part of an invading army!  Lee was so good a pilot that she was one of a handful of WASPs who were selected to fly fighter planes such as the P-51 (her favorite), the P-47 and the P-38.  Tragically, Lee died of burns received when her P-63 collided with another in a crowded landing pattern at Great Falls Army Air Field, Montana (now Malmstrom AFB) in November, 1944.  Her brother, Victor, was killed in action in France soon afterward.  The family had to fight to have the two buried in the cemetery in their hometown of Portland, Oregan: “whites only”.
I must say that this sort of thing really irritates me.  Here we have a person who wanted nothing more than to serve her country, had to fight to do it, and even after giving her life for it was treated like dirt.  Bah.
                                                       A jaunty Lee shortly after getting her pilot license, 1932

This leads me to my second topic: raising the confident, strong daughter.  I can do no better than to quote Frances Hai-Kwa Wang:*

[H]ere are some of my best suggestions and practical techniques for raising strong and confident Asian Pacific American daughters and instilling APA Girl Power. They include rewriting stories, critiquing characters, finding role models, developing alternative beauty standards, learning to speak up, and preparing for sexism from both sides.

What Wang goes on to discuss apply, I think, to daughters of ANY ethnic background.  For example, she talks about common fairy tales in which the heroine - Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella - is rescued by the Handsome Prince.  As I've gotten older, I've come to DETEST this sort of thing.  I hate movies in which the girl cowers and screams while the hero is in a fight for his (and, not uncoincidenally, her) life.  "Don't just stand there!  DO SOMETHING!" I want to shout at the screen.  The point is that a woman hasn't got to be a passive spectator or helpless victim, and telling stories that portary them as such do no favors to the little girls who are their target audience.  As Wang suggests, the stories might be... altered a bit.  Or, better still, stories that feature a strong and fearless girl such as Mulan or Hermione Granger might make better bedtime fare.

I do not suggest that I want to raise my daughter to duke it out when she's upset.  Rather, I want her to learn that sitting around waiting for somebody else to save her - to solve her problems - is no way to go through life.  Hazel Ying Lee didn't wait for somebody to come to her door and ask her to be a pilot: she did it herself.

Wang also emphasizes the need to teach girls to be independent thinkers:

As a parent, it can be a huge pain to have intelligent, articulate daughters who question everything you say (I know, I have three), but in the long run, those are characteristics that are critical to their success in America. Encourage independent thinking, and allow them to speak their mind and give their reasons. (If you can’t take it, perhaps encourage them to speak up more in school rather than home…just kidding.) Encourage them to write down their ideas and learn how to justify them. Have them participate in public-speaking contests, school plays and academic contests; have them work on the school paper, get involved in causes about which they are passionate and take on leadership roles. Think of it all as practice and skill development, not as time taken away from traditional academic studies. Since one of the many stereotypes that haunt Asian-American girls is that they are nice, quiet and shy, they will have to speak twice as loud in order to be heard.

I entirely agree.  I've written in a previous post that I wrote to my daughter about How to Lie so that she will have some idea how to spot people who are lying to her (such as advertisers and politicians).  I've also written to her at length that she needs to learn to use her brain, to be a skeptic and to think for herself.  Part of my task as a parent is to teach her to do that.  Yes, as Wang writes, this may mean quite a lot of back-talk from her, but I'd rather have a mouthy daughter who keeps me on my toes than a quiet, mousy, submissive girl who will grow up into a piece of Jell-O and gets pushed around because I've failed to teach her to have some backbone.

And rewriting some stories might prove to be a lot of fun...

"Baba, are you SURE that's how the story goes?"

"Of course it is, baby: when the Seven Dwarves came rushing back to the cottage, they found that Snow White, not being stupid enough to eat an apple offered to her by a creepy stranger, had called the cops.  When the wicked old queen tried to get rough, Snow White held her at gunpoint until they arrived.  She was a key witness at the trial.  The wicked old queen got life without parole for attempted murder.  Now, sleep well.  Tomorrow night, I'll tell you the story of how the Little Mermaid became the first female member of SEAL Team Six."



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