The Audacity to Dream: On Asian Women, Feminism, and My Grandmother
In 1964, ahead of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, my maternal grandmother came to the United States. I don’t know much about the circumstances of her arrival — what she carried, if she knew anyone, how much or little money she might have had — but I do know what she left behind. Back in Taiwan were two little girls, a husband, brothers, sisters, parents, and her entire known world.
She did arrive in America with dreams though. My grandmother decided she wanted to be a fashion designer and she knew this dream was bigger than the little island she’d spent her whole life on. Paris, the fashion capital of the world, was the first place she thought to go to, but for some reason or another, my grandmother decided New York was the more practical place to pursue her career. So at the age of thirty-three, she applied to the Fashion Institute of Technology, packed her bags, said her goodbyes and went.
In those first years, she apprenticed at a textile company while attending classes and was promoted for her hard work, her improving skillset, and her keen eye. Eventually, the company sponsored her green card, which opened the way for my grandmother to save enough money to bring over several of her younger siblings and their partners, each of whom had dreams of their own. Only after she’d looked after her little brother and sisters did she return to Taiwan, over four years later, to bring her two daughters and husband back to New York with her.
As a child, I found this unremarkable. It was part of my family history — the story of how my family came to America. And, I suspect, in many ways, it is unremarkable — I’d wager every immigrant family story begins with someone with enough courage and defiance and persistence and wit to navigate through the difficult waters of making a new life in this often unwelcoming country. Still, I never thought twice about what my grandmother must have endured, never dwelled on the facts of her past. Of course my grandmother came over. Of course she worked hard to succeed. Of course she went back for her family. How else could it have been?
My attitude probably belies something else I take for granted, something my family has inadvertently instilled in me through the telling and retelling of our histories: that anything is possible. The idea that my grandmother’s race or gender might ever have held her back was one that never occurred to me, not at least, until very recently.
Earlier this year, a white male journalist took to Twitter to rant against feminists. I read his stream with mounting rage, not just because of the expected misogynist crap he was spouting, but because, in the process, he offered his “Asian wife” as a counterpoint. (That’s how he referred to her: “My Asian wife.”) Don’t marry a feminist, he warned men. Marry an Asian woman. In other words, his submissive Asian wife was no feminist, and that was his secret to a happy marriage.
My outrage was two-fold: first, the fact that some guy talked about his partner in terms of her race greatly bothered me. Why not simply “my wife” or even “my brilliant wife” or “my loving wife”? The fact that this man continued to define his wife by her race made me sad for her. Did she, in turn, refer to him as “my white husband”?
But of course, what bothered me the most was the insinuation that somehow Asian women and feminists are mutually exclusive beings, as if by definition, an Asian woman could not be a feminist. I was reminded again that, in this world, there are men who see my face and the faces of my mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins, and immediately assume we are meek and obedient (or else hypersexual but still willing to please). It doesn’t matter that few Asian and Asian American women I know fit this stereotype.
I’d begun my investigation into my grandmother’s arrival in the United States months before I came across this man’s rants, but at the time, I’d been looking at the story strictly through a personal lens; I’d been trying to find a lesson on being courageous in following unlikely dreams. It had never occurred to me, until the moment that my rage bubbled up from this man’s Twitter, that she might be seen as an anomaly because of the predetermined expectations that this country might have had for her. It never occurred to me that, even today, she might shatter stereotypes.
I’m descended from a line of strong women. My great-grandmother, my grandmother’s mother and the matriarch of our family, was by all accounts a woman to be feared and respected, and I have yet to meet a woman descended from her who simpers quietly in a stereotypical way. Even as we exhibit our complex personalities and talents differently, each female relative I meet has a quiet self-assuredness about her, a confidence that she is capable of great things. Those expressions vary, of course; some of us are artists, some of us are mothers, some of us are business women. Some of us are all three, like my grandmother.
Whenever someone mentions the stereotype of the acquiescent, Asian woman, I think to myself that they should have met my grandmother. My grandmother was no stereotype. She was outgoing, generous, creative, ambitious, and open-minded. She learned to travel through all of New York and Northern New Jersey without ever learning to drive. She constantly made new friends with strangers on the street (to my great embarrassment when I was a kid). At seventy, she decided to go to a community wine tasting event and got drunk with (mostly white) people two to three decades younger than her — she giggled when she told me about it the next day, about how she couldn’t stop her drunken laughter. When, as a teenager, my brother visited her with bleached-red hair, my grandmother stared at it before breaking into a grin. “I like it,” she said. “I don’t understand it, but I like it.”
My grandmother was thirty-three when she arrived in America, the same age as I am now. I don’t know much about the landscape of fashion at the time, but it isn’t hard for me to imagine that the idea of making it in the fashion industry was an absurd prospect for a young woman with little experience, much less one who barely spoke English and was an Asian immigrant. And yet, somehow, my grandmother was either naïve enough or audacious enough to believe she had a shot.
I’ve tried to imagine what she felt on her first night in this loud, alien city, the fears and thoughts that must have circled her head. I wonder if she felt homesick, if she was excited, if she fretted for a moment that she might have made a mistake. I think about the burden she must have felt to succeed — how had she explained this need to her husband, a Mainland migrant for whom she’d defied her parents to marry, whom she was now leaving alone with two children? What fight must they have had and why had he relented? What had she told her little girls? How had she explained abdicating her maternal responsibilities? Had she been criticized for being selfish and undutiful by her parents, her friends? Had she felt guilty? And now that she was finally here in New York alone, did a sickly sense of Oh shit, I really have to do this now curl through her gut?
At thirty-three myself, I am unmarried, childless, a Masters degree under my belt and the support of community and family a Facebook post away, and still I often feel terrified that I’ve made a grave mistake in pursuing what, on hard days, feels like an impossible dream. Still I feel a burden to succeed (whatever that means). When I think back to my grandmother, I wonder how she did it, why she did it, what pushed her to believe. When I find it difficult to write, when I worry about being an Asian American woman in a literary landscape of white men, when I fear I’ve erred in giving up a practical career path to follow an unrealistic ambition, I think back to my grandmother. About how extraordinary she was for her time. About how much courage it must have taken to insist on the weight of her dreams.
Audacity. I keep coming back to this word, because it’s a way of being I think about often, particularly in the literary world. I’ve been working on a story for over a year now, about an interracial relationship between a white woman and a black man in the late 1950s, a story that I find incredibly hard to write because I want to make sure I get it right. I am often paralyzed by the fear that I’m not doing it justice, that I’m being reductive or maybe even offensive, that I simply can’t write about a time and place and circumstance I know nothing of, that I can’t inhabit a skin in which I’ve never been, that it’s not even my right to do so. Frustrated, thinking about the long tradition of books written by white men about places and people they’d never been, I thought to myself, “How do white men do it?” I went through the catalog of possibilities: great research skills, confidence in their writing, a blindness to responsibility, a privilege of feeling all stories were theirs for the taking. But in the end, I realized all of these fell under one big umbrella: Audacity.
We read about white male privilege all the time: how white men get pay raises because they demand them, how they’re revered in board meetings because they assume their ideas are worth listening to, how they get better customer service because they act like it’s their due. And while these stories highlight how white male privilege works, they remind me that part of what sets white men apart from the rest of us is also that they have the audacity to ask for and insist on what they believe they deserve, while the rest of us believe — because we’ve been told in both subtle and unsubtle ways — that we’re lucky we even have what we got.
When Michael Derrick Hudson took on an Asian female name in order to publish poems he believed deserved to get published, he was being audacious.
When Kenneth Goldsmith read an altered version of Michael Brown’s autopsy report and called it “poetry,” he was being audacious.
And yet, for my grandmother to come to America at a time when women were seen as household accessories and Chinese people were considered unwelcome aliens, for her to decide that she was smart enough and hardworking enough and talented enough to be a fashion designer, and that she would make it happen, her face be damned — she too was being audacious.
There is evidence in this society that tells me I can’t make it, that it’s too hard for a woman writer of color. There are VIDA counts that make me cry with their teeny tiny shaded slivers that represent the number of women of color being published in journals, and there are articles about agents that respond more often and more positively when they think a novel is written by a man that make me want to punch things. There are subliminal messages about the kind of books people with names like mine get to write in the way our books are talked about, in the covers they get assigned, in who gets awards and funding, in market labels, in how few of us continue to be published.
But despite these facts, despite my anxieties, my fears, my regular insecurity, I keep going. And on good days, I move forward with the certainty that my ambitions are worthy, that I am trying to conquer big and terrifying things, that I deserve a place in this world, not one assumed or assigned by a doughy pale face that knows nothing of me, but one born out of my own choices, my own dreams.
Perhaps it’s incongruous that I feel incredibly grateful for and humbled by what I do have, that I have the suspicion I’ve already gotten more than I deserve, while still believing I deserve more. But it’s also a strange incongruity to hold both the reality of the world and the belief that I can succeed in my head at the same time. Maybe that’s faith. Maybe that’s magical thinking. Maybe that’s audacity. Or maybe, that’s just the only way I know how to survive.
The thing I want to tell that male journalist with the Asian wife, or even to Michael Derrick Hudson with his stolen name, is that these Asian women whom you’ve reduced to names and monikers and symbols of your discontent — they fall outside of your imaginations. Despite all of your privilege, your belief that you have the right to imagine and shape worlds as you see fit, you lack the capacity to conceive of the multitudes that lie inside the women whom you claim to speak for. Your singular wife. Yi-Fen Chou. My grandmother. Myself. And so many other Asian women I know. We are constantly breaking stereotypes. We have varying, changing dreams, and move through this world expressing ourselves in unexpected ways. We are living, breathing examples of how your constructions of us are paper-thin, weightless. It’s simply that you cannot imagine you could be wrong, and so you cannot see.
One more point on audacity. I don’t think all audacity looks the same. The audacity that a white man has because he believes he is entitled to something very particular, something very expected is different from the audacity of an immigrant who has no idea what is coming, who plunges ahead despite not knowing, but who, despite all odds, believes she deserves something better, something greater than her imagination. This is the same audacity that will allow her to let go of everything she’s worked for if it comes to it, because she has the audacity to reimagine her future, again and again, as is necessary. She has the audacity to expect better even when the world tells her she shouldn’t dare.
My grandmother made it, by the way. Once her family settled in Queens with her, she continued gaining experience at different companies, including a sportswear label and a bridal designer, with some of her clothes even displayed in the windows at Saks Fifth Avenue (an accomplishment she brought up with frequent regularity). After several years of this, she quit to start her own label, a knitwear company helmed under her Chinese name, Chuchi. She followed that with a second line a few years later, named after me, who had recently been born. She had designs featured at the Met and in glossy magazine spreads. I still remember how, much later, she would occasionally pull out albums in which she’d pasted magazine clippings and her design sketches, and leaf through them with me, pointing out the way she’d designed a particular collar or proudly reminiscing about an innovative knit button design others later copied. Maybe my grandmother was never a known-name in France or on a stage for New York Fashion Week, but by the way she talked about her work, by the way her eyes lit up, I knew my grandmother felt that slice of her life had been what she’d dreamt of and more.
And then, when I was around two or three, my youngest aunt, a third daughter born in New York, became very sick, needing multiple surgeries and recovery time. My grandmother might have been a fierce, independent woman, a true feminist (even if she might never have known the word to call herself that), but she was also a mother who cared with equal fierceness for her children. And so, faced with a sick child and a business starting to suffer in a changing and increasingly competitive industry landscape, my grandmother decided to shutter her factory and focus on caring for my aunt. She and my grandfather would go on to invest in an unsuccessful real estate venture, one that left them bankrupt and in debt for the rest of their lives.
On one of the last nights I ever spent with my grandmother, I asked her, “Did you ever regret it? Giving up your dreams, this thing you worked so hard for?”
My grandmother didn’t hesitate. “No,” she said. “I don’t regret it. I got to do what I set out to do. I got to be a designer. And then it was time for a new dream. To be a good mother is a good dream too.”
I don’t want to diminish my grandmother’s life or put her on a false pedestal. Even in this essay, I know I must be erasing the moments when she must have felt scared or alone, moments when she felt unsure of herself, moments when she was angry or petty or mean, moments when she hated being a designer, moments when she regretted her choices, moments when she fought with people or hurt them, moments when she disappointed herself. I’m also leaving out all the moments of joy, quiet moments she must have shared with her husband or her daughters, pride she felt in their accomplishments, her relationships with her siblings and friends, her other talents and hobbies (she was, for example, also an amazing home cook who won awards and took pictures of her creations before doing that was even a thing). I don’t want to suggest I know whether or not it was the right thing to do for her to give up her company for her child, whether to have done so made her more or less of a feminist, more or less of a stereotype. I also don’t want to assign a moral about whether dreams deferred are better than dreams that land in your lap, although I do admire my grandmother’s ability to allow a dream to change, and find her no weaker for it, no less remarkable.
But this is, at least in part, my grandmother’s story. Which makes it, in part, my story. I, too, cannot be put down completely on paper. I, too, cannot be captured wholly by a single essay, much less by a tenuous stereotype. I cannot predict the ways in which my life might change, whether I’ll attain my dreams or find new ambitions, whether I’ll write a book or become a mother, or pursue something I can’t even conceive of right now. But I hope whatever unknown waits for me, I can meet it with the audaciousness of someone who knows her narrative is hers alone to invent.
KARISSA CHEN is the author of the fiction chapbook Of Birds and Lovers (Corgi Snorkel Press). Her fiction and essays have appeared in Guernica, PEN America, The Toast, and PANK, among others. She is a Fulbright Scholar and a Kundiman and VONA/Voices Fellow. She is the fiction and poetry editor at Hyphen magazine and a co-founding editor of Some Call It Ballin’. She is currently at work on a novel.