Opinion | Op-eds

Alienation as an international feminist

My identity as a Korean woman became salient to me on the first day of my orientation program at Wellesley College, where I spent my first year as a university student. After orientation, where we circled around and shared thoughts on what we expected out of college, I ran back up to my room and sobbed into my sheets. I was completely overwhelmed by American girls’ confidence and felt defeated with my futile grasps to find the right English words to speak up. 

As a young feminist from Korea arriving to the United States wide-eyed and hungry for success, I had vowed to be confident, ambitious, and uninhibited by stereotypes. But my identity as a strong woman was slowly getting crushed ever since I had left Korea. I had thought that being angry about the glass ceiling and women doing housework was sufficient enough to be a feminist back home. But at Columbia, an alien place, I floundered, confused about the meaning of gender and terrified as the unwarranted, too-real topic of sexuality was shoved into my face. I should not have been left alone to grapple with such crucial and daunting issues, and I should not have been alienated by the administration and student body. 

My early social interactions in college consisted of misunderstood idioms, inadequate English, whispers behind my back of my “FOB-iness” and silence, suffocating loneliness, a terrible breakup, a major depressive episode, turmoil in alien forms of sexual relationships, and most of all, disorientation when it came to finding my identity as a feminist and a woman. Columbia completely disregards vast cultural differences of the international female students.

This academic year is the 30th anniversary of Columbia becoming a coed institution. Since then, the international population has risen rapidly and now comprises 25 percent of the University’s student body. Columbia claims it’s making efforts to integrate these international students. However, what do international women do when they are lost, and feel helpless in front of formidable cultural and language barriers, before all-too-real problems of gender, female empowerment, and sexuality? Does the University take cultural differences into account at all when it claims to improve the meager resources women need for empowerment and protection? Workshops intending to prevent sexual assault like Consent is Sexy were unhelpful and shocking to me. Where I come from, sex was something women were never allowed to mention, unless they wished to be shamed as “filthy” or “cheap.” I knew that there were certain issues I should be aware of—roofies, hookup culture, parties—but I could not make any sense of them as I had never heard of them before (there is no Korean word for “party” or “making out”), and my inadequate knowledge of American culture made it difficult to know how to be a feminist in these settings. Towering cultural barriers and shame left me exhausted and helpless.

Cultural differences are not sufficiently accounted for in the already deficient discussions of sexual assault or female empowerment. The neglect and hollow promises of the administration are only more terrifying for international women who are used to different cultural norms and have significantly fewer available resources in this country. The Columbia community should listen to the international female students. If Columbia as an institution is making efforts to globalize, it also bears a responsibility to reach out to and protect the international students who come through its gates with difficulty adjusting to an unfamiliar culture. ISOP is not enough. If the discussions of feminism and social justice in the student body truly aim to bridge gaps among different women and address intersectionality, there should be more awareness of feminism and cultural norms in other countries.

Sophomore year, sick of struggling alone, I risked gossip and shaming from people back home and the possibility of my conservative parents finding out my decision to audition for the 2013 Vagina Monologues as the only East Asian woman in the whole cast. I was shocked and pushed to my very limits from having frequent, intense conversations about genderqueer identities to faking orgasms on stage. But ultimately I overcame my fears and spoke out about what being a woman meant to me. I joined the cast again my junior year. As I stood on stage this February in the controversial and all-too-necessary all-women-of-color cast performance, I was able to talk about being an Asian woman, but only because the directors of the show had fought for the opportunity.

True feminism needs to explore the inseparable intersection of race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status, and in this case, culture and nationality as well. The Vagina Monologues did something that Columbia could have, and should have, done for international students, and I have finally mustered enough courage to demand more. 

The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in psychology and concentrating in philosophy and women and gender studies. She acted in the 2013 and 2014 Vagina Monologues. She is also the chair of the 2014 Columbia/Barnard Women’s History Month Planning Committee. 

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contactopinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Anonymous posted on

Great piece, Jaehee!!

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JJ posted on

If you don't like the way we do things here then go home.

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Anonymous posted on

No one asked your opinion. Fuck off.

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Anonymous posted on

I am happy your doing vagina monologues, but Columbia doesn't have to do a feminist orientation for international students. That is outrageous. Do we need a American Masculinity course for international students?

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anon posted on

*you're

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Anonymous posted on

*you're

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Andrea posted on

Thanks for being brave enough to write this.

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Anon posted on

I really respect this author and the bravery it took to write this peace. I appreciate hearing about feminist issues from someone with a distinctly different experience from me.

I'd like to understand more about the whole notion of "how to be a feminist," whether in the US or otherwise. To me, having to be "taught" feminism seems counterproductive, as it is not simply confining oneself to a specific list of rules and ideas.

To the author: What, literally, do you mean by not understanding how to be a feminist in the US? In what way did you feel that your cultural understanding of feminism didn't fit in here?

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Jaehee posted on

First of all, thank you so much! So I know it can be a little confusing because of the title, but I am first and foremost asking for consideration of cultural differences when it comes to resources for women, like consent is sexy, the rape crisis center, sexual assault policies, alcohol education, residential programs, etc. I come from a place where the norms that dictate conversation are very different, and it can be terrifying to even understand novel situations in America, and I just wish there was more hand-holding for international women in that area. Being a woman is scary enough! And when English is your second language, it can be even harder.

I understand that not all women are feminists and women and gender studies majors, and my request that the feminism and social justice discussions on campus include discussions on cultural differences comes after my first request. I would love to talk about feminism and gender in my home country in a whole new conversation.

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Jaehee posted on

I had to cut down the article a lot last minute, and that is why it may seem like there are a lot of things going on. And also, I wanted to point out that the word "feminism" is unnecessarily politicized and has an unjustified negative connotation, with a mental image of a bra-burning woman attached to it, but sometimes feminism can actually just be a simple request for more consideration and understanding for certain women in situations that may be particularly difficult for them.

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Anonymous posted on

As another female student straight from Korea, I find your article very confusing.
I do not quite grasp what do you mean by "enough be a feminist" or "difficult to know how to be a feminist in these settings" - why do you have to "be" a feminist if you already identify as one? Your statements are as nonsensical as statements such as "enough to be a gay" or "difficult to know how to be a gay in these settings."
While I think it is brave of you to share your personal experience and completely agree with you that being a female with a cultural and language barrier is scary and often frustrating, I think the whole notion that you have to "be" a feminist in a certain way is very problematic. There's nothing such as being "feminist enough" or "not enough to be a feminist" - there is no standard or a rubric for being a feminist. Different people can be feminists in different ways; you can, and should, be a feminist in a way you feel comfortable, in a way that embraces your own experience, culture, and belief, rather than fitting yourself in a stereotypical "feminist" model that you don't quite identify with.
I also don't think you should be attributing your confusions and frustrations to Korean culture. I don't know which century you are from, or if your family was particularly conservative, but yes, there is a Korean world for "party" and "making out", and yes, there ARE people who speak about sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in Korea, just because you didn't pay attention or you weren't interested don't mean that there are no ongoing discussions. By not acknowledging the presence of such voices you are making them invisible.
Last thing - if you were "shocked and pushed to my very limits" you probably shouldn't have done the Vagina monologues. The goal is to provide an open space where people can talk and think about gender and sexuality, not to torture poor souls.

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Jaehee posted on

Hi, so I would actually love to have this conversation in person some time.

Just a couple of things.
1. That I was "shocked and pushed to my very limits" was simply an expression of my experiencing my tipping point and overcoming my fears and insecurities - hence what I think many people go through when they are expanding their comfort zones. As I mentioned in the article, I think V-Day was the best decision I made in college and I emerged as a stronger soul, and I assure you I am not some poor soul burning in Dante's fourth circle of hell. Creating an open space where people can talk and think about gender and sexuality, as you mentioned, is a process that requires courage and conviction.

2. So the thing about Korean culture is that the Korean vocabulary equivalent of "party," "making out," "hanging out," "queer," "gender," "sexual orientation" does not exist, at least in everyday conversation. People spell out the English words in Korean and use them instead, and it shows that these concepts are very, very novel to Korean culture.

Also, I never claimed that there is no one who speaks of these topics in Korea, I mean, my progressive friends back home do, but the discussions are still very much stigmatized and need to be expanded. I acknowledge the presence and I admire the strength of people who do speak out, but I think their voices need to be much louder and visible, and I am actually potentially interested in doing activist work along those lines. I actually think Korea is on the verge of second-wave feminism...but I digress. Again, I would like to have this conversation in person.

3. I think being a feminist is not something you just become just because you identify as one. Just like being an adult. You can technically be an adult when you hit 21, but the word "adult" has so many more qualifications and subtle meanings, so I believe we become adults through working out our clashing values and thoughts and struggles. So is becoming a feminist. Women and Gender Studies as a discipline is always coming together, and through contradiction and conflict and discussion, redefines itself. I think you become a feminist throughout a lifetime, in a very existential way, just as you become a woman, as Simone de Beauvoir would say. I do not believe in any stereotypical image of a feminist, and in fact, that would be something I would adamantly reject. I was just saying that navigating my identity as a feminist and as a woman is a continuous process I work through, especially when I enter new cultures and new environments.

4. Finally, I do not claim to speak for the experiences of international women, much less international Asian women.

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Jaehee posted on

*experiences of all international women

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Absurd posted on

Suck it up and get over it? Why don't you take action yourself instead of demand one from the whole administration which as we are all aware is quite irresponsive to immediate student requests. And how is your hardship regarding FOB-iness and English ability even relevant?

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