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.
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