I embarked on a sweltering adventure and watched Fifty Shades of Grey for the first time. Not only did his hot-winded masculinity spike and shoot my hormones into overdrive, everything else that he possessed only complemented and accentuated who he was. It was his demeanor, his intelligence, his wealth, his ability to maintain monogamous relationships and assertion of sexuality. All of which drives the average woman wild. It then occurred to me, through the enlightenment of this gender relations’ class, what I believed to be alluring and almost irresistible has been tainted by society’s normative views. A hearty congratulation is in order, for we have reached the 21st century and yet continue to follow the strait-laced objectives that had been created centuries ago. This ideology has created a set of privileges that propagates ideas of who can go through life effortlessly and who have to strive to achieve greatness. However, I am fortunate and can consider myself privileged. I may not be white, male or have a socially acceptable body size but I have everything else going for me: I am fortunately privileged by being a heterosexual, a Christian, a Canadian citizen, able-bodied, having access to education, and of middle-class. Nevertheless, I have not come this far in life solely because of these unearned privileges. A substantial part of my life has been greatly influenced by my ethnicity. Quintessential moral values, traditions, religion, home economics… All that has been taught inside my household has optimized my self-exploration process, shaped my life and understanding of the world around me.
As odd as it may sound, I have never witnessed someone of my ethnic background struggle with their gender identity. I am not oblivious to the possibility that there are individuals that find it difficult to identify themselves, but the fact remains, they have been forcibly silenced due to fear of being judged or misunderstood. In Sri Lanka, gender norms are rather straight forward and not unfamiliar territory to Western society: masculinity is represented by males and femininity by females. My earliest memory of realization began around my toddler years. I remember watching my favorite Disney movies and idolizing all the princesses that waltzed across the screen. Their beauty, their effeminate manners, their happily-ever-afters were mesmerizing and at that point I wanted nothing more than to be just like them. Of course my mother, like any other, integrated me into the world of femininity by introducing me to the wonderful world of Disney. My family inveigled effeminacy into my behavior and in some way, into my leisure activities. Playing dress-up, playing with Barbies, partaking in arts and crafts were activities that were cheered on and positively reinforced. These reinforcements continued on for quite some time, and if I remember correctly, all the way until I started college at the age of seventeen. Western folk may view this as abnormal behavior, but from a geographical standpoint, their methods of child rearing are quite understandable. Industrialization and gender socialization were greatly influenced by the colonization of this country by the Portuguese, British, and Dutch. Due to the fact that Sri Lanka only gained their independence in 1948, they retained and continued to implement the social etiquette that was brought about in the preceding years. Thus, this explains why my family was hell-bent on emphasizing the meaning of gender roles and the importance to maintain the image that our society considers to be the norm. To them, it ultimately meant that a woman must remain poised, cherish their virtue, and slowly learn the ways to become a good wife and mother whereas for the men, they were taught to be the backbone of the community, to display strength and courage. As a child, it seemed to have rested on me naturally but that quickly changed as I transitioned into my adolescent years. Attending an ethnically diverse school unshielded my eyes and it was then, the solidification of my identity took place. My peers and friends showed me that it was not wrong to express my feelings. Whether it is through my clothing, my physical appearance, verbalization and actions. My horizons expanded and I gradually stepped out of my preset comfort zone and stepped into my newly built one. Today, I learned that they are no rules or meanings to gender unless I make it so. Conforming to society’s ideology is optional and not compulsory. Now, I do not fear expressing myself in any way, shape or form. Nor am I mortified of bringing “shame” upon my family for I have shown them a gleam of light, broadening their views and with that, have been granted the freedom to express myself.
Despite the fact that my family have been appeased, they continue to follow and execute certain traditions they believe are irrefutably necessary to maintain a peaceful home. My mother was a single parent up until she met my step-father. She was no stranger to the second shift. She worked herself to the bone at work and came home to continue exhausting herself with labor. In Sri Lanka, the doctrine of separate spheres has been deeply embedded into each household. In order for a man to ensure his position as good role provider, women had to stay home and tend to in-house activities such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, and child-bearing. Similarly, those who come from wealthy families conform to this mentality, being a housewife. Women of wealthy homes are not expected to tend to chores; rather, they hire servant girls to complete these tasks. Sri Lankan men pride themselves on being the alpha male and will not condone any woman’s attempts to step onto the same platform and claim equality. It is imperative for them to uphold their hierarchical status in their community. All tasks and chores are carefully divided amongst all, and it is quite obvious that the sexual division of labor is the main criteria. In Canada, these paradigms are temporarily swept aside. Newcomers become dual earner couples to support their families and themselves in hopes of building a solid, comfortable life. I remember this being the case for my mother as well as my othermothers. They were responsible for all household chores as well as partaking in providing funds. I was taught that, as a woman, it is my duty to maintain a home. Though I find it absurd to supervise and uphold all house related responsibilities, I am grateful for some of the little lessons I was taught by all the women in my life. I was instilled with survival techniques such as preparing my own meals, managing income, and provide a clean and sanitary environment not only for myself but for my present and future family. But as an individual, I strongly believe in teamwork and that the concept of quarter shifts is the key to sustain a healthy and loveable relationship. One person carrying the bulk of the workload may result in the individual experiencing frustration, emotional distress leading to suppression of feelings and sadly to what may seem like the end. It takes more than one entity to fulfill all demands of a family. Demands don’t always mean monetary supplies, but heart-melting love and affection. It makes us aware that all collaborative work is crucial and vital to press forward with life.
For the majority of my life, there was a constant battle between my conscience and my heart. Being the offspring of a Sri Lankan family comes with its advantages and disadvantages. There is so much that I love and appreciate about my culture. One, the bond found within families. No matter how much we may disagree or fight with each other, the unconditional love that we share for one and other is undeniable and indestructible. Another trait I admire is that even the youngest generation has a strong understanding of our culture and embraces its beauty. Elders of the Sri Lankan community take the time and effort to teach our young ones about all the beautiful festivities and their signification, our traditions, and our values. I respect those within our community who make sure that our culture does not dissipate during the integration into Western society. Despite all the positive aspects of the Sri Lankan culture, it often felt like I was constantly manipulated and molded to fit my family’s ideal image of the perfect daughter, granddaughter and niece. They attempted to control the steps I would be taking and hoped that my life proceeds as follows: study hard, avoid hanging out with friends, stay at home, go to college, go to university, find a man, get married, have children… My family, my primary group, exerted every effort to guarantee that my life would transition smoothly, or so they taught. At heart, I was rebel. I am the type of person that likes to make their own way, learn from trials and errors. I repeatedly disobeyed my family in every way possible in hopes of being cut loose and set free. But if anything, it drew them closer to me. One argument that I willingly forfeit at this very moment and would like to apologize for is not taking the opportunity of going to school when I was younger. I had privileges and I now realize, at the age of twenty-six, that the time I wasted will never come back but because of their perseverance, I am now back in school, achieving what I thought was no longer possible. Other than that, I felt smothered… Like a butterfly struggling to break out of her cocoon. My family continually tried to discipline me and stop me from acting in “outlandish ways”. This is what they never understood… My need for freedom was stronger than any disciplinary measure they sought to execute. I participated in many westernized activities such as getting a tattoo, smoking, drinking, going dancing, even indulged in the pleasures of the flesh and ignoring sexual scripts. Sure I made mistakes. Heck, we can even conclude that I stepped over that imaginary line of the gender transgression zone, only because according to my culture, these activities are only engaged by men and it is considered unruly for women. But at the end of it all, all my experiences shaped me to be who I am today.
So here we are, at the edge of my nutshell. It really is not all that glamorous and shiny. But what I have discovered while writing this little piece is that although I live in a Western society, my roots are solidly planted in my very being. As an adult, I finally realize that my ethnicity is beautiful and it has shaped me into the woman that I am today. The traditions and values have been deeply imprinted in my heart. I must confess, there is a lot of which takes place within our realm that I do not agree with, but the purity of my culture allowed me to enjoy the best of both worlds. The gender norms suppression from both the Western and Sri Lankan society has teetered totted me into a perfect balance of neutral grounds. With advocating feminism and risen awareness of racism, my world is almost perfect. Not only does the concept of teamwork apply within the household, but it applies to all parts of life. One voice cannot make a difference. It takes the voice of an entire nation. Showing tolerance, understanding and being indifferent doesn’t seem like it would make a difference in this bottom-side-up world, but every voice create a stronger bond. Thankfully, the opportunities that my family afforded me growing up have kept within the privileged circle until this day. As young, racial identifiable women, it is my duty to also raise awareness or if not, prove those who are biased that they are wrong. By graduating from school, making headway in the workforce, and actively demonstrating tolerance, I too can make a difference!