Breaking out of the cocoon (5)

this is part of a set of blogs in preparation for a chapter in a journal which asked me to write  ” on your work in relation to your personal activism and advocacy with the onset of austerity, and the intersectional tensions as a disabled women involved with a diverse set of communities. In particular we thought you may want to contribute a chapter about your personal reflections, that rigorously capture the new and emerging issues for disability activism” …..

In the 1990’s, I went to USA on my own – one of the people I met was at the Asia Watch: Human Rights Watch office, Sydney Jones . I went back home to Strasbourg and the impact on me is obvious in that I wrote one of my first poems, Cocoon:

I stay in my tight cocoon

warm, snug and sheltered

from famines, war and strife

human rights violations

I watch you at your valiant job

in the asphalt jungle

teleconferencing across frontiers

being au courant with the latest events

in some far flung dictatorship

I am envious of you

the modern day Jeanne d’Arc

My domaine rests

with getting children places on time

school, music leassons, gym, swimming classes

cooking meals, dressing dinners

sorting out clothes, battling dust

mine is the mundane

that I am plotting,

dreaming,

awaiting,

fearing

metamorphosis

this cocoon is well spun

ordered,

silken nest

books lined on shelves

discussing, describing

the world without

exciting, inciting

the world within

an indolent world

so redolent of

a pampered expatriate existence

lotus eating

I am loath

to seek

lotus sitting

satori

this chrysalis

home and hearth

I cannot shed

bonded and bounden

my surviving abuse

for inaction/standstill

lax self discipline

like the hermit crab

scuttling with its borrowed shell

not showing its soft underbelly

in deadly fear of

exposure.

written in the 1990’s

I loved my children and adored being a mother, I enjoyed the priviledges of being expatriate in a beautiful city, playing host to the many visitors and new residents that it attracted (and still attracts). I had dinner parties almost every week, reveled in cooking for them all. I’ve even helped cook for two Archbishops of Canterbury, being part of the English Anglican community.

My French was rudimentary but it was sufficient for what I needed to communicate. I was in a bubble of an idylic existence. I did Zen meditation with a French Dominican priest. I had no idea of what my disabled community was doing in the UK – living amongst mostly white, non disabled community. I went to the university women’s association formed to welcome expatriate and sometimes, diplomatic wives. Learned to have vin noveau tasting sessions, how to make kugelhopf.

strasbourg cathedral with street of souvenir stalls
strasbourg cathedral with street of souvenir stalls

Seeing Sydney awoke something in me, the activist maybe. I started chafing at being the homemaker. The children had grown older, I was unhappy and our marital relationship deteriorated. Something in me broke and my mental health took a knock and it exacerbated my post polio syndrome. I fretted, scolded like a fishwife and at the time, there was a lot of roadworks. Strasbourg was being dug up for building the tramlines in which made Strasbourg the accessible city it is now. But at the time, it made me feel like a prisoner. I wrote this poem during that period in my life – kitchen table blues.

 

I grew to understand what loneliness meant when you re not alone. I understood what violence can mean which is not physical – the gaslighting and financial abuse. The inability to ask for help, the helplessness in not able to articulate the failure of a relationship when you have no one close to hear you. Everyone knew us as a couple, what looked like a wonderful caring spouse. The lack of support when you re a disabled person is even more acute when you re dependent on the one person. Strasbourg has also a transient population, some of my best friends had also left. 

However, one of the most influential event during that time for me, was a Redemptorist retreat I did in Dublin lead by a nun from California. I left a family holiday to do a retreat for some time on my own. I cannot remember the details but the lesson I took away was that women should not let themselves be martyed whatever the figure on the cross signified. The message came with more strength in that it was from a nun.  I might be wrong in my interpretation of that message but it gave me an impetus that I did not have to stay in my unhappy state inspite of an innate feeling that I would be abandoning my children who are my responsibility – however I realised that my mental health was at stake. What use would I be if I became mentally ill? I should say I had no doubts that they were very well grounded and they had no problems in school with consistent good results and their schedules were filled with after school activities. In the end my children had never accused me of abandonment but I believe my ex did.

read previous blog

 

 

Slow to feminism (4)

This past weekend I was with other disabled women at the Sisters of Frida peer led facilitating course. Wonderfully lead by Nim Ralph and Lani Parker, we shared experiences, ideas and mentioned skills we can use for the project. It was an intense experience.

That weekend encapsulates a good deal of my day to day activism, my learning, my growing (and continuous growth) appreciation of sisterhood and feminism here in the UK. I cannot say I did not understand sisterhood when I went to an all girl school growing up in Malaysia. I have friends who have stayed like sisters to me from age seven when I started at primary school. But that type of communal childhood sisterhood also means your worldly experience is dependent on that – for me, with an East Asian perspective. I am not saying there are no East Asian feminists but that I was not exposed to those. I did not know about socialism /communism in China, I knew more about kings and queens in England. I did study Malaysian history but the only mention of a Chinese woman was Hang Li Po, supposedly a princess given to Sultan Mansur Shah in Melaka (Malacca) in the 15th century. No mention of any other woman of any other ethnicity. It might be my faulty memory but after racking my brains, I cannot, for the life of me, remember any. We did not study about the suffragettes…but I think we did have mention of the Dowager Empress (and her power). However my history lessons were supplemented by Chinese martial arts movies where women were just as strong and were not just bimbos to be rescued (and of course Chinese romance films as well where women were often victims, I also had a steady diet of Cantonese opera where I would be caught in the headiness of idolising female opera singers who play male roles. I never questioned the culture where genders can be changed in opera ) My best loved films were Come Drink with Me and A Touch of Zen  

woman in costume with sword and hat.
Cheng Pei Pei as swordswoman in film, ‘Come Drink with me’

Why do I mention films? There should be a note of explanation here, my education was entirely in English (the impact of being part of the British empire, even though Malaysia was independent by then, all education was still colonial). I was not in a Chinese school, I was mainly illiterate in my mother tongue. I imbibed Chinese culture through watching films, the radio and what was gleaned from my parents and relatives. Notably a blinkered view of the richness that is Chinese culture. I read Chinese poetry translated in English and then try to fit it with my limited Chinese vocabulary. Ironically it helps me to understand English people who tell me they dont ‘get’ Shakespeare. I read Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and comics with Wonder Women but there were none like my Chinese kungfu heroines who could fight as good as the men and win even.

Feminism was never part of my vocabulary or consciousness when I was growing up or even as a young adult at university. Are young women these days more aware? are we not all wrapped up with what the media choose to bombard them us on billboards, in magazines, in tabloids : how we should look and objectified. And young women are given how to behave and constrained by how they should comply with demands from male school mates so that they are on some kind of acceptance by their peers and included.

I was watching Korean series (as one does) Strong Woman Do Boon So     I wondered at the story line – here is a young woman seen to have incredible strength but her dreams were still centred on a young man who did not reciprocate her love and her boss who is a rich twat who tells her what to do (even though he pays her well to be his bodyguard ). I cannot but compare her with Hit Girl in the Kick Ass movie. There was no sense in ‘making the world a better place’ by using super powers for greater good. I find out that in South Korea it is reported that there is an epic battle between feminism and deep seated misogyny.

I mention all these cultural type references because it is partly what motivates me to be the activist /campaigner I am today. I want to be part of the process of informing other disabled women /of colour about choices and alternatives. We do not have to conform to stereotypes – either those of our own communities with strong patriachal overtones or herein the west where it is not that much different except more nuanced perhaps – in that feminists can be judgmental and insistent that we conform to western ideals of feminism. I hope that because I have my experiences in either world, I can facilitate other women in their search. It is not an easy path when you juggle cultures, you can end up by being feeling alienated from all.

Having said that, I also understand the different journeys – just as I understand, in the different context – that it can take time to take in disability politics. I was slow to feminism, all my young life, I have been lead to hanker for a ‘normal’ life – to be a real woman, desired and be able to fulfil the feminine ideal. It is not easy to get away from the yoke of Confucianism, ironically my first lesson of feminism came from a Catholic nun from California when I was at a retreat in Dublin.                                                                    

 

Feminism from further afield (3)

this is part of a set of blogs in preparation for a chapter in a journal which asked me to write  ” on your work in relation to your personal activism and advocacy with the onset of austerity, and the intersectional tensions as a disabled women involved with a diverse set of communities. In particular we thought you may want to contribute a chapter about your personal reflections, that rigorously capture the new and emerging issues for disability activism” …..

I’ll admit I scratched my head when I was wondering how to write about ‘feminism’ and its role in my life. Lani Parker asked me if I was a feminist in her podcast

Lani: We’ve talked about intersectionality a bit and identity politics, and moving towards the movement stuff. I was wondering, and we talked about bringing in women’s issues and race issues. I was wondering, what does feminism mean to you? Because you’re a very strong feminist.

Eleanor: Thank you. I’m not sure I’m a strong anything. I’ve not really studied feminism as a theory or gone to any feminism classes or courses, or anything like that really. I think for me, feminism is being able to do what you want to do when. Your gender shouldn’t limit your opportunities. Having said that, I realise that it’s not, even if you think you’re a feminist, there are a lot of things in this world that put a stop to your choice, because it’s just easier to conform. I know I got married quite young, and if I was a feminist, if I wasn’t a disabled person, I think, thinking back, I might not have got married at that age. And I think I got married then because I had this internalised idea of myself as not being worthy. And I think that if I didn’t marry the first person who asked me, I might never get another chance. Whereas I don’t think that I would think that if I was a non-disabled woman? So that’s why I’m saying that your choices are compromised, and that’s the intersections they’re kind of in.

I think back of the influences from my own background. My mother is a strong woman, she travelled on her own and escaped from the countryside to go to the city to study during the Communist takeover in Quangzhou. She supported my father in his business and was a businesswoman in her own right. But she stayed well in the family.

My first understanding of the misogyny and patriachal society is from church. One of my mentors, Mrs M committed suicide because of domestic violence and her deep unhappiness also from the fact that her Indian community gave her no support. Of course I have imbibed enough Chinese and Indian films to know how chances are stacked against women. Although I have to add that that Chinese kungfu movies (of which I am a huge fan) have always had strong women warriors and fighters.

Its nothing like the experience of despair and inexplicable resignation of a community when it unfolded in front of me as in the death of a respected member of the community. Everybody seemed to be resigned to it – nobody could/would help her. I raged – I did not understand why she didn’t have choices. I did not understand the patriarchal rules they adhered to. Nobody was denying he abused her. Even sadder was that her sister was given in marriage to help raise the four children she left behind.

I think it was that and another near suicide of another close Indian friend – also through domestic violence that I stopped believing in romance. It simply did not exist in my community. Women got married. They had children. Some men (friend’s fathers) had more than one wife. Even the school secretary but they are not mistresses, they are concubines, unless they are Muslims, then they are wives. We did not question it, it was part of life as we knew it. There was no judgemental bullying of the offspring of such alliances either.

But I got married at a young age myself. I think whatever I felt, I wanted to belong to the idea of the ‘feminine mystique’ . It is still a patriarchal society and as a disabled woman, I longed to belong as with a ‘normal’ ‘rites of passage’ as a woman. And I became a wife and a mother without ever questioning myself.

It was only after the birth of my second child, I decided I should also think of having jobs but soon we moved to Strasbourg (the opportunities for partner and children came before considerations for my own career.) I should say I was enjoying joining other women’s groups and disabled people groups in London at the time, so it was not an easy choice personally.

The logistics of making a new home, grappling with children’s routines, getting to grips with a different culture and language took all my energy and space at the time. I enjoyed expatriate life, made new friends and a new semi diplomatic status. But it had its own toll on me. I felt isolated and without access to my own circle of friends (since I didn’t work) and intellectual stimulation.

I started on a Masters in English Literature with the OU. This where I started researching and thinking about feminism looking at women revolutionaries in the 1790’s, such as Eleanor Ty’s Unsex’d Revolutionaries: Five women Novelists in the 1790’s

So my journey to feminism is not through the suffragettes or learning about them. It was from the voices of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays. I started noticing the absence of women’s work. I had collaborated and presented papers in Museum conferences about gender issues.