I was born in Viet Nam in a little town 200km Southeast of Ho Chi Minh City/ Sai Gon named Tra Vinh, but I spent the first eight years of my life in the rural district of Tieu Can. We do not get to choose where and which family we are born into, but luckily, mine could afford a good hospital.
Gender-based discrimination starts from even before the child is born. In many highly patriarchal cultures like mine, sometimes, just because of biology, everything in the world will be placed against you. Growing up, I was always told that my Mom and Dad really wanted a girl after my two brothers. They prayed, gave contributions, and did good deeds to the local pagoda and church in hope that their new baby would be a girl. I am so fortunate to be born in such a loving family who wants me because, where I come from, that is not usually the case.
I also grew up quite privileged compared to other girls my age because my family could send me to school every month without having to choose between my education and putting food on the table. They could afford some private tutoring for me and even some basic English classes. However, even being in a better socioeconomic background does not mean I, as a girl growing up, did not face discrimination.
Before I was born, my parents tried so hard to immigrate to the States with my two brothers and with the help of my uncles and aunts who escaped right after the Fall of Sai Gon: a new government in Viet Nam. Paperwork got mixed up at the Consulates, and in the end, nothing came to fruition. They tried again with me and I think they always knew that as a girl in Viet Nam, it would be harder for me to reach my fullest potential. Whenever we got into arguments, my mom always said to me “I gave birth to a girl, but it seems like I have three boys in this family”. Maybe growing up with two brothers affected my personality – for example, my “boyish” ways of being blunt and honest, or my stubborn tendencies to hold on to my beliefs, or my outspokenness. Coming from a highly patriarchal society that still holds a lot of Confucian values dear, those traits make me stand out because they are highly frowned upon in women. Growing up (and still), I always had to strive to be graceful, domestic, smart, but not too much otherwise I might undermine my elders (such as my Dad or brothers). I could also not speak up too often or ask too many questions because I would be seen as nosy. My early childhood education in Tieu Can was met with a lot of complaints from my teachers; at parent-teacher conferences, there was always one common comment, “she expresses and asks too many things” or “she is too strong of a character”. Never did I overhear that comment said to my male classmates.
Even though I study politics now, I was hesitant to follow that path. Almost everyone has the impression that politics is complicated and messy, and I tend to agree with that. I think that is why I was so afraid of admitting my fascination for it. My best friend said to me in Junior year of our U.S. History class, where we studied about the institutional and societal development of Virginia and the U.S., “you should study Political Science.”
I felt discouraged, by no one in particular, to study politics because I did not think I could handle the complex decision making and all that is involved. In addition, I was hesitant to pursue something that would not make a lot in its starting salary. After moving to the States, I grew to be quite cognizant and worried about money and my life choices – because as immigrants, we did not have a lot of it. My parents never had the chance to go to university because they grew up during the Viet Nam War; my Dad quit when he was in primary school to help out around the house, though my Mom was more fortunate and had the opportunity to study until high school. But in the States, they both ended up working more low-paying and physically demanding jobs than in Viet Nam. And attending university in the States is very expensive. As an example, I currently attend a state school, which means it is public, yet, tuition and fees (including on-campus housing and meals) is around $24,000. I was so scared of pursuing something that would not pay much and would have to be a burden to my parents. They already have gone through so much and I felt I would dishonor them by having them spend so much money on me.
Near the end of my last year in high school, I still was not sure about a career in politics and was actually going to pursue International Business. At that young age, I knew it
would not have brought me the same joy as studying politics would; I figured with a business degree, I would always find a job. In my mind, I was thinking it would be better to be miserable for a short time rather than be miserable my entire life without a job. It was not until April of my Senior Year that I received an email from Virginia Tech saying I had received their “Presidential Scholar Initiative” scholarship, which ultimately changed my plans. With the scholarship, it would cover my tuition and fees, housing, and meal expenses for four years. Even then, I still hesitated and did not change
my major until Orientation Week of my first year.
Fear of financial mishaps, judgement from society, and lack of confidence made me shy away from pursuing studies in politics. I felt like my voice did not matter. The financial aspect of this did not help either. Minorities always struggle to reach their dreams because of such obstacles. It is noble to say that everyone should be able to reach their fullest potential, regardless of judgements from societies and the related economic cost, but the question is how and where do we start in putting that to action.
When I was in Viet Nam this past summer, one of my sister-in-laws asked me, “Tại sao em chộn một ngành phức tạp vậy”? which translates to, “why are you are studying such a complicated subject”? I know she did not mean any harm by asking that, but questions like this show that we can start by having a real and open dialogue about why we still exclude women from politics and decision-making roles.
Western values are not superior to Vietnamese ones, they are just different. Even in both worlds, I still might be seen as that friend who attends too many political rallies, or the daughter that talks too much about politics, and the sister that shares too many political-related posts, but I stand by my actions. I might be seen as too headstrong and non-conforming to both cultures, but that is what makes me great at what I do.
We have to stop classifying intellectual capabilities based on how one identifies themselves, and in this case, it is gender. Yes, “traditional” women have had domestic roles, but that does not mean that this generation cannot change that. Such traditional roles have made women strong figures at home, but why can that not be possible in the political sphere?
For me, politics is about people, and in this line of work, it is so easy to get distracted by all of the bureaucratic and ugly complexities. My stubbornness might not have given me an advantage when arguing with my parents, but I have an edge in fighting injustices. In my opinion, to make an impact in my world means I have to fight for people and ideas that I believe in, no matter the challenge.
Furthermore, when we understand the vital role that others can add to important discussions, we can see why funding their studies matter. I can absolutely say that without having all of my studies paid for, I do not think I would have attended university, let alone study politics. For starters, the United States has one of the highest university costs in the world, therefore, excluding people from particular socio-economic backgrounds from contributing to society and being productive citizens. Access to affordable higher education is an issue that affects both developed and developing countries. While it is easier for a part of the population to obtain higher education in a developed country like the United States, we must not forget about others in the developing ones. Women in countries like Viet Nam are discouraged from pursuing higher education because of high costs and their families would rather invest in the male counterpart because of old notions. Rather than attending university or other post-secondary forms of education, women are encouraged to seek a good husband and train their domestic and nurturing side.
We live in a time now where we need more action and activism than ever. I want to change the world for the better and I cannot do it alone. I need more strong minds and spirits to help me because when we exclude certain people out of the arena based on how they identify themselves, their backgrounds, and things they cannot control, we miss the chance to nurture that talent and potential for a greater life.
A little about Caitlin: As someone who has third culture identity, having moved from Vietnam to the States at a very young age, I’m often very critical and observant of the world around me. For this reason I am pursuing International Studies at Virginia Tech. In this field of study I feel as though I am constantly being introduced to and am learning from other cultures. My background and experiences growing up have definitely contributed to why I want to share my knowledge and viewpoint with the world and others. I hope by doing so, I can raise awareness across issues, whether those be gender equality or indigenous rights.