“When I was in high school, whenever a male student in my class got the highest score on a math or science test, everyone would say that he is smart, but if the same thing happened to a female student, everyone would attribute it to the fact that she is hard-working. The implication was that a female student had no gift to excel in science. The best they could do is to be book-smart.”
Growing up, I have witnessed my mother react fiercely in acts of injustice in countless situations. I have seen her call-out on shop owners for trying to hand over counterfeited 50-yuan bills as the change to old ladies and watched her five-year-old shield kids from their parents’ highly raised fists. I had never once seen her put up with any sort of nonsense without a fight. Yet, she had stated the above with unbelievable serenity, as though she saw no point in combating the stereotype.
My mother completed both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in engineering at a renowned university in mainland China. When I became old enough to ask for boy advice, my mother blatantly admitted that she was unable to give me any.
“In my graduating class, there were about 20 girls and hundreds of guys. The male students would line up to date the girls without the girls even having to lift a finger. That is why I have no idea how to win a boy over. It was the process of elimination that gave me the headaches.” She had said jokingly.
There was a faint sadness in her otherwise light-hearted tone that I could not place. I asked her why there was such a huge difference between the number of female and male students in her major. The response I got was a dry scoff.
“No one believed back then that female students had a place in science.” My mother said simply.
She went on to enumerate instances in her childhood that challenged her passion for the sciences–her chemistry teacher’s clear favoritism towards male students, her physics teacher’s comment on how she was only ‘hard-working’ but had ‘no talent’ to ‘really excel in science’ simply because she belonged to the ‘fairer sex,’ her self-consciousness whenever she realized she was one of the few girls–if not the only girl–in math club meetings or after-school training sessions for the Science Olympiad… The woman I had known to be self-assured suddenly looked tiresome as she recounted these petty little discouragements that formed the path to her engineering career.
“There is no point in verbally defending yourself if no one around you actually knows what is right and what is wrong.” She had said. “I have learned the hard way that the only way to point out the truth was to become a living exception that proves them wrong.”
The conversation carried on with the same calmness that I remember to this day. The lack of emotion was the kind of scarring effect that these experiences had left on my mother–it snuffed the fire out of her, the fire that fueled her to fight back, to raise the alarm, to challenge injustice. She had grown accustomed to fighting a silent battle, knowing fully that no words of hers would be taken seriously without successful results.
Yet I still see traces of hope dancing in her eyes–just hints of them–so delicate and faint that they fade faster than meteors flashing across the night sky. I see them whenever she visits her old university campus and sees more and more female students filling up the lecture falls. I see them when I tell her how I enjoy attending science fairs at school with my female friends.d I see them when her childhood friends who have become engineering professors regard their female students’ talent and resilience as their most commendable qualities as opposed to the sheer number of hours they spend burying their noses in textbooks.
And sometimes I wonder if the fire in her has been reignited–or perhaps it has never faded entirely.