Strange thoughts come to me sometimes as I am falling asleep. Last night was one of those times.
I recall my first winter here, when I was so bundled I couldn’t distinguish myself as male or female. Based on makeup and jewelry I appeared obviously female. However, based on stature alone the impression could have gone either way.
Having discovered a hole in the wall restaurant that makes Re Gan Mian exactly to my liking, I repaired there several times per week to partake. Hunched and shivering, the only source of warmth being the bowl of noodles in my hand, I would shovel the food in lest it cool too quickly. Cold Re Gan Mian does not taste good. Besides, as brutal as it was that winter I quickly learned to let no source of warmth go to waste. Holding the bowl served the dual purpose of heating my hands while putting the food within decent eating distance. Tables are so low here, the Chinese can simply hunch over and slurp noodles. I so tall have to sit at the next table to hunch over my table.
In comes a woman who is obviously impervious to cold, and equally obviously, had never been up close and personal to a foreigner before. She sat within inches of me, ogling my feet and then working her way up. Her gaze stopped at my knee and she yelled to the shopkeeper: “Is it a man or a woman?” she was mortified when I answered her. Not because she asked the question but because I understood her.
This story is relevant now, in light of the airline personnel who did such a great job of emptying that plane that crashed in San Francisco. What started out as a sidebar and then became the headline, there was a big to-do about flight attendants of Asian airlines having to meet exacting physical attributes. They must be tall and slim, not exceeding a certain weight. They must wear a certain shade of lipstick, nail polish, and wear their hair pulled back. They take charm lessons, posture lessons, how to walk, how to smile… how to save lives and manage panicked passengers when such horrors as wing loss or tails shearing off occur.
Along the way was given to understand that, traditionally, such work as ‘stewardess’ was strictly the purview of women. And, as the news column I was reading divulged, back then women were not expected to be much more than flying eye candy with rudimentary waitress skills. Cockpit crews, all men, were trained for the incident commander role with the expectation that one of them would direct everyone else’s efforts in the event of an emergency.
Between this current tragic event, my experiences as a maintenance technician and the furor over abortion laws in America I’ve been contemplating: why must there be such disparity between genders? That got me thinking.
In French there is a broad distinction between male and female – ‘il’ and ‘elle’ (pronounced: ‘eel’ and ‘ell’). To my knowledge, no one knows how or why objects are assigned to one gender or the other. For example: A car is gender feminine, as is a table, a bicycle, a cup and others. A desk, a computer, a truck and a couch are all gender masculine. That is to say that the article preceding those objects is either gender feminine (une/la) or masculine (un/le). Gender neutral items, designated by ‘it’ in English, mostly fall into the male category. For example: ‘It is warm’ translates into ‘Il fait chaud’ – literally ‘he makes hot’.
German makes a finer distinction. Whereas objects also fall into broad male/female categories, like English there is also an ‘it’. Tables, rooms, cars and plates are ‘it’. Streets, armchairs, trees and others are all masculine. Typewriters, doors and ants are all feminine. However, when using the German article equivalent to English ‘a/an’, ‘it’ reverts to masculine.
Not so in Chinese. Here, everything is ‘ta’. Same pronunciation, same Romanized spelling. Besides seeing the character, the only way to distinguish whether the speaker is talking about a man or a woman is to specifically ask: ‘Is it a man or a woman?’ – like that woman asked about me when I was so bundled up it was not immediately recognizable which side of the line I am. Furthermore, the base character itself remains the same but the radical – the part of the character that precedes the actual ideogram and gives it meaning reflects either ‘man’ or ‘woman’: Masculine ta is 他，feminine is 她 . Gender neutral is 它 – note the base character change and the lack of radical。
In Chinese, objects have no gender identification. In fact there is very little gender distinction at all in this language. Let’s use ‘child’ as an example. In English there are specific words to distinguish male and female children. Specific colors too… but I’m not going to say anything pink or blue. I will mention the new fad about paint parties, where the expected baby’s gender is divulged to its parents’ friends, who then host a party themed the particular color identified with girl or boy babies, thus revealing to the expectant parents whether to ponder boy or girl names.
In Chinese the base word for ‘child’ – ‘hai zi’ is used. If specifics are asked for the word changes: ‘nan hai’ – male child or ‘nu hai’ – female child. Men and women are similarly distinguished: ‘nan ren’ or ‘nu ren’, male or female person, respectively. The one distinction made is culturally based, predicated on the desire for sons: ‘er zi’ means ‘son’. ‘Daughter’ is ‘nu er’, using the same ‘er’ character that depicts ‘son’.
As far as my research in Chinese mythology has taken me, although there are male and female deities, they are also not gender based. That is, there are an equal number of male and female deities, and although they address varied spiritual aspects, both genders have equal power. Ditto with wisdom and enlightenment. Only in translations do Confucian sayings reflect gender. Furthermore it appears that deities can change shape at will: not just across gender lines but into animals, either mythical or real.
The Tao and the Buddha address male and female entities equally. Taoist or Buddhist monks – historical or current day, can be male or female and live in the same monastery or temple, wear the same clothing and shave their heads. Unlike western religions that distinguish monks as men, while women who take a similar vow are known as nuns. Western monks and nuns are garbed differently, housed separately and fulfill different roles within their doctrine and society.
Delving into the secular realm: a ‘gong ren’ is a worker, gender unspecified. A boss is a ‘lao ban’, again no gender. A migrant worker is ‘min gong’, min meaning ‘person’ and ‘gong’ being work. A service person – maid, restaurant waitstaff, etc are all ‘fu wu yuan’. Sales clerks and ticket takers are ‘shou hou yuan’ and ‘shou’piao yuan’, respectively. In these categories, ‘yuan’ represents ‘employee’ not Chinese currency, which is also pronounced ‘yuan’. In any avenue to describe any level or social class or worker class, there is no gender distinction at all.
Compare that to ‘tailor’ versus ‘seamstress’ in English. It is generally understood that tailors are male and seamstresses are female. What about waiter and waitress? Other words, gender unspecified, like teacher, nurse, flight attendant… these professions are generally thought to be female oriented, therefore it is common to say ‘a male nurse’, ‘a male teacher’ – especially if that teacher leads lower grade classes. ‘Stewardess’ was recently abandoned in favor of the more PC ‘flight attendant’, taking focus off gender. Nevertheless, such attendants of the male sort are usually designated as ‘male flight attendants’. What if the wine steward at a fancy restaurant is female? Would we call her a wine stewardess? Or would we use the more refined French term ‘sommelier’ – gender masculine, might I point out.
I postulate the gender neutrality in Chinese is a reflection of the Yin-Yang philosophy. Looking at that diagram you see equal, opposite halves of one whole. Chinese philosophy understands the need for balanced male and female energy in the greater scheme of things.
One of the most difficult classes I took in college wasn’t even labeled a class but a ‘learning community’. During those sessions our group delved into social issues like race/ethnicity, and discrimination in general, including disability, age, gender, race/ethnicity, among others. Many times I was left wrung out by the impact of the subject matter and how we, as humans manage such issues based on our life experiences.
One of the best lessons I took from that class was the ‘Person First’ concept. A Chinese man becomes ‘a person who is Chinese’ and a disabled woman becomes ‘a person who is disabled’. Putting ‘person’ ahead of the distinguishing characteristic(s) eliminates any potential gender bias and the penchant for labels and stereotype. Why must we label a nurse ‘male’? Why should a woman who is a maintenance technician be referred to as ‘a female maintenance tech’ – this, from my personal experience.
Reading all those articles about the people who did everything they could to evacuate that downed jet in San Francisco brought the gender issue under the microscope. I swear to you that this blog in no way aspires to be political but, except for the difference between Chinese being genderless and the Western languages I know being gender-full, I’m afraid I did overstep the PC boundary.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could abandon the politics of gender and become a ‘People First’ collective society?