Photography by Audrey Gretz
My grandma always told me that girls had one job: to look pretty. This meant she coached me to sit up straight (but not too straight that I’d stand out), fold my hands elegantly on my knees, speak only when spoken to, smile, nod, and basically be a flower petal. My every bruise, pimple, and hangnail was a source of concern for her because it defied her careful teachings. She told me that women were supporters. We were not meant to play the lead role in the class musical or direct it. We didn’t have a spot in board meetings, except to serve and clear away the tea. And most of all, we mustn’t say no. “It’s just not proper,” my grandma always said, “for a lady to speak against better judgement.” So I guess she meant girls had two jobs, to look pretty and to obey. And I had agreed.
I was shy. I couldn’t speak up in class even when I was called on. I needed permission to go to the bathroom. When I was told to wait, I would wait for hours on end obediently until someone finally noticed and hastily explained that he only meant a minute—I was free to go after a minute. I didn’t understand. I had only done as I was told.
I wasn’t exceptionally smart. Average at best, but not exceptional. I couldn’t lead a group presentation even if I’d wanted to. All of my “creative” ideas were always suggested by somebody else, then were rejected. I would listen in the corner, trying not to lean on the back of my chair, happy to follow whatever was decided.
I couldn’t talk very well. Speeches and presentations were sometimes easier for me because I could prepare and memorize a script. In daily conversations though, I couldn’t hang on to little index cards to remind me of my next sentence. When outgoing talkative people spoke to me, I would nod and smile, and we would both be happy. The problem came when I had to talk to people I’d just met who were as nervous as I was. “So you’re an English major, huh?” he would begin, fidgeting. I would nod, trying to raise the corners of my mouth in the demurely sophisticated way my grandma had taught me: the same smile that I practiced in the mirror every night. Silence. “I uh, I’m in Politics.” Another nod and a smile from me. You can see how I was well-liked by talkative people.
These traits were approved by my grandma. She said I was already a real lady by the time I entered junior high. This made me very proud. I liked being called a lady. It sounded so elegant. I would do everything in my power to be called a lady again, from working on my handwriting to experimenting on hairstyles. “Looking like a lady is just as important as actually being one,” my grandma’s voice would ring in my ears as I pinned my hair up in a classical bun.
My grandma always told me that the ultimate career that girls should aim for was marriage. Girls were to find a nice man with a stable job so that we could spend a safe, happy life inside a safe, happy home. For her, a girl with a job was simply saving up for a modest wedding. After that, she would quit and serve her husband. Every time I visited her house, I would eat my grandma’s words up obediently. I would promise to find a nice man, have nice kids, and have a happily ever after. It didn’t quite go that way.
It was a typical love story. Tragic, but typical. You know the storyline: boy meets girl, girl takes it way too seriously, scares boy away.
Sad, but still typical. Or it is now, now that I’m over him. I think I gave him confidence, the boy in politics. He couldn’t talk any more than I could, but he seemed to gain courage from my dutiful nods and smiles. He was knowledgeable and sweet, so when he asked me with probably more confidence than he’d ever had, I agreed to date him. I didn’t admit it for a long time, but I was also getting desperate, having never taken anyone to my grandma for her scrutiny, let alone approval. In the past, most guys lost interest in having a submissive girl tag-along before we could officially start dating.
He, on the other hand, couldn’t get enough, solely because he’d never been in a position of power before. With me, it was him who always held the reins. I would never criticize his judgements, whether it was dropping a class or ordering takeout for dinner. I found encouragements and praise for him on every occasion. While most guys took that as false praise or just plain “creepy,” he relished it. I heard my grandma speaking matter-of-factly in my mind: “Men need us women to build their self-esteem.”
He told me that I made him feel like he could tell me anything. He did tell me a lot of things. He mostly shared his political views. I didn’t understand, object, question, or challenge them. I began studying current affairs to please him. He was all too happy to correct my mispronounced “demagogue” and give lengthy tutorials on how “corrupt” the government was. I was an attentive student. I took mental notes on everything he said, and the night would find me at my desk, meticulously researching every political term and incident he had so passionately shared with me.
It was on one of those occasions that I stumbled across a few discrepancies. I vividly remembered him saying that the Timor Gap Treaty was enacted in 1997, yet my computer screen showed a date six years previous to his. I filed it away as an honest mistake triggered by passion. My next find was slightly less excusable. He got the date right, but the people he said had aided the president in containing a coup, were actually the leading rebels. There was no conspiracy or complicated plot twist; the rebels were rebels, and were rebels from the start. I debated whether or not to correct him, but as it was too great to be another “honest mistake,” I called him. He was upset. “Why would you question me?” He cried almost hysterically in my ear. “I’m the expert in politics; it’s your job to listen and learn!” Horrified at my own impudence, I immediately apologized and quoted my grandma that I never should have spoken against “better judgement.” He told me that was exactly what I had done. That was the first sign.
“Men need us women to build their self-esteem.”
The next sign came when I failed my driver’s test. No one I knew had failed, and as much as I was ashamed to admit it, I told him. I think I was expecting the consolation that I always tried to give him. Instead, what he said was: “Well, what did you expect? Driving is a guy thing; only guys have the biological construction to drive. You can’t possibly have expected to pass on your first try being a girl.” Then, he hung up. I didn’t do any research that night, but sat on the bed hugging my pillow, thinking. I guess I understood what he meant about biological structure; men have more muscle, and are usually taller. Some men are stronger and faster than professional female athletes. Yes, that was a biological fact. Would that be adequate reasoning for the outcome of a driving test, though?
There were other little signs such as him suggesting that Jeffrey Archer was too “technical” for me and that I would “never get to the end without at least skipping a few hundred pages.” Or him pointing out a strand of hair that had slithered out of my freshly-pinned bun, but never making any effort to comb his own hair. I kept assuring him that I was enjoying Sons of Fortune, and that I could tuck the strand behind my ear. “It doesn’t look so messy now, does it?” To which he remarked that I was becoming “a little too impertinent recently,” which gave me a nasty shock. Impertinent? Me? After all my grandma’s teachings, had I gotten nothing right?
I called my grandma and related my recent troubles to her. She listened carefully before she spoke. “I’ve no doubt you meant well, but men are highly sensitive of over-talking, opinionated ladies. I don’t think you should have told him those things”, she said sagely, “it sounded like you wanted to contradict him. Men don’t like that. What did I tell you about self-esteem?” I quoted my grandma’s many ideologies on men; Men need us women to build their self-esteem. It was at that moment, when I uttered the credo that I had worshipped for as long as I could remember, that I questioned my grandma for the first time. But what about mine?
But what about mine?
He broke up with me soon after. He accused me of being “too intense and needy.” I guess he had outgrown my obedience as well. My grandma of course, gave me a lot more than a few curt words. She smiled at me with furrowed brows, ever trying to be the accommodating lady she’d always pushed me to be. Her words though, were not as warm. She chastised me for not being able to keep one man satisfied, of not living by her rules as a lady as stoically as I should have, of not trying enough. I hadn’t tried enough? But hadn’t he told me I was too intense? Didn’t that mean I had tried too hard?
As if the cork of a champagne bottle had flown off, I was suddenly exploding with something I’d never had before: questions. Why was my grandma saying one thing, but he was saying the polar opposite? Why was I always the one watching out for his self-esteem? Why wasn’t I allowed one hair out of place, when he didn’t even seem to own a hairbrush? Why couldn’t I be both a lady and have opinions? Why?
The thing about underestimating yourself and having people limit your abilities, is that if it goes on long enough, you utterly give yourself in to the fact that you are nothing but a slave in your own life. You get used to people holding the reins and yanking you in one direction, only to veer you into another. If you defied them, the reins choked you. You had no choice. At least, that’s how he and my grandma made me feel. Maybe they meant well, but they were trying to drive me into a road I didn’t want to enter. I didn’t know that I could cut off those reins digging into my neck, and take the path they’d ignored.