The Flexibility Of Gender

Image by Capucine from Pixabay

“I pulled a seat for her. She thanked me, but she used ‘krap’ instead of ‘ka’ to end her sentence. I was shocked since I thought only men use ‘krap’. Women are supposed to use ‘ka’.”

That’s a message online from a young man who traveled to Thailand for holidays. Like all Thai learners, when he learned Thai, the first thing he learned was that men end their sentences with “krap” and women end their sentences with “ka”. And me too. I learned it too. However, the reality is less clear cut and more complicated: There are a lot of switching back and forth going on, all depending on the situation. A woman may say “krap” to show gratitude or intimacy to a man; a man may say “ka” to flirt with a woman.

When I first read about this online exchange, I was surprised too since I thought the rule of “krap” and “ka” is set in stone, and a man trying to sound like a woman (or a woman trying to sound like a man) will be frowned upon at least, if not shamed or ridiculed into binge eating and self disgust.

Now I think about this, I guess Thai people understand the playfulness and the flexibility of gender more than anybody else. They seem to allow each person to define his or her own preference, adjust the gender notion to suit different situations, and make human interaction more fluid and less inhibited.

I remember years ago, an anthropology student told me that when the missionaries first arrived in Southeast Asia in the 15th or 16th century, they found that people didn’t care about the gender issue at all. There was no distinct LGBT community since people of different orientations or life styles all mingled together. The astonished missionaries wrote books and letters to denounce such a behavior. They thought it unnatural, but it turned out that such a tolerance or open mind is natural to a human society. Those who oppose such a free and easy attitude are unnatural.

We all know that rigid gender role has deprived men of their right to express their feelings, and forced women to acquiesce to the point that they never speak up.

And my grandparents’ fishing village had the most strict gender rule of all, which in a way contributed to my grandma’s tragic life and her narcissism. Women were not supposed to get on a fishing boat since women’s presence was a bad luck sign. Actually women were not supposed to go near the fishing net or even touch the material that were to be made into boats. On the other hand, men were not supposed to do any cooking or any other work inside the house. The gender rule was so inviolable that it was said if a man cooked a meal or if a woman mended a fishing net, a storm would be invoked, boats would be overturned, lives would be lost.

Anyway, my grandparents believed in everything they were told. Not only that, they considered their adherence to rigid and outdated rules as a virtue that deserved endless applause from people around them. They moved to a big city in their 30s, away from their village, but their fishing village belief continued and eventually followed them to their grave. They thought everything was set in stone and no grey area existed anywhere in their lives; nothing was negotiable and everybody was a disappointment; they thought they could predict a kid’s future when he or she was very young; they were particularly vehement on controversial issues and imagined that their passionate stubbornness would help them win arguments.

Fast forward to the immigrant community here across the Pacific. Although we are more reasonable and flexible than my grandparents, we often say things that can hurt ourselves and hurt other people. If a wife is older than her husband, sometimes just by a few months, people would talk about this “imperfection” regularly; if a husband enjoys his home life and doesn’t pay much attention to his buddies, he is considered unsuitable to be a man; if a wife is more educated than her husband, there will be endless discussion of her arrogant ways and unwifely manner.

And when I was working in a sales company years ago, my boss G was a woman who led the Asian team of 15 people. G and her husband had a chaotic relationship. Our salary was directly linked to the sales volume. Sometimes G’s salary was higher than her husband and sometimes it was lower. When we had a very good year in sales, G would have more tension at home since G and her husband didn’t know how to handle the new situation that subverted the traditional gender structure.

In order to be happy, unlearning is as important as learning. Learning is not the easiest thing, but unlearning is really difficult. For some, unlearning is almost impossible.

17 thoughts on “The Flexibility Of Gender

  1. This reminds of the same thing about Indian families. They come to the US to establish a new life, but old cultural practices remain even in this newfound home. A couple of weeks ago, Seattle outlawed discrimination against the Hindu caste system, which made me happy as this is a problem with Indian-led companies in Silicon Valley.

    Also, I witnessed a lot of gender fluidity when teaching in a Thai village. It was quite eye-opening!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I just googled this news and it is said “caste discrimination is very real in Seattle.” I don’t even know such discrimination exists in America. And I hope this law can really help people fight discrimination. Now it all makes sense. And I hope people who are discriminated against can really speak up…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, unlearning is important too especially when it comes to gender roles. However, I feel that some things are so difficult to change and when it comes to gender roles it’s going to be a very long time before people conformity leaves the conversation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So true. I mean gender difference is almost everything in some people’s eyes. The meaning of their existence, their cultivated aesthetics are all depending on it. It is really unnatural that people would put so much emphasis on it. This unnaturalness is being cultivated and people are being educated into thinking and feel in a certain way.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Definitely unnatural to care that much about gender stereotypes. Or to care at all really. People should be free to be themselves. I don’t understand how that effects other people enough to want to suppress others.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. So true. Many people who are discouraged themselves become very discouraging to others. It is a very bad cycle. In order to create a good cycle, one has to break the bad cycle first.


  3. How fascinating languages are! And how ridiculous some superstitions. Like women at sea. Same with mining. Women were not allowed in mines, considered bad luck. Curious, since the Holy Barbara (a woman) is the patron of miners.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great share. I enjoyed it. Life is not as harmonious as we like it to be when it seems to matter most to those who contribute more to its imbalances. If only cultures could easily adapt to overlook noticeable flaws of others as easily as we do the flaws in ourselves.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Life is not as we think it is and often it is a lot messy than what we tend to think. I mean the way we were brought up and educated is quite structured, but life is not really like that. Flaw and no-flaw can take a completely different meaning.

      Liked by 1 person

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