At the age of seventeen, with nothing but the clothes on her back and an ambitious desire to create a new life for herself, my Mother made the decision to sail alone from Vietnam to the United States. After the Vietnam War, my Mother’s homeland was left in ashes, so her decision to begin a new life in the land of endless opportunities excited her more than anything. This was her chance for a fresh start. The moment she stepped onto American soil, my Mother instantaneously knew she made the right decision to leave her homeland behind and pursue a better life for herself and future generations here in America. However, she did not anticipate losing the one thing that most defined her back in Vietnam: her voice. My Mother spent her initial years after immigrating to America constantly crying because she could not understand the people around her and vice versa. She felt alone and silenced, like her voice did not matter because it could not be understood.
I fear I will feel the same in the coming months.
This fall quarter, I will be setting sail for the adventure of a lifetime through the study abroad program, Semester at Sea. Along with 600 other students, I will be living on a cruise ship and visiting a total of twelve different countries, including Iceland, Germany, Spain, Ghana, South Africa, Mauritius, Burma, India, China, Japan, Vietnam, and ending back in America in Hawaii and California. I am more than ecstatic to have the opportunity to be exposed to the various cultures of the world. More importantly, I am looking forward to further developing my identity as a woman.
Being a woman in America, especially during this time, is empowering. Here, it is not unusual for women to have access to higher education or obtain stable jobs to raise their own families. We have the decision to be stay-at-home moms or be CEOs of large corporate companies. Although we are constantly questioned about our ability to hold such strong positions in society, at the end of the day, we are rightfully given the opportunity to do so. However, women in other countries are not given this right. For example, when applying for my Indian visa, I was asked to provide either my husband’s contact information and, if I were single, to provide my father’s contact information instead. Shocked, I realized that women are not women without their male counterparts in other countries.
As an American woman, I never had to think twice about being my own person. I have never thought of my identity as being based on the men in my life. It is surprising that women in countries like India have to live in the shadows of men and find their restricted identities through their husbands and fathers. Fortunately, I am given the incredible opportunity to travel the world as an independent and ambitious woman, free to discover the world and myself in the process. But how will I react when I see these women who I currently think are being oppressed? Women who cannot even choose which clothes to wear let alone who they marry? Am I being blinded by my American upbringing that I am so quick to judge women of other cultures as oppressed simply because they do not have the same rights as I do? And so I ask myself this question: Will my outlook on being a woman in America change for the better or worse after my trip?
I am afraid my voice will be silenced on my upcoming voyage because my current voice is based on my American values. My right to free speech is protected in the First Amendment, but what will happen when I am not given the same right to do so in the various countries I will be visiting? I fear that I will not be allowed to fully express how I genuinely feel in each country because it is against the law or norm. I rely solely on my right to free speech to develop the voice I have as a woman in our society today. To me, the most dangerous thing a woman can be is silent, so how will I feel when I see women of other cultures having to subserviently follow their male counterparts and I cannot speak up for them? What if I lose my voice because I cannot exercise it and help out my fellow women?
Nonetheless, I plan to travel with open ears and an accepting heart. I will continue to use my voice when it is possible while simultaneously divulging myself in the cultures of each country I am visiting. I want to first-handedly experience what it is like to be a woman of various cultures. I will continue to write about the women I encounter throughout my trip and how they affect my voice, and my view on being a woman in America.