Moana and Gender Studies

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Many of you might know that my thesis was about Moana, but what’s that got to do with gender? You see, Moana is a “boy story” with a female protagonist that celebrates both her “masculine” and “feminine” qualities – that is what we need to teach children.

Literature, films and cartoons affect how children perceive themselves the same way that social interactions and expectations do. Not only do they shape children’s understanding and acceptance of dominant ideologies, but also reinforce gender stereotype through reproduction.

Children, in spite of their sex, should be raised and encouraged in the same way. Personal qualities should not be categorised as two sets of opposing ideals, and boys and girls should be taught to embrace both their masculinity and femininity. Only then can they fully develop and maximise their potentials.

In Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, she writes that, “In each of us two powers preside, one male, one female […] The androgynous mind is resonant and porous […] naturally creative, incandescent and undivided”. I see gender as a continuum and that our gender identity can be measured by the levels of masculinity and femininity in us.

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So, those who have a higher level of male sex hormones, reflect less of the traditionally considered feminine traits and perform a rather masculine role – physically, visually and psychologically – the person would be in the blue zone. A child who is biologically female, has a short hairstyle, prefers to wear trousers to dresses and likes insects could be in the light blue and/or light pink territory. The yellowish-lime area represents those who do not consider themselves as masculine or feminine; it is what we usually regard as the grey area – something that is not clearly distinguished. People who are androgynous or ambiguous about their gender would belong to that region. The white corner – which symbolises nil or emptiness – that says agender refers to people who do not identify with any gender.

There is no judgment of right or wrong, good or bad in this diagram; it has more space for diversity. Our gender identity is fluid and keeps evolving as we grow up. Gender is performative; I would dress, walk, sit and talk differently in different contexts. Gender is something one does, not something one is.

Gender equality is not a women’s issue, it’s a men’s issue too. Men and boys are also imprisoned by gender stereotypes. Policies and laws have to be changed, but there is nothing more important than changing people’s attitudes and mindsets, what we believe and what we value about gender.

As a teacher myself, I have to admit that I have had gender biases which affected my interaction with my students, assessment of their work and classroom management. It is unfair to the pupils and could affect their personal and social development. In creating more gender-neutral, nonrestrictive environments for children, we could help to nurture more heroes and heroines who are not afraid to show their true colours.

Homerton May Ball 2017

May Ball is a ball at the end of the academic year that takes place at any of the colleges. We have it here in Cambridge, and Oxford does it too. It starts around 6-9pm and ends at 5am, with unlimited food and drinks and lots to do. I knew I’ll be going to one and brought a gown from home (planning ahead you know; thank goodness I could still fit in it, given the fact that I bought it two years ago!).

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St. John’s May Ball is renowned world-wide but it’s more about who you go with. As most of my friends are from Homerton, it was an easy decision to make. I unintentionally avoided the queue since I didn’t get back to Cambridge till 9 coming back straight from a holiday in Spain. I didn’t mind getting in late because it’s all night long. There were inflatable ball pit, swing rides, helter skelter, live music performances, dance tutorials, face painting and so much more. I loved the ballroom and latin dance session. They were doing one of my favourite dances – Jive – when we joined. It was the silent disco that kept us up all night! My friends were impressed with my posing skills in the photo booth LOL We Asians are very well trained indeed :p

To be honest, I think I’m too old for unlimited food and drink and party till sunrise. I definitely didn’t make it worth even a quarter of the amount that I’ve paid but that’s not the point; I’ve had an amazing time with my friends and that’s all that matters (though I wish I have a date). At the end of the night, at 5 in the morning, those who made it would take a “survivors’ photo”. You have no idea how overjoyed I was at the thought of shower and hitting the sack!

It was definitely a once in a lifetime experience but I’m so glad that I’m only going to one (I know someone who’s going to 4!). I went to bed at 6.30 this morning and had 6-hour sleep. After “breakfast”, food shop, laundry and Skyping with my family, I took another 3-hour nap at 6; I finally felt better at 11 after a very late dinner. I don’t think I’ll be fully recovered and get back to my normal routine in a couple days. It’s hard to focus and work indoor during May Week with so much fun stuff going on and the weather being so nice outside. However, with my thesis deadline in three weeks’ time, and having been away for a week, I really need to get back to work 😦

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Survivors!

Travelling Solo

Are you the kind of person who would never ever go to a restaurant or the cinema alone and has to be surrounded by people all the time? Or are you the kind of person who needs to introvert in your room to recharge and enjoy solitude a bit too much? I am the latter, more of an extroverted introvert. You might be wondering where this is going, just keep reading.

I don’t remember when my first solo travel was, but I just know I prefer travelling on my own (well, maybe until I find an adventurous soulmate who would do all the crazy stuff with me). I’ve only travelled with friends on a couple trips; it was fun but we had to compromise and it involved lots of planning (pain). There is also the possibility of ruining your friendship when you travel with even your best friends – I’m not kidding! I, am going to persuade you to travel. solo. For at least once, please, in your life, even if the idea scares the shit out of you. Or maybe you’re just uncertain and needed a push. But be careful, cuz it’s addictive.

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Travelling solo is challenging. I hope you have a good sense of direction or could at least read a map, okay don’t fret, there’s something called Google Map – it’ll be your best friend. When you are in a foreign place on your own, it could be exciting or terrifying. There is no one to depend on, you have to figure everything out by yourself: how to get from the airport to city centre when you can’t read the bus schedule, which platform is your train departing from that’s leaving in 8 minutes and the most important, what to order. My advice? Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Ask the waiter what he/she would recommend. Ask the guy in the uniform who looks really bored to take a look at your ticket and direct you to where you need to be. Ask someone who looks like a local how to get to that secret lookout which is not on the map. You’d be surprised how helpful people are.

Travelling solo is not caring. This is my favourite thing about travelling solo! You don’t have to wait for your friend to get ready. You can sleep in and no one would say a thing. You can walk as much as you want without someone complaining that their feet hurt. You can eat whatever and whenever you like. You can stay as long as you want in that art museum. You can read in bed and not go clubbing. Basically, you get to do whatever you want. No compromising. No arguing. Just you (and your book).

Travelling solo is looking inside yourself. It’s a self-discovering journey. You learn so much about yourself, what you like and dislike. You test your limit; you’d be impressed by yourself at the end of each trip and feel like you’ve accomplished something. I often see “travel solo” on lists like “10 things you should do before turning 30” – it’s cliché, but I highly recommend doing it. 😉

Travelling solo is opening yourself up. I always stay in hostels because it’s cheap and I get to meet people alike and make new friends. This is when my extroverted self takes over. Pluck up the courage to talk to the person next to you, ask them how long are they staying, where are they from, where’s next, what have they seen/done or simply what are they drinking. The more you do it, the less awkward it’ll make you feel and it’ll get easier, trust me. I love talking with people from different culture and learn new things. I met a German police officer in Lagos, he was telling me about China lol When I click with someone, I’d suggest to explore the city together or meet for dinner the next day. You never really travel alone. The world is full of friends waiting to get to know you. 🙂

I can go on forever but I think I’ll stop here. Of course there are downsides, for instance no one to share food with, which means you can’t order a lot or try many different dishes/snacks cuz you can only eat that much. Safety’s another issue. Luckily, I haven’t had any bad experience travelling alone so far cuz I’m always very cautious. I might write another entry about how to travel safely, especially for women. That’s it for now. I hope you’re thinking about doing it! Do it. Do it. Do it.

F for Fabulous Females and Feminism

On Saturday, my friends and I decided to watch Hidden Figures to celebrate the end of term. It’s perfect for me as I’ve been working on a feminist picturebook for my essay 2 and was still in the feminist-zone. It was a good two-hour spent; I left the cinema with a smile on my face. The film was humorous, heartwarming and empowering; shocking and saddening too as to how coloured people were being segregated and oppressed at that time. Set in 1960s Virginia, based on a true story, Hidden Figures centres around the trio of African-American female NASA scientists, Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe).

I liked how each character gets her own arc – Katherine became the first woman to be part of the Flight Research Division, Dorothy became supervisor of the West Area Computing unit, and Mary became NASA’s first black female engineer. The costumes are simple yet elegant, making the girls stand out from the sea of white shirts and ties. I also enjoy the occasional jokes. Oh and that opening scene of  little Katherine solving quadratic equation on the blackboard, man I miss maths! I’m such a nerd lol

As mentioned earlier, my case study looked at children’s responses to a feminist story. Following is an excerpt from my essay on feminism:

Reading is a social practice within a culture; and as part of that culture, literature both makes and remakes its readers. Children’s youthful reading can be formative in that it sets an expectation to our future experiences, provides us with scales of value, and influences how we see the world in relation to how we see ourselves. Unfortunately, the world is a different place for girls and for boys. In a patriarchal society, woman is often seen as the Other and is marginalised, silenced and objectified.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, feminism is “the belief that women should be allowed the same rights, power, and opportunities as men and be treated in the same way”. In other words, all people should be treated equally. When it comes to defining feminist children’s stories, I find Roberta Trites’ definition closest to mine; “a feminist children’s story is a story in which the main character is empowered regardless of gender. In a feminist children’s story, the child’s sex does not provide a permanent obstacle to his/her development”. Most protagonists in feminist children’s stories tend to be female because it serves the purpose of correcting the traditional images of feminine passivity and docility prior to the women’s movement. However, we should not forget that boys could also be victims of gender stereotype. Stories that transcend gender roles and embrace and celebrate femininity, despite the sex of the protagonists, should also be considered feminist stories.

Yet sadly, in real life, sex does happen to be a permanent obstacle to many people; this also includes those who do not fit into the binary of male and female. As the recent election of Trump shows that even a capable woman like Clinton is not judged by the same standard as a man, nor is she treated the same by the law. Social oppression can also be inflicted on a micro level – victim blaming, body shaming, and catcalling to name a few.

Marilyn French describes feminist power as having power to do what one wants rather than having power over someone else. Feminist power is not about controlling other people; it is the awareness of one’s agency that makes one powerful, no matter it is in fiction or in real life. Feminist children’s stories make girls realise how she can be in control and allow them to reposition themselves in the world. Often in stories or in real life, we would come across gender-related conflicts, but if we are aware of our own agency and our ability to assert our strengths, there is no need to sacrifice our individuality to conform. It is the overcoming of oppression that makes feminist children’s stories empowering and triumphal. When girls feel strong and equal to boys, their potential is unlimited. Let us not forget that it takes more than self-empowered women to transform the society. People, regardless of their sex, need to be educated to respect and treat women equally.

It doesn’t matter that Hidden Figures didn’t win any academy awards, what matters most is that their remarkable story is being heard and girls are inspired by them. “So yes, they let women do some things at NASA, Mr. Johnson. And it’s not because we wear skirts. It’s because we wear glasses.” That’s my favourite quote from the movie. Girls with glasses rule! hehe

P.S. On a completely different note, here’s a bunch of great films about racial oppression that I really enjoyed watching: Finding Forrester (2000), Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), Precious (2009), The Blind Side (2009), The Help (2011), 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Children are (not) Maggots

“The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives.” – Matilda, Roald Dahl

That, is the power of books. And that, is why I’m studying Children’s Literature. (Well, and because I love picturebooks more than children do!) Before I had the chance to take hold of a copy of Matilda, I came across the movie adaptation on TV one summer. I was seven. We have a copy of the book at home but I wasn’t entirely sure if I’ve actually read it. The story has always been so familiar to me. I reread it a couple months ago as an adult for coursework and was surprised at how different it is compared to what I remembered. I wrote an essay on becoming Miss Honey myself.

Last Saturday, I watched Matilda the musical with the Children’s Literature gang. I’m not sure if it’s normal but I cried, more than once.

***SPOILER ALERT***

No, I didn’t cry when I read the book or watched the movie, but the musical made me laugh out loud and brought me to tears. I loved the show before it even began – the staging was incredible! Book-like blocks of letter overflowed the stage, and if you look closely, you can spot words – it’s a great game for kids. Bookshelves were used as partitions, which in several scenes transformed the stage into a library. This is the best show for book lovers! The scene in which Mr. Wormwood tore up a library book appalled me; I gasped too loudly and was paralysed for a couple seconds…

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The pupils’ desks were hidden in the gridded ground. The first scene in the Year 1 classroom reminded me so much of teaching and my kids; little princes and princesses in their new uniform with their eager hands in the air (but instead of 9 pupils, I had 41 in my class lol). I cried when Matilda hugged Miss Honey for being nice to her. In Hong Kong, it’s ok for me to hug the kids and take pictures of/with them. Though it could be dangerous when group hug turns into an unintentional American-football-kind-of tackle, I do miss their smiles, I-love-you notes and drawings. I’ve kept most of them.

The songs were catchy and the lyrics were brilliant: addressing parents’ adoration of their precious little ones, empowering children, foreshadowing the reality/cruelty of school, and my favourite – looking forward to growing up. That made me cry. Swings were and still are my favourite. I remembered when I was little, I’d try to go as high up as I could (yup, I’m a thrill seeker since the age of 5), trying to touch the tip of the pine tree branches with my toes. When you’re little, you can’t wait to grow up and do things that adults wouldn’t let you do, such as “eat sweets every day” and “go to bed late every night”. Little did they know that growing up is a trap and the only thing you wish when you’ve grown up is that you never did. I cried again when Miss Honey sang her heart out in her cottage as the escapologist/her father joined her; it was so heartbreaking. I think music heightens emotion in a way that words alone cannot.

The musical was very faithful to the original text but with a few subplots; it’s all the better for it. Did I mention Miss Trunchbull was played by a man? Now that I’ve read the book, watched the movie, seen the musical and written an essay on it, I feel like my experience with Matilda is now complete.

“Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous. Go the whole hog. Make sure everything you do it so completely crazy it’s unbelievable.” Matilda is my hero!

Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!

“Harry’s mouth fell open. The dishes in front of him were now piled with food. He had never seen so many things he liked to eat on one table: roast beef, roast chicken, pork chops and lamb chops, sausages, bacon and steak, boiled potatoes, roast potatoes, fries, Yorkshire pudding, peas, carrots, gravy, ketchup, and, for some strange reason, peppermint humbugs.”
 Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)

Twenty years after the first Harry Potter novel was published, I am now studying children’s literature in the most magical place that holds the legendary Harry Potter Formal. Though the food in Homerton isn’t the best (oh, but they make the best dessert!), the magic is in the details.

img_3113Along the corridor just outside the Great Hall, there were displays that only Harry Potter fans would appreciate: undesirable posters, old socks, potion bottles, muggle news and winged keys. Before you enter the Great Hall, there’s a coat stand for us to hang our invisible cloaks. If you were oblivious to all that and entered the ladies’, you’ll find Moaning Myrtle staring right at you while you’re trying to release yourself lol

The dining tables were decorated according to the four houses: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin. Though there’re no floating candles (the last thing we wanted was to burn down our beautiful Great Hall even though they’re building a new dining hall), Homerton’s Great Hall is pretty enchanting in candlelight.

Our awesome Graduate Tutor, Melanie, dressed up as Dumbledore was accompanied by the Dark Lord, who fashionably draped Nagini around his neck. The evening kicked off with the splendid performance by the Charter Choir, singing “Double Trouble” from the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban movie. Followed by a brilliant short play, in which the Sorting Hat made an appearance. The script was epic – full of jokes on our rival colleges and university.

It’s been a long day and we were all nibbling wands, I mean break sticks, and popping Bertie Botts before food was served. Starter was pumpkin and ginger soup served in bread cauldron. Main was okay; I had garlic and rosemary roasted chicken with roasted potatoes and carrots. I couldn’t finish the chicken, but no matter how much I eat, there’s always room for dessert – a meal is not complete without dessert! It was chocolate fondant with vanilla ice cream and butterbeer sauce. Crispy on the outside, warm and gooey on the inside, together with the chilled ice cream, mmm it was sooo good.

You’d think that’s the end, but no. Trainers brought in Minnie, a lovely gorgeous white owl, and entertained us wizards and witches by making it fly across/around the hall countless times. It was gliding so low that I was worried its feather would touch the candle flame. I’m not a fan of birds usually (I hate pigeons), but he’s the cutest thing ever!

After dinner, people flooded the corridors queuing up to take pictures with owls in the owlery. While waiting, a Canadian witch picked up a fight with me and we had a duel outside the Drawing Room. No muggles were harmed. In the owlery, there was a big owl and an owlet. I was having a staring contest with the big one, but its eyes were so dark and mysterious I felt like its staring into my soul that I had to look away. Baby Owlbert was adorable! hehe

Growing up reading Harry Potter and having watched all the movies and the play, it has been and will always be a huge part of me. I will read all the books to my children against their will lol If you haven’t seen the latest illustrated version of the first two books, you have to. They are so cleverly and superbly done by Jim Kay. Best present for Harry Potter fans!

“No story lives unless someone wants to listen. The stories we love best do live in us forever. So whether you come back by page or by the big screen, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.” – J. K. Rowling

 

Drink Coffee like a True Italian

What is your favourite smell? Is it freshly baked bread, the sea, new books or fried chicken? I love the smell of coffee. I don’t remember when it was that I first started drinking coffee, but over the years, my coffee habit has changed and it has now become an essential part of my morning routine.

I make my espresso with a moka pot, which was a gift from an Italian friend. It is the Best. Gift. Ever. for coffee lovers (from £13 on Amazon)! My coffee would be ready before I finish washing up, and (apologies to my flatmate) the kitchen would be filled with the aroma of coffee. After being disappointed by the cappuccino from the buttery, I decided to get a milk frother and make my own. Life is too short for bad coffee. Now I make better coffee than the buttery and have saved enough to pay for a May Ball ticket!

Coffee might be something you drink to keep yourself awake, but in Italy, it is a way of life. You can hardly find a place that sells coffee-to-go. People go into a bar in the morning, have a quick espresso with a pastry, banter with the barista and they’ll be out of the bar before your full English breakfast is ready. Some bars serve espresso with a glass of sparkling water. It is intended to cleanse your palate before you sip your coffee. Ordering an Americano is a dead give-away that you’re a tourist! Surprisingly, I haven’t seen any latte art when I was travelling in Italy. Could it be something that the Americans have invented, just like the fortune cookies? (Oh yes, we don’t have fortune cookies in Hong Kong, and no we don’t eat dogs) I’ve been trying to do latte art but it’s harder than it seems to be.

There is an unwritten rule in Italy – never order a cappuccino after 11am. It is because Italians view milky drinks as breakfast beverage. They believe that drinking milk after a meal screws up digestion. In contrast, an espresso after dinner is believed to help with digestion. I’ve tried and I still slept like a top (to be honest, it’s very rare that I don’t). Don’t order a ‘latte’ in Italy, because ‘latte’ means ‘milk’. Another tip is to have your coffee at the bar instead of sitting down at a table. Usually they have two prices, and you could probably work out which is which. If you’re too embarrassed to ask or too lazy too google what the differences between cappuccino, macchiato, latte, flat white and Americano are, here is a pretty simple visual representation:

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I haven’t been to a lot of cafes in Cambridge, but Savino’s on Emmanuel Street is definitely worth dropping by if you’re in town and are sick of the standard high street chains. The only problem is they are always so busy!

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Originally written for The Cambridge Student newspaper