My mom’s best friend is Li Juan. They met while in school together in China. Li Juan was always over on the weekends and traveled with my family from time to time. Li Juan loves baking, American football, and interior design. Even though she has been in my life for quite some time, I never really got to know her story of how she moved to America and started a successful career here. As such, I was excited to interview her and learn about her story overcoming discrimination based on ethnicity in higher education and employment discrimination based on gender.
Today, Li Juan is a 52 year old Chinese American who is a software engineer in the Bay Area. Growing up in China, Li Juan was happy to have parents that supported her in whatever she wished to do. She decided to follow in her father’s footsteps and got her bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from CBay Telecommunications Technology University. Li Juan moved to America in her late 20s to pursue higher education in the form of getting her master’s degree. She decided to sell her shares in a company she founded in China and use that money to move to America and fund her master’s. She was motivated to move out of curiosity since at the time, the Chinese government censored what was being shown on the media about the United States. Once she got the opportunity to move, she took it. I marveled at her immigration story and how she overcame her career obstacles as one of the only female IT engineers in her field.
After discussing the push factors and pull factors for Li Juan to leave China and come to America, I asked her what it was like being a foreign student in a whole new country. I was very surprised to hear that Li Juan was never offered any extra help being a foreign graduate student at UC Irvine. It makes sense that the university would expect her to know English well, but not having tutoring available seems a bit absurd. UC Irvine is known for having a large foreign student population, both in the undergraduate and graduate programs, so not having these helpful classes or tutoring just doesn’t make sense. However, she did explain to me that she had a school counselor who helped her out. She also wasn’t totally lost and was able to write on a little notepad to get her words across.
“I got a lot of help from my school counselor because when I got here I couldn’t really speak English but the only thing I could do was write. So I would always have a notepad on me and communicate with them by writing. I could understand them but couldn’t speak any English…because that’s the way that we learned English in China, we don’t have the opportunity to practice English and then you have the fear that you make a mistake when you speak English and that holds you back because you feel like you are going to make a mistake and people won’t understand you, so you would hesitate and then people really wouldn’t understand you.”– Li Juan
Although it was never mentioned in the interview, I’m sure Li Juan experienced prejudice or discrimination due to her English. This made me think of Amy Tan’s essay “Mother Tongue.” Tan’s essay describes going through life with a mother who does not speak “acceptable” English according to white people and the discrimination she faced because of it.
Tan writes, “It has always bothered me that I can think of no way to describe [my mother’s English] other than ‘broken,’ as if it were damaged and needed to be fixed, as if it lacked a certain wholeness and soundness. I’ve heard other terms used, ‘limited English,’ for example. But they seem just as bad, as if everything is limited, including people’s perceptions of the limited English speaker… the fact that people in department stores, at banks, and at restaurants did not take her seriously, did not give her good service, pretended not to understand her, or even acted as if they did not hear her” (Tan 255-56).Amy Tan, “Mother Tongue”, 1990.
Li Juan explained to me that her lack of confidence is what prevented her English from improving quicker. This reminded me of Kit Yuen Quan’s book The Girl Who Wouldn’t Sing. The beginning of this essay describes blocks that prevent Quan from speaking English clearly, oftentimes making her freeze and stutter. I realized that Li Juan’s lack of confidence was a block.
“It was really hard deciding how to talk about language because I had to go through blocks with language. I stumble upon these blocks whenever I have to write, speak in public or voice my opinions in a group of native English speakers with academic backgrounds. All of a sudden as I scramble for words, I freeze and am unable to think clearly.”– Kit Yuen Quan, The Girl Who Wouldn’t Sing, Aunt Lute Books, 1990.
I asked her if she ever felt like she was being discriminated against because of being a foreign Chinese person. She stated she didn’t at all since so many of her coworkers and hires were foreign Asian people as well. I found it interesting how Silicon Valley has progressed to being completely welcoming towards foreigners. Discrimination on account of ethnicity is uncommon in Silicon Valley, as most of the computer engineers are foreign. According to Li Juan, her being Chinese is what made her seem qualified for the job, but her being a woman was what made her seem unqualified.
“Well, being Chinese in Silicon Valley I don’t really feel a lot of people would think you are not qualified for the job because they consider that a lot of Chinese are qualified for the job but not the female part. So either you know somebody and you have to prove somebody that you are qualified for the job and then you people will really question your qualifications because I have had people test me. They think they know IT well enough to test me to see if I am qualified for the job.”– Li Juan
This led to a discussion of being a woman working in the software industry. Starting off working in teams, Li Juan always had to prove herself right off the bat to gain the respect of the teams (who were often comprised of men) and acknowledge that she knew what she was doing. Once she had done this, she was able to have her ideas and opinions taken more seriously. Li Juan told me that she overcame this by becoming used to it: she became used finding opportunities to prove to others that she was valid.
Li Juan also talked about the struggles of having to go through the hiring process for a female IT engineer. She explained that employers imply that the IT engineer is for males and would put male only in the job description if they could. These employers have a subconscious implicit bias towards male engineers rather than female engineers. This is most likely due to the fact that the majority of engineers in the Silicon Valley are male. I decided to look into this on my own time and discovered that EEOC or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is a federal agency that is tasked to enforce laws prohibiting job discrimination in the United States. It is illegal in the United States for an employer to show a preference for or discourage someone from applying for a job because of their race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information. Li Juan explained that she was confused by this because in China this was not the case. Apparently, in China, it is common for employers to openly discriminate based on gender and age when looking for employees.
“One time we hired a consultant design GM and he had a questionnaire, more than a page for me to answer. After we got to know each other, I asked him what the deal was with the questionnaire. His answer was that he never worked with a female IT manager before. I told him that I had a master’s degree in computer engineering and he was shocked.”– Li Juan
I proceeded to ask Li Juan if she thought that this discrimination based on gender has gotten better over the years. Sadly, her answer was no. She did mention that it depends on which field you are in, what company you work for, or what position you are in, but you’re probability still going to face discrimination because you are a woman no matter what. Even though that’s the case, I’m hopeful that things are going to change. If the Silicon Valley was able to eradicate discrimination based on race in the technology industry, it can surely do the same with gender.
This segment of the interview reminded me of bell hooks’ “Women at Work” chapter nine of her book Feminism is for Everybody. Within this chapter, hooks talks about women fighting male domination in the workforce. This is exactly the same situation Li Juan is going through as a woman working in software engineering, a mainly male-dominated field. hooks examines why woman now more than ever need stable incomes in order to achieve economic self-sufficiency.
Hooks writes, “While much feminist scholarship tells us about the role of women in the workforce today and how it changes their sense of self and their role in the home, we do not have many studies which tell us whether more women working has positively changed male domination. Many men blame women working for unemployment, for their loss of the stable identity being seen as patriarchal providers gave them, even if it was or is only a fiction. An important feminist agenda for the future has to be to realistically inform men about the nature of women and work so that they can see that women in the workforce are not their enemies.”– Bell Hooks, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, 2000.
Feminism (China vs. The United States)
When I started to ask Li Juan questions about the feminist movement she brought up interesting points on the differences between feminism in China and feminism in the United States. Li Juan explained that because of her positive encouragement from her parents that she could do anything she wanted to if she worked hard enough, she felt no need to be a part of the feminist movement when she was young. Only when she entered the work force and began to experience discrimination based on gender did she realize how important the feminist movement work was.
“I think that a lot of companies and society should be more open minded to give women a chance and wouldn’t judge them just because they are female. Women shouldn’t have to do better than their male equivalent in order to get a job. Women should be able to do just the same and be qualified for the job. No more proving yourself.”– Li Juan
Li Juan told me that China is sort of going backwards in regards to feminism. When I asked her to clarify, she explained that a lot of young girls want to marry older men who are more financially secure to avoid working. People in China used to need two incomes to support a family, but now only one is necessary. I found this compelling since it is so opposite in America. But this isn’t all of China’s female population. Li Juan points out that China is heading the same direction as America in feminism. Women are becoming more independent and want to be more economically self-sufficient; however, society isn’t ready yet due to the ingrained gender discrimination that can be seen in the hiring process mentioned previously.
“I think that the newer generation in a certain way that young girls grow up and are taught that they can do anything they want, but the society is not ready for that yet. I think the government encourages girls to do all kinds of stuff in China, but not all girls have the same opportunities. You can see the female astronauts or the top level of engineers but just the regular females, the opportunities are not as equal as men.”– Li Juan
Being a half white and half Asian man, I could never really relate with Li Juan’s answers to my interview questions. Although I speak Chinese well, English was my first and my strongest language. Unlike Li Juan, I am also blessed to be able to go to an American university while able to speak English fluently and not have to deal with the issues that come with not knowing English particularly well. Since my mom and Li Juan are very similar, some of the gender-based discrimination that Li Juan struggles with, my mom also struggles with.
This interview was definitely eye opening to me. A lot of the struggles Li Juan went through and the differences between China and America in terms of feminism I had no idea even existed. At the end of the day, I learned to push for gender equality in male-dominated work forces. It is simply unfair that these women have to constantly prove to others their worth in certain fields.
Feel free to listen to my entire interview with Li Juan here:
Hooks, Bell. “Women at Work.” Feminism is for Everybody, South End Press, 2000, pp. 48-54.
Kit Yuen Quan, The Girl Who Wouldn’t Sing, Aunt Lute Books, 1990.
Tan, Amy. “Mother Tongue.” Dreams and Inward Journeys: A Rhetoric and Reader for Writers, edited by Marjorie Ford and Jon Ford, 7th ed., Pearson, 2010.