About a year ago, a heated exchange broke out between two of my students. This was a community college, where most of the attendees were first-generation college students. The discussion topic touched on career goals, and a shy nursing student, I’ll call her Cam, spoke for the first time.
Cam did not really want to be in nursing. She was the eldest of several children, and her Cambodian American family came to the US as refugees in the 1970s. Nursing was a guaranteed money-earner, and she needed to help support her large extended family. But what she really wanted was to be a fashion designer. (This was the year Chloe Dao won Project Runway.)
One classmate, young, female, white, first-generation college student then offered Cam suggestions. I’ll call this student Mary. So Mary told Cam to stand up for herself. Mary’s family wanted her to be a nurse too, but she was going into something else (I don’t remember what). In her most encouraging and empathetic tone, Mary suggested that Cam should tell her family that she wanted to do fashion.
Of course, Cam bristled. She said that Mary didn’t understand. That she had responsibilities for her family, and that she couldn’t live with herself if she thought only of herself. she added that she was sorry she started the discussion in the first place, then lapsed into a frustrated silence.
Back to Mary. I’d like to mention that Mary is not an ass, and showed herself to be a hardworking student throughout the semester. But at this particular discussion, she dropped poorly chosen comments, like a reference to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Mary said that Cam owed it to herself to strive for “self-actualization.” Mary added that she would hesitate to get treatment from a nurse who was “not happy in life.”
It was at this point that I intervened, and the discussion moved on. After the class, I asked Mary and Cam to stay and talk about the exchange, but Cam had another class. She shrugged off the exchange, telling Mary that it was “no big deal.” But Mary was still upset about her own reaction, about looking like a jerk in front of the class. She also said she was worried about Cam’s “situation,” asking how Cam could stomach the unfairness of it all. Mary didn’t understand it at all, and asked if I did.
And well, I did. Maybe I should have been upset about Cam too, but I thought she was going to be okay. She was probably not going to be a fashion designer. One way or another, she was going to have to help out with help out with her family. And she was probably going to resent it sometimes, but somehow I was sure that she would be unhappier if she did not help. I told Mary that the “not happy in life” comment was not cool at all.
Earlier this week, a friend and I were discussing the concept of an Asian American feminist epistemology. She asked for a concrete example of how being an Asian American female could mitigate one’s “ways of knowing.” I’ll continue thinking about Asian American feminist epistemology but as of then, the Cam-Mary exchange was the example that came to mind.