I had my first period before I even had my first health class. I didn’t tell anyone because I did not even know what a period was. I never understood why some women stood at the back of the recreation center where Muslims in my small town gathered while everyone else prayed. I never understood why my mother seemed to buy little boxes of white things every month. It didn’t occur to me that this was something that happened to almost every woman in her life.
We all knew why the women of the house “sat outside” every month. In the map of their very orthodox household, the women bled rivers and travelled in the confines of their landlocked house.
It started out in music class. That day none of the instruments were set up for us to play. The projector was set in the middle of the room and there was no song on the screen. They told all the boys to go to the gym. What was even stranger was that the female gym teacher was in the music room. In all my 5 years at elementary school, I had never seen any of the gym teachers leave the gym. As far as I was concerned, they lived there.
Every period story I’ve heard involves either great trauma or grave embarrassment. Girls claim they mistakenly believed they were dying when they first spotted the blood or that someone else noticed and pointedit out to them, scarring them permanently from the humiliation. I had heard it all by the time I was 12.
When you grow up as a Korean-American millennial in a traditional immigrant household, you quickly realize that little instances of cultural clashes make for the best stories.
Take, for example, the time that I convinced my Korean mother that Lunchables were standard, healthy, American school lunch fare, and all my other third-grader friends dined on the delectably fine products of Oscar Meyer. Or take the time that my mother asked if we were supposed to eat the Jack-o-Lantern that I had carved earlier that day in school.
“Shh! Shush!” Are these the first expressions that come to mind, when you think of periods? You are not alone.
I was shushed so often that I thought boys or even grown men would never have heard of menstruation. “How would they know, if no one is going to tell them. Right?” I thought. It sounds childish now, but it made perfect sense to my tween mind.
Growing up in a fairly conservative family in small-town Alaska one might make assumptions about the information and education I received about health, puberty, and sex. Luckily for me, those assumptions couldn’t be further from the truth. As I reflect on my own growing up experience I realize how incredibly lucky I was to have such supportive and understanding parents, friends, and teachers. I was in third or fourth grade when my mom sat me down for “the talk,” which of course made me turn bright red and assure her I had absolutely no questions.
When I was working with kids at a school in a Noida-based slum, I noticed that girls would miss school more often than boys. I wanted to know why, and casually I asked a group of girls. They just giggled and walked away. “What’s so funny?” I asked, but got no response. I tried checking with another group of girls, but got nothing more than giggles and embarrassed looks.
When I was in Chattishgarh last year, I conducted a session with 40 young women, mostly married and asked them why we get periods. After a few minutes of silence and blank stares, one of them raised her hand and said “Well, that’s how it is, ma’am. This is something that happens every month to us. It’s natural”.