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.
We walked into the classroom and sat on the floor. I guess whomever decided the day’s activities thought we were still young enough to sit on the carpet, though the lesson that day was far from the stuff for children. Our gym teacher, Mrs. Jones, stood in the front of the class and our music teacher, Mrs. Radcliffe sat next to the projector. “Ok class, today we’re going to talk about something that every young lady will go through.” My best friend, Jen, leaned over to me and whispered, “My older sister already told me about this. She said my mom gave her “the period talk” when she was our age too.” Period? Isn’t that something we learned about in English class? What does that have to do with ladies? Mrs. Radcliffe clicked the projector and the screen showed something that resembled the shape of a bull’s head, complete with the horns. “This,” said Mrs. Jones, pointing at the center of what would have been the bull’s head, “is a uterus. Can anyone tell me what it’s for?”
Having conservative immigrant parents doesn’t always lead to the most informative outcomes. They might inform you of the days back in the old country when they didn’t have TV and juggled potatoes for fun, or the time they foraged in the woods for mushrooms to survive the winter. But in terms of personal health, those informative conversations often go unspoken.
It’s twice as difficult when the terms your parents use in those conversations are in a language different than the one your teachers and friends speak at school. Phrases like “going on vacation” or “your auntie is coming to visit” seemed so innocent. How were you to know that they meant you would have crippling tummy aches and stain your favorite jeans?
For me, as the oldest daughter of two Chinese immigrants, I had been completely uninformed before that day in music class. Unlike Jen who had an older sister and American parents who were comfortable talking about personal health, I had to figure a lot of stuff out on my own. Part of the reason was the language barrier between my parents and me. The other reason was that in our culture, topics of personal health were not up for discussion. Somehow, they expected me to figure out womanhood on my own.
Fortunately for me, my school took the initiative to teach us about what happens when little girls grow up to become women. But who wants to raise their hand and ask a personal question in a room full of her classmates? What if I was behind? What if I was early? Which one was worse?
After class, I pulled Jen aside and asked her if she’d gotten her period yet. Jen said no but she had this book that her sister had given her that told her what to do when the day came. I asked Jen if I could borrow it but she said she’d already returned it to the library already. Not wanting to be caught by surprise, and filled with questions after my first personal health class, I asked my mom to take me to the library. I was a bit nervous at first because I knew that the main reason why I wanted to go was to learn more about this topic that I felt like I couldn’t ask her about. To her, asking to go to the library was no different than asking for more math practice problems, so she was glad to take me.
While at the library, I searched the library catalogue for personal health books and came upon a number of titles referring to sex. As a 5th grader, I knew that “sex” was a naughty word so it gave me an extra rush to be reading about such adult topics. I wove through the rows of shelves in the library until I finally reached the section on personal health and reproduction. There I found all sorts of books—ones for parents, ones for children, ones with cartoons, ones with bookmarked pages. It was like I had found the ultimate older, wiser sister to answer all my questions. The books flew off the shelves as I whipped them open and poured over their contents. I learned about girls; I learned about boys; I learned about what happens when a boy and girl get together. I was so consumed by all the information, with my heart racing at the taboo nature of the knowledge, that I completely lost track of time. It wasn’t until I heard my mom calling my name from the next row over that I realized how long I’d been gone. Terrified that my mom would catch me looking at a diagram of a boy’s private parts, I slammed all the books shut and stuffed them on a random shelf. My mom walked by pretending she did not to see the books I had been reading. “Did you find what you were looking for?” I had to come up with a good reason why I’d been gone for so long and why there were no books in front of me. “Oh, I think someone else must have borrowed the book I was looking for. I’m ready to go home now.” My mom appeared satisfied with that answer and somewhat relieved that we didn’t have to acknowledge where I was and what information I was seeking.
It wasn’t until years later when my younger sister was in 5th grade, about to have her first personal health class, that my mom mentioned to me that I should go talk to her. “You are the expert after all, right?” At first I was mortified, as it was the first time my mom had made direct mention of personal health and my knowledge of the topic. But then I realized she wasn’t accusing me of having expert level experiences, rather that she trusted my knowledge and wanted me to talk to my sister in the American way—in English.
So, one night before bed, I went to my sister’s room and asked her how she felt about starting health class soon. She responded “Oh that stuff? I read about it on the internet. It’s fine.” Thanks to Google, she didn’t need an older, wiser sister.
My name is Fischer Yan and I'm a first generation immigrant from China. I came to the US when I was two and spent most of my childhood in the DC area. During my time at Dartmouth College, I studied Geography and fell in love with working towards gender equality on a global scale. I founded the Dartmouth chapter of She's the First, a non-profit for girls’ education in developing countries. Presently I work in San Francisco, with the goal of making transportation as reliable as running water. In my free time I like to cook and paint.