“Washing dishes? That’s women’s work.”
That’s how Yao, my first Chinese boyfriend, ended one late Saturday night dinner at his apartment.
Up until that moment, he romanced me the entire day like any real gentleman — from running to the hospital for my medicine, to regaling me with a delicious homemade dinner of fried rice. All afternoon he told me to rest, relax, take it easy — I still felt exhausted from my recent illness, and had only just regained my appetite. Didn’t anyone ever tell him that sexist slurs are hard for girlfriends to swallow?
“What do mean, ‘women’s work?’ Are you telling me you won’t do the dishes, ever?” I asked.
“It’s not my job.”
I glowered at him. “So who’s going to do the dishes then?”
“Just leave them for my mom,” he said. He immediately jumped up from his seat and wandered over to the bedroom to start watching Saturday night football games.
How could he say that? Didn’t he realize he was dating a feminist who grew up in a household where both mom and dad were breadwinners, and didn’t believe in things like “women’s work”? I wrestled with these, and many more, questions about the man I was dating, and the future we might face ahead of us. But never, ever did I hold the one thought that all too often gets slapped on a guy like Yao — that he was just another sexist Chinese man I should never have dated in the first place.
So wouldn’t you know it, less than three years after this “dishwashing disaster,” I fell in love with another Chinese man named John — a guy who loved to wash dishes. “I’m the dishwasher,” he always said to me with a grin, plying the oily plates and pans from my hands so he could take care of them instead. In his world, washing dishes — as well as taking out the garbage and everything else he considered “dirty jobs” — was never meant to be “women’s work.”
Over the years, from dating through marriage, John continued to blast stereotypes about Chinese men, that they’re so sexist. He loved my larger, curvier body in all of its beautiful imperfections, and never suggested I change a thing. During all those times when I was the family breadwinner, he always felt proud of me and my ability to make a living. He grew up in a household where no one hit women and children, and condemned domestic violence in all of its forms. He kept doing the dishes and his share of the housework, and never assigned a gender role to any household chores.
Maybe it took me three years, and required a strong mind and heart that could see beyond the stereotypes. But I discovered that in China, sometimes one man’s “woman’s work” is another man’s work he would never let a woman do.