I never thought that potatoes and onions would ever attract my intellectual curiosity, but lately these two legumes have turned into giant metaphors about gender and politics. Potatoes as a cornerstone of political analysis appeared many years ago when Marx wrote about French peasants as “potatoes in a sack.” The reason he called them potatoes is because he didn’t think much of the French small-landed peasantry as an ingredient in his recipe for class revolt. If anything, this highly individualistic, entrepreneurial group symbolized everything he didn’t like about citizens who would never unite into a class to defend their own interests. He turned his attention instead to the industrial working class. He lauded factory workers with many flattering metaphors, none of which were vegetarian.
My latest thought about women is that we are not potatoes — but a wonderful bag of onions. Well, maybe men are, too, but for women the complexities of private life are much more exposed. Each of us carries around layers upon layers of identities. Some of them were given to me while I was growing up — a daughter, tomboy, student and musician.
As my social world expanded, identities that included me as a member of larger groups were added, like vice-president of the class and anti-war activist. Then, came the grander labels that placed me in the category of an ethnic or cultural group. I became a Korean-American and Asian. As I travelled in countries that were unfamiliar with Korea, I was given many mistaken identities to add to these.
At a party in India, a woman scolded me for speaking English instead of my native tongue—Nepalese. When living in Thailand, most locals treated me like a Japanese tourist. In Tunisia, a man called out to me in Berber, thinking that I was a fellow tribes woman. I had the most fun with my multiple identities at a UN meeting on environment in Rio (2002), when I was adopted by the indigenous people’s caucus. After joining them for a television shoot and much merriment, they presented me to Princess Basma of Jordan as their chief negotiator to access the Huirou Commission meeting.
While these were cases of simple ethnic misnomers, others had more serious consequences. On the US army base in Korea, I was asked for my venereal disease card because a security guard assumed I was a hooker. Syrian soldiers pointed their guns at me at the Lebanese border, shouting that I was an Egyptian terrorist and that my US passport “was obviously a fake.” Then there was the amusing rumor in the French village where I did my anthropological research that I was really a Vietnamese novelist gathering material about all of the families’ secrets. Since strangers have given me so many identities that were not the real me, I have developed a category of onion layers just for those purposes called “the me that can’t be.” Of course, we continue throughout our lives to add new layers as well.
Peeling away identities is easy to do and you can do it without crying. In fact, for many women who joined in a demonstration at the UN Fourth World Conference in Beijing (1995) or successfully rally around the “Half the Sky” campaign, the creation of a common Self, united across all differences, is a joyful empowering experience.
If you have not had this particular onion peeling experience, you might still understand what I mean. Take, for example, pilgrimages that are historically among the most successful means to achieve the same effect. If you are a Muslim, the trek to Mecca is more than a holy journey. It is a joining together in a single place an international gathering of men of the same faith, united across differences in language and nationality, to be a single consciousness and being.
Yet, women have been able to be more than vegetables thrown together into a sack. We have stripped layers and layers of identity until we found common ground. Our consciousness as women is almost primitive, primordial, and fundamental enough to let us join hands with strangers from different nationalities and pledge allegiance to each other’s causes during the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women meetings in New York.
Whether we are English, Mohican, Zambian or Burmese, somewhere in our core we manage to find a common identity as wives, mothers, sisters and women. No matter that the issues we hold most dear vary from the promotion of breast feeding, protesting genetically modified foods to defending sex workers’ rights. We often rally around each other’s issues with one voice.
It feels good to be an onion. And it feels even better to know that you are in the company of others — nearly half of the world’s population. I credit feminists for being able to pick an identity that, at least, is one of the biggest categories of the human species — no small tribes for us. We know how to be lovely personalities with several identities going on simultaneously. Maybe the more we have, the more we know that we are still growing. I wish that men could cross over the gender line just once so they could understand how much fun it can be to be female.