Asian-American women seek answers, solace in ‘pro choice vs. life’ decision

Hyphen Magazine News Feature/
New America Media
By Lisa Wong Macabasco

(Editor’s note: The following is the second of a two-part story that examines the high number of abortions among Asian-American women and why several women use their right to choose, often a result of cultural upbringings.)

“Lucy” has developed a talent for crying discreetly.

In 2004, when she found out she was pregnant, the 27-year-old Taiwanese American became adept at hiding her crying from co-workers on a daily basis. More recently, when we talk by phone, she begins to cry silently before I ask the first question. Fifteen seconds of silence pass, and I begin to wonder whether our phone line has been disconnected before I finally hear her speak again.

Lucy (not her real name) has a strong, clear voice and is upbeat, almost chipper, even when she cries. Once she has stopped crying, she tells me of her “incredibly happy” upper-middle-class childhood in Texas, with supportive parents, a flurry of extracurricular activities (band, dance, tennis) and tons of friends who kept her glued to the phone. Her college résumé included leadership roles in Asian-American organizations and every internship she pursued.

“I was on top of the world,” she says.

But Lucy was naïve.

“I always wanted to help people, to be nice to people,” she says. “I didn’t have a backbone. I didn’t like saying no.”

She thinks her naïveté contributed to a bad situation that unfolded one October evening in 2004. She made plans for drinks with her best friend, a man she had known since junior high. Because Lucy is hypoglycemic — meaning she has unusually low blood sugar — she must eat regularly or risk fainting. She told this friend she was hungry and had to get dinner first, and he agreed. The next thing she remembers is waking up hung over in his bed with a sore groin.

As it turned out, “I got really drunk after he gave me one drink, promising me food after,” Lucy says. At the time, she was just beginning to understand alcohol’s effects on her hypoglycemia. “I had that weird feeling that something really bad happened to me.”

She demanded answers, and her friend apologetically admitted they’d had sex. Furious, Lucy extracted more details: He used a condom but it broke. They went through the trash so she could inspect the tear. A few days later, a pregnancy test came up positive.

When Lucy told him about the pregnancy, he brushed her aside. Lucy’s other best friend, a Catholic, pledged to accompany Lucy to a clinic, but never showed.

After that, Lucy was afraid to tell anyone. The majority of her friends were Christian (she is Buddhist), and she didn’t want to be judged or to make them choose between her and their religion. In fact, initially she dismissed the idea of an abortion, as she too felt that she had a life inside her, and she had always dreamed of having a large family (though not under these circumstances).

She mentally constructed various scenarios that might enable her to keep the baby without her parents finding out. She considered having a quick wedding with an ex-boyfriend who had extended a marriage offer, and raising the child with a “pretend husband.” She dwelled extensively on what she deemed the best solution: moving away and giving up the child for adoption.

But Lucy’s eventual decision to have an abortion hinged on one factor: “I needed an ironclad plan of action to ensure that my parents would never find out — ever,” she says. “I ultimately chose the path of least destruction and [least] shame for my parents.”

She went to Planned Parenthood, but was told it was too early to terminate the pregnancy. The day before the next appointment, she had a miscarriage in the middle of a family dinner.

“I had to put on a smile and act like nothing was wrong and just run to the bathroom every hour,” she recalls. “It felt like a knife was slicing through my stomach. I remember keeping a straight, soft face and shoving rice down my throat.”

The physical pain mirrored the emotional trauma she had endured during prior weeks when she was contemplating abortion. She had been “utterly lonely,” crying every day — “bawling, sobbing uncontrollably. I cried at work softly, staring intently at my monitor with tears dripping onto the keyboard, hoping that none of my co-workers would find out.” She had been tortured by the idea of “getting rid of a child in my stomach.”

Today, Lucy has come to terms with what happened to her, yet she still shies away from discussing the experience and from talking about herself in general. But it’s neither shame nor regret that holds her back.

“I only like getting feedback from people who know what they’re talking about and won’t give me the sympathetic look and have nothing constructive to say. I don’t like the ‘I’m sorry’ response.”

Research shows that Asian-American families rarely discuss sex — certainly less often than families of other ethnic groups do. According to a 1997 survey, one-third of Asian-Americans in California never discussed pregnancy, STDs, birth control or sexuality in their households. More than half felt uncomfortable discussing reproductive health with their mothers and even more so with fathers and brothers. One study found that while 60 percent of Asian-American women learned from their parents about abstinence, few gleaned any details about sexual health.

Researcher Lam says the discussion of sex among family members is just one aspect of the ideal multi-pronged approach to promoting sexual health awareness in the community.

“One thing you do isn’t going to solve things — it has to happen on the cultural level, the policy level, the family level and the individual level. Culturally, how do we de-stigmatize [communication about sex]? Parents want to talk to children about sex but don’t know how.” Often the discussion goes no further than “Don’t do it,” Lam says. But, “that isn’t going to help your kids when they become sexually active. [It’s] going to take a long time to break those barriers.”

That change may not come soon enough: Teen pregnancy is much higher among American-born Asians than among Asian Americans born abroad. American-born Indian teens, for example, were 16 times more likely to have children than emigrants from India. Experts say more sexual freedom for second-generation Asian-American youth may lead to higher future rates of abortion, unless effective contraceptive education takes place.

Lam stresses the importance of discussing sex in frank but age-appropriate ways to children early on.

“In Asian cultures, even neutral sexual terms like body parts are taboo,” she says. For purposes of normalizing sex, then, the earlier you start the easier it is later on. “Otherwise, when they’re age 13, how are you going to explain what safe sex is? The learning curve is too high.”

Lam is well acquainted with the power of taboos: She got pregnant at age 18 but did not tell anyone for the first six months. “I was so ashamed,” Lam says. She had the child, although her staunchly Christian family encouraged her to have an abortion.

The sense that sex is forbidden remains deep-rooted today, Lam says, even among American-born Asians like herself and even despite the hypersexual tenor of American society.

“It’s surprising to see how strongly our cultural notions around sexuality have held on,” she says, noting that cultural beliefs about sexuality can last for generations. “That’s how tight and ingrained in culture it is.”

Priscilla Hwang first learned about sex in third grade. Her mother plopped onto her desk a slim, four-volume reproductive health encyclopedia purchased at a garage sale. “She says, ‘Read this,’” Hwang says.

The books contained no photos — only scientific anatomical drawings — and large print intended for young readers. Hwang and her mother never discussed the books.

Hwang, now 31, has thought a lot about the lack of Asian mother-daughter dialogue about sex and sexual health, and about whether that rift complicates efforts to address those issues as adults. “It definitely made it complicated for me,” she says.

Hwang recently joined the Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum in Washington, D.C., as its associate director of policy. Before that she held a similar position at the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, also in Washington, and has worked on reproductive rights for the past six years. She regularly addresses college students, sharing the details of her abortion.

“But I still haven’t told my own family,” she says with an embarrassed chuckle. “It still makes me feel ashamed of myself because this is what I do.”

Hwang became pregnant by accident in 2003, at age 24, while living in San Francisco. She was not ready for a child. In addition to lacking money (she was an entry-level social worker) she had applied to law school and was set on going. She was also intent on hiding her sexual activity from her strict and conservative parents, both immigrants from Taiwan, who had raised her with the understanding that premarital sex was out of the question. Although Hwang is confident that her parents would have supported her decision to terminate the pregnancy, she thinks they would have been dismayed that she was having sex — unprotected sex, to boot.

Hwang had been with her partner, Alex Phan, only a few months, but he supported her fully, from showing concern for her physical and emotional health to helping foot the Planned Parenthood bill to bringing her water after the procedure.

Phan, now a 35-year-old systems engineer, says the decision to have an abortion was “instantaneous” for them both and that his primary worry was Hwang’s health.

“Even an early-term abortion can be a very stressful, anxious and mind-altering experience for the male partner,” Phan says. “It’s also easy to shield yourself if you’re a man, simply because it’s physically happening to someone else.”

Both say the experience brought them closer. Today, they live together in a house they own in Takoma Park, Maryland, and hope to have kids someday.

Hwang remembers the procedure — she elected to have a medical abortion involving pills at home — as uneventful. “Basically laid in bed and watched movies all day,” she says flatly.

Afterward, she wondered how she, a smart and informed person who tries to do the right thing, had gotten into such a predicament — how she had let herself go for so long without using birth control or condoms regularly.

“I was shocked with myself,” she says. “Because I knew [about] that stuff.”

She also reflected on her discomfort with discussing her own sexual health. Even in her early 20s, her face would turn red when her doctor asked about her sexual history (studies show Asian-American teens are less likely to discuss sexual activity with their doctors than teens of other ethnic and racial groups). That disappointment with herself galvanized her to advocate for reproductive rights and health education.

Today, Hwang uses her experience to encourage Asian Americans to speak up.

“I try to de-stigmatize and humanize the issue because sex and sexuality [are] taboo in a lot of Asian communities and Asian immigrant families, as they were in mine.”

As for talking to her own family, she says with a small laugh, “We’ll see.”

Read Part 1 of this story – published in the Oct. 20 mini-mag issue of shades or the full piece at http://bit.ly/bF9wPD.

Lisa Wong Macabasco is Hyphen’s managing editor. She last wrote about parents’ reactions to the website MyMomIsAFob.com.

Photo credit: Derek Lieu

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