Conflict of Cultural Expectations

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Social expectations are something every person faces. No matter one’s gender, ethnicity, or class, everyone feels pressure to behave a certain way, and I believe one of the most defining character traits is whether one chooses to conform to these social pressures or to pave his or her own path in life. Despite the existence of social norms in every culture, certain cultures hold these expectations in much higher regards than others, and breaking such social laws can have detrimental consequences. In Women of the Silk and Jasmine, we see numerous examples of societal expectations of women, as well as the different ways in which the women characters respond. This gives us insight into their individual strengths and weaknesses, specifically involving how they cope with the struggle between what they want and what is expected of them.

In Women of the Silk, there is great significance placed on expectations of women, specifically in China circa 1920’s, including pressures to live a certain lifestyle and behave in an appropriate manner at all times. The differences between how women react to these pressures is first depicted by the contrast between Pei and her older sister Li. While from my modern American perspective Pei is clearly the stronger, more admirable of the two, this is quite opposite from the traditional Chinese perspective of the time.

Li is a principal example of the ideal woman from the Chinese culture perspective. She is, by nature, a dutiful and submissive girl, who wishes to please others and stick to the status quo. This is evident throughout childhood, and continues as she gets older and is expected to marry. In contrast, Pei is curious by nature, always asking questions and seeking answers, despite being reprimanded frequently for doing so. Li’s passive nature and Pei’s bold, defiant manner are revealed throughout the novel, beginning with their childhood. For example, whenever the two girls play together, Pei is always the one running ahead and then stopping to wait on her sister. Pei asks questions which Li calmly answers, and while Pei explores her surroundings, Li is content to sit still and quietly. One passage on page 19 of the text reads, “…Next to [Pei], she could hear Li’s even breathing and feel her calmness. Li’s hands rested quietly on her knees, while Pei’s felt the ground beside them for anything that would make the water splash.” This example depicts the dissimilarity between the two girls’ personalities and contrasts Pei’s curiosity with Li’s contentment.

This difference between the sisters is significant in that it is the factor that ultimately dictates which of them their father, Pao, will decide to send to work in the silk factory. After visiting a fortune teller, who predicts that Li will get married but is unsure of Pei’s fate, Pao decides that Pei is better suited to work at the factory, as there is no guarantee of being able to marry her off and lighten the family’s financial burden. Consequently, Pei’s life is set in motion on an unusual path, and one that certainly does not conform to the standards and expectations of women at the time.

Li’s subservient nature is further proven later in the novel, when she marries a much older farmer simply because she thinks it is what is expected of her. While her father does not force her to marry the farmer, she does anyway because it is what she is “supposed” to do, and she assumes it will please her family. Likewise, she still does not go back to her family when she finds out that her new husband is violent and abusive, as women are expected to be loyal to their husbands no matter what. Although this trait of being passive and obedient is considered to be a positive attribute within her culture, it is one that seems to come at a much larger price than it is worth. While Pei may not be overjoyed to be sent to the factory, I would consider her fate far less tragic than that of Li’s marriage to the farmer.

Just as Li’s compliance...
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