STAFF NEWS & ANALYSIS
The State of Feminism in Southeast Asia
By Ben Bartee - October 21, 2023

Originally published via PJ Media:

What follows is a (mostly) unedited, exclusive excerpt from my recently published expat memoir/existential deconstruction, Broken English Teacher: Notes From Exile.

Taichung, Taiwan

January 2011:

When I first landed in Taiwain — which is basically a slightly more civilized microcosm of China with a liberal twist — my agent’s errand girl picked me up from the Taichung bus station. I asked her if I could smoke in her Honda, and she said yes.

Then I asked if she wanted a cigarette, and she looked shocked.

“No. Why?” she asked.

“Just being polite.”

“Does your sister smoke?” she asked incredulously.

It had never even occurred to me that smoking was a gendered thing. My American alcoholic and non-alcoholic ex-girlfriends alike, and my grandmas, and lots of empowered feminist women, smoked like chimneys.

But in Asia, I came to learn, it’s only the prostitutes and lady drug users who smoke cigarettes.

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Lao Cai, Vietnam

September 11, 2019:

Two or three-foot bongs called điếu cày are all over the place in Vietnam. They are fixtures in restaurants, bars, and even gyms — available at will for communal use, no permission needed. You just sit down, load it up, and rip. No exchange of cash or anything. Free drugs.

Instead of weed or whatever, though, the Vietnamese use them to smoke a special type of tobacco called thuốc lào, which contains about ten times as much nicotine as other tobacco species. The superior strength delivers a major head rush; điếu cày are not your grandfather’s tobacco pipes.

Guys rip it big before hitting the gym, after a meal, between meals, in schoolyard parking lots, wherever.

Respectable Vietnamese ladies, though, don’t partake because — just like that Taiwanese agent’s shocked errand girl explained when she picked me up from the Taichung, Taiwan bus station in 2011 and I offered her a cigarette —  smoking is considered as unfeminine in Taiwan as it is in Vietnam, and throughout the expanse of East Asia.

The only special carve-out to the strict social rule is granted to prostitutes; they can smoke whatever they want to get through the day and it doesn’t impact their already-low social status. They, after all, have a taxing job.

Studies show that the smoking rate for men in Vietnam is about 50% for men and consistently under 5% for women. Here’s one example of field academic research on the topic, titled “Gender Differences in Smoking Behaviors in an Asian Population.”

Third-wave feminism hasn’t landed on East Asian shores yet — not that Women’s and Gender Studies department professors haven’t tried to export it there. The problem isn’t lack of effort; it’s what a friend of mine once termed their “strong cultural immune system” to resist outside influence. Until women’s liberation campaigns succeed, the fairer sex of Vietnam remains woefully wed to gender norms, and unencumbered by fatal nicotine habits. You win some, you lose some.

The haunting question for women and gender studies scholars is: were such prohibitions on lady-smoking overhauled for the sake of social equity, and more picked up the habit, and they got lung cancer and died, would that be a moral victory?

Ben Bartee, author of Broken English Teacher: Notes From Exile, is an independent Bangkok-based American journalist with opposable thumbs.

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