Forbidden sleepovers and tampon usage: How my Asian upbringing shaped me as an adult

Growing up, I marveled at my teenage heroes — Sabrina Spellman and Cory Matthews — as they fearlessly navigated adulthood. 

Their freedom to explore different milestones provided me with a sense of awe and excitement for my looming adulthood and the rites of passages that came with it.

When high school rolled around, it came with cultural terms and expectations that were binding from the day I was born. My teenage years wouldn’t be as exciting as my Western heroes. 

Instead, it became a breeding ground for deep resentment; as a result of my heritage, I didn’t have a say in how I wanted to live my life. 

Choices and freedom were two mutually exclusive events. There was no room for negotiation. It was simply a fact of life that I had to accept. 

Sleepovers aren’t proper for young women

Photo by Anh Henry Nguyen on Unsplash

When I was 13, I was invited to my first high school sleepover. Excited, I casually asked my mother, thinking it was a non-issue. 

“No, of course, you can’t,” she said, in a tone that implied I was ridiculous for even asking. I knew better than to argue with her, but my teenage self couldn’t let this go. I demanded a reason.

“She has an older brother and a father living at home.” She paused before continuing. “They can take advantage of you. We’re Vietnamese — we don’t live like Western people. You need to understand that. Sleepovers just aren’t proper for young women.”

I was speechless. This reason became an oft-repeated mantra for the next 12 years. 

I was almost 25 when I finally slept over at a girlfriend’s house. It felt anti-climatic. 

At a time when most of my peers were engaged or expecting their first child, it seemed silly to celebrate such an innocuous rite of passage that should’ve happened in high school. 

The definition of a “proper” Asian woman

When I entered my first relationship, it sparked unsolicited conversations with my mother about premarital sex. My eye rolls weren’t enough to quell her lectures on sexual morality to maintain my “trong trắng” (purity).

Tampon usage was also out of the question. When I started using them, I carefully hid the boxes in my room. I almost got away with it for a year, until I forgot to empty my suitcase before lending it to my mother for one of her trips.

While on vacation, she was horrified to discover tampons decorating the inner pockets of my luggage. For her, tampons were a gateway to premarital sex. So it was fitting that a year following this incident, she lamented to my sister that I had “mất giá” (lost value) when she found out that I lost my virginity.

In her eyes, I had ruined any future chances of getting married. My anatomy became a euphemism for my worth and what it meant to be a “proper woman”. 

Photo by Gabreille Henderson on Unsplash

When I relayed these incidents to my non-Asian girlfriends, their reactions often triggered a sense of frustration and resentment over our obvious cultural clash. 

“You just have to stand up for yourself,” they’d say. “You’re an adult — live your life the way you want to.”

My girlfriends had the privilege of experiencing adulthood in ways that they didn’t have to think twice about. To them, adulthood dilemmas had a “one-size-fits-all” solution that involved fighting for your independence.

Having a choice in Asian culture was much more difficult than choosing to “live my life” — it was deeply rooted in blood relations. Anything I did was a reflection of my family. Choosing is simply a dishonour. 

My adulthood was constantly feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place. There were always two alternatives — rebel or acquiesce — but neither options were ever feasible. 

Choosing to live by my own terms

I spent five years going back and forth with my decision to move out. Endless venting and crying sessions with friends always resulted in empowerment speeches where they implored me to make this choice for myself. 

What they didn’t understand was that leaving your family as an unmarried woman was viewed as a dishonour. I knew my mother wouldn’t take this lightly. This act of adulthood would be unthinkable — scandalous, even. 

The day I told my mother I was moving out, I chose my words carefully; I wasn’t asking for permission — I was simply telling her. She remained silent for a long time. 

“I know you’re not happy,” I told her. “I don’t need you to support me in my decision, but I ask that you respect it.” 

When she started talking, I braced myself for the familiar speech I already knew she’d deliver.

Vietnamese refugees in 1978. Photo by: K.Caugler from UNHCR/8194

As a Vietnamese refugee, she escaped the horrors of a war-torn nation on an overcrowded, makeshift boat —not knowing if she’d have the chance to survive. She managed to escape to Canada, where she had a measly income working a bunch of odd jobs that were barely enough to get by. She’d sacrificed so much to ensure that we had a better life, to give us a chance of happiness.  

“But I’m not happy,” I told her. “I’ve never been happy living at home.”

Our emotional argument ranged between being condemned by public opinion—an unmarried Vietnamese woman moving out? What would people think?— to the pain of losing her youngest daughter. She wasn’t happy about my decision to leave, but she knew that she couldn’t stop me either. 

We both left the argument unresolved. 

Photo by Philipp Berndt on Unsplash

I used to find my mother’s “Vietnamese refugee” monologue annoying, but it served as a valuable reminder when I moved out. 

Having come from nothing, she ingrained in me the importance of self-sufficiency and independence. Her experience escaping the war alone became a critical life lesson that I carry with me as I navigate life outside my family home. 

The deep resentment that I harbored for years over my Vietnamese heritage slowly shifted towards gratitude.

All the rites of passages that I was denied — and often blamed, as a result of my culture — taught me to redefine what it means to be a Vietnamese-Canadian woman. 

For me, I’m choosing to live by my own terms while honouring my culture.

I grew up learning about my limited role as a woman.

After 12 years, I finally understand that my identity and heritage aren’t mutually exclusive.

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