Finding Unity Through Our Differences

Linh Tran

A young, Vietnamese-American woman shares how her community's cultural stigma around sex and reproductive health propelled her towards action; working to create awareness of the health challenges facing young Asian and Pacific Islander women today, through the California Young Women's Collaboration.

My understanding of reproductive health used to be fairly limited. If someone were to have asked me a year and a half ago how I define reproductive justice, I would have automatically answered "Abortion rights!" Yes, abortion is a hot political topic, always at the forefront of charged debates. But being such a major topic, it seems to overshadow other forms of reproductive health issues that I believe are equally important in a culturally communicative sense.

Drawing from my own experience as a first generation Vietnamese American woman growing up in Orange County, I lived in a constant duality; struggling to balance being an American teenager at school, all the while being raised in a strict, traditional Vietnamese Buddhist household by a single non-English speaking mother. I grew up with the understanding that family always comes first, and the individual comes second. My only true luxury was school, a freedom I relished, but had to keep separate from my home life. The discussion of boys, dating, sex, and personal reproductive health was absolutely off limits with my mother. For instance, I had to learn what a menstrual cycle was on my own because I'd never dare speak of such matters with my mother due to communication and cultural barriers (my mother is a firm believer that any thing concerning sexual health and intimacy should never be seen or spoken of publicly).

I was raised to view sex as taboo, a social stigma, absolutely shameful if committed outside marriage — even holding hands in public was off limits! It wasn't until I left Orange County at 18 to attend San Francisco State University did my sexual education really take place.

Friends and peers in college spoke openly about sex and reproductive health while I fell silent, feeling ignorant and too embarrassed to speak up because my knowledge was so limited in the area of sexual health. But as my college career progressed, so did my knowledge of reproductive health, and finally I was able to overcome the cultural stigma and taboo that surrounded sex since my early adolescence. But it wasn't until I graduated from college and volunteered with NAPAWF and Choice USA that I finally felt comfortable and confident enough to openly discuss sex and reproductive health with other women.

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With the guidance and leadership of both NAPAWF and Choice USA, the California Young Women's Collaborative (CYWC) was born, a new organization where I work along side other like minded Asian women researchers to create awareness about the health problems that plague young Asian and Pacific Islander (API) women today. The California Young Women's Collaborative is one of the first projects in the country that specifically focuses on women's health issues among Asian & Pacific Islanders. We combine research and social justice activism to empower young API leaders, advocates and activists on California's college campuses. As a team, we draw from personal experience to help build the research. And with our similar childhood experiences and upbringings, the other CYWC researchers and I realized that because sex as a taboo is entirely common within API communities, we must first focus on breaking down the misconceptions and communication barriers that exist in API communities. Only then can we promote healthy discussion and dialogue about reproductive health and justice among young Asian women — what I like to refer as baby steps.

Speaking as both a woman and fellow member of CYWC, I truly believe its imperative we focus on creating new alternative forms of communication that encourage young API women to speak up about their health, body, and overall well being. Bringing API women together by promoting wellness in the hopes of working towards reproductive justice is absolutely possible, as long as we remember to approach ethnic diverse communities with an open mind, because reproductive justice doesn't only include physical health, it requires cultural sensitivity, compassion, and understanding as well.

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