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Juliet Liu ’10 Examines Domestic and Labor Experiences of Chinatown’s Working Women

Juliet Liu ’10 spent her summer learning about working-class Chinese immigrant women in America. On Monday, Liu gave a presentation on the plight of Chinese women working in New York City’s Chinatown as a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day workshop for Seniors. In her presentation, “Chinatown’s Working Women: The Forging of a New Social Identity,” Liu examined how the intersecting forces of race, gender, immigrant status and class affected Chinese women’s lives. Liu conducted extensive research on the topic through studying traditional Chinese perceptions of women, historical Chinese immigration to America, and current working-class Chinese women immigrants in New York’s Chinatown. Liu also did fieldwork over the summer by interviewing Chinese women in Chinatown who were employed in low-wage, labor-intensive jobs. Liu began her presentation by discussing traditional Confucian beliefs on gender that have permeated Chinese culture. Under a Confucian tenet called the “Four Obediences,” women were expected to obey their father before marriage, their husband after marriage, and their sons when widowed. Immigration from China to the United States changes this dynamic for women, Liu argued. The need for a second household salary forces many immigrant women to work outside the home in jobs below their level of expertise, she said. According to Liu, Chinese women often work out of necessity for the benefit of their family, as the male’s job often does not provide enough to sustain the family. Liu also found that immigrants’ limited English-speaking ability largely determined their inability to seek higher-paying jobs. After interviews with immigrant, working-class Chinese women, Liu said, “I noticed that many of the women stayed [in America] because they wanted a better future for their children.” Liu first became interested in the plight of working-class Chinese women over the summer, while in New York City with her sister. “I chose the topic because it was a matter of both personal interest and academic curiosity to me,” said Liu. “I felt that I was the only non-immigrant in a family of immigrants…and I wanted to know more about my parents’ immigrant experience.” “There was a language barrier that I did not expect, because I speak Mandarin, but a lot of these women spoke Cantonese,” Liu said. Liu’s presentation was the first time that a Brace Fellowship has been included as part of the MLK Day lineup. Will Lindsey ’10 attended the presentation as his MLK Day worshop. Lindsey found the presentation fitting with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s message. “Spike Lee urged us to research Martin Luther King, Jr. and his message for equality and opportunity. It is important to understand the working conditions of people in America and educate ourselves about people from many backgrounds,” he said. “I was very impressed with the hands-on research Juliet did throughout her presentation. It took a lot of dedication to explore Chinatown and interview different Chinese women from many backgrounds,” he continued. Edward Rotundo, Instructor in History and Co-Director of the Brace Center, said that he found Juliet Liu’s research to be highly impressive. He said, “At one level, she did great interview research with Chinese immigrant women who work in the garment industry, exploring their life experience with them.” “On a very different level, she was able to examine those human experiences through the lens of some sophisticated theory to help her explain the issues for people who live at the point where class, gender and race intersect,” he continued. Rotundo added, “The project worked really well both as a set of true stories and as an analysis of those stories.” Tracy Ainsworth, Instructor in History and Social Sciences, was Liu’s advisor for the presentation. Ainsworth said, “I had Juliet in a history course, and knew she would be responsible and give a great presentation.” The presentation, held in the School Room in Abbot campus, was among a series of five sponsored by the Brace Center for Gender Studies. Meredith Rahman ’10 will present the last project of the series, a study of Muslim women in politics, in early February.