When I was in Grade 3 at Belle Sherman Public School in Ithaca, New York, I had a teacher who was crazy about wildlife. While other classes had pet hamsters, Mrs. Shaw imported cockroaches straight from Madagascar. Every lesson was hands-on. Once, we even set off the school’s fire alarm while trying to make maple syrup from scratch.
The longest experiment, however, was the one with the beetles. At the start of the year, we were each given a small, clear plastic jar containing several beetle eggs. The jars were to sit on our desk throughout the term, and we would be able to watch as the eggs hatched, the larvae became pupae, and the pupae blossomed into shiny black beetles.
As someone who had once refused to step into the house because there was a bug on the doorframe, I was not thrilled about this project.
“Why can’t we have butterflies?” I had asked in disgust when she explained the experiment and presented us with our then-empty-looking jars.
“Butterflies are too big to keep in here. Besides, they’re very fragile. Their wings could be hurt by the lightest touch. They wouldn’t make it, not like these sturdy beetles. We’ll be able to release them after they’re grown, and they’ll be just fine.”
“But butterflies are so beautiful,” I said. “I could almost forget they were insects…”
But surprisingly, my fear of bugs was suspended—to a certain extent—as my beetles grew. It was quite fascinating to watch them; to consider how so many insects went through the same stages of life but came out of their cocoons looking so different. As Mrs. Shaw had assured us, our beetles thrived and were released into the schoolyard shortly after.
A few months later, in the warm summer sunshine, my mom graduated from her master’s program at Cornell. The celebration of her completed milestone was bittersweet. With no more reason to stay, we were forced to leave the States and make our way back to Vietnam, where I clumsily settled into an international French school without knowing two words of French.
The transition was a rough one, and I found myself constantly hiding in the English books that my friends in the States continually mailed to me. Some of my favourites included The Chronicles of Narnia—I would spend days outside play-fighting with my cousin and pretending I was a brave warrior like Lucy or Susan—and The Wizard of Oz series—I always saw myself as Queen Ozma, the powerful and beloved ruler of Oz. My absolute favourite books of the time, however, were the Little House novels, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s memoirs of her life as an adventurous pioneer girl. The heroines from my stories made up the landscape of my childhood. Thus, strong, self-reliant women were all I had ever known. I took it for granted that the world saw them the same way I did—resilient, always ready to bounce back up.
Once I’d adjusted to life in Hanoi, it wasn’t so bad. One of the big advantages was proximity to our extended family. Every Sunday, with my aunts and uncles and cousins, we would taxi over to the suburbs where my grandparents lived. There, my seven-year-old cousin and I would spend our days racing around the ponds and challenging each other to tree-climbing contests. We would climb over fences and venture across marshes into abandoned schoolyards to play on the structures. I did not have to adjust to being the only granddaughter; in Ithaca, I had been the only girl in my neighbourhood. I had waded in the creek, played hide-and-seek, and participated in bike races just like the boys. It’s not that I didn’t also have my fair share of Barbies and Groovy Girls. But my close family, being fairly progressive, had always encouraged my adventures outdoors, even when that meant me occasionally falling several feet out of trees.
At the time, being nine years old, I saw no differences between myself and my cousins and neighbours. We played the same games, and I was better at climbing than any of them. It was before the time when my grandfather would chide me for not helping with the cooking. It was before I started noticing how at every house party, the men would sit in the living room laughing and munching on appetizers, while the women gathered in the kitchen, bustling to prepare the meal.
In the full bloom of my childhood, I loved being the only granddaughter. No one ever let me forget it, which meant that I was usually the centre of attention at reunions. Relatives and family friends complimenting my cuteness and presenting me with extra gifts, extra lucky money—it made me feel special, and I took it all in.
The day I lost those rose-coloured glasses, I was visiting my grandfather’s village in the countryside, a few hours’ drive from Hanoi. It was an annual day trip, and one that I was not particularly fond of. My mom had bid me goodbye that morning, with a reminder to be polite and respectful, and then left for work. With the exception of my grandpa and one cousin, I was alone.
Despite having lived in Vietnam for a couple years, I was still uncomfortable with the courtesies expected when meeting strangers. I was fine when my mom was present as a buffer, and I had no problem with family members or close friends who would not judge my patchy Vietnamese, but we visited the village so rarely and so briefly that I could not remember anyone’s faces. With all the dirty outhouses, the mouldy walls of one-room homes, and the unpaved roads that were lined with garbage, I was definitely out of my element.
My cousin and I escaped to go play at every moment we could, but there were meals to be appreciated and old people to greet. I laboured through lunch—lukewarm kohlrabi soup and fried silkworm pupae—hoping that no adults would notice my lack of appetite.
It was afternoon when I came across the frame. We had just been to see my grandpa’s older sisters—both in their nineties and bowed with age—and were casually making our way to a few other houses in the neighbourhood to pay our respects. My cousin and I ran ahead and our grandfather strolled behind, pausing every few minutes to make conversation with people on the street.
It was a hot July day, and every door was open to let the air circulate. At our grandpa’s indication, we made our way into the small living room of a house, where a distant family friend politely greeted us.
Quickly, I noticed the large, ornate frame hanging on the wall. Amidst the gray cement, it stood out—an elegant black border and pearly white paper. We all moved in to take a closer look.
It took me just a few seconds to realize that the chart was a family tree—my family tree. I had recognized it because it looked like a larger version of the family trees that were at the beginning of all the Little House books. I had studied those meticulously, fascinated by the five generations of real women and their life stories. I had envied how their histories had been documented; mine, I had believed, was lost.
Eagerly, I searched through the names on the chart in front of me, feeling a jolt of excitement when I found my cousins, my grandfather. Even my youngest cousin, who had just celebrated his first birthday, was acknowledged. It was clearly very up-to-date, with two glaring omissions: my name was not there, and neither was my mother’s.
The space between her brothers’ names was small and even, as though she—the only daughter in her family—had never existed. Upon closer examination, I realized that it was not just we who were omitted, but all the women. My grandpa’s sisters, old and respected though they were, had no record of their lives here.
“Why am I not on this?” I demanded to know.
“You do not share your grandpa’s last name. He is your mother’s father. This is the Dao family tree,” answered the owner of the house.
“But my mom isn’t named either,” I said, “She never changed her maiden name.”
“She still doesn’t carry on the family name.”
“That’s not fair,” I said. My mom was one of the most determined and hard-working women I had ever known. It had never occurred to me that other people would see her—and all of the great women that I so admired—as anything different.
But the men around me merely chuckled, patted my shoulder, and moved away, seating themselves around the table for tea. My cousin, having lost interest after finding his name, left to join them.
I stood rooted in front of the frame, and even then, I could feel something big opening up inside me—an awareness that I had never had to face before. All the times that I had been called pretty had never felt so meaningless. I was winning the little battles—the extra five dollars on New Year’s, the new dresses from business trips—but those victories paled in the face of my losses, which would only become more apparent with time.
It was clear then that the compliments I received had always come at a cost. For a large part of society, I was nothing more than a beautiful butterfly that would crumble with the first rainstorm. In the grand trail of history, I was not worth knowing, not worth noting, and not worth preserving. For the first time, it suddenly became clear to me what being the only granddaughter meant.
Practical to a fault, my mom laughed off the incident when I told her later.
“It doesn’t really matter what’s on that paper,” she said. “It doesn’t determine anything about you.”
She was right, but what it had spelled out for me could not have been clearer. After that moment, I was suddenly aware of what the passing comments, the little differences meant: when my mother’s friend was divorced for bearing two daughters; when my little brother came home from school in grade five and stated, “Boys don’t like smart girls”; when, later in high school, my vice principal made an announcement saying that girls were not allowed to wear tank tops and other revealing clothing, because “We don’t want to distract the boys.”
For so much of my childhood, I had believed that because I had been raised just like my cousins, because we had played the same games and behaved in the same way, that we were equal. But regardless of our similarities as children, we might as well have been of a different species. Regardless of our accomplishments, our courage, and our drive, women would always have to fight to stop being seen as just pretty butterflies.