Heavy Boy, Light Girl



I overheard a girl, upper elementary, medium length jet black hair. In Chinese she asks her mother, “What does it mean to be ‘heavy-boy-light-girl?’” I winced and turned my head, unwilling to look into the eyes of an innocent child while her mother explained. “Heavy-boy-light-girl” is a Chinese proverb to encapsulate the worldview that men are valued over women. The proverb isn’t prescriptive but descriptive, accepted matter-of-factly in our culture, as certain as the sky is blue.

My mother fought her way through a harsh patriarchal climate to be one of the few women in her generation to receive a college education. Despite being constantly taunted with hurled insults, “What’s a father-less girl doing going to school?” she persevered. And yet, even in her subversive rebellion against the norm, the male-dominant narrative runs deep. “The greatest achievements in our world are out of reach for you, Daughter,” she’d remind me. And so it is, from one generation to the next, “heavy-boy-light-girl” is the framework we inherit. From my mother to me, and now this encounter with a little mei-mei (sister) on the street.

I became the first person in my family to become a serious person of faith. Many Christian teachings, to trust and obey, aren’t so far removed from the compliant spirit women were prescribed, so it made sense to learn and grow to be good. My mother, who labored for her own education, made sure there were no obstacles on our path to academy and I chose to pursue a theology degree. With an unquenchable thirst for learning, I cajoled my newlywed husband into attending seminary—Let’s get our graduate degrees before starting a family, I said. And so we did.

As enthusiastic as I was to partner with my husband, having been equipped at the same institution, it wasn’t long before I discovered the field of ministry was more eager to welcome him than me. Pastors were delighted to meet the young couple, newly graduated, ready to change the world for Jesus. But the offers to preach and teach were less than subtly directed at him and not me. I quickly learned there were people in the world who would co-opt religious language to perpetuate the same harmful teachings embedded in the soil of my culture.

Just as my mother evaded the insults which came her way, I disregarded those who sought to make me invisible and carved out my own space to exercise my gifts. I’m thankful for the internet, giving me an opportunity to speak about faith, theology, and culture for a mixed audience. I applaud egalitarian faith leaders, who bravely pave the way for equal status for women in the church and the world. Online, I can choose to side with liberation, with equality, with fellow Jesus feminists. I am humbled and grateful and recognize the significant historic developments that allow me to have this voice.

But once I log off, and walk into the local church in my neighborhood, a sanctuary that still excludes the preaching gifts of women, I am confronted with the reality of slow progress.

I sit in the pews and hear the preacher from the pulpit announce the biblical workshop on submission to a congregation with women who know the principles of “heavy-boy-light-girl.” Everything is as it should be, the story of Jesus entrusting his resurrection mission to women hasn’t yet countered 5,000 years of patriarchy. Systems do not change overnight.

It is frustrating, for those of us who only know the lightning speed of information travel and enjoy the amplification of social media broadcasting, to remember just how long it takes for cultural change to take root. In our haste for liberation, and even though justice delayed is justice denied, we must remember that lasting change takes more than one angry tweet. Change comes from faithful tweet after tweet, one honest story after another, one brave feminist after another bold ally, one fierce mother to her strong daughter, one resilient generation pushing forward the next. The moral arc of the universe is long and justice doesn’t always roll like a rushing river, but more like slow ocean swells.

To my little mei mei on the street: I am sorry you even have to learn about “heavy-boy-light-girl.” But I hear the resistance in your voice, the fire in your eyes. I smiled when you asked, “Why isn’t there ‘heavy-girl-light-boy?’” I cheered you on for playing the opposite game.

We are in this for the long run, sister. I will tell my daughter to rise up, and you tell your friends to rise up, and when we all rise up together, we’ll turn this big ship around.

Equality comes slowly, but we will rise while we wait.


Image credit: Larry W. Lo