Better off TEDx

Taken by: Chaeyeong Lee

I’m still not sure if it really happened or if I was all just a dream. A very, very good LONG dream. . . Did I really take the stage at a TED conference? Did I really give a talk about ecofeminism that inspired several of my friends, new friends and over 1,000 audience members?

“What is ecofeminism? Well, that depends on who you ask. I just learned about it last week.”

The lights are so bright I can’t make out any faces in the audience. For all I know, they were all planning on sleeping through it. But then, the unmistakable sound of laughter. A sign of success. So I proceed. I don’t really hear the words coming out of my own mouth because the whole thing feels so surreal.

They were a patient audience as I quickly maneuvered them through a topic that was so vast, the 8 minutes I had were barely enough to explore one facet of it. They allowed me to make them laugh, gasp, and think really hard. My talk was delivered in two languages, English and Korean. I wonder what I sounded like in Korean? When I finished, no one stood but me; but the crowd’s round of applause was one full of approval and respect.

I had arrived.

It’s true, I spoke at the TEDxItaewon conference yesterday. The theme was Nature+ and I was one of two participants selected for the TEDxYou stage. We both were picked from a pool of 79 applicants.  My topic was on ‘ecofeminism’ and I would like to share my essay with you here. Once a video is posted, I will be sure to update it here as well. Yeah, that’s right. Video. Which will be on the same website as Al Gore. Eeeee eee eeee


Anyeonghasseo, Jessica imnida. [bow]

That’s all my Korean. . . [hahaha]

Before I came to Korea I don’t think I would have ever considered myself a feminist. To be quite honest, it was a dirty word in my mind’s eye that provoked images I just couldn’t relate to.

Their messages were always too extreme for me to understand. Then again, I grew up in a place where a standard set of women’s rights was already present. Luckily, my grandmothers before me made it possible to perform everyday activities like drive, vote, speak my mind.

I never grew up feeling like there was anything I couldn’t do simply because of my gender. There were woman anchors on the major news networks, astronauts, scientists, athletes.

It wasn’t until I came to Korea where I felt this habit of free thinking and independence were less acceptable. Women here are objectified much more explicitly in advertisements on billboards and busses.

And of course, I’ll never forget my amazement the first night I went out and realized the streets were lined with business cards like these.

This past March, I was fortunate enough to earn employment in the coveted role as a professor at a women’s university. For most English teachers in Korea, this is the mecca. No more germs, dealing with temper tantrums, or being attacked at the knees.

Instead, my students would now be a wonderful group of young women who were 19-21 years old.

I made it a point to never treat them like or ever call them ‘girls’. They are women. In a society that still panders to men and a culture that has not yet seen a sexual evolution, I felt it was my job to empower them, not just in English but in life. That’s when I realized what feminism was really about: empowering women to lead happy, safe and productive lives full of possibility.

Although I didn’t consider myself a feminist before coming to Korea, I was definitely an environmentalist- or as my boyfriend calls me, a hippie. To be fair, he usually calls me that when I am frantically running around the apartment turning off lights and unplugging unused appliances or scolding him for using too many paper napkins at the dinner table.

About 5 years ago, I gave up my car opting to use public transportation as my first major step in becoming more environmentally conscious. One of the reasons I was excited by the prospect of living in Korea was the Seoul metro and bus system.
 As much as I grumble from time to time for the lack of seating or the crowded standing commute, it’s really amazing to me that it has the ability to take you from the airport into the heart of the city in under 2 hours for no more than $2. This is something that should inspire ANY city planner and makes any hippie, like me, swoon.

It wasn’t until recently that I discovered the concept of eco-feminism. When I told one of my male co-workers that I would speaking about it at this conference he asked me, “What is eco-feminism anyway? Does that mean we just save the female polar bears?”

Upon first glance, feminism and environmentalism seem like two entirely different ideologies; but, as I discovered, they are mutually reinforcing.

While the threat of climate change has been recognized as a global priority issue, the truth is that this threat is not gender-neutral. Climate change disproportionately affects women.

You may have heard of The Birkenhead Drill protocol, better known as:

“Women and children first.”

Sounds nice; but in a recent study by Swedish economists it is more like: “Women and children are the first to die.”

Two researchers in Stockholm looked at 18 different shipwrecks and found hardly any evidence of men insisting women and children go first.

The numbers revealed that women made it to shore an abysmal 27 percent of the time only slightly more successful than the tragic 15 percent of children.

Just like in a shipwreck, when it comes to harsh weather conditions, women are the most vulnerable.

Drought is not typically viewed as a possible cause for rape unless you are a woman living in Darfur.

In Darfur, it women’s responsibility to gather water for their families.

As I’m sure you are aware, drought and water shortages are now part of everyday life in this region. It is speculated that these droughts are most likely caused by, what else, climate change. These droughts mean women must travel farther to find water and in doing so put themselves at a higher risk of violence, such as rape. It was reported in a book about Sexual Violence in Darfur that 82 percent of almost 500 women treated for rape were attacked while performing daily activities such as gathering water. The fact that 500 women were raped is astounding, to comprehend that 82 out of 100 women were raped while they were simply trying to stay hydrated is sickening.

Women are no safer in other types of natural disasters. Imagine being a muslim woman who is prohibited from leaving her home without a male escort.

Without a man at home, you are forced to stay in your house during a mudslide. The house structure is weak and may collapse; but you can’t leave and risk being seen in public alone. This very scenario played out recently in China.

In the past few weeks, the country has faced major rainstorms including the heaviest downpour in Beijing in 60 years.

As a result of the storms,mudslides in the northwestern city of Xinjiang [shin-jahn] killed at least 16 people. The city is home to Uighurs [wee-guhz], a mainly muslim ethnic minority in China. Most of the victims of the accident were mine workers; however half of the residents killed were women pulled out from under collapsed houses.

So I ask you again, what does eco-feminism mean?

Ecofeminism can mean different things to different people. Today, it is a term that I hope enlightens and motivates you. If you were already an environmentalist, be challenged to be a better feminist. If you were already a feminist, be challenged to be a better environmentalist. Realize that our real work in lowering the risks for women around the world is not just increasing equality between men and women; but it is also ensuring we don’t make their situation worse by allowing climate change to put them at higher risks.

Thank you~


10 thoughts on “Better off TEDx

  1. Life in Asia certainly does open up one’s eyes to how women are more abundantly objectified here. I saw this in China during my 3 years there, with similar ads; at the same time there was still a huge traditionalist pressure on females to not “be” sexy. Sex education is not offered. Many women at the college I taught at ended up in relationships with “stereotypical” abusive Chinese men who would pressure the females not only into sex before they were ready but would control them in many other ways, too. Most of the students we taught were mentally and relationally akin to 12 – 13 year olds in the US simply because of how sheltered they were.

    A third blow to women in China is the one child-policy. No matter one’s feelings on abortion ( I am pro-life myself but I know not everyone is and won’t bash anyone with my views), the simple fact is that many, many women are pushed into abortion in China by families who want a male. It is illegal to get the results of an ultrasound; even as an American having a child there I didn’t know if my son was a boy or a girl until he entered the world. If you have enough money and influence, you can get around this as we know wealthy Chinese who would bribe for the results. Abortions come at all terms; babies have even been killed as they were being born. Often it’s because they are female and that’s the only reason. The authorities also pressure women to have their tubes tied so a second child is prevented. In fact many women have had their tubes tied without giving permission because the doctors do it during the c-sections. C-sections are far more common in China and are pushed on women. I was pressured into one for weeks and refused to relent. I only had one when it was an emergency situation, after I had already gone into labor.

    In Thailand, there is a different yet still disturbing portrayal of women. You see the same kinds of photos in ads mixed in with modest ones, as this culture is still very traditional in many ways (perhaps even more so than China, at least in my experiences).

    Quite frankly, much of it is perpetuated by Western men who come here as “sex-pats.” I saw this in China where an older man would be walking around with a younger female, but I see it far more often here. I’ve seen men who are probably 70-80 holding the hand of someone who is probably 18-20. Age differences don’t always bother me but in cases like this, they disgust me. There are a lot of men who come here simply to find “bar girls” and “massage girls” to hook up with. Ex-pat forums online can be fairly raunchy as men discuss which massage places will let you “go all the way” with the girls vs. just get a peek at them being naked or them only giving “happy endings.” I’ve even seen men post photos of their favorite girls, nude. This is on respected online forums that exist to inform people about things like visa procedures, culture, etc, not some seedy site! It’s so out in the open that it boggles my mind.

    While some girls here are in the sex trade willingly because they can’t make that kind of income elsewhere, others, especially those in vulnerable populations (ethnic minorities or those smuggled from across either the Burmese or Cambodian borders) are often sold into it by their families. Even young children, including babies of both genders are sold into it too. (This problem of human trafficking is something that my husband and I are looking to get involved with, to try to make a difference).

    I don’t know if I call myself a feminist per say since the term itself is loaded with meaning that I don’t agree with. But in the sense that there are some very real problems here in Asia and throughout the world where women are hurt, suffering, in bondage…..yeah, I’m right there, wanting to raise my voice and act against injustice. For me it stems out of my religious perspectives vs. something political (I’m actually apolitical now). If there are men in the world who are treated poorly, I want to take a stand for them too, so it’s not just a female vs. male thing. But for whatever reason, doesn’t it seem like so much of the injustice falls on women and girls? Heartbreaking.

    Environmentalist. Eco-friendly. I see the intersection here with supporting women very easily. For example, one of the things I appreciate the most about being in Thailand is that I can buy sustainable goods easily while helping to support a family in the process. I’ve always cared about the environment to the point where it pissed my family off that I insisted so heavily on recycling. I got involved with the environmental club way back in the days of LHS and it never really stopped for me. I lived in one of the most polluted countries in the world and my heart broke that children in China often, when asked what color the sky is, answer grey. I see the beautiful mountains and glorious blue skies in my new home in Thailand, thankful I escaped the dreary pollution for my sake and my child’s sake, but I still wonder about those who were left behind.

    I see animal rescue deeply tied into being an environmentalist, too. While animal abuse happens in the States, it doesn’t compare to the treatment of cats and dogs I saw and have heard of in both China and Thailand. It’s hard for me to talk about; in fact I’ve been trying to write a blog post on it for 2 months but tears well up each time so I still have yet to finish it. I know that those with less are not going to be as concerned about feeding and care for street animals, but it also doesn’t mean they have to abuse them, either. Simplified point for a complex situation.

    All in all, it sounds like we’ve got a lot of points of agreement for these very real issues.


    • Shawna~ Thank you for your insight. It sounds so trite to say that living abroad (even just visiting) can really change your perspective; but it’s SO true! Hopefully we can use our influence to change the world one person at a time.


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