Bambi Shen uses a simple gesture to begin the task of acclimating new, male Saudi Arabian university students who board at her home. She extends her hand.
Shen’s request for a handshake is symbolic of the differences between American culture, where women are viewed as equal, and Saudi Arabian culture, in which men dominate. Saudi culture provides an extreme example of cultural differences, where touch between Saudi women and men is forbidden, unless within marriage. In addition, Saudi women are not even allowed to leave their homes without a male chaperone.
“I tell them they have to (shake my hand) because they’re in the United States,” Shen said of the first step in the process of teaching her new boarders about life in America. She said some boarders are initially surprised, but, all willingly accept her invitation as one of many lessons she offers during their stay. “We become good friends,” she said.
Shen uses this tool among many others to instruct three international UMKC students who board at her home each year. Shen, who is a multi-lingual interpreter, offers language lessons to student boarders and others throughout Kansas City. She also is an advocate for women and others who suffer discrimination in many forms.
Shen, a WWII concentration camp survivor and author of a memoir about her experiences, will speak at MCC-Longview on Wednesday, Oct. 9. The free presentation, sponsored by the honor society Phi Theta Kappa, will be held at 2:30 p.m. in the Campus Center, room 241.
Shen’s book, “The Uncrushable Rose,” recounts her childhood in French Indochina, where she and her parents were held in captivity during Japanese occupation. Shen, who was born in 1939, and her parents, were first held under protective custody, also known as house arrest, but the treatment became increasingly harsh as Japan’s dominance wavered during World War II.
Her memoir vividly recounts disturbing scenes of her father, a Chinese diplomat in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam, following beatings at the hands of the Japanese.
“The memory of him coming back to the room bloody and humiliated, gave me the resolve I wasn’t going to give into domestic violence,” she said, referring to her first marriage.
Shen is now happily married and the couple resides near UMKC. She uses past oppression as motivation to empower others and encourage the growth of freedom throughout the world.
That past includes the prejudice she endured as a Chinese-born child of an undesired gender. She tells of her fight to freedom, including the right to an education. She arrived in Kentucky as an 18-year-old hopeful college student who was shunned by her mother, she remembered, “for taking money away from my brother, whose education was more important.”