Friday, December 17, 2010


When can a person claim that they know and understand a culture?
When can a person say, "Yep I have integrated and now am Chinese"?
As a child growing up as a Chinese American in a white family, I barely studied Chinese culture and history.  I remember as a kid reading Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze River, a gift from my aunt and remember reading The Good Earth in high school.  I remember watching the movie too and being a bit shocked by the black and white film with white actors playing Chinese people.
In high school, I did my term paper on Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.  Then I went to a historically black university and read a lot of African American literature, scouring the library floors trying to understand diversity.  In my search, to understand the other, the other who didn't belong to white America, I was in a round about way searching for me.  Who was I as an other, an Asian other?  During my search, I wrote essays about the Chinese cultural revolution, Chinese stereotypes and international adoption.
One summer I did an undergraduate science internship at the University of California in Santa Barbara.  Their library had a room just for multi-cultural books, all the books for the various ethnic groups separated into sections.  I piled books high beside my bed, a sleeping bag on the floor in an unfurnished house.  I read and read.  The books I read about Asian people tended to be set either during ancient days or during the 1800's to the early 1900's, immigration stories or some of the more contemporary authors like Amy Tan, Ha Jin or Maxine Hong Kingston.
During film festivals or when picking out films, I would focus on Chinese movies like Farewell my Concubine, Joy Luck Club, Raise the Red Lantern, Eat Drink Man Woman, Xiu, Xiu: the Sent Down Girl, Wong Kar-wai films then I'd read the book if there was one.  I learned to fear Chinese movies that would have me sobbing by the end. 
I studied China trying to understand Chinese culture, trying to understand who my ancestors were.   Did all of that reading connect me with my ancestors?  Did all of that reading and watching movies prepare me for a life in China? Did all that reading make me more Chinese?
In the past 33 years, I have lived in Taiwan and China for a total of 10 years, 7 of those as a baby and a beginning teenager.  I've spent 3 years in China as a volunteering working adult teaching at a university.
Have I integrated?
Do I understand Chinese culture?
I have become accustomed to the habits of China.  I barely notice the differences anymore.  Many things just seem normal:
  • women wearing hospital face masks in all colors and prints trying to protect their faces from the cold
  • middle aged women wearing high heel boots, black thick tights and booty shorts
  • avoiding poop and vomit on the sidewalk
  • indirect communication using the middle man
  • at a banquet with 10 people having 10 of them coming to your chair personally to drink with you and then standing up yourself and going to each of the people filling their glass and giving a kind worded cheer to each and every one of them
  • yelling at the waiters to come to your table to fill the teacups or to give you the bill
  • spitting bones and all directly onto the table
  • being a Chinese person who sometimes seems to be a little out of place
  • speaking Chinese
  • people getting married after only knowing the person for a few months
  • people choosing responsibility over their dreams
  • not having schedules because no one knows anything; there is always someone higher up who knows the information which slowly trickles down through many levels making it super hard to schedule anything
I can often predict and rationalize the whys behind behavior.  For example, when a tragedy happens on campus the leaders won't directly confront the issue but instead will just ignore it and hope it will blow over letting the students spread false information, rumors, and gossip about it.  Why?  Loss of face is a terrible thing.  Admitting something that will cause you to look bad is a terrible thing.  Ignore it and hopefully it will pass quickly resulting in harmony without any dire consequences of losing your career.
I don't get shocked with people's ideas or actions but can understand their reasoning.  Many students say that they will never be able to marry their college boyfriends or girlfriends.  Why?  In order to find a job, everyone has to go back to their hometowns, a place where they have connections and where the government will help them find a job.  To marry a person who is not from your hometown runs a HUGE risk of not being able to find a job, thus not being able to support your family, thus being a bad son or daughter. 
The thing is just because I can navigate through the culture, just because things seem normal, just because I can speak Chinese to meet my needs, to make small talk, and to find out information, just because I know the whys behind the no's, the maybe's, the yes's, and if it would be convenient, doesn't mean that I am integrated, doesn't mean that I understand China, doesn't mean that I am Chinese. 
Even though I have learned more about China by living here compared to reading thousands of pages and watching hours of movies, how Chinese am I?
I can act the act and talk the talk and walk the walk, but does that make me Chinese?
In fact, it just shows me how much of an American I am and how much of a great actress I am.  Maybe though being a great actress, maybe acting culturally Chinese without thinking, maybe having Chinese mannerisms, instinctual habits, maybe all of that is a sign that I have integrated and am Chinese.  Maybe if on the surface I am Chinese, have got all the cultural mannerisms down, maybe it means that I have integrated. 
Yet, my way of thinking, reacting to certain situations, answering questions, writing essays, expressing my ideas are all very American.  When asked to interpret the Chinese saying, "Men are like mountains and women are like water,"  I would explain it quite differently than my students.  They say men are strong and support the family.  Women are soft and easily hurt.  I would say men are inflexible and need water to flourish.  Women are flexible yet so powerful and strong that they can wear down mountains and are the sustainers of life.  When asked if the story "The New England Nun" had a happy ending or a sad ending, my students said that it was a sad ending because the woman didn't get married and lived the rest of her life like a nun.  I said it was a happy ending because the woman was independent and choose her own happiness instead of getting married.  My thoughts are very different than my students.  I may be able to walk the walk, and talk the talk but I sure can't think the thoughts.
I am currently reading a book of short interviews with Asian Americans.  The Chinese people in the book who are first and second generation Chinese Americans have a very different viewpoint of themselves than Chinese Americans who have been in America for many generations.  The first and second generation Chinese Americans still hold strongly to Chinese culture and Chinese ideas about marriage, family, education, success, and taking care of the elderly.  The later generations seem to have abandoned Chinese cultural ideas and are trying to figure out how to be accepted in the diversity of America as an American.     
I feel that I am probably 50% integrated into my community.  I can interpret indirect communication.  I know who to talk to in order to get things that I want or need like if I don't want to teach a certain subject, I know the man who is in charge of that.  I can speak survival Chinese and can make friends using Chinese.  If I was a 100% Chinese Gansu woman though, I'd be stressed that I wasn't married and would be asking anyone and everyone to set me up on dates.  I'd be homesick and worried that I was being a bad daughter because I wasn't making money to support my parents nor was I taking care of them.  I'd be wanting to have children.  I'd think women were weaker than men and have to do too much housework.  I'd think and rationalize like Chinese people opting for social harmony rather than independent selfishness.
In summary, I am integrated into my community because I feel like I belong.  I try my best to be polite and not to be culturally inappropriate.  I speak Chinese and am a respected teacher at the university.  I have Chinese mannerisms; however, I do not think like my Chinese students.  Often I hold my tongue, not wanting to voice my opinions that are opposite of my students especially about sensitive topics. (Look at the Chinadaily's hot news articles to see what kinds of comments pop up about sensitive topics.)  I often censor myself because this is a country where viewpoints should align with the government.  For non-sensitive topics I do state my opinion, but I want the students to think for themselves and come up with their own answers according to their culture.  So have I intergrated even though I don't think like a Chinese mind?  Am I Chinese?  How Chinese am I?  Instead of answering the questions, here I shall end my thinking for the day with the ever so popular ending sentences of my students' essays, "In a word, let's just be happy every day and live in harmony.  Come on!"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very nice! Some of these are my thoughts/questions exactly.