“This is how a daughter honors her mother. It is shou (xiào 孝) so deep it is in your bones. The pain of the flesh is nothing. The pain you must forget. Because sometimes that is the only way to remember what is in your bones. You must peel off your skin, and that of your mother, and her mother before her. Until there is nothing. No scar, no skin, no flesh.”
– Amy Tan, Joy Luck Club
A daughter’s reflection on navigating the identity crises of being Chinese-Australian and finding the essence of the Chinese spirit
Elder knows best, time will tell. Even as I grew to acknowledge that nothing in life was certain, this much was certain in mine. This blind reverence for the elderly, just because. Despite learning in third grade that ‘just because’ wasn’t a good enough answer to get me an exemplary grade in reading and comprehension, at home this remained the indisputable truth, the last word in every argument and the way we did things because we were Chinese.
It is a peculiar experience being Chinese-Australian because you walk a very fine line between two cultures, negotiating values and constantly redefining your sense of identity. Of being stuck in cultural limbo and never being able to redeem yourself for the greed you hold for your Australian home and your Chinese roots. You live at a crossroads, as a physical manifestation of where East meets West. Yet, in a transcultural era, where ‘who we are (by birth) and where we are (by choice) is not as relevant as it once was’ (Slimbach 2005, p. 205) you’d think it’d be so much easier. When in actual fact, at moments you feel like you’re getting the best of both worlds but at others, your very existence feels fabricated and unreal.
One morning in China, three weeks into my stay in Shanghai for ICS, my Australian identity was challenged for the first time. The previous night I had gathered the courage to apply for a job to tutor a native Chinese speaker English. To which my reply was ‘Thanks for your appreciation. My friend may want someone be more authentic.’ One wechat message was all it took to unhinge me because being denied of my claim to being Australian – to an indivisible part of how I perceived myself and to my first language – ultimately, bruised my ego.
The Chinese like to call it face – an intangible possession with which you flaunt as the very representation of your character for the sole purpose of being judged. Essentially that is my ego – the means with which I define my worth and my sense of self. Ideally that face would be ever-changing to work in my favour but it almost never works that way. Yet in working that out, I found the part of me that resonates with the millions of other Chinese that flock to Shanghai – the Pearl of the Orient. It is in the hopes of finding their treasure – for dreams of belonging, of reconciling the imagined self or this face we speak of, with the very circumstances life has bestowed upon us.
I grew up listening to my parent’s tell stories of Shanghai, of the way the city grew with them through the eighties and of how it stole their young hearts the way Sydney stole mine. Even before arriving in Shanghai, I knew China would be a different kind of cultural awakening for me than for my peers because a little bit of Shanghai was already in my blood, embedded deep within. What I lacked was a true understanding of these origins because that was the only way I could relinquish what I held too much of, self-doubt and sensitivity.
For the longest time, my Chineseness felt neither symbolic nor voluntary. The history and the spirit of the ancestors that came before me felt like something ascribed to me by the forces of fate and came attached with social consequences. As Waters (1990) states in Akiyama’s (2008) paper, for third generation white Americans ethnicity is both flexible and voluntary but ‘the situation is very different for members of racial minorities, whose lives are strongly influenced by their race or national origin…’ (2008, p. 251). That is why when I ran into problems in the early stages of enrolment, of being sent back and told to come back another day, of being told ‘nothing could be done at this point in time’, or being informed of certain rules and guidelines, I wasn’t surprised. I expected China to be bureaucratic, unyielding, occasionally suffocating and mostly difficult because that’s what being Chinese felt like to me.
I grew up in a traditional Chinese household in which cultural traditions drew strict parameters around the formation of my sense of identity, particularly in relation to my position in the family hierarchy. As soon as I learnt to speak, I learnt to address all my parents’ friends as either ‘aunty’ or ‘uncle’ upon seeing them. At dinner, it was only polite to allow the elders to have their first bite of food before I could eat. When I was ten, I was taught to make it my mission to refill teacups at yumcha. If ignorance was bliss then I obeyed because this was the Chinese way, but never knowing why.
Over the years, it became quite clear to me that key differences between Chinese and Western cultural norms rested upon the central place that family played in defining Chinese customs. As one of the world’s oldest civilized nations in the entire world, Chinese history had long established the family as more than a simple social unit. For thousands of years, family represented a whole codified ideology that pervaded the state and society. As such, filial piety is highly regarded as a traditional virtue of the Chinese nation and has long since permeated into the nation’s blood and bone. Prior to coming to Shanghai, I was only aware of the general assumption that Asian children felt more obligated to look after their parents in old age, to provide financial support and remain closer to home than Western children. In many ways, I understood filial piety as an additional level of reverence for the elderly, which Australian society already encouraged as respect for the elderly, never in the light of its significance to Chinese history.
If anything, Shanghai has taught me that living with a culture is in fact very different from living within a culture because the former builds tolerance whilst the latter reveals new ways of making sense of the world in which we live, of truly understanding and ultimately, of acceptance. I’d always known that the smallest of gestures, like bowing when you greeted elders, pouring tea for your grandparents and just the very act of being present at every single family gathering was a respectful gesture that just so happened to attribute the quality of being filial to your character. Yet it was always more a matter of respect to me because whilst filial piety isn’t as prevalent in Western cultures, kindness, empathy and respect are. For example, offering your seat to an elder on the train is a universally acknowledged act of kindness but the Chinese would describe that as being filial. They wouldn’t use the word respect to explain this gesture because respect is assumed and encompassed within the overall idea of filial piety.
Self-reflection has been an ongoing process for me in China because exposure to traditions where they began has allowed me to see that my appreciation for my heritage has largely been superficial. I came across the text, ‘The Twenty-Four paragons of Filial Piety’ for the first time in one of my language lessons here at Tongji University. We were given the thirteenth paragon of filial piety, titled ‘Burying His Son to Save His Mother Alive’ in Chinese as a reading exercise, of which the English translation is below:
‘Guo Ju wished to serve his aging mother;
He buried his son, so that she might live,
The gods rewarded him with golden coins;
Their brilliant gleam lit up his humble hut.’
(China Culture 2003, n.p)
As an educative text, this folk story is still taught in Chinese primary schools and tells the story of how a poor man who chose to sacrifice his son’s life to save his mother’s was rewarded by the gods. Guo Ju finds a case of gold as he prepares to dig his son’s grave and is able to save his mother, spare his son’s life and build a better life for all of them. The moral of the story is clear – those who are filial are rewarded with good fortune. It was in reading and analysing this text that I felt the desire to understand the intensity of these values that were so close to home. For the first time, I felt confronted by the fact that, despite possessing an ingrained sense of being indebted to my parents and of deeply wanting to be responsible for their wellbeing as they aged, I had no substantial understanding of the source of this desire. I realised then what I had known since the third grade, that ‘just because’ wasn’t enough of an answer to strengthen the tenuous relationship I had with my Chinese heritage.
Since the study load for Chinese has been so intense in Shanghai, I have come to realise the possibilities of language to enrich your understanding of a certain culture by not only being essential to social interactions but also of historical significance. To sum up what Hofstede and Hofstede (1995) pointedly stated, language is the road map of a culture because it is the very tool with which people discover, negotiate and locate their identities, beliefs and values. In Chinese, the concept of filial piety is encompassed by the character 孝 (xiào). A quick consultation out of curiosity with my language teachers in Shanghai revealed the intention behind the construction of the very character. 孝(xiào) is made up of two characters – of which the upper half is derived from the character meaning old, 老(lao) and the bottom half coming from the character 子(zī), meaning child. The significance of the construction of this character yields interesting interpretations that provide deeper insights into the Chinese psyche. That is, the idea of the elderly being supported by the youth is conveyed through the visual manifestation of the character子 carrying the burden of the old, 老.
Furthermore, there is significance in the vertical assembly of these characters in order to convey the continuation of the family line – the chronology of it, from top to bottom. As filial piety was central to the Confucian order of regulating ancient China, the family became an extended, stable unit of many generations living under the one roof (‘The Kin And I: Ageing’ 2015). From this we acquire the saying, 养儿防老(yang er fang lao) meaning to raise children for your old age (‘The Kin And I: Ageing’ 2015). Currently, China is facing tremendous pressures to deal with its aging population as a repercussion to its One Child Policy. Statistically, almost 70% of China’s elderly are financially reliant on their children (Wong 2014). In visiting the Shanghai marriage markets, which was basically a market in which elders of the family tried to find suitable matches for their children, I was able to personally encounter how deep the pressure to be filial ran throughout Chinese society. The 4:2:1 phenomenon, which refers to the fact that one child now has to support 4 grandparents and 2 parents, essentially drove the motives of the elderly as many hoped to find spouses for their children to ease this burden, even if by a fraction.
In hindsight, I realise that it was often easier for me to embrace the sun, sand and surf that Sydney had to offer because I was physically present amongst the byproducts of the iconic free spirit of Australia. I desired independence and the thought of being freed from the shackles of family because that was what I thought I needed to do to grow – to seek identity outside of my what little I chose to really connect with as being part of my Chinese heritage. So, it was easier for me to shun the grey haze of smog and pollution that hovered over the dense Shanghai skyline because I couldn’t see or comprehend the story it had to tell. The story of how one simple concept of unconditional love became the primary spirit of the Chinese culture and of the possibilities of defining myself as a daughter – as an extension of something much greater than me. In the same way my mother still remains her mother’s daughter before she is any other character in this life. Now, so far from the home I have come to know, I find myself seeing the nuances of my Chineseness and realise that I am rediscovering a home that was open to me long before I came knocking at its door.
Akiyama, C. 2008, ‘Bridging the Gap Between Two Cultures: An Analysis on Identity Attitudes and Attachment of Asian Americans,’ Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention, vol. 8, no. 3, pp. 251-263
China Culture 2003, Guo Ju, viewed 10th March 2016, < http://www.chinaculture.org/focus/focus/2010doubleninth/2010-10/15/content_396669.htm>
Hofstede, G. and Hofstede, G.J. 1995 ‘Intercultural Encounters’ in Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, 2nd edition, McGraw-Hill, New York, pp. 319-362.
Slimbach, Richard. 2005 ‘the Transcultural Journey, Frontiers The Interdiscplinary Journal of Study Abroad, vol. 6
‘The Kin And I: Ageing’ 2015, The Economist, 29 August, p. 36
Wong, W. 2014, ‘Finding ‘love’ in China: An Overview of Chinese Marriage Markets (BaiFaXiangQin), Student Pulse, vol. 6, viewed 14th March 2015, <http://www.studentpulse.com/a?id=946>