I’ve been thinking recently that being Chinese/Asian has a lot more influence on me than I’d previously understood. It’s an admission that I’m reluctant to make, because so often when I hear people speaking of culture, they sound like they’re making ghastly nineteenth-century differentiations between People X and People Y. I get all kinds of queasy inside. But it’s important to think about it, even if it’s hard to talk about; lately I’ve been doing the thinking in plenty, and now I’ll take a shot at the talking.
When I think about Chinese culture, it’s not so blatant that I can say “Chinese people do this and that, and so do I,” because — if you assume such a thing as “typical” — my family is atypical. But there are definitely patterns to my thoughts and actions, and you could map some of those patterns fairly well onto other patterns of Western femininity, or Chineseness. There’s been so much excellent stuff written on feminism, which I’ve read with fascination because it resonates so deeply with my experience. I’ve resolved to alter my thinking and my actions to be more feminist (anti-patriarchal) — but now I’m realizing that many of the qualities I see as traditionally feminine, and therefore to be overcome for greater gender equality and personal success, are actually cultural legacies and not just a consequence of my gender socialization. Deference to authority figures, obedience to rules, valuing relationships and community over career and self, letting others speak first, not asking questions, obsession with appearance (“face”) — these are all Chinese customs and values, as much as they are ones Western society transmits to girls and women. And while I’m eager to throw off the shackles of patriarchy (so melodramatic!), the same shedding gets really complicated when it come to culture.
I’ve only begun thinking about this lately because of my continued observations of behavior among artists (as in our IWL workshop, especially since there are proportionately more Asians and more young people than there were at VONA): how we relate to one another, how our styles differ, when it comes to promoting ourselves and contributing to group harmony. While thinking over that challenging IWL meeting of a month ago, I realize that some of my discomfort came from having to behave in a way that directly contradicts my cultural values. For me, the turning point from mild to extreme unease came when we were told that interrupting and interrogating others was a way to “step up.” I don’t think it’s being too general to say that in Chinese culture, interrupting and interrogating would be seen as socially violent; certainly that was my experience of it.
Later on in the same session, another student described her dreams as being integral with family, but that was not accepted (“I don’t hear you in this”); the student ended up having to insist very strenuously that family, and responsibility to family, are central to her identity. The student is Asian, and I, rightly or wrongly, interpreted her feelings about family/responsibility as coming from her culture — because to some extent I share her feelings and was raised to do so. I don’t like to point to things and say, “This is Asian” or “this is not,” but I’m beginning to see that my Asianness is deeply tied into my beliefs or behavior. But even if I’d been able to articulate this at the time, even if I’d felt safe speaking up further in that space, would I have dared to say: “You are being culturally insensitive”?
I don’t feel capable of speaking out on behalf of Asian culture. For one thing, I don’t think we can look at “culture” as an unchanging monolith that’s the same for everyone. For another, much of my cultural education came from my mother, who is herself culturally ambivalent, and transmitted that ambivalence to us. She was born in Texas to Western-educated, English-speaking parents, then migrated to China where she had to reconcile that unusual upbringing with an entirely different atmosphere under Mao and Communism. Follow that with a period of violent turmoil and another migration back to the US in the 1970s, and it’s no surprise that my sisters and I were brought up with a mixed bag of support and condemnation for both Chinese and American values. Additionally, Asian values — which, as I’ve said, often coincide with feminine values — are so maligned in our society (think geisha girls and “women don’t ask”) as well as so blindly vaunted (“ancient Eastern wisdom,” goddess culture) that I find it very problematic to try to explain or articulate them; to do so is to open any of a million cans labeled “worms.” Moreover, as I’ve said, I am myself so conflicted that I feel constantly oppositional to and protective of all my values, Asian or not.
The thing about culture is — no matter how awkward and difficult it is to talk about, define, or explain — you can’t deny it exists. You recognize it when you travel to a new country, or even a new city, and discover that the people there don’t act like people at home. Where any kind of culture is concerned, I think we all understand the deep relief of being able to hang out with others like ourselves. It’s especially important when our culture isn’t well understood by the mainstream, as in the case of people of color, people who are LGBTQ, etc. That’s partly why VONA exists and why it’s amazing: shared experiences of marginality free us from the burden of explanation, of having to be poster child for anything. Of course the assumption of mutual understanding is always risky, no matter what, but it’s still comforting to be among others who share my habitation of in-between spaces and the tension thereof. And it’s especially comforting at moments like this one, when I’m discovering I might be more Chinese than I thought.
So many, many things to think about here that I’m going to have to re-read the post a few more times. But off the top of my head, I never connected feminism to culture, and that premise alone is going to keep my brain busy for a while. I think back to stories about how hard it was for women in my family past to step into ‘feminism’, and how much harder culture must have made that same step. That leads to thoughts about culture in particular, and how culture can be minaturized into a family, which leads to thoughts about how my family has created a culture, and what that culture is…like I said, lots to think about here. Thanks for waking my brain up; I needed it after a day of editing dull government documents.
Ooh, I LOVE this mini-map of the wheels turning in your head. 🙂 There’s tons more I could explore here too, and I suspect I probably will.
Blegh on government documents!
I agree… it’s hard to pull apart the knot of what is dominant culture, what is specific culture, what is family, and what is just me. Human culture everywhere is complicated and sticky, “whenever” you encounter it… past, present, and future. I think it’s fine to claim parts of it, reject others, and be fully yourself. I don’t have to be just one thing, and I don’t have to adopt any label I don’t own. Let’s explore, acknowledge, and discover some more.
Thank you for reading, Kimber! I love how you characterize this as a knot — everything so intertwined it’s hard to tell where one thing ends and another begins. That’s very much how I feel, though sometimes I like to take the knot out and see if I can identify some of the strands going in. 😉
I especially identify with this: “it’s still comforting to be among others who share my habitation of in-between spaces and the tension thereof.” I long for that sort of comfort, because all my life I’ve been among people who prefer, and have sometimes preached the value of, being loud and proud no matter what. I have the loud and proud in me, and many people have seen it, but when I got old enough to choose my own behavior more than mimicking that of my elders and schoolmates, I wanted to choose behavior that telegraphed a sense of brotherhood and acceptance. I’ve never been comfortable with the “no matter what” part. If I don’t understand something, I prefer to be quieter and ask questions, and then listen to the answers. Above all else, I don’t want to fight when there is nothing to fight about. My shorthand for that is: I want to be nice. For most of my adult life I’ve wanted to reclaim that word from the ‘societal dictionary’ that says it means boring, unaware, close to stupid and decidedly unartistic. I’m sure that’s destined to be a losing battle.
That being said, I am as intrigued as Lisa Stowe is by your comparison of feminism (and feminine values) to culture. It may be harder for me to understand completely because the culture of my own African American homelife and family revolved around being taught to be very tough (whether you felt like it or not) and women understanding that we had to be outwardly tough everywhere except towards our men. My mother could talk tough to my brothers, but mostly she let what they did slide, in that “boys will be boys” way. My sister and I would be chastised for the darnedest things–like my sister being vehemently scolded at age five, for jumping when the heat of the hotcomb got close to her ear.
The difference between the way African American girls and boys are thought of and raised by their mothers, was discussed publicly in the aftermath of the O. J. Simpson trial. (Black women over fifty were preferred as jurors by the defense because of their tendency to overlook bad behavior in their men, because our men are so often judged so harshly and unfairly by whites.) I didn’t completely recognize this in my own home until I heard and read some of those discussions by scholars. In the sense that what you write about here is about your own specific culture and how it relates to how you not only perceive yourself, but how you are perceived by others, I’m realizing that there are many cultural factors that explain why I am perceived in a certain way by my own community, and often so differently, not necessarily better, outside of it.
Whew! You given me a lot to think about here! Thanks.
Ré, I really feel you on your opening paragraph. Yes. I’ve never liked “no matter what” either… no matter what the phrase follows!
Since it was all girls in my family, and I didn’t have any close male cousins (or even many male friends), there was never any opportunity to find out how my parents would treat boys versus girls. I suspect we would have been treated very differently, and that difference would probably have colored my experience of the world starting from a very young age. But since that never happened, it never occurred to me before now to start thinking about the interplay between gender and culture in my upbringing.
Thank you for sharing a bit about the cultural life you were raised in. I’m fascinated by other people’s families, lives, and houses. Sometimes I feel like I know nothing about the way anyone else was raised, which makes no sense because I spent a lot of time at friends’ homes when I was a child (and they weren’t all Asian either). But I do feel that way, and I love hearing about others’ experiences!
Culture can be a nebulous and ill-defined term because so many people see it differently; however, culture is not just based on ethnicity and I believe you allude to this acknowledgment in your post:) Culture are certain practices that a community of shared interests perpetuate through their actions, goals, and language. It can also permeate in their child rearing practices as well as how access to the culture is granted. Everyone has competing cultures that they must grapple with everyday and must negotiate their own identity where ever they will be and with whomever they encounter. I definitely agree with you that culture matters and that to not acknowledge its influence is to deny a crucial component of what constitutes our identity. I wonder if you pay close attention to the language you use as well as the language people use around you and towards you if it will reveal the culture that you have come to cultivate around you. Oftentimes conflict arises because of “culture-clash” as expectations differ between the speakers or parties involved. Learning how to “code switch” may be a useful exercise that many of do not consciously think about. I believe an individual can embrace all aspects of his or her identity and the many cultures they are a part of; problems arise when others do not appreciate or acknowledge that other “cultures” or ways of being are possible. Conflict also occurs when we have a hard time deciding on what parts of ourselves to embrace and what parts we want others to see. Love your posts and thought provoking questions.
Dear Huy, thank you so much for reading and commenting! I was fascinated by what you said on Facebook about “big C” and “little c” culture. I’d love to hear more about that if you have the time.
Yes, culture isn’t just ethnicity; I did acknowledge that in my post, but I didn’t really think of it that explicitly until your comment. It’s curious because I have touched on gender and ethnic culture in my post, but I forgot (as I unfortunately tend to forget) that both my gender and ethnic-cultural socialization are strongly tied to my parents’ identity as middle- to upper-middle- class. I think in general there isn’t as much discussion about class as there should be, because so many of the people doing the discussing have a homogeneous class background or aspiration, and so they’re uncomfortable discussing what’s different from that.
“Conflict also occurs when we have a hard time deciding on what parts of ourselves to embrace and what parts we want others to see.” — very much so. Spot on.
I don’t know about language and culture; I don’t think I’ve ever consciously paid attention to it before. I’ll have to think about that. 🙂
I’m definitely coming back to that one. Being born in the Caribbean to two definitely West Indian parents, living there until the age of 10, migrating to New York City, being educated in different places (both in America, and abroad), and now living in the Midwest most definitely colors my feminist response, values, and commitment to my art – writing – and the art itself. It informs every aspect of my being, I’m sure, though it isn’t my “go-to” or the most foremost thing that I consider when creating. It is seamless, fluid, intrinsic, external and internal. No monolith there! Class is also an element that continues to compete for attention in this tapestry…at least, in my experience. It can be rather difficult to tease it all out, but I’m comfortable with the amalgam of ALL of it, because I’m sure that it makes for a more radical and unique response, but it’s the only one that I can call mine. I think – or not…but therefore, I am. I’m thankful for your bravery in tackling, as only you can.
SomerEmpress, I’m impressed by your travels and varied geographical-cultural background! You’re right, all of this — and more — makes you who you are, and gives you your unique and original perspective.
thanks for this thought-provoking post Lisa!
I thought it was fascinating the way you talked about (if I understood you correctly) being comfortable/wanting to take a stand again the effects of patriarchy within you and in the wider society, but ambiguous about that same process when it comes to your cultural background. It was making me think that patriarchy, if you have feminist views is pretty clearly not a good thing, so very simple to react to. Whereas our different cultures give us a mix of good and bad legacies, but living, as we are, in diaspora, we also need to protect them from the outside world or the ‘host’ culture. This makes it a bit more ambiguous to start questioning cultural habits – and if we do is that within communities, or in public? All very complex questions. So thanks for raising them in this way!
Clare, thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts! I love the way you’ve phrased them.
I especially appreciate “living, as we are, in diaspora, we also need to protect [our cultures] from the outside world or the ‘host’ culture. This makes it a bit more ambiguous to start questioning cultural habits – and if we do is that within communities, or in public?” Yes yes yes! I’ve never written or thought too explicitly about this before, but I’ve noticed how often members of minority cultures (for lack of a better way to describe them) squabble furiously among themselves, and then apparently close ranks when it comes to revealing those fissures to the outside world. It’s very self-protective; there’s already so much attack and hostility “out there,” people are afraid to expose their group and let some of that enter inside. I understand it completely and I do it myself, but I think it’s also a problem: as long as complicated, tricky, controversial discussions are only happening inside the small group, there’s always going to be that much more of a barrier to understanding for people who aren’t members of that group. Hmm. Going to keep thinking about this one.
My friend Debbie has written another thoughtful post on ethnicity and culture over at her blog, kesatuuli.blogspot.com, and she incorporates a PASTRY METAPHOR for the mixture of cultures we’ve been discussing in these comments. Amazing.
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