I didn’t think I was especially Asian, but…

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.