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Cultural Biography: How My Roots Shape My Identity
It is often said that we should not let a single feature of ourselves define who we are. For example, a basketball should not only be an athlete, but must also value her roles as a sister, a daughter, a student, and anything else that gives her life meaning. A doctor should not only focus on his identity in the medical field but also his place in his neighborhood, his church, and, of course, his family. Otherwise, he would be considered the workaholic. In many cases, though, it is very easy to do. People’s identities are made up of all the roles they play in their lives. Defining oneself or someone else in only way is not healthy because it does not consider the full complexity the person. Thinking of ourselves in a limited way, such as if I considered myself only a student but did not consider my roles as a friend to others and a family member, could lead to shallow thinking. Thinking of others in such a way can result in stereotyping and even discrimination, such as if someone thinks she knows all she that needs to know about someone based on his religious beliefs.
Nonetheless, not all aspects of our identities contribute equally to the whole. Certain elements of our environment and background help to shape us fundamentally. They seem to serve as a base for everything else that we would learn, do, and become. I think everyone has one or two areas of that nature. For me, I think that one of the most defining traits about me is the culture I came from, which is Mainland Chinese. Although I keep an open mind and try to learn new ways of looking at the world, the beliefs of my upbringing often are dominant. If you asked me to describe who I am at my core, I would probably say that I am a Chinese woman. Culture, of course, comes from the people around us. As I see it, my family, including a large extended family, has been the most influential community in shaping who I am today, because they passed on their culture to me.
Often we do not realize what is our culture until we leave it. I can
remember when I first arrived in America and stayed for a short time with a host family. They had a daughter who was 10 years old. She had a little cold at the time. She drank cold orange juice. I was so shocked that her mother allowed her to drink it. In my family, we feel that cold drinks are not good for sick people and that they can hurt the stomach. Many people in China think this way. I could almost hear my own mother’s voice in my head, scolding her disapproving of the cold drink. She and her sisters could never accept this. After hearing this idea for so many years, I, too, was starting to have the same reaction. When people have flu or cold, in China the appropriate drink is thought to be hot water. I suggested to the girl’s mother that she should drink warm water. They both suddenly got a disgust look on their faces. They said orange juice would be better because it has a lot of vitamin C to fight the germs. This was one of my first lessons in culture, both American and my own. For my part, I still do not like to have very cold drinks. However, I do not make any suggestion about what other people should drink.
In explaining how my family has influenced me, I should discuss some basic elements about Chinese culture. It is collectivist culture, not individual culture like America. That means that Mainland Chinese society tends to see the group as being more important than the person. The question then is who is the group. Based on stereotypical Western movies or shows, it would be easy to assume that nearly all Chinese act and look alike and that they would see themselves as one group. In fact, this is not true at all. Chinese people think in much smaller terms, most typically, and would see their immediate family, including elders such as parents and grandparents, as their group. In some sense, they would also consider old friends and former and current co-workers to be part of their group. It is not so common in Mainland China to make many new friends as adulthood. People in China depend on these tight networks to help them in hard times, and they have to be ready to repay the favor at some point in the future. Tight informal networks are very important for getting by in life in China.
Chinese culture value family piety. It means we believe in a strong obligation to respect and honor our family members. I would always try my best to take care of my parents and also older relatives such as grandparents, aunts, and uncles. In a broad sense, family members, because all consider themselves a close group, would do almost anything to help each other. As is said in English, they would take the shirt from his or her own back to give to the other person. This kind of thinking is based on Confucianism, where taking care of the family is considered to be the highest value. Unfortunately, a related matter is that sometimes in Mainland China, people are not as quick to get involved when a stranger needs help, and some people without integrity are quick to take advantage of strangers and cheat them. We also do not have as much public volunteer and charity culture, as many people would feel guilty if they spend their money on people who are outside their own family.
The concept of taking care of the family is so important to culture that it is sometimes humorous to other people from other countries. I once was at dinner in a group that included both American and international students. Some people were talking about what they would do if they won the lottery. A Chinese boy said he guessed that if he won, he would soon get married, and have a child. His friend, another boy from China, commented that the money would not only last for the lifetime for him and his son, but also for generations into the future. The American boys at the table laughed at the Chinese boys’ ideas. They thought they should use the money for their own fun, and would not like to get married. However, the Chinese students were looking from Chinese point of view, where not only the individual but the entire family name and bloodline is considered. They see a responsibility to their ancestors and to future bloodline that they should have a child.
Personally, I like the viewpoint of thinking about multiple generations and not only focusing on the present. I have always been raised by my family to hold this point of view. Without a network of family and close friends, it is hard to survive in China, especially during hard times several decades ago. It is not so easy to get credit, so people rely on their networks to help them make a down payment for a house. Many people lack health insurance, and so if they needed and expensive surgery, they could perhaps ask their closest family and associates for help with money. Furthermore, in hospital, it is not like in America where nurses feed and bathe the patients. In China, patients’ family members must help with those chores, and nurses usually would not help. As a result of these factors, Chinese people spend a lot of time cultivating their networks by choosing the right gifts on holidays, offering a helping hand when possible, and asking for help when needed. It is fair to say that in China, if you do not have close connections in your life, including family members, friends, coworkers, then it is almost like you do not exist, according to society’s point of view.
On the other hand, if you do have a family, then you feel much more secure and happy. You also get a large amount of your own identity from the group rather from your individual situation. It is important to behave well in society and try to be successful not only for your own sake, but also in order to create a good name for your family. Therefore I think that sometimes even if I do not feel like studying sometimes, I push myself to do so anyway, because if I came to America and did not perfect well in university, then I would create a bad impression on my family, including parents and extended relatives, as well.
In fact, Chinese people from Mainland often do not like to spend time alone or to be in secluded places. We tend to like crowds and a lot of excitement and perceive them as safer because it would be harder for criminals to get away with serious crime amid a crowd. I felt strongly this way when I first arrived in America, but now I am getting used to peace and quiet. I have heard that Americans often like to go camping or fishing in order to get away from other people. This concept is a little different from China. I remember showing my mother a picture of our campus and she wanted to know why it looked so lonely. Later I took a photo when more students were out walking, and she seemed to feel much more comforted that I was in a safe place. On the other hand, some Americans have told me they think crowds are more dangerous, because it is easier for thieves to pick pockets or commit other crimes.
My immediate and extended family has always been a source of much emotional support for me. My mother has several siblings and they each have children, so I have many aunts, uncles, and cousins. They always ask what I am doing in my life and they give me suggestions. They are not afraid to criticize me if they feel it is warranted, such as for eating too much junk foods or not studying hard enough. In Chinese culture, these comments would never be taken as offense but instead in a spirit of caring. I always spend much time finding appropriate Chinese New Year gifts for my aunts and uncles as a show of respect. Sometimes the gifts could be as simple as fruit baskets, chocolates, or cake. I just want to show them that I am thinking of them. My family, including parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, serves as my home base on life. I have always felt that no matter what happened, there is a safe haven with many people who always cared about me.
Much of Chinese family culture is expressed over food. If I go to visit one of my aunts and she knew I am coming, then it is sure that she will prepare my favorite noodle dish. Caring is often expressed with food. From my mother and father and several of their siblings and my grandparents, I learned to cook many dishes at a young. I learned mostly at quite a young age. In this way, too, my family has been the biggest influence on my life, as now I cook almost every day and can take care of myself. I do not need to depend on others to cook and I do not have to go to restaurants except for fun. Over meals, much culture gets passed to children as adults talk about what is going on in their lives and how they handle it. They often give advice to children, but it seems to be that there is not as much two-way communications culture as in America and other Western countries. In other words, adults would not often ask children what they think about things.
I am sure that I am not the only person who feels that family has been the largest influence in life, and certainly not the only Chinese person with this idea. In fact, when we are away from our families, we try to recreate the experience in some ways. In UC, there are many Chinese students all in the same situation, living away from their home country. We have formed friend groups and often cook together, go to restaurants, or go to other activities. At times, groups of students even go on vacation to New York or Chicago or other locations. As it is in China, most social activities for us here have revolved around eating food. We often chat, give each other advice, and try to help each other to study and make good grades. As vitamin and other health supplements are very popular, we often discuss products that we have tried or plan to try. Everyone has similar goals and we almost do not even need to say them out loud, because they are widely known. We all come from similar kinds of families, usually involved in business. Everyone wants to make good grades, be successful, and make their parents happy.
My friends are a very important group to me here, but in my overall life, I guess they are not nearly as influential to me as my relatives are. Chinese families were large for many years, sometimes with seven to 10 children. I know that my great grandmother came from a very large family. However, because of overpopulation, China has implemented the one-child policy. Although there are exceptions, the general rule is that only one child is allowed per couple. Now China is becoming a land of spoiled only-children. I often wonder what will happen to China’s family culture and if culture and knowledge will be passed down as efficiently. Many people grow up without uncles, aunts, cousins or, of course, siblings. This seems to be a significant social issue for a country whose character is still collectivist. Perhaps China will make the shift rather quickly to a culture of individualism.
Or perhaps they will express collectivism in some other different formats, such as neighborhood groups and volunteer societies. At any rate, eventually rising population of people without close relatives to watch after them as they age will mean a need for more caregiving and health care professionals. There are many aspects that define my life, including my status as a student, family member, and friend. While these are important roles, they do not capture everything about who I am. One element that runs deeper than those items is my culture, most of which I received from relatives. I grew up in China until coming to school at UC. My thinking has certainly been influenced by the time I have spent living abroad, but it nonetheless does continue to be Chinese at the heart. In a Chinese family, your family is almost literally all that you have to depend on in many cases. I am quite thankful that I have a wonderful family.