“I didn’t really understand why culture was so integral to who I was until I tried to identify with it again.”
I was scrolling through Facebook a couple of weeks ago and came across this photo about the “cultural iceberg” (credit is due where credit is due; I’m sorry for not having the exact source of this photo/rendition, but the original model was proposed by Edward T. Hall in 1976), and it made me think about how much I still have to learn about my own cultural identity. Note: this is a post based solely on my experiences. I do not intend for this to speak for all of those in a similar position as myself.
As mentioned in my previous post, Google search: Ditching the dunce cap, I am a first generation Chinese-Canadian individual (my parents are from Brunei Darussalam). Before I started school, I was very much immersed into my cultural heritage; not only did I speak fluent Mandarin and Hokkien alongside English, I was also able to follow the practices of my culture in regards to their attitudes, communication styles, and so on (as seen in the lower part of the iceberg model).
But as I entered school, I began to lose touch with some of the small – yet important – aspects of my heritage. I wasn’t allowed to speak Mandarin to my one and only Mandarin-speaking friend in Kindergarten, and as someone living in Surrey, BC (an area with larger East Indian and White demographics), I didn’t have very many chances to speak it anywhere else besides the home – so my proficiency in Mandarin tanked big time (and my Hokkien wasn’t practiced at home after my grandmother passed away, as she was the native speaker of the dialect). My classes rarely celebrated Chinese New Year, so as I got older, the celebration of Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas became more important to me socially than Chinese New Year was. I still celebrated it at home of course, but at the time, I believed the root of Chinese New Year was more about receiving hong pao (“red packets” with money in them) rather than bringing luck into the household for the new year and spending time with family, relatives and friends.
I also remember being made fun of anytime I remotely identified with a surface-level cultural aspect. I was always teased for my food (“Is that dog?” or “That doesn’t look like Chinese food!” – more on this later), and the one time I wore a cheong-sam (a traditional Chinese dress) to school in first grade to recognize Chinese New Year, the other girls in my class told me I looked “too different”. So I stopped bringing cultural foods to school (I opted for sandwiches, carrots with ranch sauce, chicken nuggets – all of which were disgustingly bland and far less appetizing than my own Chinese food), and I stopped acknowledging Chinese New Year as a time for me to dress up in the prettiest cheongsam I owned (I made my mom buy western styled dresses instead).
As I grew up, I tried to find ways to ensure I wasn’t grouped into the “Asian” category because of all the horrific stereotypes: Asian people can’t drive, Asian people eat dogs, Asian people are too skinny and small, Asian people are the best at math, Asian people can’t speak English properly, Asian people are greedy, and so on. I didn’t know why this was so, because I love dogs, I knew that fat Asian people existed, I wasn’t the greatest at math, I was top of my class nearly every year in my English studies, and I had quite a thrifty mindset considering my parents weren’t the most well-off individuals. And years later, once I started learning how to drive, I realized that I was the only person out of all the people that told me “Asian people can’t drive” that got their Learner and New Driver’s permit on my first try (while they failed numerous times). I didn’t want to be “Asian” for all it mattered, because to be “Asian” was to be embarrassing and unlike the dominant western culture practiced in Canada. I took pride in being “whitewashed”, and I pat myself on the shoulder for doing things differently than a regular “Asian” person would.
It was only until recently did I understand that Asia constituted a very large portion of the Earth with numerous backgrounds and cultures, and that when people talked about those stereotypes, they were referring to the Chinese, or anybody that looked remotely Chinese-esque. This meant that people who were actually Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Thai, etc. were grouped alongside me and my own cultural practices even though they had their own identities. This is a problem because it takes away a part of an individual’s cultural identity and the acknowledgement of distinct practices and beliefs. Here’s a map of Asia in its entirety:
So obviously, it’s a little ridiculous (and rather uneducated, in all honesty) to assume that all Asian people do x, y and z similarly. We are taught in schools that everybody is different in terms of culture and that we should celebrate those differences – and I must commend our social studies curriculums for at least trying to reflect on this and talk about issues regarding marginalized and oppressed individuals within the history of Canada – but as someone who only very recently began to mend ties with her culture, I feel like it’s not enough to simply know the surface-level cultural aspects; we must learn to interact with them respectfully and in such a way that allows people to practice culture without the threat of being seen as “weird” or “foreign”. This isn’t to say that I have been extremely marginalized and/or oppressed either. I am very privileged to be able to speak openly about my experiences because neither I nor my experiences are deemed a threat in the area I live in, to be able to have food on the table and a roof over my head, to have the ability to speak and interact with the world without mental or physical impediments, and to have received and continue to pursue an education because my financial position in society allows me to do so. But we need to work harder at recognizing, accepting and respecting other people that are different than ourselves in ways beyond what is surface-level.
As I look back at the cultural iceberg model in regards to the last 19 years of my life, I realize that I have so much more to understand about my cultural identity (both surface- and deep-level!) and what it means to me.
SURFACE CULTURE – FOOD
My friend brought up the subject of “modern Chinese food” (which I honestly believed to be fast food, but alas) and the restaurant Bao Down that serves baos (“buns”, usually steamed and with a meat filling) that look like this:
My first reaction was “????????????????????????? what?” because baos are supposed to look like this:
But even in looking for pictures of traditional baos, I noticed that the “modern, trendy” baos had weeded their way into my Google Images search for “bao”:
You can see that out of the first 15 images, 7 of them are modernized baos, which is about 50% of the most popular bao photos. The problem that stems from these trendy baos is that the flagship bao (the traditional ones) are being replaced with white, bastardized versions and being profiteered off as actual Chinese food (seriously – baos are probably about a dollar or so in East Asia and sold as street food). Furthermore, the word “modern” implies that the traditional bao (and therefore Chinese society, since the food is from there) is outdated, or in the past, and that western society is forward-thinking and progressive.
Of course, people are going to think that these reasons are very trivial and unimportant, but things that happen on a micro level can have very large effects on a macro level. How can we learn to appreciate a culture when we have such skewed representations of it in our own society?
A related Ted Talk on the subject of Americanized Chinese (fast) food was presented by Jennifer Lee, which discusses how Chinese food has changed through time (and also how foreign American Chinese food looks to people in China). Watch it below:
SURFACE CULTURE VS. DEEP CULTURE – DISNEY’S MULAN
Mulan (1998) was a favourite movie of mine growing up because I could identify with the protagonist of the story. As I got older, I began to understand the undertones and messages of the movie and placed the tag “feminist heroine” on it. Yet when I was doing research for a paper in my Gender, Race and Social Justice 300 course about the relationship between profitability of Disney Princesses vs. race, I came across several articles that noted that Mulan didn’t do very well at all in China even though there was a Chinese protagonist. I was puzzled by this because this was a feminist movie! Mulan was a strong individual who proved herself worthy among the men in the country! Was China too conservative in their value of women?
In fact, it wasn’t that China’s values were too conservative – they just had values that were different than those in America, which affected the overall reception of the movie. Mulan was very much “an American movie in a Chinese context”. She possessed very individualistic qualities for someone that was supposed to be from a collectivistic society, she disobeyed her parent’s wishes (which is a huge taboo in our culture), and she admitted to wanting to prove herself worthy of approval (something that is regarded to as self-actualization or personal achievement in western society is actually selfishness in Chinese culture). I must praise Mulan, however, for having very accurate depictions of Chinese culture in other areas (in regards to her family with the grandma living in their house, and Mulan acting for the sake of her family). Of course, the story of Hua/Fa Mulan actually derived from a ballad written in the 6th century, so the actual story is a little different than that of the movie.
The point of telling you all of that was to reflect upon why I didn’t understand why people in China received the movie so poorly. I was projecting my own skewed, western feminist beliefs onto a culture that I didn’t entirely understand myself because of my deep integration into western society. I felt myself acting the same way as the people that criticize others for having different beliefs because they didn’t align congruently with theirs. Trying to immerse yourself into a culture you don’t fully understand is difficult and will often clash with your own values and beliefs. My understanding of Chinese mannerisms, treatment of elders, and decision-making clashed with my understanding of western mannerisms, treatment of elders, and decision-making, and I chose to view the movie through a western lens, as it was intended.
RE-IDENTIFYING WITH MY CULTURE
It hasn’t been an easy thing to do, let me make that clear. Part of re-identifying with a culture I tried so hard to abolish within myself from a young age detriments my ability to get back in touch with what it means to be Chinese. I think the hardest part of doing so is realizing that some of the people who were previously in my life failed to respect my cultural ties because they didn’t want to understand why I thought/acted/felt the way I did. I think my culture, even though I tried to shy away from it, has had a big impact on my life for the better because of what I choose to focus my time on (family and education), what I value (family ties, mindfulness, respect), and how I make decisions (through observation of how decisions will affect people around me and how they’ll impact my life/others’ lives in the future).
I do not understand Chinese culture completely yet, and I know that my own morals may clash with those that stem from it, but even so, I must respect those that view the world through the lens of that culture rather than projecting my own personal (western!) beliefs unto others. I must find a way to co-exist with potentially opposing outlooks and find ways to live harmoniously knowing that I will not agree to everything I come across. However, reconnecting with my culture has also brought me closer to my parents, and it made me more wary about where I fit into society. I am also more observant of how people from other cultures may feel in regards to themselves and their own identities, which is always a good thing so long as we promote respect for people divergent from our own belief and value systems!