I’m not talking about Star Trek, although something perhaps just as alien. I’m talking about immigrant families, millions of which have chosen to, or been force to take up residence in another country over the years. Amy Tan writes very well about the phenomenon and the generational problems that come with it.
As someone that was born and brought up in the UK, I’ve always been acutely aware of it. It was never discrimination or bullying, far from it, it was just odd stares in the street, fascination by children who wanted to know if Jackie Chan was my uncle and if my parents ran a Chinese takeaway (the answers being no and yes). I was the only Asian kid in the primary school, and one of three Asian families in our whole town. And being a child, you want desperately to fit in. I hated the weird sounding middle name, the soup filled with “medicinal” herbs and roots, the feng shui mirrors and incense all around our house. We didn’t have Sunday roast, we had ducks’ feet and fish with its boggly eyes staring at us.
One of the reasons that has always been hard for me to explain, is the influence this had on my decision to go to Japan. My Mum came to the UK when she was about 15 with not a word of English and glimpsed her first knife and fork on the plane. Yet she managed to make a living and more than that, enough to buy plane tickets for her two sisters and mother. I’ve always admired this sort of strength and I wanted to test myself on it, to go to a country where they didn’t speak English and see test myself. I am proud of how much I achieved in Japan, be it speaking Japanese or making close friendships with people despite the communication problems, but I never took to it like I love the UK.
And perhaps this is where first generation children come to blows with their families. I know many Asian parents that want their children to speak the language, adopt the culture, the food and even only date within the narrow circle of their ethnic origin, despite continuing to live in an English-speaking country. Yes, the thought is, they have a better education system, a better health system, a more relaxed and luxurious lifestyle but remember your roots! Their hearts remain, whether or not their bodies do, in that homeland. But for us, the first generation children that were born here, these are our roots. I’ve never lived in Hong Kong or China and the people there are more alien to me than the Japanese, the Americans, Canadians or Australians. I was brought up on cereal, potato scones, Thundercats and Dogtanian. All of my childhood friends are Scottish and I conversed with my siblings in English.
So it becomes a choice. Do you embrace the society you are living within and ignore the culture of your parents, or do you embrace your cultural roots and limit yourself to the outside world. It’s easy enough to say you can do both and make the perfect multicultural mix, but in reality it’s a very hard task. I’ve tried and the result has been swaying from one extreme to the other. I know first generation friends who outright refuse to acknowledge any language other than English and look disdainfully upon you if you attempt to engage them in Chinese family chitchat (Does your mum line the cooker with foil? Or keep the plastic covers on the remote controls? Have you ever been made to eat chicken feet? Crisps give you “hot air” don’t you know?). On the other hand I know people whose Facebook friends are 80% Asian names, who only seem to eat noodle and rice, and whose English is so bad you would take them for an exchange student than someone born in the country.
This is a choice each of us have to make by ourselves, but one that annoys me equally if not more, is the weird old fashioned pressure placed upon us by our parents. I think this is a Chinese issue in particular, but I can see it applying for most Asian immigrants. This is the idea that: we are better than them. They may have boyfriends at 14, but we are better than them. They may drop out of high school to work in a hair salon, but we are better than them. They may wear tarty clothes and drink vodka at the weekends, but we are better than them. There is a rose-tinted view of the home they left behind where no-one has affairs, is gay, litters or talks back to their parents.
It makes you wonder though, what will it be like for our children. Is one culture destined to swallow the other whole? I would like to hope not and yet I can’t see how it works otherwise. Already I only have a half-baked understanding of Chinese cooking, mythology and customs. Mind you I also only have a half-baked understanding of Scottish cooking, mythology and customs. Perhaps we will just all be half-baked.
For further reading, see:
Amy Chua’s article “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”
Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China.