Culture: Beyond Food and Language

By Amanda

As my first year of college has just ended, I’m taking some time to reflect on how much I’ve changed over the course of just one year. I’ve learned how to manage my own spending. I’ve learned how to manage my own time. And most of all, I’ve learned that no matter where I go, I am always bound to that ever-present entity lovingly called Mom, who asks me why I don’t call her everyday like her friend’s son at such-and-such Ivy League college and insists that I must have some boyfriend distracting me, despite the fact that I attend a women’s college and have not seen a single guy in days.

The moral of the story: call your parents.

Tonight, I called my mom and the conversation turned to how I’ve changed since I left for college. She said something along the lines of, “I’m so glad that you’ve grown up! Now you’re able to see that I was right all along, but in high school you were just too stubborn to listen to me.”

As much as my pride wants me to think otherwise, there is an element of truth to her words. Teenagers are stubborn, and as a Chinese-American teenager, because I often fought to get my own views across, it became difficult for me to see my immigrant parents’ side. I thought that there was no need to see things from their side. I knew more about America than my parents did, I spoke English better than they did, and I had more access to information than my parents did. I felt justified that my understanding of how things worked was more rational and fair than how my parents saw things. If my friends, teachers, and everyone I knew outside of home appreciated my ideas, why couldn’t my parents? I didn’t blame them; instead, I attributed our disagreements to generational and cultural differences without much thought to what those differences actually were. I was just frustrated that I was born into a family that didn’t seem or want to understand me.

Now in retrospect, I can see that I was pretty self-centered. In reality, my parents were also equally frustrated with their daughter that didn’t seem or want to understand them. What was going on was truly a culture clash. It wasn’t about my inability to speak Chinese fluently or my parents’ unfamiliarity with American customs — it was about our own tacit assumptions of each other’s values, morals, and norms.

One particular scene from my life comes into mind when I think about the cultural rift between my parents and me: It’s May. There’s a long dining table strewn with seemingly random stacks papers and textbooks, signifying standardized testing season (read: the third ring of hell) and I am in the middle of it all. My mom comes along and the conversation goes like this in English:

MOM: Amanda, I’m proud of your sister. She let you use the table. You should thank your sister when you get a good test score.
AMANDA: All right, but what does that has to do with my test score?
MOM: Your sister helped you by letting you use the table, she is helping you score better on your test! I know it’s a little part, but it’s important.
AMANDA: How well I do on the test depends on me, not what she does.
MOM: No, you need to thank us because we all help you do well on the test.
AMANDA: But my score is about what I do. I’m the one taking the hard class, I’m the one who has to study all day, and I’m the one who has to take the test.

This small incident seems pretty irrelevant to culture clash, but it represents a lot about my mom’s and my differing outlooks on life. As an American, I operate under the belief that people should be rewarded by merit. That is, success is earned. Receiving too much help would be cheating—a sign of personal weakness that I couldn’t accomplish anything on my own. But as a Chinese person, my mom saw it differently—one person’s achievement reflected the support group that person has. Success is shared with everyone and likewise, so is failure.

Only now do I realize that my individualism, though highly valued in America, could be construed as insolence by my Chinese parents. Had we communicated better, perhaps we could have avoided this conflict. I could have talked to my parents more to learn and adapt to Chinese culture; my parents could have realized that some of the things I say are not out of rudeness, but out of cultural ignorance. I may have inherited my parents’ looks, palates, and personality traits, but because I have grown up in America, I have not inherited their Chinese way of thinking.

It seems a little defeatist to think that I can never really understand my parents. In a way, that’s true; everything we know, have experienced, and believe about life is so different. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t make an effort to talk to them and always keep my line of communication open. Cross-cultural understanding is difficult, but not impossible.

So when I call my parents, it’s not just about reassuring them that I am doing fine without them. It’s also about being willing to keep in touch and understanding the people who have raised me to where I am today.

ABOUT AMANDA: Amanda Zhang was born in China and has spent most of her life in Boston, Massachusetts and Seattle, Washington. She’s into traveling, pop culture, creative pursuits, social activism, and blogging. She currently attends Wellesley College and is in the Class of 2013.

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