(Newsletter 2012 Annual)
Mrs. Chen, 50 years of age, an immigrant from Taiwan not speaking much English, comes across Justin, 20 years old, a youth leader from the English Congregation in the hallway at church. Mrs. Chen walks towards Justin with a smile. However, he does not say a word and quickly passed by Mrs. Chen.
Feeling disrespected, Mrs. Chen was very upset. “What kind of family did this impolite young man come from?” She thought to herself. “Didn’t anyone teach him any manners? He should know to greet his elders. I already initiated the greeting, yet he did not even respond to me. He is so condescending. With character like his, how can he be a leader? He would set a bad example and impact our children negatively!”
Does this sound familiar? Chinese churches in America are primarily comprised of immigrant parents and their first generation American-born children. The newly immigrated families still speak the native dialect at home, and they tend to hold on to the Chinese cultural family values. For the second generation Chinese, English is the primary language and are highly influenced by the majority culture in which they live. Regardless of the background, bicultural families come together in churches, striving to maintain the best of both cultures. However, the ethnocentrism of leaders of the churches as well as parents coming from traditional Chinese culture are driving a large number of the younger generation away, making church leaders and parents feel very helpless and results in a lot of heartache. The second generation in the church, in a constant struggle to adapt to both the traditional Chinese and mainstream American cultures, has its own set of challenges that cannot be understood by their parents. It is my hope to provide insights through this article to help the first and second generations Chinese Americans understand the underlying values of each culture that, if not understood, could lead in conflicts and bitterness over time.
Value Differences of the Two Generations
According to a study done on Asian American families, four major characteristics of traditional culture are identified (Yee, DeBaryshe, Yuen, Kim, and McCubbin, 2006):
- Collectivism – The family is the whole. The needs of the family are above the members’ own personal needs and development.
- Relational Orientation – A person is defined by the relationship established with others, not as an individual alone.
- Familialism – Family is the most important entity/organization in the society, males are perceived as having a higher status than females, respecting the elderly, as the basis of the different levels of hierarchy.
- Family Obligation – Manifested between parents and children, there is an intense sense of intimate connections.
Let’s apply this to the scenario with Mrs. Chen and Justin. The emotional reaction of Mrs. Chen reflects how traditional Chinese cultural values affect how she perceives the world.
- Collectivism – “What kind of family did this impolite young man come from?”
Mrs. Chen ties together the action of Justin to his family. The family is the whole and one’s action represents the family’s character.
- Relational Orientation – “He is so condescending.”
Mrs. Chen makes a value judgment based on the behaviors of others towards her.
- Familialism – “He should know to greet his elders. I already initiated the greeting, yet he did not even respond to me.”
Typically the familial hierarchy grants deference and privileges to the elder. The young ones are obligated to greet the elders. Mrs. Chen nobly sets aside her social status and greeted Justin proactively to find no response from him. She is upset at being patronized and losing her status.
- Family Obligation – “With character like his, how can he become a leader? He would set a bad example and he would impact our children negatively!”
In the mindset of Mrs. Chen, the church is one big family. Since Justin is the leader of the youth, he is accountable to the whole church. The lack of respect for the elder members teaches wrong values to the children.
Now, let’s take a look at the same scenario with someone holding typical American values.
Mrs. Feng came to the U.S. at the age of 10, receiving her education from the Western culture. Though she has the influence of two cultures, her mindset leans towards individualism and democracy. The same situation happened to Mrs. Feng with Justin, yet this is how she perceives the incident.
“Why does the young leader not say a word to me? Did something happen that is bothering him? If he does not want to communicate with me, then I will let him have his space to handle his issues.”
Unlike Mrs. Chen, the reaction of Mrs. Feng is influenced by the American values of individualism and equality.
- Equality – “If he does not want to communicate with me, then I will let him……..”
Mrs. Feng sees no difference in generation or hierarchy between Justin and herself. She does not see the need to define who is supposed to initiate the greeting. Justin’s reactions to her do not affect how she values herself as an individual.
- Individualism – “Did something happen that is bothering him? If he does not want to communicate with me, then I will let him have his space to handle his issues. “
Mrs. Feng treats the incident as the expression of Justin’s need to have his own space to handle his personal business and emotions. Therefore, this thought process warrants no reason for Mrs. Feng to get upset. Even though she has her worries about Justin since he is not acting like himself under normal circumstances, the influence of individualism prompts Mrs. Feng not to bother Justin and his personal business.
Let’s understand the situation from Justin’s point of view.
With many unfinished tasks overwhelming him, Justin was feeling down, and was not in the mood to either talk to strangers or receive disruptions from others. His non-responsiveness had a simple explanation.
What does Justin think when he found out Mrs. Chen got upset over his silence?
- Puzzled, Justin ignored the incident.
“I have always been like this. When I am happy, I would talk to anyone who approaches me. When my mood is down, I just want to hide from the crowd, giving myself some room. Whether it is at school or work, never has anyone expressed any dissatisfaction towards my behavior. Why did Mrs. Chen have such a reactive emotion?”
- Later, he heard Mrs. Chen judging him as setting a poor example for the children, Justin felt very troubled and feels negatively towards Mrs. Chen.
“Don’t we all have the freedom to say or not say “Hello”? Why does this group of Chinese always have the need to make people do things against their will? Why would they make a big deal out of a small issue? Why are the elder group in such need to have the respect of the young yet they themselves do not respect others?” In Justin’s mind, he thinks, “Please leave me alone! The more these parents make such unreasonable demands, the more uncomfortable I am to interact with them.” Next time when Justin passes by the hall of the church, he intentionally looks down onto the floor, keeps on going, and has no desire to have eye contact with anyone.
- Traditional Chinese culture is not a high value for Justin.
“I agree there should be a certain level of courtesy in a social setting, but individualistic freedom should be set above the group or traditional Chinese culture. If I am not violating the law or hurting people intentionally, each person has the right to choose. I understand if the other party feels offended, but it does not mean that I have to change my behavior in order to make others happy. If that were the case, I would always have to do things just to please others.”
The way Justin thinks reflects today’s individualistic ideology in the next generation of Chinese Americans.
Struggles with culture begins in childhood
Traditional Chinese culture is the minority culture here in America. The youth live daily under the influence of the mainstream culture. Not only do they find their own culture not practical, the children feel peer pressure in social settings. For instance, Hua, in the second grade, brings the bento lunch his mom prepares daily for him. His friends make fun of his smelly lunch. He told his mom, “My friends eat pizza, sandwiches, and fries, and I want to eat the same thing.” Being very unhappy, Hua’s mom scolds him, “That junk food is unhealthy for you!” In order to be accepted by his peers, Hua throws away his lunch every day. He would eat off others’ plates, or even go hungry all day.
Children renounce their own family culture after continuous cognitive struggle, rejection, or hurt in their growth experience. Some react by completely negating their own ethnicity, clinging only to the mainstream society, seeking for its acceptance. For instance, a ten-year old Asian girl despises her flat nose that she sees in the mirror. Every evening she would clip her nose bridge, wishing her nose would be as tall as the Caucasian girls.
However, no amount of assurance from the culture will resolve the struggle of cultural disparity. Children must first receive understanding and support from their parents. If their struggle with their bicultural identity is met with criticism, negative labeling, and constant bombarding of pressure to submit to traditional cultural standards by parents and church leaders, their developmental process is hindered, thus their feelings of rejection by both cultures lead to psychological pain.
Generation Gap Aggravated by Negative Labeling
Tradition Chinese parenting tend to emphasize the discipline of children’s behavior, training them to be polite and to follow rules. In their social decree, the two commonly used words are “should” or “should not.” Often parents would exaggerate the negative consequences of behavior categorized as “should not” along with negative labels. For example, “If you do not greet your elders, you are impolite, immature, and disrespectful. You act superior to others and no one will like you. Who will offer you help in the future?”
In order to please their parents, and fearing the consequences, children unwillingly obey. However, when they are in school in the majority culture of Americans, they suffer no negative consequences for not greeting their teachers. In fact, the teachers continue to be on friendly terms with the children. Adults of other ethnicities do not expect such mandatory greeting ritual either. The Chinese children begin to wonder, “Why are there so many rules at home and at church?” They discover that their parents’ conservative mentality is shared only by older generations of Chinese, and that there exist a gap between what they are taught at home and what they experience in the mainstream society. As a result, they have reservations towards the teachings from the school of traditional thinking. When they reach adolescence with its characteristic rebelliousness, they refuse to uphold the “should” formality. They turn away to do only what they believe to be right, with no regard for those who hold traditional values.
Further dividing the generations, parents unwittingly undermine their children’s value for autonomy when they discuss with other parents comparing the school grades of their children, the way they dress, and other behaviors. The teens are unset having their private space invaded, but they would not confront the parents. Some youth leaders are unhappy with the parents as they try to over-protect the autonomy of the youth at church. Some youth leaders would take extreme measure to not allow parents to participate in the activities of the youth. Given this condition of a lack of open communication, a wall of intergenerational psychological barriers build up, destroying any harmonious interactions between them.
Applying Empathy to Resolve the Difference between the Generations
It is not within the scope of this short article to explore all the solutions to resolving intergenerational conflict. But I propose that the first and foremost step is to apply empathy, defined as the identification with or experiencing the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
People’s natural self-defense mechanism when faced with rejection and pain is protectiveness. They become more adamant and insistent about their own personal views. To stop the cycle of pain, defensiveness, and withdrawal, leading to bitterness, we must be willing to let go of our perceived “right” and to think of other people’s needs. The ability to empathize begins with these steps.
- The two generations need to acknowledge that all of us come from bi-cultural or even multi-cultural backgrounds. Expect to encounter different values and standards of behavior. Everyone’s ability to adjust to differences varies.
- It is essential to make efforts to know one another’s history and experiences in adjusting or preserving one’s cultural values and to appreciate the challenges that had to be overcome.
- Negative labeling and blaming the youth is counterproductive to bridging the gap. It is better to replace that with empathy, by listening to what the young generation has to say and by acknowledging their struggles in a dual cultural context. Then they will be more open and warm to respect the elder generations.
Returning to our scenario with Mrs. Chen and Justin, they must both admit that there are flaws in their way of thinking and learn to appreciate the other’s cultural struggles. Then Mrs. Chen will learn to stop imposing her values and negative labeling on Justin, while Justin should stop insisting on individualism to the exclusion of cultural sensitivity.
While there will still be differences in viewpoints or unintentional hurt, the goodwill leads to forgiveness more easily. Let’s claim the words of Colossian 3:12-14 as our standard. “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”