Living In Two Cultures by Lea Xu, Vice-President
I was born and raised in Guilin and my family was mostly traditional in respect to Chinese culture; however, our family experienced Western influences as well. As a girl, I looked up to my father who was employed by the China Petrol-Chemical Corporation's Guilin Branch, which was one of the "Fortune Global 500". My father favored a more Western approach and supported my involvement in recreational activities such as ballet and gymnastics; while my mother was opposed to that, as she was concerned those activities would compromise my ability to focus on my studies. .
Education was highly valued in my family, and I remember the stress I felt when studying for the national college entrance exam. Less than 10% of high school students pass that particular test and the Chinese describe the test by saying: "A thousand soldiers and ten thousand horses across a single log bridge." I went on to receive a degree in English Literature and Tourism from Xian International Studies University. I spent several years as a professional travel agent and guide before joining my husband Louie Yi in America. I often feel as though I move and "live between the cultures" as an Asian woman who is also an American business owner. I can usually move comfortably between the two worlds, even though they are quite distinct and sometimes the perspectives “collide”. I think that I am able to relate to adoptive families in this way, that we both live a trans-racial experience. Here are some of my observations.
Educational Experiences: Growing up as a child in China, teachers were seen as esteemed providers of knowledge. For example, as a young child, my classmates and I entered the classroom, took a seat and sat quietly to await the arrival of the teacher. When he or she entered the room, the students would stand up and say "Good Morning Teacher" and then sit down. This is an important manner of showing respect to the position of teacher. The teacher stood behind the desk, usually at the blackboard, while he or she taught the content of the textbook for the entire class period. The pupils would be silent during the lesson.
My first educational experience in America was quite a shock. My first class was a psychology class at Tacoma Community College. As I was seated, awaiting my first lesson, the relaxed professor walked into the room, sat on the edge of the desk, and began a casual discussion. The students participated eagerly and debated with both their fellow classmates and the teacher. I eventually grew accustomed to the distinct difference in teaching techniques; however initially, I was totally stunned. I believe the outcome of the two distinct approaches is that Chinese children are more reticent to speak in public. This lack of practice and experience makes public speaking harder for Asian children and, later as grown adults. The typical American student is more confident to speak in public.
Interactions with Adults: In China, when a young person or child speaks to an older person it is always spoken with a specific term of respect. The general address is "ayi" which is similar to "auntie" and "shushu" which is similar to "uncle". This is used solely as an indicator of respect and not of biological relationship. I have found that in America, children often speak to their elders by the first name. In some regions of the U.S., it is the norm to say Mr. or Mrs. Smith; however, it is generally common for a child to address an adult by their first name (i.e. Charlotte, Diane, Judith, etc.) This informality would never occur in China, as it is considered extremely rude. My own children are mostly "Americanized" in this respect. They will refer to their friends' parents directly, on a first name basis or call them Judith’s mom or Judith’s dad. When we are in China, they adjust their manners to reflect that of the children in China. They understand they live in two cultures as well.
Manners: As a child, I was not taught to say "thank you" as American children are. In America, "thank you" is often a routine formality extended to strangers, such as a clerk in a store, without a real relationship. In China, an expression of "thank you" is reserved for sincere expressions of gratitude, such as when someone extends themselves to assist you. It is generally reserved for someone with whom you have established an obligation. Even the Mandarin words equivalent to "You're welcome" actually translate along the lines of "You shouldn't have". For a Chinese child, they learn early on that it is not appropriate to accept a gift at first offering. It is customary to decline when something is offered. When offered a third time, it is then acceptable for an Asian parent to allow a child to accept the gift or token that is offered. If a child accepts at the first offering, it would seem greedy, disrespectful and ungrateful.
Educational Achievement: From the moment the child is born, the parents and grandparents place educational expectations with a child. Education is seen as the most esteemed profession in China and Asian parents are very focused on academics. At a preschool level, American parents may consider or see that children learn from their play, lie on the floor, and learn through experience. In China parents will talk about the importance of learning and the esteemed role of teaching. Teaching even for preschool will be quite structured and emphasizes on learning a specific amount of knowledge instead of learning from play.
In China, children learn from a young age how important testing results are for their future. Educational achievement is structured around testing results. Children know that their parents see academic excellence and respecting elders as the two primary mandates for children. Parents expect their children to work hard and target to attend the best university. If living in America, this would mean attend an Ivy League school, such as Harvard, Princeton, Stanford or Yale. An interesting statistic I've recently seen is that while Asian Americans make up only 4% of the U.S. population, these students make up 24% of the students at Stanford and 18% at Harvard) (source: Abboud and Kim). Asian parents focus competition, which starts in pre-school years. Parents strongly believe in the maxim, “Win at the beginning of the race”. That means tons of homework and tutoring classes in English, Math, Writing, etc. Sports and play are secondary.
Discipline: Traditional Chinese parents take a very strict view of their children's behaviors. They will place a lot of restrictions and expectations on their children. For example, while at a portrait studio Asian parents will tell their children to sit up straight and smile. They will be focused on how their child is behaving in a public setting; American parents seem to be more focused on capturing the expressions that occur. While at a play date, American parents will think nothing of children sitting or lying on the floor, but Asian parents will consider it bad manners and think the floor is too dirty for kids' play. It is not likely you will see an Asian child lay down on the floor as they play. They simply have been taught not to do that. So most Chinese children are not as active and sporty as American children. When it comes to soccer, it is rare that Asian girls play it. I remembered when Liane joined the Guangzhou Youth Soccer League with the international students from all over the world, friends of mine reminded me that if a girl plays soccer, it might cause “strong” legs and girls should learn ballet instead.
Childcare: Often times, Asian parents living in the US, will bring the grandparents over to the US in order to help care for the children. It is very common for grandparents to take a very active role in raising their grandchildren, whether in the US or in China. Recent statistics show that in China currently roughly 65 % of China's 50 million urban families reportedly rely on grandparents to rear young children (China Today). Asian parents and grandparents will be very concerned for a young child to get too cold or to get enough food to eat. An Asian mom will usually ensure the child has several layers and jackets. The American parent's thinking is that if the child is cold, they will come to you and get a sweater or coat. It is a more independent style of parenting. The Asian parent thinks it is her job to watch that, and the child is not yet able to make those choices. So most parents feed their child until they turn 5 to ensure they eat well. Both perspectives are valid and come from a loving framework, but they are consistently different. So most American children tend to be more independent, and Chinese children are more dependent.
Comments: I think the overall biggest difference between the cultures and raising children is that American parents are more relaxed or casual in their approach to child-rearing. This does not mean they do not care or love their children as much; they just tend to be more casual about the whole endeavor. Each culture has much to offer our children and I feel immeasurably enriched to know and live in each. They leave an indelible mark on me, as well as how I raise my children.