Recently, my mother held a Buddhist blessing ceremony for my son, her first grandchild. Aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and a bunch of old Asian people I hadn’t spoken to or seen in over a decade, came out to help make food, say prayers, grant blessings to, and celebrate the life of my little one. The whole thing was all at once beautiful, boisterous, and kind of expensive.
My mother insisted that it had to be done though, because it’s a part of our culture, and it’s important to our community. She says, even though I’m a Christian, and my son is half white, it should be important to him one day as well.
Growing up, I never understood the unique position I was in: to have immigrated to the United States, and still have parents that were so dedicated to preserving our culture, as much as they pushed me to succeed in the American education system.
I could write a book about my mother and her efforts to insure that her children became the best people they could be, but in the interests of succinctness, we’ll say that Mom busted her ass to do all the things.
Still, as I have conversations with other Asian Americans, even the first generation immigrants like myself, I’ve discovered that not everyone had the same fortune I did, in terms of being raised immersed in the culture from the homeland.
In my youth, I encountered kids who couldn’t speak the language, because their parents were afraid that they would be bullied, or that their English skills would suffer. Then there were the kids whose parents purposefully distanced themselves from the community to distance themselves from the complications that can be forthcoming in tight-knit communities. These parents made a decision back then to sacrifice culture for assimilation, but I’m not sure it paid off.
Per my experience, you got bullied regardless of the language. Growing up in a mostly white town, people who knew little to nothing about this new wave of tan/yellow people, there was much fear stemmed in ignorance. From that fear and ignorance about “taking jobs” or committing crimes, I grew up with racism abound, without ever having to utter a word of my native tongue in public.
Part of the bullying I experienced as a child was certainly due to my parents’ initial socioeconomic status, being that most immigrants, who were based in the U.S. as refugees fleeing persecution from communist regimes, did not have the most money in the world. But there was no mistaking the names “Gook” or “Chink”, the slanted eyed faces, or the “Ching-chong, ling-long” mockery that would eventually devolve into physical violence, as anything but racism.
As a young child, then teenager, I watched as people spoke condescendingly to my parents before they even said anything out loud. I heard more than my share of grumblings about their need to learn how to speak English.
Despite this early adversity though, our parents continued to teach us about the country they came from, and raise us in the way they were raised. Our community came together often, and even hosted a school after regular hours to learn more about our language and culture. They built a temple here, so that they could come together in worship. And the kids? We did all right. As we got older, and were able, we banded together as well.
Nearly all of the bullying I suffered through as a child happened in earlier childhood, because by the time that I got to high school, people were used to us. Our parents spoke the language much better, though still with heavy accents, and our socioeconomic status changed with the small manufacturing boom that occurred in the early 90’s. The kids were also what we liked to call “Americanized” at this point too.
My older sister was a cheerleader, my other siblings and I basketball players, we all worked at the local grocery store, and I would venture to say that at least 50% of the Asian kids in our school were something like model students. We integrated ourselves with the rest of the community pretty fluidly after about a decade. One of the biggest factors to this integration was that, because most of the Asian kids saw each other as “cousins” or at least distant cousins in one way or another, we rarely, if ever, dated each other. But of course, it’s not like we didn’t date. We did all the things that most American teenagers do.
As we became teenagers, it was harder for our parents to get us to obey them and be as immersed in the culture as we used to be when we were younger. We all went through this phase of rebellion, where we just wanted to be American, but we also understood the distinction between ourselves and our white-American peers.
We looked out for each other at parties, and we spoke to each other in our native tongue out of habit and as a form of comradery. There was a greater understanding of each person’s private life and problems, because the community knew everything about everyone, and they always seemed to want to solve these problems together. This can be good at times, but also as a teenager, I remember it being mostly just horrible.
Looking back, I can see this time in our lives as the decline of our interest in our native culture. I can see the struggle that our parents had to endure, the dwindling of their hard work of trying to instill in their children the foundations of who they were and where they came from. Our parents were far better equipped than we were to preserve our culture, and still, in this time, it looked to them that they were failing. How much more of a chance does our generation then have to pass this on to our children?
Yet an interesting thing has occurred, nearly a decade since that time, since I graduated high school. I can sense it in myself, and I see it in my friends and family of our generation, there seems to have been a renaissance of wanting to be in our culture again. No doubt, this is the result of many of us becoming parents ourselves and desiring to pass the lessons on that we learned as children to our own.
Nearly all of us still speak the language, though some more fluently than others, and we’ve learned to cook like our parents, gather like them, and many now attend the temple as Buddhists like their parents once did. We are, all of us, probably closer to our parents now than we’ve been in years, though on more independent terms.
I think that if we worked very hard at this, we could make it work, and our culture could likely survive. But there are quite a few challenges, the most of these being that so many of us have borne children into the world who do not belong to one culture alone.
We all have to learn language and communication as babies and young children, but bilingual children are different. Though my family immigrated to the United States when I was only two months old, I didn’t speak any English until I was four. I remember being terrified of preschool, because we did not speak any English at home, and though I’d heard it enough times, I had never actually tried my hand at speaking it. Within a few months of preschool, I was about as fluent in English as any other four year old American kid though. I have some teachers who would argue I became too fluent.
My son won’t have that same experience. He has a German last name, and we speak English in this house. While I still don’t speak English at my mother’s house, we don’t spend enough time around her for me to believe that my son will pick up on more than a few words or phrases of my native tongue. My son won’t learn how to count in English as a second language, he won’t have to filter it through some other realm of knowledge as I did when I was a child.
Some people suggest that I should actively work on teaching him, but my parents did not actively teach me our native tongue, I learned from observation and immersion. This is far more difficult to do when one of the two parents does not speak the language. While it’s been suggested that my husband, who is open to learning, should learn it, he’s nearly 30 years old, and that is a tad late to become fluent in any language with limited time and energy on your hands.
While language alone is not culture, it’s certainly a large part of it. Still, even in other aspects apart from language, besides a pot of rice maybe once a week? I rarely cook the native dishes my mother made every day when I was a kid. As mentioned before, I am a Christian, so it’s difficult to know when I’d ever introduce my son to the Buddhism I grew up with. Our community is also far busier and more scattered than previously, and things just operate much differently than they did when I was a kid, so that’s difficult to have cultural bearing on either.
To wonder about the fate of our culture in the wake of a new generation can feel deflating at times. My husband has mentioned that he thinks it is quite sad that my people’s culture will appear to be vastly lost in a single generation, and to some degree this is true.
But I think there is something to be said about immigrant kids from our generation, in that we developed a culture of our own, something apart from that which our parents tried to pass on to us.
Surely our parents, even decades after immigrating, still identify heavily with the nations they left behind. My father still talks about retiring in the homeland, determining that in old age, he will care less about the communists, and the threat of exposure of his past seems to bear less weight now. Many of our parents of course prefer the United States, per her higher standards of living, and of course their children and grandchildren being rooted here.
That’s the thing though, we are rooted here. I saw someone say, erroneously so, that Asian Americans had far more in common with Americans than they did foreign nationals of their homeland. Truthfully, Asian Americans like myself, first generation immigrants, deeply rooted in intentionally immersive communities, have likely the same in common with our regular American peers and our foreign national peers. The only people we truly have the most in common with, are those who are like ourselves, first generation immigrants that grew up in the depths of both worlds.
Because of my son’s mixed race and heritage, he will likely, and hopefully, have a more diverse and rewarding upbringing than either my husband or myself. The culture that my son will grow up in and adapt to will be as much a blending of cultures as one can envision the American melting pot dream to be, truthfully.
I guess what I’ve learned from this, at the end of it all, when it comes to culture and heritage in America, is that eventually all this work we put into preservation should look more like a contribution than a carbon copy.