Immigration, Assimilation, Ethnicity and All That Jazz

Passing on Traditions and Keeping in Touch with One’s Roots

Posted by chinesecanuck on July 9, 2008

Matthew Egan has a post in Racialicious today about his Jewish identity. At the end of the post, mentions a conversation his fiancée had with another woman, who grew up in Chinatown about understanding one’s roots. But what does that mean in the twenty-first century? Culture changes so rapidly that many traditions become obsolete. Other traditions were invented or adapted by immigrants when they arrive in their new homeland.

I often read stories about ABCs or CBCs (American Born Chinese or Canadian Born Chinese) who are conflicted between tradition and their Americanized/Canadianized identity they picked up at school. Reading these stories, I’ve always wondered WTF they’re talking about. I went to school with lots of kids who were either born in Canada or came as young children, and never have I met a parent who wasn’t accommodating to their kids’ westernized lifestyle, save for dating non-Chinese. In fact, most parents are westernized themselves. Most people I know don’t know what it means to have “traditional Chinese parents.” Perhaps it’s a generational thing. Most American/Canadian authors of Chinese descent are from an older generation, typically Baby Boomers (e.g. Amy Tan) or born during the Depression/WWII (e.g. Wayson Choy). They typically grew up in Chinatown or a small town, with parents who worked in small businesses rather than suburban-raised kids with middle-management/professional parents.

I share the same issues as Matthew when it comes to understanding my roots. Because my upbringing was “typically suburban,” and the guy I’ll likely marry isn’t of Chinese descent, I worry that I’d be criticized that I’m not able to pass on Chinese culture beyond language (speaking only), food, holidays like the Lunar New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival and perhaps one or two milestone traditions, such as a baby’s coming out/presentation at 30 days or wedding traditions (many aren’t “real traditions” as they probably only date back to the 1910s or 1920s at the earliest when people started to have love marriages rather than arranged ones).  Or would people care?  Is that really enough to pass on?  In Toronto, one can be exposed to these traditions without doing much.  All you need to do is open a newspaper.  The Lunar New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival get lots of press in a city like Toronto or Vancouver, even with non-Asian media.  Is passing on these traditions really keeping in touch with one’s roots, or is it just part of being a cultured Torontonian?

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8 Responses to “Passing on Traditions and Keeping in Touch with One’s Roots”

  1. Nelson Yee said

    I look to Hawaii as an example of a culture where people have long lost their ability to pass on their “original” language, such as Chinese or Japanese, but still maintain a strong hybrid native culture that incorporates some of these older traditions. Hawaii’s also similar because there’s the occasional influx of Japan-born Japanese (not sure if this holds true for Chinese-born Chinese), not unlike the waves of migration in Vancouver and Toronto from China and Taiwan. I think in a generation or two we might have something not unlike that, or perhaps something more akin to the culture of the Bay Area, where it’s not as well-integrated into a single overarching culture but where the multiculturalism comes more naturally.

  2. But Nelson, since most first generation CBCs (at least in Toronto) are Gen X or Millennials, they, unlike older generation west coast counterparts, have parents that are more westernized. Most weren’t exactly brought up with the same expectations as Chinese Canadians/Americans one might read in an Amy Tan or Wayson Choy novel. The Amy Tan/Wayson Choy ABC/CBC is COMPLETELY FOREIGN to most of my peers.

  3. Nelson Yee said

    I’m not sure why that’s a “but”? I was just commenting that I felt future generations of Asian-Canadians could lose many of the elements of their parental/ancestral culture and still have a valid and interesting hybrid culture to pass on. I wasn’t commenting on your lack of identification with Wayson Choy/Amy Tan types.

    In addition, re-reading your last paragraph, I’m not even sure what you feel there is beyond “language (speaking only), food, holidays like the Lunar New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival and perhaps one or two milestone traditions, such as a baby’s coming out/presentation at 30 days or wedding traditions” that would constitute Chinese culture? Are these not elements of Chinese culture?

  4. The traditions I mentioned are things that most people know about. There are also other elements like respecting elders (even my parents have put my grandparents in mature lifestyle homes), etc that were once emphasized (and still are in SOME households).

  5. I’ve already failed and I haven’t even started yet.

    – I can’t even speak the language myself. Language has been lost.
    – Food has also been lost. The only thing that is passed on from my parents to me is that I eat rice and cook rice with a rice cooker. Non-Chinese Torontonians probably eat more Chinese food than me.
    – Baby’s coming out – I’m not having children, and I have never attended one myself. But I don’t know any Chinese person around my age with a child.
    – Wedding … What exactly would that be? Making the couple do embarrassing things and the bride wearing a red dress for the reception? There’s also that tea ceremony…

    I don’t think non-Asian people really celebrate Lunar New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival. They just know about it. I will probably still be participating in Lunar New Year, because it’s a social thing … which just means that I get red pockets.

  6. You’ve never attended a baby’s coming out? Not even a family friend’s kid/sibling? A bunch of kids I grew up with got new siblings when they were five or six, so I was dragged do a few of them. It’s a standard banquet at a restaurant and the baby usually dresses up. Think reception after a baby’s baptism.

  7. No, I don’t remember any of this.

    Even if you’re five or six, you’re supposed to do something? How would you remember that far back?

  8. My parents dragged me to some of these dinners when I was a kid, especially if it was a close family friend.

    I also remember my first day of junior kindergarten. I was four years old and didn’t understand what the teacher was saying.

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