I am here in Beijing with my almost eighty year old mother. Though a native of China who has frequently visited her family here, she has never been to Beijing. A couple of years ago, she mentioned wanting to see the Great Wall. So here we are.
As I’ve been touring the historical sites of Beijing (the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven) and driving through the streets of today’s Beijing, I have seen first hand how our cultural history affects how we think, feel and act today. My work allows me the privilege to help international students acculturate to the US culture as well as assist Asian-Americans in developing visibility in their professions. I’ve always known that culture deeply influences how we are. But this trip has viscerally underscored how pivotal culture is. Culture is like the air we breathe. It’s in our cells. It occupies us. Yet we can be so unaware of it.
Moreover, as a Chinese-American, being here has helped deepen self-understanding. Born with a mighty voice in need of expression, I understand why so often in my life, I have felt a need to be “less than” who I am. I have a window through which I can understand why the Chinese community expected that I conform and not ruffle feathers. Why my parents were so torn, simultaneously telling me I mattered and to always be who I am, yet asking that I abide by their commands and the expectations set by the Chinese community.
What I’m about to say about China and the Chinese culture is not an exception in world cultures. It’s part of all cultures today, both implicit and explicit. It’s really about why those of us who “have” feel an entitlement to believe those who “have less” are vessels to serve “the haves” and that the latter deserve less. Even we Americans who proudly espouse equality and democracy can not exempt ourselves. Just look at our shrinking middle class and growing poverty. Bottom line…are we availing all individuals the opportunity to stand tall and celebrate their voice that is like no other?
There is an acute sense of the above in China. Perhaps because of the thousands of years of emperor rule where the imperial edict was never ever questioned or debated by the common person. No one dared. The consequences were so severe. From a cultural perspective, this relationship with those who govern every day life is still very present. What is said, is. Open debate is implausible. Questioning is a form of criticism. This is true whether at home, in school or in government.
I’d like to share with you what I’ve culled from visiting these historical sites and would like you to reflect on how you would think, feel and act had this been your culture? For Chinese-Americans, this is not just a historical artifact. It explains your parents, your upbringing and the culture that may have been so “invisible” to you:
1) China, as a country was established by Qin Shi Huang Di, who started the Great Wall. It’s not until you are at the site that you can understand why over various dynasties, it’s estimated that upwards of 3 million people died building the Great Wall. At great heights, steepness and danger, individuals had to lug immensely sized stones to build the wall. It was ordered by the emperor and the Wall was created to protect the country. All asked were expected to serve, even knowing it meant death.
2) Until the 13th emperor in the Ming Dynasty who stopped this practice, concubines of the Emperor were sacrificed, killed and buried with the emperor when he died. By the way, the new imperial edict was established in the 1600’s, when China was already almost 2000 years old.
3) The emperor employed thousands upon thousands of imperial staff persons. Common people were not allowed to be in the presence of the emperor and his regiment when they were out and about.
4) Yellow was reserved for the emperor only.
5) The amazing historical sites of the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace were never opened to common folk until after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911.
6) The emperor was the intermediary between Heaven and Earth so his power was bestowed from the Heavens. In an agricultural society, the Heavens were in command of all. Hence the practice of rain gods, wind gods, etc. Superstition, praying to the gods, ceding all power to the emperor (in families an equivalence can be made to fathers and sons) became the norm.
Being here. Walking the sites. Imagining life then. Seeing people on the streets today. Talking to taxicab drivers and common folk. All have given me a deep understanding of why the notion of an “individual’s voice” is not even in the set of consideration for many of us of Chinese (East Asian) descent. For thousands of years, from emperor, to local officials, to families, command was a one-way street. For thousands of years, those of us who were not “them” were expected to accept and follow.
No doubt, there is change. I have loved talking with people here. Their sense of possibility is clear. There is an openness and honesty in our discussions about politics, culture, people et al. Common folk swarm these historical sites which were once forbidden to them. These sites are theirs today.
But for those of us who work with students from China, for those of us who are of Chinese descent, it is important to understand WHY people with this heritage think, behave and feel a certain way. This is not about judgement of good or bad. It is about understanding. For me, this understanding has provided greater compassion for my own struggles, the struggles of so many Chinese-Americans and the many many Chinese (East Asian) students attempting to acculturate into the US.
I know each of us has a unique voice that deserves to be heard, for that is why we are each here. I love that so many Chinese students I work with are finding their voices. It is all about celebrating each of us. It is about knowing that each of us matters. For that, I say hallelujah that I am a Chinese-American, with the wonderful opportunity to integrate two amazing cultures. Find your voice. Embrace your uniqueness. You matter because you are here.