Voices on the New Diasporas - an MIT student journal

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Cultural Purgatory

by Ellen Liang, Class of 2006


I glanced around nervously, one eye open, one eye closed.  Next to me stood my mother and then my father.  Then two uncles, an aunt, two cousins, and a grandmother completed the arc.  In the middle of it all was my grandfather.  The ten of us, each with a stick of burning incense, were crowded in the small, second floor sitting room.  We were gathered in front of a long table that had been set up against the wall.  The first thing I noticed on the table was a plate of green fruit, small like apricots, but smooth and shiny like apples.  To the right of that was a plate of peanuts, then some dried fruit, then roasted watermelon seeds, then apples, and finally oranges.  Behind the fruit and snacks was a sticky rice cake decorated with orange peel, and different colored rice flour muffins.  Near the front edge of the table was a teapot and two cups of tea.  Above the table was a high, white shelf.  On the shelf sat the most beautiful pineapple I had ever seen.  The leaves were dark green and decorated with a big red and gold ribbon.  The body of the pineapple, round like a sphere, was tinted a deep shade of red.  Next to the pineapple was a small brass pot that held even more burning incense, then a framed black and white photo of an old man.  A ceiling tile had been pushed aside to allow for the protruding incense and to accommodate the makeshift altar.

After taking in the scene around me, I concentrated harder on the unfolding ceremony.  With one eye still open, I bowed—“kowtowed”—with everyone else, but I was always half a moment behind.  My grandfather was dictating the ceremony as it was happening, and although I could understand his words perfectly, I was still unsure of how to position and direct my body’s movements.  Then a horrifying thought occurred to me, and while I was bowing to the photo on the high shelf that I could only assume to represent my ancestors, I prayed—to God—that the ceremony would not include speaking on my part.  I was eight, and already afflicted by the thought that I was breaking the “Thou shall not worship idols” commandment of the Ten Commandments.  After nine kowtows in three groups of three, conversation in the second floor sitting room immediately started up.  I had not noticed the silence in the room until it was broken, but now everyone was talking as if we had just finished something as trivial as a meal.  As my grandfather collected the incense from our hands, my mother’s voice broke me out of my stupor.

“Do you want to eat some dates?  I’ll go wash them.”

She picked up the plate of green fruit and disappeared down the stairs.  I waited awkwardly for her to return.  I looked down at my feet as my cousins attempted to start a conversation with me.  After we exchanged a few awkward questions and answers, my mother came back and offered us clean dates.  Here I was in Taiwan, an eight-year-old Christian from suburban Rochester, Minnesota, eating a fruit I had never seen before, standing, among my “closest relatives,” in front of a shrine to my “ancestors.”  I could not have felt more out of place.

I have always viewed Taiwan as my parents’ domain.  Taiwan is a place where my parents can read faster than I can, where they do not have to ask my opinion on the grammatical structure of their sentences, and where they do not have to distinguish between male or female pronouns.  There, my father knows every dish on every menu in every restaurant, and my mother knows the names of every item in the market.  In Taiwan, my parents can finally start stories with: “When I was young, I came here…” or “I remember this place like I was here yesterday...”  When we make family visits to Taiwan, I always listen to and obey my parents.  Every three years for a few weeks, I see my parents as knowledgeable and authoritative.  While I was their guide to life in America, they were my guide to survival in Taiwan.

America is my territory.  A few weeks after we returned home from one particular visit to Taiwan—my sixth grade visit—I developed a mild case of the flu.  As any mother would, my mother took my temperature, brought me Tylenol, and sent me to bed.  When it came time to go back to school, though, my mother asked me to write the note to my teacher.  Using the third person, I wrote a short note explaining that I had been sick and that I was returning to school.  Then my mother signed and dated the note in her name.  For the rest of my K-12 career, I would write many more of these notes.  Sometimes, before my mother signed a particular note, she would try to argue about the grammar of one of the sentences. 

“Shouldn’t it be ‘have been’ and not ‘had been’?” my mother would ask in the language of all Chinese Americans: Chinglish, a mixture of Mandarin and English.

“Ma ma,” I would reply in Mandarin.  “It doesn’t matter,” I would then finish in English.

I would roll my eyes impatiently and push the pen toward her.  My mother would never continue the argument.  As I think back on the arguments I always won about grammar and usage, I have to admit that sometimes she was right.

I have always known, however, that I do not live fully within the American culture.  I do not eat salads, chicken breasts, and rolls for dinner on a weekly basis.  I never had a Barbie-themed birthday party, nor did my family ever take me to the movies.  I never went to my grandmother’s house on the weekends.  I never watched Scooby Doo.  I attributed my lack and ignorance of American culture to my parents.  The inconveniences I suffered as a result of not knowing certain American practices were my parents’ fault.  My biggest challenge growing up was eating spaghetti.  I remember going to an Italian restaurant for a friend’s birthday when I was in high school.  I had ordered a chicken Caesar salad.  The restaurant was one of those places where the chicken breast comes out intact, and where you have to fumble with a knife and fork in order to cut the chicken to an acceptable size before you can bring it to your mouth.  Fortunately, chicken is not as tough as steak.  As I was sawing away, I noticed my friend’s brother eating his spaghetti.  No one had ever told me to use a spoon!  He sat there twirling spaghetti around his fork with his right hand, but he was catching it all in a spoon that he held with his left hand.  He then proceeded to bring a small, perfectly-bound coil of noodles to his mouth.  There were no loose noodles straying from the fork and there was no red sauce at the edge of his mouth.  I was sixteen, and I was just then learning how to eat spaghetti.  Two weeks later, I ordered spaghetti while out with my friends.  As graceful as my friend’s brother had made it look, I was still a clumsy mess.  My load of noodles always came out too large.  I could not quite figure out how to stop the noodles from continuing to be drawn into the twirling fork.  Somehow every strand was, in some way, connected to my fork.  While at home, I could eat noodles with chopsticks and let the long strands fall back to the bowl that I could hold up, close to my face.  I had learned, however, that Americans do not like it when half the noodles go in my mouth and half fall back on the plate.  I quickly learned to always order penne or bowtie pasta. 

It was experiences like this that gave me a sense of alienation.  I did not understand Chinese customs and I had never been taught American ones.  My parents were Chinese; they could read Mandarin.  My friends were American; they could eat spaghetti. 

“What, then, am I?” I often asked myself. 

I realized the complexity of my cultural identity as something I was yet unable to define, but I failed to see that my parents may have an equally hard time defining their own cultural identity.  Having come to America when I was two, I have lived virtually my entire life here.  My parents, however, came to America in their early thirties.  By now, they have already spent a third of their life in America.  The incompatibilities between my parents and American culture have always been glaringly obvious to me, but I have been oblivious to the adaptations my parents made to their new environment.  My father barbeques on the deck, he took my brother fishing, and he landscaped our yard.  My mother makes a turkey—although with soy sauce—every Thanksgiving, she volunteered to be a chaperone when my brother’s third grade class went to the zoo, and she chats from time to time with the parents of my brother’s American friends.  At particular instances, my parents are just like any of the parents I had come to know as American.

What really surprised me, though, was how these adaptations had pulled my parents away from their Chinese culture.  On our most recent family trip to Taiwan, I noticed that my parents did not seem at home there.  In fact, they were uneasy, and although they enjoyed the trip, they were happy to be returning home at the end of the month.  During the trip, I saw—whether it was because I was old enough or because time can really change people—so many differences between my mother and the sister she had in Taiwan.  We were staying in my aunt’s home—a place with no clothes dryer and no computer, let alone internet.  I had always seen these inconveniences as something my mother would see as a comforting reminder of home, but she was just as uneasy as I was.  In the end, my mother insisted upon going to a laundry where there were clothes dryers, and then found a friend with fast internet connection so she could pay the bills.  My mother could not easily separate herself from the lifestyle to which she has now become accustomed. 

It was not just the need for these material comforts, however, that set my mother apart from her sister.  My aunt has insisted upon having a very opinionated say in the specialty that my nearly thirty-year-old cousin will choose as a doctor.  I saw that my mother, however, treats me with a different attitude.  My mother is supportive of my academic plans and career goals.  She was completely supportive of my decision to be a business major.  She was completely supportive when I later decided to be a premed math major.  My mother has never had a plan for my life.  She has allowed me to find direction on my own and trusts the decisions I make.  When I saw the relationship between my aunt and my cousin, I came to appreciate the changes American culture had introduced in my mother.  Although I now see a part of my mother that will never again truly relate to or understand her sister, I also see a part of her that has grown closer to me.

During this recent visit to Taiwan, I saw a part of myself in my mother.  Twelve years after my first encounter with my ancestors, I was back in that second floor sitting room kowtowing to my grandfather’s direction.  This time, as I was peeking with my one open eye, I noticed the uneasy glance of my mother.  She too was uncomfortable as we carried out this traditional Chinese ceremony.  It was then that I stopped seeing Chinese culture as my parents’ culture.  Perhaps it had been theirs twenty years ago, but Chinese culture had grown in one direction while my parents had certainly grown in another.  I see now that my parents and I are together in this cultural purgatory.  We have not quite become American, but we are surely no longer Chinese.

As much as I felt alone in what I had seen as my own personal purgatory, once I realized I was not alone, I also realized that I was in fact in abundant company.  For me, being American had always meant watching Saturday morning cartoons, while my mother flipped pancakes in the kitchen and my father played catch in the backyard with my brother.  This has never happened in my family.  I have realized that no one is American in my sense of the word.  We all compare each other to our own preconceived notions of being American, resulting in the many problems associated with race relations our nation suffers from day to day.  The discriminating tendencies we all must battle, coupled with the very real fact of intolerance, create in our nation the crises of identity many of us face.  To see our nation in a different light, we must redefine what it means to be American.