[Note: I wrote this as a sophmore in university.]
I believe everyone should spend at least one Mother’s Day away from their mother. It’s not everyday that you can admire the “Chinglish” dabbled across the ice cream cakes at the local Dairy Queen. This will surely remind you that there is much more to Mother’s day then “I ♥ The Mom” cakes and memorabilia. Coupled with the Chinese culture of Confucianism, many Chinese people have embraced Mother’s Day out of the traditional ethics of filial piety and respect to the elderly. Filial piety is a term at the root of Chinese culture and behavior, as respecting one’s parents is an all important aspect of life. These two words encompass the essence of my relationship with my mother.
These past four months here in Shanghai has been one of the most enjoyable times of my life.
In between bargaining for DVDs and eating soup dumplings I often think about the difference I see in Chinese and American cultures and customs. I observed a very interesting comparison in the foods of the two nations. My regular morning meal in China has consisted of soy milk and baozis. Baozis are in essence, the cultural equivalent of doughnuts here in China. Each wooden stall that sells the boazis is like a franchised Dunkin’ Donuts in its own right, equipped with unmarked plastic bags, wooden chopsticks and a napkin if you are lucky. They are simple, filling in moderate amounts and taste really good.
My mom makes a version of this snack back home and I was reminded that she is in fact half Chinese. I always tell her the only thing she took from her Chinese heritage was their culture of food. Chinese food is one of my favorite foods and this can undoubtedly be credited to my mother. When other students tell stories of seeing old women eating fish eyeballs I do not blink or cringe. I knew Fear Factor before I watched it on TV, just by watching her eat some “delicacies” of Chinese cuisine. Food is a common ground across the world and eating is a social event that usually lasts forever. Late at night families and friends wait for skewers of meat and vegetables in between games of mahjong, chatting the night away. My mom made it mandatory that my younger brother and I sit at the dinner table everyday, amongst our cries to watch Fresh Prince in front of the TV instead.
The western dinner table ritual promotes communication between parent and child, and although nothing profound may be discussed at dinner the time spent talking act as building blocks for a child’s development for the future. In China there is a similar importance placed on the family dinner. This was one of the things I thought about on my fourth Mother’s Day away from home. My mom cooked five star meals every night for me, refusing to serve us microwave meals. It was never something I thought about, I just wanted to eat. Nevertheless I came to realize that this was never a goal for her, to feel appreciated or needed. She just wanted her children to live a better life than she did, a goal I’ve seen for mothers here in China.
Rian Dundon tells the story of a 22 year old graffiti artist by the name of REN from Changsha. REN lives at home with his mother in a house filled with “flamboyantly colored graffiti.” It amazed me to see the photographs of the small house covered in spray paint, which looked more like a bunker or crack house than a place of residence. REN explains that this is the way a single mother in China shows love to her only child. He emphasizes that his mother understands his passion and what he loves to do, and is therefore fully supportive of his craft. I could never imagine my mother allowing me to paint over her walls, let alone tag them with spray paint. The home is like another child to my mother, she is very meticulous about keeping it neat and in order.
Nevertheless, I can relate REN’s mother devotion to her son with my mother. When I was a young boy I desperately wanted to get my ears pierced. My mother decreed that I could not get my ears pierced until I was sixteen. I waited until I was sixteen but my mother accompanied me to get it done. Initially striving for more independence, I saw that my respect for my mother’s word went far beyond any personal abstractions that I had for myself. It was not fear or anxiety that made me obey her. On the contrary she had instilled a value in me that I will continue to possess throughout my life.
I think it’s a universal principle for a mother to see her child progressing through life, becoming successful along the way. What separates a great mother is their ability to see past the surface of success, to embrace and respect the decisions their child makes. A great mother will support you in any endeavor, as seen in REN’s mother. During my time at school I have met countless people that say they are only doing business because their parents are forcing them. This was never the case for me. When I was younger I wanted to become a professional football player. I told my mother my aspirations and that same day she was on the internet looking for schools to send me to. She supported me in anything I wanted to do but always stressed the importance of getting an education first.
Paul Levine’s lecture highlighted this importance of education within Chinese society. The Cultural Revolution which tore China apart had a profound impact on the cultures and mindsets of Chinese society today. During this time I learned how young people were sent out to farm and till the land, missing the opportunity of formal schooling in effect becoming a “lost generation.” This period of violence and anti-intellectualism had a lasting impact on the people who survived this time, who are the parents of the current generation. I now see why education is so important in today’s society, as education was prohibited for many people during the Cultural Revolution. My mother stressed the importance fervently throughout my life. Having only finished high school, she chose to get married and did not go on to finish college. She said there was always so much she wanted to do but could not due to her limitations created by a lack of education. This is a decision she regrets to this day, and she made it her duty to make sure her children finished school. As a result she has seen two sons graduate on full scholarship, and is anticipating the graduation of two more.
In no way can this be compared to the struggles Chinese people faced during the Revolution but it does allude to the significance of education when not given the opportunity yourself. Chinese parents and my mother alike put so much pressure on getting education, because many never received the opportunity to a good education themselves. Humbled by their arduous experiences in the countryside, it is easier to understand why education is not taken for granted here in China. In retrospect I also understood why an education was so imperative for my Mother where the desire for her children to live a more fruitful life than she did was at the center of her life.
The Shanghai fake market was the last place I thought I would observe the fruition of education’s importance in China. My cousin found a “Tumi” backpack she liked and began to bargain with a young lady named Linda. Linda had long chestnut brown hair, presumably died, donning skinny jeans and Converse high top sneakers. Everything about the girl, from her hair to her shoes, screamed the aesthetic of an archetypical Shanghainese girl. Linda seemed to be many things but she was certainly not a fool. My unintimidating cousin could not to shift the price so I was called upon to help.
I began haggling with Linda in a broken Chinese dialect, thinking about each word before I spoke. To my amazement she began talking to me in Spanish, with an accent that would make you think we were on the streets of Havana. I did not know why she would think I spoke Spanish nor where she had mastered the language herself, but I sat there in disbelief trying to conjure a response in a mind perplexed in between three languages. I was taken aback by her fluency and pronunciation, growing envious by the second whilst looking back at my own five years of Spanish only producing an occasional fluency in the language. At this point Linda shed the naivety and giddiness that I often associate with the common Chinese girl. She told me her father had given her a copy of Don Quijote when she was a child, and she had been intrigued by Spanish culture since then. She took Spanish classes at a language institute and after a few years could carry a conversation. It was clear to see that Linda was self-reliant, but she attributed all progress in her life to the guidance from her parents.
For the first few weeks I was skeptical of the local people, and thought everyone was trying to swindle me. When I went to the glasses market I carried all my glasses that I had bought to let them know I knew the “local prices.” I walked around looking for a good vendor when an older gentleman beamed at me and shouted “Obama!” Although I do not particularly like being called random names of people I share little resemblance to, there was something ironically pleasing being identified with the President of the United States as opposed to any another melanin enriched celebrity. I can honestly say that I have not experienced any real racism in China. I find most Chinese people are intrigued by me, with a sincere curiosity and interest of my journeys here in China. After asking where I was from, I explained to the old man how I was Chinese. I love watching the look on their faces when they see that I am not joking around. After telling him I was studying Chinese, he took out a newspaper and plopped it in front of me telling me to read. I was speechless that the man who I thought was trying to charge me extra for tint was now teaching me Chinese characters.
Although I was appreciative of his gratitude I sat in earnest reflecting on my cultural connection to these squiggly lines. The fondest memory of my Cantonese grandfather is a small black and white photo in my mom’s jewelry box. Needless to say I did not grow up with a special connection to my Chinese roots.
I see my grandfather in the drunken old men playing mahjong as much as the anxious businessman waiting for the streetlight to turn green. Tess Johnston’s speech comes to mind when I think about the reasons why my grandfather would have left everything to start a new life on a small Caribbean island. I often wonder if he left China for the same reasons why I wanted to come. In Why We Travel Pico Iyer declared “but for the rest of us, the sovereign freedom of travelling comes from the fact that it whirls you around and turns you upside down, and stands everything you took for granted on its head.” Johnston illustrates this picture by describing the wave of foreigners who came to Shanghai in the late 1900s, which could aptly describe my grandfather’s voyage as he journeyed to a land he did not know in a language he did not speak. In my mother’s youth she did not have the same desires for the unknown. Never learning to speak Chinese my mother has made me explore the world. She signs me up for summer camps I do not want to go to, sends me to family I do not want to see and lastly forces me to sign up for study abroad programs as much as it hurts that I am so far away.
From time to time I set my Skype status to away, somewhat intentionally to avoid a conversation with my mom. I talk to my mother everyday and sometimes she can be a little overwhelming. Daily reminders to floss my teeth and to make my bed never grow old with her, and I am sure I will get reminders like these when I have children myself. I know it is because she cares and this is the reason why I love and respect her the way I do. My mother has given me confidence, shown me success and prepared me for the happiness along with the struggles I can look forward to in life. The incomparable quality that I can find in my mother is that she sees something in me that I do not see in myself, and it only took me six months in China to come to terms with it.
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