A Man with a Flashlight

The Chinese and Family
March 31, 2007, 3:38 pm
Filed under: The East

Every American knows generalizations are dangerous. It is one of those cultural convictions that are not taught in school, but simply repeated so often and in so many places that it becomes instinctive. And it is a piece of collective wisdom we should value, because to deal with another person as an individual rather than one of a tribe is a virtue.

That said, generalizations also contain knowledge. They are as likely to arise from common experience as they are from prejudice.

Over lunch, on the basis of my five years spent in Taiwan, I was asked the question, “What are the Chinese like?” (Leaving aside for a moment whether or not the Taiwanese should be considered Chinese.) I found it impossible to produce an answer. I was then prompted, “Do they work hard?” and I said that in Taipei they worked long hours. I then ventured that most Chinese seemed to feel a strong expectation, and consequently an obligation, to work for their families’ benefit. To bring home the bacon, so to speak – by, for example, working to increase the family’s wealth, or giving the children of the family the highest degree of education possible.

One instantly reflects that such behavior is hardly uncommon in the West. I believe that there are some differences, however. For one, people in America, and perhaps even more so Europeans, would often prefer shorter working hours, a longer vacation, or a more casual working environment, instead of simply a higher salary. That is to say, we want to make money, but we also want to enjoy ourselves and have some time for relaxation.

There is also the difference that in many American families, children are more independent once they have grown up. It is considered embarrassing to live with one’s parents after a certain age. In Taiwan, on the other hand, I met countless people in their twenties and thirties who had not moved out of the family house. In fact, I would venture to say that the Taiwanese still consider it slightly unusual, perhaps even awkward, for an unmarried son or daughter to move out of the family home. And it is quite common for even married couples to continue living in the same house as the husband’s parents.

This is one of the reasons I never envied the position of recently-married Taiwanese brides, who have not one new master – for gender equality, though improved, is not firmly entrenched – but three. Stories of new wives abused by cruel mothers-in-law are as much a staple of Chinese culture as stories of neglected stepchildren are of European culture. Recent examples include The Liuhua Brook and The Joy Luck Club.

Furthermore, children are generally expected to send part of their income to their parents. Again, this practice occurs in the West, but my impression is that it is far less frequent than in Taiwan. (I could go into greater detail about the many interesting Chinese customs revolving around money and gifts, but I will save this for a later date.)

Western stories are full of young men – and sometimes women – who leave home “to find their fortune,” “to make their way in the world,” and “to make a name for themselves.” And so we have a cultural expectation that part of success is separating oneself from one’s family and standing alone. By contrast, in Chinese society any separation from family is viewed extremely negatively. A successful person, as defined in Taiwan, is one who contributes to the family’s wealth, defends the family’s interests, and advances the family’s position.


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