My mother is Chinese, and as her
biological daughter, I, too, am Chinese. However, there was a big
cultural difference between us, beneath our ellow” skin. She was born
in Taiwan, and I am an ABC kid. American-Born-Chinese. For most of my
life, I let this difference separate me from her, not understanding
that I was Chinese, too, and not knowing how important it was to make
up for that difference.
Five years ago, my family moved to
a community where 99% of the people were Chinese, spoke Chinese, and
characteristically did “Chinese things.” Because the cultural
differences between an American and a Chinese person were so vast, it
was hard for me to adjust. However, I gradually began to pick up pieces
of the Chinese culture. In the learning process, I played both observer
and listener roles. My knowledge of Chinese culture was like a jig-saw
puzzle missing too many pieces. I never knew there was so much that I,
as a Chinese person, lacked knowledge of.
I was discouraged at first. When I
spoke Chinese, it came out smothered in meiguo qiang, American accent.
The little kids laughed when I didn’t understand their simple
conversations. I didn’t know any Chinese history. Most importantly, I
didn’t understand the meaning and the responsibilities of xiao,
Xiao traces back to the
traditional Chinese lifestyle. Xiao is the root of moral education in
China. Xiao is like loyalty and faith, and yet, it is much more than
that. It lies in love and respect. It means repaying your parents for
bringing you up, for providing you with what you needed. Xiao is also
thanking your teachers and respecting them because they give you an
education. Xiao has much to do with your own character; it is learning
how to humble yourself. Xiao can be described as the foundation at home
which molds all your morals and virtues.
Five years later, I am at a
different standpoint. I feel Chinese. I am Chinese. I am still learning
the Chinese culture and trying to master the language before I graduate
from high school. It is a difficult language to learn, one in which
every character has not only a meaning, but also a history. I am
willing to struggle to learn this language, because I am aware that
there are too many ABC kids who don’t have the same opportunity to
learn exactly who they are. There are even more kids
who lack knowledge of xiao. I came to realize that xiao was also the
bond that needed to form between my mother and me.
I learned about Chinese culture
through stories. I cannot remember when my mother told me a certain
story from her childhood, but I think it was when I got a note from my
school, saying that I did not respect my teachers—that I always talked
back. I was angry as I explained this to my mother. I expected her to
scold me and tell me how tired she was of hearing about rebelliousness.
Instead, she started to tell me a story. Red-faced and burning inside,
I sat down and listened.
My mother, Jennifer (Xiumei Sun)
Lin, lived in Taiwan as a child, and schooling was extremely strict.
She wore uniforms every day and her hair had to be cut precisely below
the ears. There was no First Amendment that allowed students to defend
themselves against a teacher that accused him or her. There was nothing
a student could do if a teacher decided to punish her by hitting her
with a stick, or whipping her, or throwing chalk at her. “I didn’t have
any problems with that,” my mother said. She was not only her mother’s
favorite child, but also her teacher’s favorite student.
One day, my mother went to school,
and the usual teacher was absent. When the stern-looking substitute
asked the students to turn in their homework, my mother realized she
had forgotten her notebook that day. “I never forgot my homework. It
was just that day,” my mother said. As she feebly explained this to the
substitute, the substitute marched to her desk and gave her a loud
scolding that silenced the classroom, even the rustle of papers. She
then took a fistful of my mother’s hair, on the left side above her
forehead, and yanked it out.
My mother went home that day with
a note to my grandmother written by the substitute. It berated my
mother’s “careless and unacceptable behavior” in harshly written
characters. My grandmother was shaken at first when she saw her
daughter come through the door, crying and clutching a bleeding head.
Through tears, my mother told her what had actually happened, and then
handed her the note. My grandmother instantly became quiet as she read
“I know that, inside my mother’s
heart, she was crying, too,” my mother told me. She continued, “But
back then, you respected the teachers and you thanked them for
educating your schoolchild. After I told my mother what had happened,
she just held me in her arms and cleaned off the blood. Then she said
quietly, but not too harshly, ‘Who told you to forget your notebook?’”
My mother listened to her mother and accepted the painful lesson. “I
did not talk about this horrible incident again.”
I thought that this was the end of
the story, but my mother insisted that there was more. “I’m not done,”
she said. And she continued,
The following week, my mother took
me to visit a faraway relative. On the way there, she told me that the
relative we were to see was an extremely filial daughter. This woman
gave up her life—her chance of a marriage and a career—to devote it to
the care of her old mother. My mother told me how poor they were, how
they lived in the back of an old temple in a borrowed house, and how
hard she worked to support her mother. I was anxious to see this
daughter who had so much xiao. She seemed almost unreal. But when that
woman, so full of xiao, opened the door, I could not believe it was the
very substitute who had pulled out my hair. It was a good thing that I
did not hate the substitute for what she did to me. Actually, after the
visit, I began to admire her. I could not blame her if she had been
having a bad day. She must’ve had bad days every day of her life.
My mother looked at me with soft
black eyes that told me to forgive, to not be angry, and to always be
patient. Finally, she said, “Look,” and my mother lifted her long hair
to expose a slightly bald spot on the left side, right above her
forehead. “Even today, I still have that scar.”
I looked at the pale white
baldness on her forehead that had always been covered by hair, and I
was surprised not to have noticed it all these years. Sometimes, when I
think about it, I don’t know what her point was in telling me that
story. She taught me by telling me a story, and I had to figure out the
real meaning, what she intended for me to learn that was behind her
voice. Then again, perhaps she was just telling me a story to calm my
I keep thinking of xiao when I
recall this story. Her story portrays the true essence of xiao, and
perhaps that is the reason why it has stayed with me all these years.
Or perhaps it is because xiao is such a difficult virtue to uphold.
From this story, I have come to realize that the hardest part of xiao
is to respect, even when you don’t want to respect, and to accept, even
when you can’t accept. It is constantly testing your endurance and
self-worth. It is as simple as it is complicated.
That story was a piece of my
mother’s childhood; it was a piece of her Chinese background. When she
gave it to me, it became a piece of my jig-saw puzzle, an addition to
my own Chinese background. This jig-saw puzzle is a valuable
collection, for it contains many pieces of xiao.
Statement of Purpose
There were many points in this essay that I sought to make known. I
wanted to introduce xiao as an important part of Chinese culture, and
also as a virtue worthwhile to learn and practice. I wanted to mold it
into a story form that shows how xiao helps relationships between
parents and their children, and between students and their teachers.
This story has a double meaning
for ABC kids. If they can read between the lines, I want them to
realize how important it is to sustain and nurture the roots of their
background, to realize what being Chinese really means. Upon further
thought, this also applies to all kids that are born in the United
States and “forget” who they are, and what their roots are. I hope that
they come to know how learning back (Notice, I say ‘learning back,’ and
not ‘learning about’) their culture shapes their real person.