Tuesday, April 1st, 2014
Do WASP Westerners Deserve Visibility in a Foreign Culture?
By Ember Swift
Do WASP Westerners Deserve Visibility in a Foreign Culture?/ © Brett Wilms
I’m rarely riled by critics, but recently a couple of comments really got under my skin. They were in response to a piece I wrote about my mother-in-law’s journey to Canada—her first trip to the West. The comments accused me of having a superiority complex over Chinese culture, being “improperly” bicultural, having a problem with “Chinese-ness,” being embarrassed by my mother-in-law, disliking the Chinese, and “having trouble reconciling my upbringing with my Eastern home.” Another commentor suggested I wanted to be “congratulated for putting up with” my Chinese mother-in-law.
They may as well have called me a racist.
Let me state for the record that I am not bicultural. I am Canadian. I live in China (now) but I come from only one country and my ethnic background is even more singular: English-speaking and purely WASP. I know where I come from and I claim it openly.
I also love China and her culture with all my heart. I felt an ineffable draw to come here, like a call from a past life, and then I fell in love with a Chinese man, had bicultural children with him, and I choose to live in his homeland rather than my own. I don’t resent those choices or feel burdened by them. Now, my love also extends to my Chinese family (which includes my mother-in-law) and I feel very gifted to have been welcomed through this doorway into a land that is not mine by birthright.
All too often what might be misinterpreted as a superiority complex over another culture by someone who fits my description is actually something else worth discussing: a cultural defense mechanism. Do we as English-speaking WASPs have a right to defend our culture, one that is so globally pervasive in both media and entertainment? I am about to argue that we do. At least, I do. And this is why:
I am the only Westerner in this family. My ways, customs, lifestyle (etc.) are regularly challenged and criticized, if not mocked. I have had to insist on visibility or else it is assumed that I will adhere to Chinese ways. My mother-in-law, once frustrated with my differences, even yelled this at me: “Act more Chinese—you’re in China now!” There’s no doubt that China is an extremely ethnocentric country; multiculturalism is as foreign a concept as peanut butter on toast.
Westerners—especially WASP Westerners like me—get a bad rap in Asia. And so we should. White skin is still internationally celebrated more than it is condemned. English is the global language. Thus, I have to admit to having advantages here that my husband would never have in Canada, even though Canada is multicultural by identity. These are things I can’t control, not things I agree with.
Sadly, some Westerners take it too far. They refuse to learn the Chinese language but still earn significantly more than locals, therefore buying their comforts and services from Chinese people who will speak to them in English. I even know one of these Westerners whose wife is Chinese (and twenty-five years younger than he is) yet he still refuses to eat Chinese food because it’s “dirty.” This is a man who refers to “the Chinese” with disdain, claiming his wife has become more Western “thanks to his influence.” It sickens me. I felt embarrassed to be linked to him even ethnically.
So, the comments that originally inspired this blog aren’t unfounded; these kinds of Westerners do exist. I’m just not one of them.
Besides when I speak to my babies, Mandarin is the language in this household. Since it isn’t my first language, I often stumble when trying to make my thoughts, feelings, and values known to my husband and extended family members, especially when the topic is sensitive and emotions catch hold of my tongue. Some of my advocacy with people like my mother-in-law has been around topics I hold dear such as environmentalism, vegetarianism, talking through arguments (rather than sweeping issues aside), bilingualism, air purification (and filtration), donations to charity, food security and organics, feminism, anti-homophobia, even minimalism in the way of possessions and “stuff.”
Many of these ideas are very Western, just like me. They are often dismissed and/or ridiculed, the spotlight falling on my position as the outnumbered in this family—the minority. Nevertheless, I believe that my identity as a Westerner deserves equal footing in our multicultural family unit and I’m willing to battle through Mandarin to get it. I must have space to be myself, especially in my own home. If I assimilate into the Chinese culture and abandon all that I came to be before I arrived here, then I am doing a disservice to my children, not to mention myself.
Furthermore, I don’t have the advantage of a surrounding environment that silently backs me up on all issues. They do. It stands in quiet support of their beliefs while mine are often swept aside by an impatient hand.
So, when I wrote that article about my mother-in-law coming to Canada, it was with a new eye. I was surrounded by my cultural environment (and support) for one brief month. After six long years, I finally had the tables turned. And, thanks to the opportunity of watching her interact with my culture for the first time, I finally saw myself the way they see me in theirs. The result? Increased compassion, not less. As some other readers mentioned, I experienced a new level of empathy. I know for a fact that this is more than my mother-in-law experienced in reverse.
Therefore, in the spirit of compassion, I think it was the absence of any background information about my life that was to blame for the comments that sparked this blog. Ignorance, in the formal meaning of the word: lack of knowledge. Yet, while some may argue that I have to grow a thicker skin, it will never be impervious armour that can deflect misguided arrows of accusation.
Cross-cultural families need to practice mutual respect, most certainly, but we also have to keep in mind that the roads aren’t balanced. It’s different for the one dislocated from their own culture than it is for those still living within theirs. It’s a harder road, even for us WASPs. I would never impose my culture on my husband or extended Chinese family, but I will continue to insist on its visibility in my household, especially for the kids. If I don’t, I run the risk of its devaluation and eventual disappearance. That is something I won’t stand for.
© 2014, Ember Swift. All rights reserved.
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