Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Do WASP Westerners Deserve Visibility in a Foreign Culture?

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.


Would you?


More Great Stuff You'll Love:

How I Made My Forgotten Native Language My Child’s Strongest

I started off by speaking dodgy Cantonese. No word for remote control? No problem! ‘Pressy thingy.’

Ramadan Star and Moon Craft

A craft recycled from your kid's art work!

Are French Kids Better Behaved Because They are Spanked?

Should spanking be part of your parenting toolkit to have well behaved kids?


Ember Swift is a Canadian living in Beijing who gave birth to her first child in January 2012. She is also a professional musician and writer who has released 11 albums independently, toured internationally and writes for several international publications in addition to keeping three distinct blog series active. Her official website is located at http://www.emberswift.com

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsJenny Hoople   |  Wednesday, 02 April 2014 at 10:37 am

    This is interesting to me, Ember, because I’ve married into a Mexican family and I find myself more often disavowing the cultural stereotypes they have about Americans. (People are generally surprised that I’m not overweight, that I speak Spanish, that I prefer dusty Mexico to the United States, that I’m not sexually promiscuous) Instead of defending my WASPiness I spend a lot of time showing how Mexican I am.

    Though there are many finer points of cultural difference that I have a hard time getting them to understand about me. Like how I have no problem being bubbly and talkative with new male acquaintances. A Mexican woman would more likely avert her eyes and ignore him. 😉 Not me!

    In general, though, they expect and accept that I’m going to seem quirky to them. (What they don’t know is I often seem quirky to Americans, too. 😉

  2. CommentsKim   |  Monday, 07 April 2014 at 10:08 am

    Love this. I had read the other article and comments earlier, and was also horrified. One only needs to read more of your articles and blogs to know you are the furthest thing from a racist with a superiority complex! xo

Get weekly updates right in your inbox so you don't miss out!

A Children's Book for Raising Global Citizens

Every life is a story. It’s easier to understand someone when you know their story.

Why I Travel 13 Hours Alone with My Kids Every Chance I Get

Travelling with children, while definitely more of a mission, contradicts the old saying that “life is about the journey, not the destination.”

A Diverse Book for Preschoolers in Celebration of Multicultural Children's Book Day

A book that honestly and simply celebrates the every day diversity that children experience.

Why My African Feminist Mother Gave Me the Identity of My Father's Tribe

She gave me an identity so different from her own.

2 Children’s Books about Jamaica

Explore Jamaica with your child.

Costa Rica with Kids: Two Weeks of Family Travel

Two weeks of Pura Vida in a country with so much to offer families.

Should I Worry about My Child's Accent in Her Foreign Language?

See why Dr. Gupta takes offense to this question and where children learn accents from

How to raise trilingual kids when exposure to Dad's language is limited

My kids only get 1-2 hours of the minority language per day-help!
[…] in their homes even if the US is an anomaly. Here are two articles on co-sleeping (click here and here) and one “Dear Abby” (click […...
From The West’s Strange Relationship to Babies and Sleep
Hi...I am an Asian who was adopted and raised by Caucasian American missionaries in South America. I have two kids-my daughter is 16 and my son is 11. When I had my first baby I too was indoctrinate...
From The West’s Strange Relationship to Babies and Sleep
This Karina, the Karina from the article. I'm now 13. It took this article was written 3 years ago and barely coming across it right now. I was originally trying to look for my folkloric pictures fo...
From How This Single Working Mom Raised a Trilingual Kid
Nice recipe, thank for shari...
From Vaisakhi Recipe: Sarson Ka Sag
I've been in Germany Ten years now, Lived in Frankfurt and Stuttgart, specifically Leonberg. In Frankfurt I was shocked by how unfriendly the People were, how aggressive their Drivers, but in Leonbe...
From Are Germans Really Rude?
At DreamAfrica, we are a streaming app for animations and films from around the world. We celebrate cultural representation in digital media and invite you to download and share our DreamAfrica appp...
From What We Are Not About
Imagine those people who work at your typical IT Department, yeah those weirdos with low EQ, no manners, no social skills; indeed those who kiss the bosses' ass when it's convenient, but get offend...
From Are Germans Really Rude?
I contacted the editor of this magazine (Stephanie) and she told me she'd inform Jan about this article. I have since changed my mind about going to Germany because of Merkel's policies, and this i...
From Are Germans Really Rude?

More Columns