It started with trees. Family trees, to be specific.
I was talking with my Freshmen about how, in America, families are so disparate that family records are kept in various ways, most commonly on Family Trees. See, in America, the nuclear family – Mom, Dad, siblings – does not necessarily live around their extended family – cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. Sometimes, people do not know their extended family. We have family reunions to get everyone, or at least everyone who can attend, in one place for one weekend a year or every few years.
Some families never have reunions. My family is such a one: my children barely know a quarter of their cousins, let alone any of their aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews. They have only met their paternal grandparents a handful of times, and their maternal grandfather three times. They have never met my mother.
I contend that heritage is critically important. Not just for practical reasons like medical history or vital statistics, but also for a sense of continuity and belonging. I have learned the hard way how important it is to have such feelings; they anchor one into society and give one a sense of stability and equality among their peers.
I grew up without family. I was not an orphan, but my mother specialized in keeping my sibs and me far away from extended family. Thus I did not know I had a wealth of relatives in France, and I barely knew any of my relatives in America. It took me years as an adult to find and meet everyone. Well, not quite everyone, but at least now I know I have a wealth of family on both sides of the ocean.
In China, there is no such thing as a distinction between nuclear and extended family. EVERYONE is family: grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins… everyone is simply called family. There is no need for reunions here because everyone gets together every year, several times per year. There is no need for family trees because family tradition and history is orally passed down from generation to generation. At Spring Festival, Qing Ming, National Holidays and weddings, the whole family tells stories, and sometimes legends of their ancestors.
No wonder I was met with glazed eyes and blank stares when I introduced the concept of family trees! It seems the idea that family would not be together is inconceivable to the Chinese.
But, as I pointed out to these kids, when they graduate they may or may not return home. As with so many other things in China, the trend is now for families to break up. Grown children are moving permanently away from the villages and to the cities where they can make money. Some do not go home at all anymore. They marry someone they met in the City and make their life in the concrete jungles. Oral traditions are fading. In just a few years, the Chinese will also need to have family reunions and record family ties on trees.
For this discussion, I started by showing the class some pictures of my kids and grandkids. I then moved on to the concept of nuclear versus extended family, after which I talked about family trees. I showed the kids examples of family trees, downloaded from the Web. Finally I launched into my ‘As I understand Chinese culture…’ segment.
When making cultural comparisons for my students, I preface my statements with ‘As I understand Chinese culture…’, and usually I am right when I bring up Chinese cultural tidbits. I do my research before I stand in front of my students and tell them about their culture; I’d be a fool not to. However, this time, it seems I was wrong! Some families do keep written records; they are called family books, or scrolls.
Both Mandy and Yolanda averred that their family does maintain a family book. Their fathers currently have custody of it and it is in fact a revered family document, going back centuries. However, neither Yolanda nor Mandy are listed in the books of their respective families. They will be, once they marry. Correction: they will not be; their husbands will be.
WAIT A MINUTE! By social decree you are your parents’ only child, yet you are NOT listed in the family book?
That is right, they affirmed. Once they marry, their husbands will be listed in the family book. Their name will never be entered into this document. Further, if they give birth to a baby girl, their daughter will also not have a place in the family book.
My mind was effectively blown. I have long known that this is a patriarchal society and I have long known that sons are revered and daughters are tolerated, at best. A necessary evil, needed primarily to propagate the species. But to not record a daughter’s existence in the family annals, when that girl-child is the only child a couple is legally allowed to produce?
I simply could not get my mind around it. I asked Mandy and Yolanda what their feelings are about that. They both said that they accept and understand tradition, and that it does not matter to them that their name is not recorded because they know that their parents love them as much as they would love a son. I was still spluttering in outrage, trying to comprehend how such inequity could be considered tolerable.
I literally had to stop, get up and pace around in order to accept this blatant gender discrimination. As Mandy and Yolanda continued to expound on how their family scrolls record the lives of their family, I was forced to put my own views and feelings aside and look at the issue from their perspective. THEY were the victims of discrimination, not I. THEIR names will never be recorded for posterity. THEY accept the situation… why can’t I?
I have a finely attuned sense of discrimination. When I see an instance of such, especially as blatant as this one, my hackles rise and I am ready to fight for equality… or incite the victims of such perceived inequity to do so.
And that is the problem. I perceived the situation as inequitable, but they are perfectly accepting of such. I was outraged and wanted to transfer my outrage to them, so that they can fight to change tradition and become legitimally recorded members of their family. It took me a few minutes of pacing and reasoning to accept that this is not my fight. It took me a few minutes to step outside of myself and see things from their perspective.
Their perspective is so healthy. They don’t care if their name is recorded for posterity: they know they exist, and they know they are loved. It does not matter to them that tradition denies their existence and forbids the recording of such; their parents will never forget their beloved daughter. And, years from now, when the family scroll is examined and their husbands’ names come up, Yolanda and Mandy will be remembered as the one who brought those men into the family. How balanced and healthy!
I commended them for their outlook. Mandy and Yolanda are stronger women than I am. I would never accept such disparity. I would never develop such a healthy view of the situation because I would be consumed with outrage and jealousy. I would put all of my effort into changing things to the way I believe they should be, and if things did not change, I would walk away. And then, I would truly be an outcast: not recorded in the family scroll and not remembered favorably, if at all. It seems, my students taught me more than just Chinese culture that day.
To finish the lesson, we created a family tree in class. Everybody got to put their name on the tree, especially the girls. They really enjoyed being legitimized, if only in class.
Who knows: maybe this tradition will change one day, and Chinese families will see baby girls recorded on family scrolls with the same esteem that baby boys are recorded. Or, maybe not. Maybe this is one thing that will never change.