July 16, 2012

Continuing the conversation on false assumptions of Chinese displays of affection, Kimberly asked this question:  “Is criticism from Chinese mothers a display of genuine love?”

This is a loaded question mainly because we move into the territory of defining what “love” is, which differs widely even within America’s own culture.  Needless to say, trying to digest all the various ways Chinese define love will be outside the scope of this blog.  However, I think I understand where the question comes from. I’m sure the perception of the harsh and more poignantly, constant, criticism of parents toward children is hard to watch for Americans who care for these families. Let me just offer some food for thought which hopefully helps shed some light on the spirit behind which the criticism is extended.

My first baby was born in the States.  As I stepped into that life stage in American culture, I was naturally exposed to the ways American parents interacted in their society.  The first time I heard an American Mom brag about how cute their baby is to their friends, I was shocked. A traditional Chinese value (I am aware times are changing quickly and generalizations are what they are, so I do stress this is as a historically traditional Chinese value) is humility. Bragging on yourselves is not virtuous.  Even when others compliment you, you are to disagree vehemently and reject any compliments to exhibit your humble stature.  Imagine a society where your identity is wrapped up with your family’s identity (unlike American individualism, where each individual’s identity stands on their own), bragging on your children is equivalent to uplifting your own self. This causes great confusion to Westerners who may want to show kindness by complimenting a friend’s child, only to have them respond, “What? My daughter is not beautiful, she’s fat and her eyes are too small.” Before you judge them to be super critical of their own child, trust me when I say inside the parent is swelling with pride at your compliment.

As the child grows and the criticisms continue, the American struggles to see beyond the pure horror of a grown adult being chastised severely by their elderly parent.  Again, I’d like to remind the American how much the family’s identity is wrapped up in each other, so what appears to be relentless criticism toward the child is often self criticism or constant reminder to the child their behavior represents their whole family.  The stake is high: get those high scores, find a better job, get in relationships with the right people, our family’s honor depends on it.

Americans will also be surprised the adult child allow themselves to receive the criticism without putting up a fight.  This is because the concept of hierarchy is so much more pronounced in Chinese culture compared to the West. Age is a powerful status in Chinese culture. The one person who has more power than the all-revered Chinese emperor is the emperor’s mother, the elder of the emperor (Think the infamous Qing Dynasty Empress Dowager, Ci Xi). As soon as your baby brother is born, the older sister has clout at 2 years old.  Jie Jie gets to tell Di Di what to do and get away with it.  Speaking back to an elder is a sign of grave disrespect, so no matter how ugly the criticisms can get from an elder, you’ll seldom see push back.  It may seem unjust but keep in mind the child grows and one day becomes an elder with the rights to criticize.  What goes around comes around.

One more thing I’d like to mention is the difference between obligations to each other.  In American society, parents relinquish most of the obligations as their child goes off to college.  Chinese families are committed to being intimately involved for life.  So American kids would typically not put up with their parents’ criticisms, especially after they’ve become adults, but they also don’t expect their parents to be obligated to them for financial support or to help raise their kids. The criticism Americans hear is only one part of an implicit mutual agreement: I will do and sacrifice everything I have for you for the rest of your life and this gives me a right to continue to input into your life.

Thus far, I’ve tried to refrain from making value judgments.  Not right, not wrong, just different.  This is a personal topic for me to tackle because I have my own Christian convictions as well as Western influences (not to mention a bit of a badass personality) which makes it VERY difficult for me to handle criticism from my elders. I especially believe as a follower of Jesus, I am responsible to fight against the injustice of a patriarchal society and stand up for my own value as a Chinese woman, rejecting harmful words for myself, for my daughter, and for all the beautiful girls of this culture. However, outsiders to this culture must be hesitant to judge before listening and understanding the vast commitments Chinese families have towards each other.