The Chinese Way
Westerners often view Chinese culture as exotic and mysterious. In reality, the chief differences exist on a moral and cultural level. As the sound of firecrackers and the aroma of fried rice cloud the minds of culturally uninformed outsiders, the striking variances between Chinese and American customs fails to emanate. In fact, these differences are quite apparent if one views the family structure and work ethic of a traditional Chinese family. Like many cultures, money is often an issue. And like those cultures, the Chinese have a distinctive way of handling it. With regard to many aspects of social culture, conservative Chinese values display a striking style unlike any other culture. Family and altruism are the pillars of a traditionally strong household. Whether these values are appropriate or correct in any form is up to the beholder. Just like any other culture, the Chinese can be exceptional in some aspects while completely flopping at others. The Chinese way of doing things may seem alien to some, but to others, it is the only way.
As I walk through my home, I am greeted by the screechy welcome of my aunt. Naturally, she welcomes me home and proclaims how much she has missed me; I proceed to remind her that it has only been a day since I have seen her. My aunt continues to casually interrogate me about school and whatever activities I am involved in. She does not really understand what activities I am involved in, yet she seems to deeply care that I am participating in something mildly important for my future. I continue on my trek from the front door to the kitchen while hauling loads of schoolwork and the smell of exhaustion from an afterschool workout. On the way to the pantry, I stop for a second in front of a series of tall black shelves. The shelves are adorned with photos of my ancestors and crests displaying the family surname, all of which are decorated with flowers, fruits, and an overabundance of red picture frames. My deceased grandmother is captured in one of the photos. She had lived with us for many years while bringing the type of joy only a wise and well-spoken grandmother could. I quickly pay my respects and go on with my day.
I proceed to spend the next few hours at my desk in front of schoolwork as my mother occasionally reappear under the doorframe of my room. These frequent appearances by my mother tend be followed by flamboyant praises of my hard work in school and at home. Of course, she follows up by speaking about the successful future I can have if I simply keep putting in my best effort at school. The flood of rehearsed words continues as she cites the success my brother has come upon by focusing on his education. The cameo by my mother finally ends with supplementary approval of the educational route I am taking as she slinks back to her room. Hard work tends to be a common theme of conversation in the family. When my father comes home from work, he immediately begins by describing all the manpower he had to put in at his auto repair shop. This continues until dinner when both my mother and father share stories of the stress they are going through at their respective workplaces. Once again, hard work is brought up when my parents continue to associate it with the difficulty of their jobs. In this context, the hard work is associated with their ability to bring home money for our family.
Later that night, my mother receives a phone call from my uncle living is Los Angeles. My uncle wants to talk about money. He discusses his plans to open a liquor store (for the 2nd time) with another uncle of mine. Like many of my uncle’s financial endeavors, he tries to include his siblings instead of his close friends. And also like many of his endeavors, it seems that this plan will end horribly. Much to the surprise of my father and I, my mother actually considers loaning the money to the financially unskilled (and extremely unlucky) uncle of mine. Of course, this is not the only family member that has ever asked for a loan from us. In fact, my mother and father have chosen to loan reasonably large amounts of money to seemingly trustworthy family members on numerous occasions. Unsurprisingly, the return rate on such family loans has been very low. At this point, the loans are often given to help needy family members get out of debt rather than to help them begin something that is financially productive. Quite obviously, my father is wary of carelessly throwing away his hard-earned dollars at a negligent human being such as my uncle. I understand that money needs to be held on to tightly, but where does that moral stand when dealing with a family member? My father contemplates this question for another day as his anxieties disappear along with his desire to stay awake for conversation.
The unwritten principles of Chinese culture are written all over the daily lives of my family. To begin, it is highly encouraged for Chinese families to house extended family members. In this case, my aunt permanently lives with my family. It has almost become a requirement for family to help out family in such a way without expecting anything in return. My aunt is not expected to pay for any utilities or rent of any kind. It may seem shocking to not force somebody out of a home they do not own or upkeep in any way, but this housing situation is seen as a way of giving back to family members who are in need of assistance. This state of affairs is not limited to aunts and uncles. In fact, it is most commonly seen with grandparents. Unless the grandparent has an ailment only professionals can deal with, the grandparent stays with their son or daughter’s family until death. My family was the one that housed my grandmother until she died, and it was viewed as an incredibly important position to be put in.
Hard work is another principle stressed by Chinese tradition. Though it is a common value placed on nearly all cultures, the Chinese distinction is that the hard work starts with education and ends with work. Doing well in school is extremely important from a young age and this belief is stressed even more as a child ages. Being the best in the class is important, but working hard on school-related work is the obvious path emphasized by parents. As I work on my homework every night, it is common for my parents to continually emphasize the many benefits of education before I hit the adult stage of my life. However, it is important to remember that the other place of hard work is at the workplace. At that point, the hard work is done with family in mind rather than for self-enrichment (as with hard work in education). Traditionally, few things are more important than work ethic.
Finally, money changes hands preferably through family members. Even with modern banks and financial systems, the first place to go to for monetary assistance is a family member. A family member always attempts to ask a family member for a loan, no matter the amount, before going to a bank as a last resort. This is even if the family member can easily get a loan from the bank. Family is always trusted with money, even blindly at times. Large investments and business startups tend to involve multiple members of the family so the (potential) wealth and success from the investment can be spread amongst everybody.
It is blatantly apparent that the concept of family plays an enormous role in Chinese culture. When my aunt and grandmother began living in our home, we knew it was in everybody’s best interests. When I work hard in school and force myself to sit down and do homework, I am aware that my future career will eventually support my parents as they age. And when my aunt or uncle calls for more help with the bills, I recognize that it is completely necessary to spare what we can to help. It is more beneficial to suffer as a family than to suffer as individuals. Whether it is a housing situation, a reason to work hard, or an issue with money, family is always in the back of the mind.
From the important ties of family comes the need of selflessness. My family hurts every time a loan never gets paid back or when my aunt does not clean up after herself while using our kitchen. Yet, the negatives are outweighed by the positives of being good, dependable family members. There is a lot of pride in being able to provide for many people and the sacrifices are essential when working towards this label of responsibility amongst the members of the family. When it comes down to the bare essentials, Chinese culture is just like any other culture. It emphasizes the importance of family and sacrifice to elevate the family. What ultimately defines Chinese culture are the methods by which these values are achieved. Family and sacrifice are above all else according to Chinese principles.
Housing an undeserving family member can be perceived as foolishly as rewarding loans to wasteful people. Even forcing education on unmotivated children and hard work on adults working unrewarding jobs is fruitless at times. Yet, these seem to be the possible outcomes of the methods the Chinese hold so dearly. None of the methods are set in stone by the practitioners of Chinese culture, but they continue to live on as the common way to do things in average Chinese households. In the rapidly changing world, it would be surprising if all of the methods continue to hold up. These methods are in fact followed blindly at times as clearly displayed by my family. But in the end, nothing will come before holding family as the number one priority and making sacrifices in order to better the family. These standards will always be upheld by orthodox Chinese culture.