The Good Lord knew what He was doing when He ordained that I should marry an American man, because I would’ve been a terrible Chinese daughter-in-law. First of all, the submission to your husband thing? I’m an egalitarian, you see, and demanding equal status in an inherently hierarchical (and patriarchal) society makes me rather undesirable in terms of daughter-in-law material. Secondly, there are all sorts of responsibilities toward one’s husband’s family, from the expectation to live with them to at least spending regular weekends at their place, deferring to their opinions and advice on child-rearing, and being responsible for the dishes during holiday feasts. It would look really, really bad if I sent their son in to do the dishes, which is presently my dear husband’s daily job.
I suppose I would have learned to do what was required had I fallen in love with a Chinese man, but mostly I am thankful I didn’t, because it all sounds very stressful. However, although I escaped the fate of becoming a Chinese daughter-in-law, I am still a Chinese daughter. When I run into my parent’s friends, I mentally check off a list of Proper-Ways-to-Behave: nod ever so slightly in deference, smile but not too widely, greet them with the correct title assigned according to their age in relation to my parents, then stay quiet. Which, in correlation with the submission part, is usually my biggest challenge.
Taking up space in both Western and Eastern culture, I have learned to switch gears and shape shift according to the context I am in. I used to feel two-faced, like a hypocrite. I was ashamed of acting one way with my American friends and another with my Chinese family. But any effort to maintain consistency of ethics soon proved to be untenable.
The deeply prized values of the two cultures are often in direct contradiction with the other.
I couldn’t stake my identity both as an individual AND root it in the community of my family, ancestors, and group.
I couldn’t speak directly and clearly, a highly prized skill in the west, and learn the art of subtle acts of indirect communication, reading in between the lines and facial ticks, as the Asians do with finesse.
I couldn’t respect both the youth and the elderly, when my American side loves the former and my Chinese side valued the latter.
Well, I could, but not at the same time.
As you might imagine, being a Christian, a person of faith, brought further complications into my paradoxical dilemmas. What did it mean to be a faithful Christian as a Chinese woman or as an enculturated American?
It used to frustrate me, the complexity of my identity and the fusion of my faith into such complexity. But I am slowly beginning to see that the skills I have been forced to learn; this constant discernment of context and nuance, this appropriating ethics in accordance to culture, this perpetual exchange of impact between faith and environment, is a task in which all of us followers of Christ have been entrusted.
Please don’t be comforted by the fact that you may live in a mono-cultural place. The only difference between you and I is that I wear my complexities blatantly. The stark contrast between my dark hair and eyes next to my husband’s pale skin bring to surface my need for cross cultural engagement.
However, all of us are in fact constantly rubbing shoulders with those living in different cultures, whether it’s family culture, school culture, minority culture, dominant culture; if you peer ever so slightly beneath the surface of our lives, you will find deep complexity that necessitates our need to reach beyond our own worldview. And this complexity is ever increasing as our global world continue to shrink.
Listen, we do not need to fear a complicated faith.
If I were to try to apply universal ‘Christian’ principles to my cross cultural living, in an attempt to simplify my faith, insisting God appears to me via only one kind of image, I would be forced to erase the dynamic cultures into which I was born and raised, doing injustice to both cultures.
A complex faith compels us to invest in the hard work of learning before doing, thinking before acting, listening before judging.
A complex faith requires us to dissect each layer of the whys beneath all that we do in order to discern how to be most faithful in each particular situation.
A complex faith keeps us humble, so that we move forward not with arrogant certitude, but with thoughtful conviction.
A complex faith reminds us we see merely through a glass darkly, and move through complexity only by faith.
I want to honor both of my cultures, and I want to walk through this life embracing both and doing it as a Christian person. This is my commitment and calling. If this means things get complicated? So be it, because I refuse to sacrifice the rich beauty from my two cultures on the altar of simplicity.