Yeh Yeh Wong

Chinese American Cultural Clashes

The Lotus and the Rose


In the 20th Century, Asian immigration to the United States increased dramatically. A wave of immigrants flowed in from various countries, including China, Japan, and Southeast Asia. Many of these immigrants fled their homeland in search of prosperity and the opportunity to pursue their own visions of life; others left to escape economic depression or religious/ethnic persecution.


One of these immigrants was my grandfather Chun Wong (whom I call Yeh Yeh). He was born on February 15, 1921 in a small village in Canton, China. To learn more about him and my family history, I interviewed my father Will Wong on the topic. He was the oldest of nine siblings and was expected to help support the family. His family was buried in a mountain of poverty so he had to work constantly in the fields in order to earn enough money to afford food. At age 15, he discovered an opportunity to pursue a new life in America. After reviewing the recent interview, I realized that many generational conflicts existed between him and his father. Many American-born Chinese children developed views that conflicted with those of their immigrant parents due to inheritance of traditional values, differences in exposure to American culture, and the need to fit in with the rest of American society. Often, these generation clashes resulted in conflicts with their parents as well as identity crises within themselves.

Throughout his life, my father has struggled with living in a strict traditional household while trying to adapt to the American way of life. However, my grandfather persistently tried to instill his old family values in his son. These conflicting ideas and values resulted in a mixture of American and traditional Chinese cultures that I have experienced throughout my life.

Chinese or American

American-born Chinese (abbreviated ABC) often develop values that are contradictory to traditional Chinese values. Chinese values consist of strict discipline, respect for elders, and determination for education.However, American values inspired children to be more expressive, take risks and stand out. When children inherit both Chinese and American values, conflicts can occur between them and their parents and even within themselves.

On August 10, 1962, my father Will Wong became the first generation of our family to be born in America. Since his parents were born in China, he grew up in a household based on traditional Chinese values.Yeh Yeh refused to let him have long hair, always cutting his hair at least 1 inch short. He was expected to pay respect to all elders, even those he did not know and call his parents' friends "auntie or "uncle". Every night, there was no surprise of what was being served: a home-cooked Chinese meal. My father also learned how to speak Cantonese, the Southern dialect of the Chinese language.

Despite all this, my father also felt attached to American values, including freedom and self-expression.He wanted to do what as he pleased, dress according to his tastes, and live a life he wanted to live. This caused him to rebel against some traditional values. On Chinese New Year, it is a tradition to pass out red "lai si" envelopes to friends and family members in order to bring them good luck. However, my father didn't think it was important and refused to do it. One time, he even ran away from home because he was unsatisfied with his life. Of course when he finally returned home, he received the beating of his life. "I didn't feel like living my parents' past."

This rebellion against traditional Chinese values caused more than just conflicts with his father, but also an identity crisis within himself. Was he to be labeled as "Chinese" because of his ancestry or as "American" because of where he was born? The question lingered within his mind for many years, but he later realized that he is both: a Chinese-American. A person of Chinese ancestry living in America should be able to adopt values from both cultures. Throughout his life, my father has struggled to maintain a balance between Chinese values, to please his father, and American values, to please himself.

Cultural Clashes

Living in America in the 20th Century, one is frequently exposed to popular culture. By the year 1972, over half the households in America owned a television set and almost every household owned at least one radio. With this rise in household technology, a child growing up in America experiences American culture even while living in a traditional Asian household.

My father experienced a blend of Chinese and American cultures throughout his life. His house was filled with Asian antiques:old China vases, Buddha statues, opera dolls, and tea plants. However, he also encountered much of American popular culture. He would watch American television shows and fell in love with classic rock music.Unlike his parents, he learned to speak fluent English without any Chinese accent. According to my mother Lynn Kitamata, "… if you talked to him on the phone, you couldn't even tell he was Chinese."

Yeh Yeh, however, was not as exposed to American culture as my father.Since he grew up in China, he experienced mainly Chinese culture throughout his childhood, and continued to cling to it even after moving to America. He enjoyed eating Chinese food and listening to classical Chinese music. Whenever he watched TV, he would always watch Chinese programs. He couldn't even speak decent English. Thusly, he grew less appreciative of American culture as my father grew more attached to it.

Despite their differences Yeh Yeh did allow my father to enjoy American culture to some extent.Although he himself did not enjoy it, he understood how his son felt and wanted him to be happy. He wore blue jeans and t-shirts and could enjoy American pop culture. Surprisingly, he even allowed him rehearse with his rock band, "Poison IV", in their garage. Thanks to my grandfather's tolerance to my father's interests, he was able to live a life embracing Chinese as well as American culture.

The Lotus and the Rose

The need to fit in has always been an issue with children in America. After all, who would want to stick out like a sore thumb in a discriminatory society? Kids may change the way they look and behave in order to be accepted, especially in school. Many abandon old lifestyles and cultures and replace them with more "normal" way of life.

Throughout his life, my father has faced discrimination for being a Chinese boy in a predominantly white community." There were only about four Asian kids in my entire class and I was one of them." Since the Chinese was a minority group, my dad was often teased and called names like "chink" and "Chinaman". He was beaten up countless times on his way home from school because many children viewed Asians as easy targets. Imagine walking home everyday with the fear of getting robbed or breaking a bone. He knew that his heritage was the reason for his suffering and wanted more than anything to fit in.

However, that task was easier said than done. One cannot easily change their physical appearance. He began making friends with some of the white children and learned how to speak English. At school he used slang and tried to act like all the white kids. After a while, he made new friends and the discrimination decreased. However, it still could not be avoided.

Yeh Yeh viewed this conformity as a negative action. Since Chinese were often discriminated against by Americans, he viewed Americans as shameless and retaliated by rejecting American culture. My father feared that Yeh Yeh would think he was immoral for trying to conform, so he never said a word to him about what went on at school and the discrimination he faced. He had to tackle this burden without the help of his father.

In some ways, my dad was like a lotus in a field of roses. Although they are all flowers in some aspect, the lotus is notably different in its appearance.In a field of all roses, the lotus doesn't blend in with the roses and no matter what you do to it, it will always be different. This was somewhat how my father felt. Even though we are all humans, he appears different from all the other children.No matter how hard he tries, he will never completely blend in.

Epilogue

Being a first generation Chinese in America is far from easy.In fact due to the inheritance if traditional values, exposure to American culture, and pressure to conform with American society, many first generation American children developed views different from those of their immigrant parents. These clashing views often resulted in conflicts between parent and child as well as cultural identity crises.

My father has experienced it all: the clashing of values, the need to fit in, and the struggle to find himself. All of these experiences have made him a strong person with a clear sense of cultural identity. Today, he is able to maintain that fragile balance between both cultures and live the life he has always dreamed of.

However, it seems as though he has passed on the burden to me. I am a daughter of both Chinese and Japanese decent. Strangely, I do not speak either of the languages and have never traveled out of the United States. So what am I - Chinese? Japanese? American?After hearing my father's story about his struggle I've come to realize that it doesn't really matter. No matter what culture I identify myself with it doesn't change who I am. I am what I am - no labels necessary.

Bibliography

American Born Chinese. 24 May 2006.

Communications: Radio History. 2 June 2006.

Lee, Jonathan & Siemborsk, Robert. Reasons for Immigration. 30 May 2006.

Moncur, Michael. The Quotations Page. 27 May 2006.

Walsh, Barbara. The Pressure to be Cool. 4 June 2006.

Wattenburg, Ben. The First Measured Century. 2 June 2006.

Wong, William, father.
Interview by Britney Kitamata-Wong, 14 May 2006
South San Francisco. Taped recording.

Last updated: January 19, 2017

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