A friend came over for dinner this week. She watched us as we ate. We corrected our children’s behavior at the table — encouraging them to finish the food they had been served, to stop interrupting conversations, to keep the chewed food in their mouths, etc. She was amazed at the way we train our four-year-old to have manors at the dinner table.
“Chinese parents never do that. If my niece doesn’t want to eat, she gets up from the table to go play. Her mother chases her with a spoon, and feeds her,” she said. She had never been to a foreigner’s home, or seen foreign parents interact with their children. “I really like what you do,” she told us. “Chinese parents spoil their children.”
But if you ever walk into a classroom of Chinese students, even kindergarten students, as a teacher, you might be astonished with the respect you receive, and with their behavior. They are obedient, helpful and quiet, for the most part. (Friends who teach in expensive private schools say their students are not well-behaved at all, so I speak from my experience only.) Also, children treat their parents with extraordinary respect. Parents choose majors for college students, have power over the choices young people make about romantic partners, and often determine where and how their children’s children are raised. Filial piety is extraordinarily powerful here. How does that work if their young children are not trained with basic obedience at the dinner table? Well, there lies a contradiction and a mystery. It is one I want to unravel, because I think the West is missing something important here. There is great power in humility, respect and obedience, qualities which are seriously lacking in Western society. But how do they instill them?
A friend recently sent me something that had been translated from Chinese about filial piety. It said that a person who truly demonstrated filial piety would be willing to eat his father’s dung. This is such a great example of missing the deeper meanings that lie hidden in Chinese culture. Westerners might see something like that and be shocked and appalled. But that is because we are often not willing to take any crap from our parents. I think it is an expression, that dung-eating bit. People take all kinds of crap from their parents in China. They don’t like it, they wish it wasn’t so, but they still do it, by virtue of the parent-child relationship. “They are my parents. Mei banfa,” they say. There’s nothing to do, they say.
China has so many apparent contradictions. Last night, as my husband and I walked after dinner, we passed a square where couples were ball-room dancing to techno music. We stopped to watch them spin and waltz and glide across the pavement. Several women pairs danced together, absent a male partner. Normal enough. Then we saw two men doing the same thing. The two groups could not swap male for female partners probably because they didn’t know each other, and that wouldn’t be appropriate. And I am absolutely certain that none of the same-sex couples were homosexual (at least openly) because there is almost nothing more unacceptable in Chinese society. It is a very morally conservative culture. Young people would never admit to their parents that they have a boyfriend or girlfriend in high school, and rarely are willing to share such information, even in college. Sex before marriage is not even considered a topic of conversation between same-sex friends, much less between boyfriend and girlfriend. But does that mean it’s not happening? Of course not. Not only that, prostitution is expected at hair salons and karaoke joints as much as it is at massage parlors.
These contradictions are everywhere. The rampant corruption contrasted with the pure-hearted curiosity of most people; the lack of courtesy (pushing, spitting, ignoring) contrasted with the extraordinary courtesy and helpfulness students show to their teachers. Friends are willing to stay at the hospital, even sleep on the floor, to help nurse a friend back to health. But people will ignore a child that has been hit by a car lying on the road. (My students tell me most people ignore other people’s troubles out of fear of blame.) I think the largest lessons we can learn are in these apparent contradictions. We judge with our Western eyes, but only because we don’t see the whole story.
I am reminded of the Grand Canyon. When I was there this summer, the overwhelming sensation was that there was no way to even begin to capture the place. If you want to learn anything from the place, you simply have to take time to sit at its edge, hike into its depths, and be there for more than an afternoon. And even after all the time you spend there, you can’t say a word or paint a picture that gets it.
China is like that. It is achingly beautiful and maddening and…I start to try to describe it and I am overwhelmed by that same sensation. There are so many layers, each one shaped by such a distinct history. To even begin to approach understanding, one has to appreciate the forces that created it. And though I may never be able to describe it completely, or even understand it, I am learning so much from the attempt.
What creates in you that sensation of awe? What have you learned from it?