The Truth about Your Chinese Neighbour

Sep 11, 2010
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Before you dismiss them as cautious, conservative, cliquey folks, read this article and think again.


1. Not just Confucianism

From the previous series of posts (here) you might think that Confucianism is the major contributor to the worldview of Chinese people. However, Confucianism isn't able by itself to explain every aspect of Chinese culture – there are other things as well that contribute to the worldview of the Chinese, and a significant one is the migrant experience.

There are several factors making up the migrant experience. Some are common to all migrants, but some are particular to those who migrated away from China in the 1970s, and from Hong Kong in the 1990s. This group is called the Diaspora (a Greek word meaning “dispersion”). And understanding these factors sheds a lot of light on the culture of Chinese in the Diaspora.


2. Fleeing danger – and conservatism

In the 1960s and 70s many people fled from China to Hong Kong, ahead of the Cultural Revolution. And then when they heard that Hong Kong was returning to China, they again fled to countries like Canada, Australia and the United States. In both cases they perceived a threat to their family's economic and physical well-being, and showed a willingness to go to great lengths in order to protect the economic and physical safety of their family – even going to a country where they have no relatives.

This is why many OBCs (Overseas Born Chinese) seem to us to be conservative and cautious. However, they are not so fearful as to do nothing – instead, they are the ones who are active enough to take drastic steps to protect their family from danger!

On the whole their ABC (Australian Born Chinese) children have never had such an experience themselves. They have grown up in the West, with its relative stability and security – and so are much more willing to try out things their parents think of as being dangerous or risky.


3. Chinatowns – and culture

As thousands of Chinese migrated to cities Sydney, Vancouver or San Francisco, it was natural for them to congregate together. And also for them to set up communities and maintain a culture just like what they knew back home. In an earlier period, this meant Chinatowns – but more significantly, it also meant that the culture of these migrants doesn't change very much.

The culture of Chinese migrants is often much more traditional Chinese than even China is. This is because, while the culture of China continues to develop, the culture of migrants is frozen in time.

The culture of Chinese migrants is often much more traditional Chinese than even China is. This is because, while the culture of China continues to develop, the culture of migrants is frozen in time. They may live in Canada, but they still consider themselves Chinese first and foremost! And so they preserve and live out Chinese culture as they knew it in order to maintain links to their roots and identity and distinctiveness.

Their children don't see why there is this insistence on Chinese culture, because they naturally consider themselves to be Australian, Canadian or American. But their rejection of Chinese culture and values is seen as unnatural by their parents – like a duck deciding to behave like a dog!


4. Hardship – and education

Fleeing from China to Hong Kong meant a great deal of hardship. People had to scrape and save and find money wherever they could find it. Some people succeeded despite such hardships, and were in a position to leave Hong Kong for the West before 1997. However, when they came to the West they found that their qualifications and abilities were not as recognised as they were in Hong Kong. The jobs open to them were not as prestigious or well-paid as back in Hong Kong. However, despite this new hardship they again persevered, to give their family every advantage.

Because of this, anything that could give their family, and especially their children a head-start in life, or a better advantage in the working world, becomes highly prized. It's because of this that education becomes so vitally important – it's the way to get ahead. And so parents want opportunity classes for their children, selective schools, getting a good mark in the HSC, doing subjects over summer to get ahead in uni.

And together with this is the work ethic that strives for excellence and advancement, first in studies, but later the working world as well. Because unless you get ahead of the pack, your family will sink into the mire.

Children don't tend to see what the fuss is all about – because they have grown up in relative luxury in the West, and haven't had to go through hardships themselves. As a result, children who are lazy about their studies and not ambitious in their work are perceived very negatively by parents who have always seen hard work and advancement as the only way ahead!


5. Isolation – and family

“Family” in Hong Kong and China doesn't mean mum, dad and two kids. It means the whole collection of aunties, uncles, grandmas, grandpas and cousins who constantly interact and come over and share things. And so for migrants to leave that and to migrate to the West with their family means massive isolation.

Yes, they are living here in a big house with their “family” – but not family in the sense they knew it as children. And because of that, the family that you do have becomes that much more precious. Family is all that you have! Or at least, they would like their children to share their sense of just how precious family is.

The trouble is, their children don't think like that. They absorb the culture of those around them – where Western parents raise their children to become independent, leave home at a (relatively) early age, and face the consequences of their own decisions. By contrast, their migrant parents seem overly possessive and controlling. And that's because, to them, independence means turning your back on your precious family!

Confucianism influences Chinese culture a lot – but it doesn't account for every aspect of OBC culture! You can see how the migrant experience has shaped and transformed OBC tremendously, and moreover, it also explains many conflicts with their children, who on the whole haven't gone through the same things.


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