TitleDecember 2004

Florence Kwo: Embracing Cultural Roots

Steamed chicken feet. Bottled tiger organs. Pearl milk tea. As a young girl growing up in a large Chinese community, I have always felt a sense of belonging. It was never uncommon to smell the pungent stench of raw fish in the markets, to hear the jabbering of ladies speaking in Cantonese or to see gray-haired men playing Mah-jong.

Compared with other Asian adults, my first experiences in America were a breeze. Faced with the difficult challenge of fitting in and changing their language, dress and attitudes, many Asians abandoned their dreams in the "land of opportunity" and left, returning home.

My parents were lucky enough to survive the initial trials and raised a family. Despite losing a few traditions during the transition, my parents have always retained the most integral values of the Chinese culture. And although I struggled for years to identify myself as "American," I have learned to accept and even embrace my Asian heritage.

Like other first generation Chinese-American children, my parents dragged me out of bed to attend Saturday Chinese school. Not only did I sacrifice my early morning Superman episode, but I also had to complete grueling Chinese homework! My father used to say, "You know, you might not understand now, but when you grow up, you will thank me for teaching you Chinese." And he was right. Learning Chinese was a priceless gift from my father and has bridged the gap between the two cultures in my life, giving me a deeper appreciation for my Chinese heritage.

When I was a little girl, my father used to tell stories about the value of filial piety. Unheard of to most Americans, filial piety involves a child's responsibility to respect elders, especially parents. This respect is symbolized in the Chinese story about a young boy who warms the bed for his mother by first sleeping in it.

Unlike obedience and conformity, which is taught in Chinese culture, American culture emphasizes the importance of individualism and freedom of speech, often allowing children to have equal rights in the family hierarchy. Chinese tradition, however, emphasizes parental dominance over children.

Growing up, I struggled with the concept of filial piety, torn between the different American and Chinese values. But I have chosen to honor this traditional value. As my parents' daughter, I owe them more than I can comprehend. And although China may be thousands of miles away, my way of repaying them is to live by the ideal of filial piety, honoring my parents in every way I can.

What will happen to the heritage of our ancestors if we continue to ignore the different cultures that comprise America? Although learning Chinese has not always been easy for me, I am sure that the difficulty of preserving the Chinese heritage will only increase in the generations to come. I am worried that my grandchildren will not be able to speak a word of Chinese and have no understanding of their heritage. But I am determined to teach my children all about Chinese culture, giving them an opportunity to appreciate it and possibly teach others. And if it comes down to it, I too will drag my kids out of bed to attend Saturday Chinese school.

In the search for my own identity, I have discovered the importance of culture. While living in America, people lose sight of their own culture's traditions, language and values. But "American" is not the style, attitude or dress that characterizes the people of this nation. Rather, it is the product of countless cultures and traditions integrated into our everyday lives. We should never lose sight of that.

Florence Kwo is a senior at Lowell High School.