Monday, March 10, 2008

A Culture of Facades?

After watching several of the movies for the class this semester, I've realized that one of the strange phenomenons I felt growing up in a traditional Asian (well, Chinese, but I'm going to make some leaps based on the comments of people who I just asked about this) household, is not an anomaly. The phenomenon I refer to is the mystery of the open secret, that tacit piece of information that everyone knows, but that nobody else is sure someone else knows, and everyone is too ashamed or afraid to talk about it. In the Wedding Banquet, it was Wai Tung's homosexuality, but from my own experiences with the people I grew up with, many things can end up as these sort of unmentionable but acknowledged secrets. Whenever issues that defy tradition or regular social convention, I always feel like instead of dealing with it, it is more likely to be ignored in the culture that I grew up in, especially sexual issues, but also not limited to them as well. For Wai, his homosexuality is something that, as we find out, everyone knows about, but not everyone knows that the other people know. Ultimately, at the end, I got the feeling that everyone had a sense of what was happening, but again, it could not be voiced out loud. For example, in my family, there are people on my father's side of the family that cannot stand people on my mother's side and vice versa, but we continue to gather for festivals and holidays every year, exchanging forced smiles and faked conversations. There's something about Asian cultures and values that make the people of those cultures almost less willing to accept change. That of course, is a generalization, but it also explains why one of the stereotypes about Asian Americans is that they cannot integrate into American society.

Ultimately, what I'm getting at with the point about secrets is that it's actually a big part of being Asian American sometimes, especially when cultures clash. Remaining connected or at least seeming connected to one's roots as an Asian when one is not in Asia is as much about following substantive traditions as it is about keeping up a strong image that tradition is being followed. As a result, I think a lot of families, especially ones who try to keep up tradition, have difficulty accepting ideas that are more open to dialogue in the west, such as issues of gender and sexuality. Even issues such as divorce or even career choice can be awkward if there is a generational gap in understanding. Instead, they are often ignored, with active ignorance taking its place. I felt while watching the movie, that my parents would act really similarly to Wai's parents when they found out he was gay. While they might accept or are forced to accept it on some level, outwardly they both act like it's not true. I feel that the parents are only able to accept the fact that their son is gay because they still ultimately get what they wanted from Wai (though not exactly how they envisioned it would happen): a daughter in law for the mother, and a grandchild for the father. Even at the end of the movie, it is an awkward detente of tacit understandings that hold the family together, not a real understanding and acceptance of one another. Wai never gets to formally tell his father that he is gay, while the mother only halfheartedly accepts it. His mother accepts Wei Wei as a daughter in law, but essentially cannot acknowledge Simon. Wai's father acknowledges Simon, but only sees Wei Wei as the mother of his grandchild and nothing more. Simon and Wei Wei must feel awkward, as strange players in the life of a gay man who cannot quite reconcile his culture and his sexuality. These are issues that were, and continue to be ambiguous today, leaving secrets as the only certainty.

2 comments:

Patrick Strotman said...

I think this is a very interesting point. Asians do hold strong to values and traditions. However, at the same time, they are the minority (compared to African Americans or Hispanics) most eager to assimilate, act white, and appease the majority. For example, among blacks, 'acting white' is socially stigmatized, but Asians who 'act white' are usually equated to being higher on the social heirarachy and have prestigous positions. This is partially why we are labeled the model minority and are the blueprint for capturing the American Dream. I am unsure how to reconcile these two facts, but once again, it is interesting to think about...

Hudson Leung said...

I think you're right that Asians can be the minority that is most eager to "act white" to assimilate, but I also think its a really mixed bag for several reasons. One, some Asian Americans who have a very strong connection to Asia don't necessarily feel the need to assimilate (first or generation immigrants and their children perhaps), and may even actively fight against it. Two, there are those who know nothing but "white culture," especially if they are of later generations of Asian Americans. Finally, I also think its problematic in itself that people think that they have to act white to be considered American, or that they think they have to compromise their values and traditions to be truly American. Personally, I don't even know what it means to act "white" because I don't even truly know what it means to act Asian, or even Asian American necessarily. It's unfortunate that Asians themselves equate the success of Asians to their level of whiteness, because it is generalizations like that which create the very stereotypes we don't want to hold us back. In the end, I just hope that one day, Asian Americans can stop hiding behind facades and stereotypes, and be themselves.