The rapid growth in Chinese population since World War II has created many social problems in the country. While the growth may have decreased after the one-child policy, the effects of such a swift increase in population has strained Chinese educational opportunities. Due to high competition and unfair test policies, many Chinese adolescents emigrate to America for educational opportunity (Zong). In addition, the free market reforms in 1979 have made China into one of the world’s fastest growing economies. This has led the majority of modern Chinese immigrants to be predominantly skilled. As these individuals assimilate into a predominantly white middle class society, they will be forced to adapt to a new culture in order to achieve social and economic success. In this essay, I will examine how Chinese values, family structure, behavior, and religion affect the assimilation of immigrants as they attempt to adopt American social, cultural, and ideological norms. I will also draw from the experience of a family member who immigrated from China to give a personal view on what struggles she felt most detrimental in her attempts to assimilate in American society.
Due to the differences in culture, many Chinese immigrants have trouble holding on to Chinese values when they see that their old way of life is not common in American society. Eastern culture and values are based on Confucian values, with a strong focus on social cohesion and familial relations (Li 2001). In contrast, Americans place a strong value on independence and free will. One of the strongest differences between immigrant Chinese families and American families can be seen in their child-rearing practices. Confucius beliefs emphasizes that elders are to be respected for their wisdom, therefore Chinese parents are usually more controlling than their American counterparts. The foundation of American lifestyle is the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. This is often reflected upon American parenting practices, where the happiness of the child is put before their educational or economic success. This directly counters the Chinese belief that the good of the family comes first and because of this educational and economic success is the priority. Another new challenge that many immigrants face is a lack of a strong community. While Chinese immigrants in the past often lived ethnic enclaves, many more wealthy immigrants have chosen to live in more diverse neighborhoods. In Chinese culture, ethical principles are shared in a community, and an upstanding family name is often one way to attain social status. In America and especially in affluent neighborhoods, there often is little to no interaction between neighbors, so moral character can only be enforced by the parents. Because America does not follow the same shame/honor ideology or moral values as the Chinese, Chinese immigrant children often rebel in order to fit in with their peers(Lin). Without a community in the United States, studies show that Chinese Americans often turn to organizations, such as churches, in order to fulfill their sense of belonging and to surround their children with like minded individuals.(Xia 2013). By creating new ties with others from their home country while still living in America, immigrants become bicultural, integrating their old beliefs with their new American ones. However, many anthropologists believe that similar traits may be valued in all cultures. Kagitcibasi reinforces this idea in his paper on Chinese immigrant autonomy. Chinese culture expects youth to be able to make responsible decisions at a young age, while the immigrant lifestyle forces many youth to balance their social and family lives (Kagitcibasi 2005) .
As Chinese families immigrate to the United States, the traditional familial roles held in Asia become less defined. In Chinese families, the father took the disciplinary role while the mother focused on fostering a relationship with the children (Chao and Tseng 2002). However, because children and adolescents learn English faster than parents, they are often forced to make important decisions about finance and health that early in their childhood. Because both parents often work, the older siblings would take the place of the father in disciplining the younger siblings and teaching them life skills . However, not only do the roles of family change, but also the behavior of the children. Due to peer pressure present at early ages, many Chinese students will adopt American values and goals that conflict with their parents’ goals for their children (Xia 2013). All these changes to the normal Chinese family dynamics can cause stress on the family as they adjust to the American way of life.
The Chinese idea of identity varies greatly from its American counterpart as Chinese identity is strongly rooted in one’s relationship with others. The Chinese attempt to see how they integrate into society as a whole while Americans attempt to see how they are unique from others. Because of this, Chinese people have a strong sense of honor and shame which is often a strong psychological factor in their behavior and decision making. The Chinese language has three words for the concept of shame, each with its own meaning. In his journal on Chinese shame and guilt, Bedford explains one Chinese word for shame, diu lian, is shame directly tied to society’s opinion of an individual. However, because different ideals are present in each culture, what one culture considers shameful the other may consider desired. Take for example the idea of just rebellion, which was how America was started and continues to be a desired quality for many Americans. This shift in what is considered socially desirable and a limited way to express one’s shameful feelings (one word instead of three unique ones) causes many immigrants who adjust to the American culture, especially those traveling alone, to unconsciously lose many aspects of their traditional shame and morality. As they learn from others around them, they will be less responsible to others and start thinking morality comes from the individual. However, many first generation immigrants are unable to give up their beliefs, and will choose to remain in the Chinese community instead (Bedford).
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Oftentimes, the assimilation of one group into a new host group is considered a social transition. However, many behavioral and psychological changes also accompany this social change that many occur unconsciously in the mind of the immigrants. One such change in the interpretation of body language and emotions. For example, in Chinese culture it is considered ill mannered for women to smile or show discontentment. On the other hand, American culture often focuses on the liberation of women from a patriarchal society and promotes individualism. Many of these traditional behaviors can be misinterpreted by Americans, and lead to stereotypes such as the shy Chinese women. On the other hand, many Chinese immigrants will find outgoing Americans to be rude or obnoxious (Stanley). Non verbal expressions seem to be a very strong factor in recognizing whether an Asian immigrant has assimilated to American society. While many immigrants speak English and adopt the American dress and etiquette, behavioral changes often come slowly. In his study on Asian assimilation, Fong shows that as Asian immigrants begin to identify more with their host country and less with home country, they “perceive the social gestures of others as Americans do.” While Chinese women are stereotyped as shy, many Chinese men are considered “inscrutable” and often come off as unfriendly to Americans. Although this is a courtesy in China, these different interpretations of emotional interpretation can lead to a sense of isolation between the Asian American and Chinese immigrant communities due to the difference in behavior from those who have already adapted to these behavior and those who follow traditional Chinese behaviors. This gives Chinese immigrants a great disadvantage in their professional career and social lives when they are unable to read the atmosphere of a room and act accordingly.
When Chinese immigrants move to America, they are often conflicted by their new identity. A bicultural identity is a very important factor in the assimilation of Chinese immigrants. Some Chinese families who come to America choose to live in Chinatowns, where they have no influence from American culture. This group of Chinese immigrants are known as the separated group, who usually are split into two camps: those who are confused about American culture and those who put no effort into assimilating into American culture. One of the strongest reasons that Chinese immigrants refuse to join American culture are the differences in religious beliefs. Although China is politically atheist, eighty percent follow some form of religious tradition. The two most popular religions in China are Buddhism and Taoism. Buddhism teaches that suffering is an essential part of life, and the law of cause and effect. It is believed that all unfortunate events are just justice for previous actions. Similarly, Taoism teaches that the idea of “yin-yang ”, where the positive and negative aspects of a person’s life must be balanced. These teachings create problems for immigrating individuals, who often refuse to seek help from those around them because their pain or struggle to adjust to American society is thought to be suffered through silently. Taoism teaches that health is based on a balance in life, and often these traditional beliefs prevent immigrants from finding the psychological help they need from professionals as they seek to become socially accepted within their community(Chan).
Although Chinese behavior, ideology, religion and identity may differ greatly, the greatest struggle that Chinese immigrants face when they come to America are the language barrier and differences in mannerism. Because immigrants lack cultural intelligence, they often act out the negative stereotypes attributed to them by the American public. The language barrier affects every part of Chinese immigrants daily life and prevents them from being able to learn the new ideologies and cultural norms of their new host country. In order to better explore the effects of such a language barrier, I bring in the experience of a family member, Mei. She immigrated from China alone in her early twenties and went to Santa Monica community college. She explains, “While I was still learning English, I had problems expressing myself and often felt ignored by others. I was frustrated with myself when I could not do simple tasks like eat at a restaurant.” Her inability to speak English also prevented her from making any close American friends her first year of college because she did not feel confident enough to approach anyone. The few times she did speak with her classmates, she was unable to interpret English idioms and subtleties and couldn’t tell if people were making an innocent joke or mocking her. Even within the Chinese community, she explains “I was unable to assimilate even with Asian Americans because their humor and dialects were different than mine.” The Americanization of Chinese Americans that grew up in the United States led many to look down on her as different from themselves. Because of the language barrier, many Chinese immigrants are unable to learn one of the most important aspects of American socialization: customs, habits and etiquette. “In China, we are not taught to cover our mouths when we cough, or to eat with our mouths closed.” Similar to how Chinese immigrants will interpret behavior differently than Americans, Chinese manners are often the opposite of what is acceptable in America. Take the idea of chewing loudly, which although often signifies that food tastes good in China, comes off as distasteful in America. Mei adds, “Although many Chinese immigrants may be culturally ignorant, due to the economic growth many wealthy immigrants are so proud of themselves they refuse to conform to etiquette.” China’s class system is strongly based on economic status more so than America’s, but while the wealthy in America are seen as the gold standard for what is good etiquette, the rich in China believe they are above shame and reproach. Because of this, it is often the case that all Chinese immigrants come off as rude regardless of economic status. Oftentimes, these manners are ingrained into the immigrant minds they don’t even notice anything. Mei describes it as such: “Sometimes I get rude looks from people who I pass on the street and I don’t even realize what I did wrong.” Although a part of a diverse culture, Americans still have trouble understanding the differences between cultures and often cause immigrants to feel unwelcome in this country.
As more and more Chinese immigrate to the United States for employment and education, it is important to understand that Chinese immigrants are different, and oftentimes American presumptions about Chinese immigrants can do a disservice to their ability to assimilate. Because of the many challenges Chinese immigrants face as they learn to change their lifestyle, language, and way of thinking, they often feel left out from their host country and lack the convictions to stand up for themselves and seek help. Many Chinese immigrants find themselves struggling to adapt to a new community dynamic and meeting peers with such different ideologies and religions. Although Chinese are only two percent of the national population, they are the majority minority on the West coast and thus have a strong influence on the multicultural diversity of American lifestyle. Because of their often seemingly contradictory beliefs, it is important to understand the struggles they face and find ways to be accommodating to their unique culture in order to create a multiethnic society.