Written by Kevin Chen.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.
“Kevin, zhù rén wéi lè.” Delight in helping others.
“Kevin, you should always quán lì yǐ fù.” Always be fully committed.
“Kevin, tòng gǎi qián fēi.” Seek to improve your character.
My family taught me Chinese idioms at an early age. These phrases were conventional wisdoms passed on through Chinese history and served as mottos to guide children through the stages of life. While their deeper meanings were lost upon my naivety, my parents nonetheless insisted that I remember them. As a result, I grew up guided by this traditional wisdom.
When I arrived at middle school, I encountered a new set of mottos. Etched on the front of my library, the phrases “Today’s Readers – Tomorrow’s Leaders” and “Reading is Power” deeply resonated with me. I took them to heart and soon discovered my love for the American classics; no book escaped my clutches as I diligently worked my way down the library’s aisles. I adopted reading, not to pass away the slow days and rainy nights, but to discover the wisdom tucked away in the folds of canonical literature.
Within Walden, I marveled at Henry David Thoreau’s passion to discover self-reliance and peace through the “savage delight” of the wilderness. Within Anthem, I learned about the dangers of collectivism and applauded the merits of individualism. And within The Things They Carried, I admired through the eyes of Tim O’Brien the bravery that our soldiers in Vietnam exhibited during moments of pure physical and psychological terror. This exhilarating journey through the timeline of American literature gave me an enlightened understanding of what it meant to be an American, and gradually the maxims that my parents taught me vanished. I had traded my Chinese heritage for my American upbringing.
My appreciation for the American culture that I adopted was finally challenged when I read Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club in the eleventh grade. The novel follows the lifelong struggle of four pairs of mothers and daughters who attempt to reconcile their clashing Chinese and American values. Of the four daughters, the character whose conflict I resonated best with was June Woo. In the beginning, June’s rebellious nature and American upbringing caused discord between her and her mother. Just like me, June was absorbed by the American lifestyle, and had completely cast aside her Chinese cultural roots. However, upon receiving her “life’s importance” jade pendant from her mother and through a shocking discovery of her half-twins in China, June discovered how influential Chinese culture actually was in her life. Readopting her Chinese name as Jing-mei, she ultimately bridged the generation gap between her and her mother and understood the importance of living with “American circumstances and Chinese character.” June’s revelation evoked my own awakening, as those dusty Chinese idioms I had once so admired came rushing back. I once again looked upon them with new, wiser eyes.
The Joy Luck Club taught me that I did not have to forgo one identity for another; I could pursue my American Dream but still stay true to my cultural ties. Those disregarded Chinese idioms that my parents taught me now made sense. Zhù rén wéi lè meant that I would find pleasure in helping others; this I discovered through my extensive volunteering efforts as president of a local volunteer non-profit. I swore to quán lì yǐ fù; as proven in my service trips to Costa Rica and Ecuador, I would always be fully committed to inspiring change in the world. Finally, I would tòng gǎi qián fēi; by embracing both American and Chinese cultures, I would turn over a new leaf and create an identity for myself that was neither exclusively American nor exclusively Chinese, but a combination of both. Now that I have accepted my bicultural identity, I understand the importance to pass down those trusty old idioms I was once taught to my children.