I love Chinese culture. And I love US culture. I love and value both equally. I wouldn’t trade what I have learned from both cultures for the world. In the midst of this cold war narrative between two of the most powerful nations on Earth, I feel I need to share my story of cross-cultural identity and what I’ve learned over time.
I am a walking example of a cross-cultural bridge between the US and China. My grandparents on my mother’s side came from Beijing and Shanghai, and my grandparents on my father’s side came from Buffalo, New York. I was raised in New York, went through the American education system, and experienced your typical American suburban childhood -- barbequing out on the back deck on July 4th, riding bikes through the neighborhood, and jumping into big mountains of raked up autumn leaves. I played competitive team sports like soccer and basketball all throughout my academic career and at the same, mastered the art of chopsticks. By the age of eight, I was learning Mandarin with a Chinese teacher who came to our house every Sunday to teach us the language and calligraphy, and I was exposed to the wide array of Chinese food through family meals, dim sum and banquet feasts.
When I went to college, I decided to dedicate my studies to Mandarin and Chinese culture. My school offered a junior year study abroad program in Beijing which was one of the main reasons I chose it. That year changed my life. I threw myself into the heart of China, adapted and integrated into the society to the best of my ability, forced myself to learn the language, succeeded and failed at whatever adventures I found myself in, and built lifelong relationships with Chinese locals and friends who shared the journey with me. What I learned about Chinese language and culture combined with what I learned from my peers and the environment made me aware of how I wanted to continue my quest to understand my identity. When I returned to the US for my senior year, I knew what I wanted to focus my studies on: Confucianism, the Confucian classics, and what it meant to be Chinese.
For all of you who are unfamiliar with Confucianism, two of the key cornerstones in understanding it lie in the characters 礼“li” (pronounced “lee”) and 仁“ren” (pronounced “run”). “Li” means a custom or an act/action. “Ren” means benevolence or compassion. In the context of Confucianism, when a person acts or takes action ( 礼”li”), there has to be an intention behind that action. 仁“ren” or compassion is that intention. In Confucianism and Chinese culture, to act with compassion is at the core of society. There are other Confucian virtues that are also important in social dynamics such as sincerity, trust, loyalty, respect, filial piety, and love, to name a few. These are all fundamental to being Chinese and how one is to engage with others. Confucianism is obviously more complex than this as it also talks about societal roles and how one is supposed to act within those relationships, but this is not what I want to focus on. My point is, these core Chinese virtues from Confucianism helped me understand my own value system and how I wanted to act and engage with others. And what I did not realize was that these Confucian virtues were also deeply embedded in US culture as well.
I’m not talking about social etiquette or behavior, because we all know that things are done differently in the US and China. I’m talking about something more basic. Beneath our respective behavioral customs lies a value system that guides how we treat each other when we engage as human beings. And in the US, great importance is attached to genuinely connecting with someone with empathy, compassion, and respect. As I continued to put the Confucian virtues into my practice engaging with peers, whether from the US, China, or anywhere around the world, I found mutual understanding in our shared humanity. Intention from the heart translated across cultures. Concepts of loyalty, trust, and family (filial piety) pervaded multiple areas of society, from professional work settings to a basketball team’s success. Even when I was a complete outsider in some places of the US, if I stayed the course of my virtues, I was able to connect to others, sharing similar values despite our different stories. The Chinese and US value systems, written in different languages, share the same core intentions.
Looking back on my time in the US before I even went to China or started studying Confucianism, I began to see where these virtues revealed themselves. The friendships I developed over the years were rooted in these virtues -- having your friend’s back or lending a shoulder in comfort and understanding. My memories of partnership and romance were rooted in these virtues where loyalty and trust in one’s vulnerability laid the groundwork for love. And most importantly, family valued these virtues, where my responsibility of being a respectful, good son and brother kept our relationships intact and harmonious. But even elsewhere -- championship sports teams, highly-regarded professors, teachers, and schools, local organizations and communities --, all held true to these virtues. We all believe the same things are important, regardless of culture.
After graduating from college, I lived in China and Taiwan for five-and-a-half-years, traveling, teaching, working, studying Mandarin, and deepening my understanding of my heritage. After my time in Asia, I returned home to New York City where I wanted to consciously reconnect with my US roots. And after a good four-year stint in the US, I am now back in East Asia (Taiwan), wiser and more aware my identity.
With tensions rising between the US and China, it breaks my heart to see such judgment placed on cultures that are widely misunderstood. There is such beauty and value in both. Instead of letting the contentious US-China rhetoric taint what I’ve come to learn about both cultures, I continue to strive to live the way I believe is most important. Building a mutual understanding between these two cultures is essential for the world’s future, and if we would just look at the core virtues and values of these two great nations, I think we’d find we have more things in common than not. In the end, we are all human, and we all call this planet home, so why not share the core virtues of our humanity?