Jennifer A. Chin (cswallow) wrote,
Jennifer A. Chin

Beijing, China: Week 9, Part 3 (Ceremony)

Many of the gestures of respect that people make naturally here in China were to me, as a child, uncomfortably strange. Little things, like being forced to bow to my grandparents at Chinese New Year's to get our red envelopes. Or my mom making me call the parents of my Chinese friends "Ah-yi" when all I wanted to call them was " Mrs." Those little pieces of Chinese culture stuck out at me, and even now seem incongruent with the rest of my very-American life. They seemed, at the time, to be all ceremony and no meaning. I resented them.

Also there were the more natural things that did align: always give up your seat to the elderly. Pour tea for others and scoop them food before taking any for yourself.  Always offer (or fight) to pay for other people. Never speak badly of your family to those not inside your family.

Yesterday my mom took Andrew's family out to dinner, as a gesture of gratitude for the great apartment that Andrew's mom found for me. I was startled by how gracefully the "Ah-yi" came from him, the easy courtesy as he and his parents offered us food and tea. My mom and Andrew's mom fighting over who would pay the bill. Nobody eating before anyone else. And I found myself actually pleased by all the ceremony. Because I do believe my mother is worthy of the respect of people my age, and because the title "Ah-yi" to me is heavy with respect. Because last night it wasn't at all empty ceremony; it had all the force of genuine emotion behind it.

I think sometimes in America, these kinds of courtesies do seem empty. In the name of "cultural understanding," both Asian-Americans and Americans sometimes parrot the actions of respect, feeling like they have to do it to seem culturally sensitive. But mostly, that's all they are - actions.  I've done the same things myself many times. Because it seems like ceremony, it's easy in America to dismiss it as meaningless. But in fact, there is a lot to be said for the mutual acknowledgement of one another's worth. And why shouldn't we be able to look deep into each other, and find the time in ourselves to recognize humanity in those around us? And why shouldn't we have to do this before we engage in business, or friendships, or relationships?

Yes, all these gestures can be nothing more than ceremony. That is, if that's the only thing you choose to make of it.

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