I’ve often wondered what life would have been like – or more accurately, what I would be like – had I grown up in China. Though I left China at quite a young age (6), I still remember several emotional moments in my short time in Beijing:
In my first (and only semester) of grade 1 gym class, I got distracted from marching by the grade 6’ers who were playing basketball. For this, I got in trouble and lost 3 of my red flower stamps that day. I cried about the loss of these precious stamps (indicating a student’s good behaviour) at home to my mom.
On a typical weeknight, I watched my female cousin (who I called ‘sister’ since we were all only children) doing homework. As I peered over her textbooks and perfect handwriting, I wistfully said “I wish I had homework”. She stared at me for a long time before saying “No, you don’t.”
On hot summer nights, I remember taking strolls around the neighbourhood holding my grandpa’s hand, passing old men playing Chinese chess in the parks. I also remember my contained excitement the first time I had McDonalds or KFC (not to mention an orange soda)! (“Contained” because I was excruciatingly shy when I was little).
In 1990, I moved to Canada with my parents. My first day of grade 1, I thought it incredibly rude how my teacher referred to us as “girls”, rather than “students”. In grade 3, I remember worrying about the germs Santa Claus would leave on the milk, should he come to visit us on Christmas Eve. (I was a weird kid.) In grade 5, I remember my feeling of dread at the frequent presentations we had to do in front of the entire class. In grade 7, I had gained a sense of self-confidence and became one of the most outgoing girls in my class. Somewhere along the line, I also realized I was using more (and varied) facial expressions than I had in China.
Now, I’m 28. In my inherent curiosity on the topic of culture, several unanswered questions have emerged: How much of my personality, value systems and beliefs are me, and how much are the culture I grew up in? Who am I, and where do I fit in this hybrid mix of Chinese and Canadian cultural values?
I’ll give you an example. I’d like to take credit for my grandparents’ keen observations one summer when I came back to China for a vacation. My grandparents were duly impressed that I had made close friends with all the servers and hotel hostesses of the beach resort we were staying at. They observed that I had no concept of “class” (hierarchies), and that a city kid from Beijing would never think to do what I had.
So… maybe I am a truly kind-hearted soul. Or – maybe, it was growing up in the egalitarian, individualistic culture of Canada. Either way, this is the reason to travel and live somewhere different, I think. To step out of our own culture and be open to another; to experience the joys, anxieties, frustrations, and frequent contradictions that are “culture shock”!