A young patron looks at Chinese face masks | Photo by B.MUZE
A young patron looks at Chinese face masks | Photo by B.MUZE

I never really understood why people felt the need to attach themselves so much to their cultural heritage. I’ve always thought that we should look forward and embrace the culture that is and that is coming, never mind the past. The past is the past. Take the lessons and move on, I’d think.

But increasingly I’m overwhelmed by a sense of disjointedness. What is this? Do I not belong? I have family, friends, community, and employment, each of which plenty of “cultural” elements (traditions, customs, values) in and of themselves. Why do I still feel like I’m missing something?

As a first-generation CBC (Canadian born Chinese), I’ve often been told that I would never understand or appreciate the true elements of Chinese culture because I was not born in the “mother” country. Even people who may have immigrated when they were barely walking are considered more Chinese than me even if they grew up attending the same classes as me. Meanwhile, it’s undeniable that I am Chinese when people ask me “where are you from really” when I try to say I’m from Canada.

I feel like I’ve been playing this game of “catch-up” forever, but am doomed to always fall short no matter how hard I try. I don’t mean to complain. I’m just telling it as it is.

A lot of the textbooks and research studies focus mostly on the new immigrant experience, but few of them go into much detail about the experience of first and later generations. It’s not the same. The “social-integration” effort does not end with fresh immigrants. It takes generations, not just years to fully integrate — is there even such a thing as full integration? We, the next generation, are overlooked even by our own families, who undermine the challenges and issues we face: “How hard would you have it? You were born here. You have no need to adjust to anything.”

I just realized that next week is Ching Ming Festival. I had to look up what that meant – it’s an annual festival in celebration of one’s ancestors. Traditionally, Chinese are supposed to visit the graves of their relatives/ancestors who have passed away to pay respects as well as to clean up around the grave site.

I can’t help noticing how functional a lot of the traditions in Chinese culture are (i.e. do all your cleaning before New Year and get all new stuff). It makes sense, no? I think there are other very practical traditions as well – but I can’t recall right now.

In fact, there are a lot of traditions that I don’t exactly “recall”. I never really knew them to begin with. I only discover them as I go along and then have to do my own research to find out the purposes or meanings behind them.

I wonder how many people actually still practice all the traditions these days. How many know about the significance behind those customs?

I’ve been watching a lot of Chinese TV series lately and can’t help noticing how the values, customs and attitudes all place significant emphasis on family. It’s not like it’s a deliberate focus of the stories either. It’s so enmeshed in everything that I wonder why I notice it so much now.  Perhaps it’s because I’m living on my own and have less opportunity to take it for granted as I have before.

Suddenly I feel really bad about taking my family for granted. Given the drama and situations that we were involved with, I didn’t have much of a chance. But had I taken more of those values to heart, perhaps I might have enjoyed myself and the relationships with my family better.

But while I move forward and try to make the best of whatever I can, I also wonder if this is how and when one decides whether to keep or lose certain traditions. When a situation no longer applies or the purpose is no longer relevant, would there be any point in keeping a tradition just for the sake of keeping it?

Moving forward, I can’t help feeling like these are questions that might become more prevalent as the intermingling and evolution of cultures continues. One can only wonder what shape our new culture(s) will take.