Cultural legacies

Why I’m a yappie and why you might be, too.

Here are two exchanges from a conversation-provoking video just posted by Wong Fu Productions:

Scene 1: Well-dressed, clean-shaven Andrew stares at his date as she sighs at him:

Woman: “All you care about is earning a nice salary, buying a nice car, and settling down in a nice suburb.”

Andrew: “That sounds like a nice, normal person! What’s so wrong with that?”

Woman: “It’s not wrong. It’s just… safe. Listen, we’re just not the right fit. I need to be with someone who, you know, cares more. About the world.”

Scene 2: Andrew drowns his sorrows at a club with his friend, another Asian in her twenties:

Andrew: “The way this girl said it made it sound like a bad thing. Like it’s safe.”

Friend: “Well, we are pretty safe. We just got $17 cocktails and we’ll be completely fine. And we gotta wake up early to meet Mom and Dad for breakfast tomorrow. We live a pretty cushy lifestyle. But we chose the safe route because it’s what we wanted.”

I’ve been fascinated recently with cultural legacies after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s look at success, Outliers. In the book, he draws attention to the uncomfortable idea that most North Americans try to not think about, or at least avoid in conversation: cultural legacies matter. Where our families come from shapes how we think, the kinds of messaging we respond to, and what values drive us. And for Asians, stability is golden. I’m a wannabe yappie, a young Asian professional who wants to take the safe path in life. Life goal is to make a comfortable, stable living with a nice car and home in the city? Check. We play it safe. We go for stability over adventure, normal over excellent, and don’t put that much thought into trying to improve the community or make a lasting positive impact on the world. But why? Why have we decided this is the optimal path?

It’s not just an academic question for me. I just left a permanent, full-time job for a contract role in non-traditional, not-that-well-paid, environmental communication. Eef. If your Asian side just felt its skin crawl, well, mine did too.

There’s a whole number of reasons why I’m hard-wired to seek personal and familial stability rather than strive to better the world. According to 2016 World Bank statistics, the population density of China is almost 40 times higher than that of Canada. How’s that for competition?

And it’s not just my survival that’s at stake; it’s that of my parents and of my future kids. We’re obliged financially upwards and downwards because of filial piety, 孝, one of the pillars of the Chinese value system. (The character 孝, by the way, is composed of the abbreviated form of the character for ‘old’, 老, and for ‘son’, 子. Cool, eh?) I’m responsible for the well-being of my parents and you for yours. My parents gave their parents a third of their salaries every month. I’m responsible for the financial security and comfort of my parents. With that kind of responsibility, who has the emotional energy to make the world a better place? That’s simply not high up enough on the priority list.

Struggling through hardship, and trying to create circumstances that protect the family from that level of suffering, is also in the blood. If you’re an immigrant from a poor part of the world, you probably don’t have to look far back in your family history to find poverty. Until he was in high school, my dad slept under a bed. There wasn’t any other space in the one room he shared with his six siblings. Lunch was rice with soy sauce.  With that kind of inter-generational experience, little wonder we’re hard-wired to crave stability.

We are a people of hardship. It isn’t just financial struggle. Odds are, you know someone or are related by the second degree to someone who fought for their life. A husband of a fellow choir mate MacGyver-ed a life float with hundreds of ping pong balls and a fishing net and swam his way to Taiwan from China. The cousin of another choir mate swam for two days from Guangzhou to Taiwan with a basketball under one arm. He started the journey with a hundred others. Half of them made it.

We struggled hard to make it to this country, and we’re going to be successful, danggit. And that perspective of the world doesn’t have room for bettering the world or pursuing your passions.

Times have changed, but that doesn’t matter. You can purchase land (land! The Chinese dream!) for $75,000 and put a tiny home on it for $30,000. An 18-kilogram sack of rice costs you all of 25 bucks. You and I and our families are going to be just fine. Maybe.

In the same way our grandparents struggled for survival during the Great Chinese Famine or the Japanese occupation or broke their backs as coolies, as our parents did when they moved to North America and took minimum-wage jobs, we too are programmed to struggle for survival. It doesn’t matter that you and I can buy a month’s worth of rice after working for two hours at some minimum-wage job. My body doesn’t tell itself that story. Ever so often, just as I’m about to drift into a pleasant sleep, a voice in my brain tells me I should have been an accountant.

I quit a full-time permanent job in May and that decision gave me anxiety for a month. It still does, at times. And social pressure doesn’t help either. My uncles and aunts and family friends sat my dad down for talks, concerned about the wayward child and ultimately about the success of the entire family. Regardless of how valid or what my reasons were, it doesn’t matter. I’m not certain my parents are proud of me. When you lose stability, you lose respect and your family falls behind.  And with that kind of weight around your neck, who could afford instability?