Life lessons of growing up in two cultures
Every year, without fail, I pack my bags and embark on a tediously long journey to the state of Minnesota. It is here that my father’s side of the family happily greets me and generously takes my family into their homes for three weeks. Despite my American citizenship and semi-American blood, to this side of my family I am considered the epitome of Chinese culture and a perfect personification of a wholly Chinese individual.
We are labeled as “The China Mouws” and I am introduced to friends as “Megan from China.” This fact has never really bothered me. After all, I was born in China, and when I first met my American family, I only spoke Chinese. I convinced myself that if they wanted to believe I was completely Chinese, I would spare them the confusion and overlook the fact that I obviously embody two cultures.
I’m always very quiet when I’m with “The Minnesota Mouws.” At family gatherings I tend to sit back and listen, rather than join in on the conversation, and I’ll admit that I am an ardent eavesdropper. The same applies during gatherings with my Chinese family, and through relentless eavesdropping and observation I have, unsurprisingly, noticed some differences between my two families.
Most people would assume that since the US and China are located on opposite sides of the globe, the people and culture are also polar opposites. However, I have found that this is not necessarily true and have also noticed many acute similarities. My sister and I are given comical nicknames by family members from both sides of my family. My lao ye (maternal Chinese grandpa) has dubbed me “da bao bei’r” (big precious), and my little sister “xiao bao bei’r” (little precious). On my dad’s side, my uncle calls me “junior one,” and my sister “junior two” (this is his attempt at saying “zhi nü er,” which is the Chinese word for niece).
Both my Chinese and American grandmothers show their affection for me through my stomach. During dinner with my Chinese family, my plate is never empty, as flying chopsticks battle to keep my plate full of delicious food, regardless of whether I’m hungry or not. On my dad’s side, I am asked, “Are you hungry?” and “What do you want to eat?” more than anything else.
And of course, both sides of my family comment on how much I’ve grown since the last time they saw me, despite the fact that I have not grown for at least two years now. My Chinese grandma is quite frank about this one. “Ni shou le” (you’ve lost weight), “Ni pang le,” (you’ve gained weight), and “Zhang gao le,” (you’ve grown) are usually the first things out of her mouth.
The European researcher Geert Hofstede proposed the theory that culture is “more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster.” However, this is true only when cultural differences are misunderstood and disrespected. Going to an international school has given me the opportunity to experience cultures from all over the world, and being from both China and the United States has given me the chance to deeply explore two “polar opposite” cultures.
I have found, however, that it is not difficult for me to balance two cultures. Through my experiences, I have discovered one important fact: Behind the veil of our cultural differences, in many aspects we are all fundamentally the same.
Megan Mouw is half-Chinese, half-American, and was born in Beijing. Now 15 years old, she is a junior at WAB.