For the past six years of living in China, the 4th of July has been the only holiday we’ve been able to celebrate at home. Not only that, but since we usually fly back to the U.S. around July 1st, it seems we’re barely off the plane and we’re waving sparklers and eating hot dogs and roasting s’mores and setting off fireworks and experiencing all that we love about America.
Living in a foreign country teaches you a lot about your home country. I never realized that impact that America had on my identity, personality, and thinking until I went to China. I tried to capture that in my book, so here I’m going to print an excerpt:
“China is justly proud of its long history and rich culture. But culture doesn’t only mean art, language, poetry, architecture, and ceremony, all of which China has in abundance. It also means duties, obligations, manners, rituals, and traditions, and China’s long history has layer upon layer, which have become more intricate and complex as the centuries have passed. These layers are not easily disentangled because China happened upon the twenty-first century. In the case of China’s women, culture gives them not only their identity, but also their limits.
I often thought about limits when I thought of the Chinese. There are the limits of the household registration system, called hukou, which stipulates the city in which each person is allowed to live and work. Then there are the limits imposed by their relationship-oriented society. My students’ dreams are necessarily tempered by the knowledge that they can go only as far as their relationships, or their parents’ relationships, can take them. Their own abilities are but a secondary factor. There are the limits put upon education, where knowledge is limited to the textbook, and must conform to the limits of the “one correct answer.”
The Chinese characters themselves have limits. Some characters representing ideas that have obvious boundaries, such as the characters for garden, 园, country, 国, or prison, 囹圄, contain literal boxes. But whether a 口 is there or not, an imaginary box puts limits or boundaries on each character. These boxes are on the notebooks children use to practice writing. No stray tails or curves should go outside the box.
And I often mused whether, like the Chinese characters with those invisible boxes, women are boxed in by their self-deprecating ideas. Seeing these limits accepted by my students, especially by my female students, limits that were already intolerable to my young children, made me understand better who I was.
I might disagree with the war in Iraq, be embarrassed by my country’s occasional arrogance, and abhor the violence and decadence shown in the movies that we export around the world, but I couldn’t disown this country that had pushed my bounds so far, that had told me my abilities, my imagination, my work ethic were my only limitations. Perhaps it was this, more than anything else, that made me an American.
And it was this that distinguished me, as an American mother, from the Chinese mother Grace might have had. As the mother of two daughters, I hoped that they too would know no limits but their own dreams.”