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Cheesecake with Chopsticks
Heavenly cream cheese floods my red pond of taste buds as its richness expands toward the cliff of my throat. My eyelids slowly close, focusing my mind on the cheesecake. As the cream melts in my mouth like butter on bread, the polished surface of the wooden chopsticks gently glides across my tongue.
Opening my eyes, I am back in the dining room, which is significantly duller than the smooth, refined spoonful of cheesecake. I glance at a family photo, taken on the Golden Gate Bridge, frozen on our digital picture frame. It reminds me of my parents who came as visiting scholars and instinctively chose to land in San Francisco. With them they brought familiar customs, like eating with chopsticks, which I still follow. Yet eating cheesecake with chopsticks is like listening to a singer off beat; it just doesn’t click. Unfortunately, I felt more off beat in many other aspects of my life – spanning across two widely different cultures.
Not long ago, I had a 103 degree fever on a trip to Shanghai. Coming to my rescue with her folklore remedy, my mom mummified me with three blankets to make me sweat profusely. On the phone, however, the Kaiser advising nurse insisted on placing ice packs on my forehead. This dilemma left me torn between two courses of action. Should I use blankets or ice? Herbs or pills? Sea coconut mixture or Robitussin? While the Chinese culture strongly advocates for gradual natural remedies, the Western one prefers instant relief through drugs.
Besides medicine, I also struggled to address close acquaintances properly. I had grown accustomed to greeting Asian guests, relatives or not, by attaching “Aunt,” “Uncle,” “Grandma,” “Grandpa” before their names, to show my respect. Yet, Westerners were often confounded by the practice. When I brought a Caucasian friend to one of the parties, she commented, “Wow, your family is huge!” I explained to her that it was not the case, and meanwhile I thought, “Heck, this isn’t Asia. Why can’t I just address everyone by their first names?” From every party onward, greetings became more and more difficult.
Direct criticism, in lieu of compliments, is another common practice in Asian cultures. Even if I had made good progress, I seldom heard compliments from my parents. It was not that I was hungry for praise, but rather that I sought some degree of recognition. So at times I questioned my self-worth and esteem. My parents, who believed that straightforward analyses of one’s flaws stimulate self-reflections and personal improvements, consoled me by citing the Chinese proverb, “Good medicine tastes bitter, and sincere advice sounds unpleasant.”
In contrast, Westerners tend to give constant (at times excessive) encouragement and praise for even the smallest achievement. From their perspective, self-confidence fuels children to continue their pursuit. Although I wanted to hear the sweet words that would give me assurance, I lived for honesty and firmness to improve myself.
Even in education, I attempted to reconcile Western and Eastern focuses. For centuries, Asians have firmly believed in the advancement of familial, social and even political status through schooling. Children, especially boys, vied for listings on the “Royal Scholastic Billboard,” striving to fulfill expectations of elevating the family’s social status. Even today, my parents emphasize that a solid education can lead to a better life. While drawn to Eastern standards, I was equally attracted by Western ones that emphasize athleticism and social skills.
Yet, I managed to strike a balance between the two cultures, even when it seemed impossible. Imagining myself as a bridge between the Eastern and Western cultures, I choose to travel westbound for some occasions and eastbound for others. However, for the most part, I stand in the middle to strike equilibrium between the two.
In education, I stand on the center divider where I can draw benefits from both systems. I not only value my parents’ constructive criticism, but also my teachers’ encouragement to express my individuality through critical thinking, athleticism, arts, and creativity. At the time, I did not fully realize that my parents’ criticism was sincere and that they truly wanted me to be a better person. Looking back, I wish I had listened and taken their advice more often. As for education, my goal has shifted to developing a mind, body, and soul that would foster my problem-solving ability.
This hybrid of cultures also yields optimal outcomes. When my head scorches with a fever, I choose blankets on some occasions and ice packs on others. Regardless of the method, both turn down the internal thermostat. Whether I greet Auntie Laura or just Laura, I make sure that I do so politely. Above all, it seems that there is no universal one-size-fits-all standard in cultures. Customs and traditions vary, so it is essential to adapt to the circumstances accordingly. Blending in, participating, and showing respect for others’ cultures enthusiastically while maintaining individuality defines a community in which balance and harmony prevail.
Striking that equilibrium also suggests that any ethnic minority group embraces the cultural differences and create unique identities that demonstrate a blend of traditions and customs. With a mix of two cultures, we have an advantage of experiencing the best of both worlds. Especially in a world that is increasingly globalized, cultural knowledge may be the key to connecting with people of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds.
Many sociologists note that children of immigrant parents, or the “second-generation Americans” often try to reject their parents’ culture and assimilate in the one in which they live. They are right to a certain degree. But sooner or later, I would deviate from the extremes and move back to the middle, the only place where I could find a perfect blend of the two cultures. As a second-generation Asian-American, I am thankful for the multitude of perspectives and for experiencing the best of both worlds. Without a bridge, I am not myself. If I only stood on the Western side or the Eastern side, I would not be able to call myself an Asian-American. But with a cultural bridge, I can say so with pride.
And, with pride, I can enjoy my cheesecake with chopsticks too.