Value across generations
I’ve noticed that generation gaps are particularly big for people with a background like mine. I see the world differently from my parents and they, in turn, are living a very different life from my grandparents. Compared to a family that may have stayed in the US for the past four or five generations, Asian American families like ours can feel particularly disjointed at times.
For example,while I am comfortable carrying casual conversations with my father, I find that we have a very narrow range of topics. It’s more about work, school, and economics than my personal life. Even within these topics, we tend to take a big picture approach. Rather than discuss what was happening at my school, we talked about the UC system. Instead of my day at work, we talked about career paths. This isn’t a bad thing; we were just speaking on mutual interests. When I see some of my friends talk to their parents, it’s a little different. There were more common interests. They can talk about sports or celebrity news. Maybe even recent films. In addition to conversation, similar differences seem to exist when it comes to other aspects of life: my goals, my stance in politics, and my attitude toward art to name a few.
With these ideas as a starting point, I wondered what might be the cause of these increased differences. Of course, growing up in a different country would be a major factor. But what is it about the different environments that lead these families to see such big generation gaps? After pondering this question for a while, I think the answer might be in the difference in values. What we feel is important in life also ends up being the greatest motivator. It dictates how we see the world and where to go in life. If the difference in values between generations is greater in Asian American families, then that can explain a lot about the attitudes in the second (or 1.5) generation immigrants. I thought it would be interesting to compare, based on my observations and family history, the way values changed through the last two generations in my own family and how these changes led to the generation gap I see today.
I’ve never met my grandfathers, so I’ll stay with the grandparents I know. My grandmothers grew up in rural Mainland China but moved to Hong Kong to start a family. As far as I know, neither of them had much of an education. Meaning, I’m not sure they finished elementary school. In any case, they reached Hong Kong and either worked low-paying jobs or spent a lot of time watching over a number of children. I have five or six aunts and uncles on each side, and taking care of a family that big is difficult under any circumstances.
A lot of the focus in their lives went into surviving. There wasn’t much worry about world events, new technology, politics, or anything that wasn’t directly tied to making sure their children lived a better life than them. For one of my grandmothers, success in life meant that she could go back to her home village and show them that she has a family that is physically and financially healthy. That alone brought meaning to their lives.
Because there wasn’t anything they worried outside of the family, they had little to offer to my parents when it came to finding direction in life. Survival was what they knew, and for the next generation, survival was expected. This was the result of their hard work, and I’m reminded of how fortunate I am that they accomplished this.
While I was born in Hong Kong, my parents experienced sort of the golden age of the city. People were properly educated for the first time in family history. New businesses were popping up left and right. Hong Kong went from a poor, rural post-war area to one of the most modernized areas in Asia. My parents were riding this wave of success.
As with people in any rapidly developing area, opportunities meant a strong focus on money and wealth for my parents. The key here is to be competitive and to use every chance to get ahead. They succeeded and decided that opportunities had shifted to the US. Even after immigrating their competitive spirit never faded. They worked hard and have raised a family, hoping to see us reach their level of success and beyond.
As Asian immigrants in the US, however, they seem to have reached a point in their careers where any chance of real advancement is slim. Even with an undying spirit, they can’t deny there’s a bamboo ceiling that they’ve hit. With our generation, they are hoping we can break it. I think they have done a good job of avoiding some of the mistakes of other parents in striving for this goal.
My parents are educated people, and have had access to news and other media in the world. They are aware of issues in the world but do not have the time, energy, or upbringing to take action on a lot of these issues. They value hard work and integrity, and in the end it’s more about success at the self and family level than anything. Nonetheless, they have taught me how important it is to take responsibility and to take control of my own life.
As I mentioned, I was born in Hong Kong but moved over to California at a very young age. I believe the correct term is 1.5 generation immigrant. I am living more comfortably than anyone in my line of ancestry. Some would say that my parents, part of the baby boomer generation, helped the first world reach its peak in prosperity. It is likely that my generation will never reach their level of financial success.
In this environment, someone like me has the possibility to think of things beyond survival and growth. I can learn about things like racism and the bamboo ceiling, and actually have the chance to do something about it. I have chosen to spread awareness, but others like me have stepped up in politics, entertainment, and sports. When economic stability isn’t too much of a worry, our values change. We have more time to worry about culture and about fitting in. Isn’t this why so many Asian Americans look down on the hobbies and fashion of their parents? Our values have changed.
Maybe change isn’t the right word. Or rather, it’s not the best way. For me, my values are based upon what I’ve seen in my life but it encompasses what I’ve learned from my parents’ and grandparents’ achievements as well. I still value hard work and a competitive spirit, but I also let this spread into life outside of work and family. I know that with hard work, real change can be possible on a greater scope. My parents accomplished so much. Yet they could have done even more if not for the issues in society holding them back. I feel like we should be learning from their struggles and their accomplishments and focus on how to improve ourselves in these respects. This is much more useful than focusing on the difference between us and “fobs” and explaining why we are more “American”.
I don’t think I am alone at all in thinking this. I believe this is why the growing Asian American population, and the increasingly relevant community that is developing with it, is starting to be noticed. There is a perception that Asian families are in the US for the short term. We are the generation that will stay and that might reach the tipping point and really make an impact on society. Our voice will be much more noticeable if it is unique, and our uniqueness comes from the experiences that previous generations have had.
There seems to be a lot of Asian American literature about being lost in America. In thinking about all this and recognizing the difference in values between generations, I now have a better understanding of what the influences are in my own life. I think that’s a nice step in the right direction.