Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Greatest Event in Life

Soon we had finished the book of moral tales and moved into Teacher’s favorite intermediate book: Chinese Customs and Traditions. The lessons in this book were essays on different aspects of Chinese life and culture. They covered topics like Chinese New Year, Tomb-sweeping Festival, Dragon Boat Festival, Eating, Kung-fu, Houses, Friendships, Filial Piety, Funerals, Temple Festivals, Family Relationships, and of course, “The Greatest Event in Life: Marriage”. Teacher promised us that by the time we finished this book, our thinking and concepts would be partially Chinese. We spent at least nine months going through all the lessons. One of the lessons that took us the longest to finish to Teacher’s satisfaction was the unit on marriage. I have translated it here in its entirety. The pictures show the text and illustrations.

The Greatest Event in Life

Chinese people call marriage the greatest event in life. Because the Chinese have such a strong concept of family ties, they believe that ruling one’s family is the basis of a stable society and a peaceful world. The ancient Chinese continually told their scholars that if they wanted to govern the country, they must first rule their homes well. For this reason, the Chinese do not merely consider a marriage to be the union between a man and a woman, but also they see marriage as the foundation of society. It is a solemn matter that cannot be accomplished lightly.

In traditional Chinese marriage, one did not choose one’s own partner; instead, the heads of the households made the decisions, and marriages were accomplished through the introductions of a matchmaker. According to ancient records, there were six steps to a marriage. The first step was called “presenting betrothal gifts.” In this step, the man’s family presented the woman’s family with a small gift (a wild goose) to express their wish to negotiate a marriage. The second step was called “asking the names.” In this step, the man’s family asked for a clear accounting of the woman’s names and relations, so that they could cast the horoscopes. The third step was “divining the luck”. In this step the man’s family divined the good or bad fortune of the marriage and then brought gifts to the woman’s family to report the good news. The fourth step was “presenting betrothal gifts”, and this was the same as an engagement. Of course, in this stage, a larger gift was given. The fifth step was called “selecting the date,” and in this stage the most auspicious day for the wedding was determined, and the consent of the woman’s family was sought for that date. The sixth step was called “escorting the bride,” and that was the wedding ceremony. These six steps are called the “six rites.”

Nowadays the rites are much simpler. People choose their own spouses, but they still ask for their parents’ permission. Then they set the wedding date and send invitations to their friends and relatives, inviting them to the wedding ceremony and the wedding feast. Now the most popular wedding ceremonies are simple and elegant. Some people are married in churches, and others get married in civil ceremonies at court; still others are married in group weddings.

Old style weddings had another step called “joking in the bridal chamber.” Within the first three days after the wedding, anyone—male, female, old, and young—was allowed to make jokes with the bride and bridegroom. The goal of this custom was to allow the bride and groom, who had never met before the wedding, to get to know each other in a light, relaxed atmosphere. This custom still exists today in a limited fashion.

The textbook essay is wrong in saying that the six rites are no longer used. While the first gift is no longer a wild goose and the matchmakers are usually elderly friends or relatives, the six rites live on today, especially among working class, farming, and illiterate social groups. There are regional variations and rituals for each step, but I would say that the six rites continue to be used even today among many of my Chinese relatives and friends. The last wedding we attended that used these customs was on April 26, 2007, in New York City among friends from a group of Chinese expatriates from Fuzhou. Last month, a cousin of the 2007 groom went through the same six steps for his own wedding just before Chinese New Year. The going bride price in the Fuzhou restaurant-owning community is $36,000 (US dollars). I am used to the idea of bride prices and trousseaus now, but when the time came for my Chinese wedding I would not allow my father to ask for money from Joshua’s family. The depths of my little American soul were horrified at the idea of being bought or sold. Eventually, I sat in on some negotiations concerning marriages for my husband’s siblings because I was the eldest daughter-in-law. Then, I began to understand more of the traditional Chinese concepts of marriage, and I was better able to understand what my teacher had been talking about.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Teacher's Personal Stories

Teacher frequently told us stories from her life. She was born into a wealthy, traditional household. The household was large; although the immediate family was small, there were many servants and workers. They had a house in Beijing proper and farms in the outlying regions around the city. Her grandfather had been an official in the Qing Dynasty, and her father was a medical doctor. Her grandmother had primary care of Teacher after her brother was born. The grandmother was illiterate, but she was able to pick out whatever errors teacher made when she was writing homework for her tutor.

The family fled from the Beijing house to one of their farms after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and northern China. Eventually, the Japanese army made it to the village with Teacher’s family’s farm. Teacher’s father had joined the Kuomintang Army as a medical officer. He took most of the able-bodied young workers with him, so the only men left at the farm were either young boys or old men. One day the Japanese troops came into the village conscripting men and boys of military age. They broke into Teacher’s farm and searched all the buildings. Eventually, they burst in through the door of the bedroom where Teacher was hiding under the blankets with her mother and baby brother. Her brother began crying, and the soldiers grabbed him from his mother’s arms. They ripped off his diaper to see if he was male or female. Females were allowed to live, but boys of upper class families who were too young for military conscription were usually slaughtered. The soldier had just raised the baby above his head to smash him against the floor when the Japanese commander walked into the room. Teacher’s brother smiled at him and stretched out his hands cooing. It reminded the commander of his own son in Japan, so Teacher’s brother was saved. The commander took him from the soldier and played with him. The commander moved into Teacher’s house while his squad was searching the area for conscripts. His presence ensured that they survived the raid, but it brought its own tribulations. One day an old man from the nearby village, whose son had been lost in the fighting, got confused and frightened by the constant presence of soldiers. He ran and hid in a haystack within the borders of Teacher’s family farm. The Japanese soldiers discovered that someone was hiding in the haystack because the entire mound was shaking. The commander ordered Teacher and her mother to come with the baby and watch the sport. The Japanese squad surrounded the haystack and bayoneted it from all sides, thinking they were killing an AWOL conscript or a young man avoiding conscription. The person in the haystack screamed and screamed, but the soldiers did not stop stabbing until the ground was flooded with rushing rivers of blood. When the screams had turned to gurgles and eventually no more noise was emanating from the haystack, the soldiers used their bayonets to flick away the hay and discovered an old, white-haired man. They kicked the body in disgust and went off looking for more conscripts.

After the war was over, the northern countryside was plagued with struggles between Kuomintang squads and Communist guerrillas. Eventually, Teacher’s father returned to bring his family with him to the South. They spent time in Nanking and Shanghai, moving frequently and always following the government. Schooling was sporadic, but Teacher had had a good foundation in her youth, so she was able to adapt.

The biggest problem was their clothing. They fled south in their winter clothes, which were suited to the severe cold of northern China. After they got south of the Yellow River, their clothes were too warm. There was no opportunity to get new clothes because they were always on the move, and the countryside had been bombed and ravaged during World War II. Teacher’s mother was clever, and she was able to take away some of the layers in the winter clothing. It was actually a good thing that they were in winter clothes; they were able to make spring and summer clothing better suited to the heat of the South from all the layers in their heavy winter clothes.

In 1949, when Teacher was 11 or 12 years old, the Kuomintang government made the decision to withdraw from mainland China to Taiwan. As Teacher’s father was a medical officer, they were in the rear of the retreat, and every night her father worked long hours to care for the wounded in the train of retreating troops. When they arrived in Shanghai, there were just a few transports left. Teacher’s father wanted Teacher, her mother, brother and aunt to all sail on one transport that left in the evening. He was scheduled to go the following morning on the last transport with the last of the wounded. In the end, Teacher and her aunt took their places on the transport to Taiwan. Her mother refused to leave her father, and of course, her brother stayed with his parents because he was so young. Her parents had just boarded the last transport, which was preparing to leave when they were stopped by the Communist Army. Teacher’s parents were dragged off and executed by a firing squad against the wall of a warehouse at the docks. Her younger brother was forced to watch his parents die. Then he was shipped off to an orphan camp in Xinjiang. He was not allowed an education; he could read a little and write, but his children were illiterate because they were in a blacklisted family. While we were studying under Teacher, her cousins, who had immigrated to America, got in touch with the brother. They transferred letters back and forth. When Teacher first saw her brother’s handwriting and learned what had happened to her parents, she cried and cried. We spent several weeks hearing all the stories.

In Taiwan, Teacher’s aunt soon got married and began having babies. Teacher was there without any money of her own, at the mercy of her relatives. She became a built-in babysitter. Her aunt and uncle were fair to her, but they were not her birth parents. They made sure she had food, clothing, and education, and they arranged a good marriage for her. It was not the marriage Teacher wanted for herself, but because the aunt had been so good to her, Teacher felt she owed it to her aunt to do her duty in marrying where she was told. The relationship was friendly, but not a great romance. And yet, Teacher still felt that this kind of arranged marriage was better than the “I love you, you love me; let’s get married, smooch, smooch, smooch; three years later, I hate you, you hate me; let’s get divorced” relationships of the West. (These were the only English words I ever heard Teacher use in class.) Because our class was all female, and because our two overseas Chinese classmates had been sent to Taiwan by their parents to be prepared for arranged marriages, Teacher spent many lessons teaching us about Chinese families and marriage relationships.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Foolish Grandpa Moves a Mountain

Another story that affected me deeply was the story of the foolish grandfather moving the mountain. When we first studied it, I just scoffed it off as trivial, but after my marriage, I realized how deeply this philosophy is embedded in the psyche of my husband’s relatives, especially in my father-in-law. Once again, I will translate the text from Chinese Moral Tales, while providing the Chinese original with its illustration.

There was a large mountain in front of Foolish Grandpa’s home, just across from his front gate. He had more than thirty people in his household, and whenever they went out of their home, they had to go all the way around the mountain; it was very inconvenient.

At the time of this story, Foolish Grandpa was already more than ninety years old, and he was living at home in his retirement. He decided to do something meaningful in the autumn years of his life: he would move the mountain. Therefore, he led all the members of his household, both young and old, and they began the work of moving the mountain. They took the earth and stones from the mountain, and little by little, they moved them away. But the mountain was so very big, and their strength truly had its limits, so their work progressed terribly slowly.

A certain Wise Grandfather lived near their home, and he felt that Foolish Grandpa’s actions in this matter were ridiculous. He exhorted Foolish Grandpa: “This is an impossible task. In my opinion, old friend, you should give up this crazy idea. Did you never consider that you are already more than ninety, and that even if you were twenty years old this year and could spend your entire life on this project, you would still not be able to move one ten thousandth of the mountain?”

Foolish Grandpa said: “Perhaps things are not as difficult as you make them out to be. If I cannot finish moving the mountain in my lifetime, then after I am dead, my sons and grandsons will still work on the project. After my sons and grandsons are dead, their sons and grandsons will still be there to work on it. We can continue this project generation after generation. This mountain is dead. It will never grow bigger. As long as we work without stopping, the day will come when we will finish moving the mountain.”

When the god of the mountain heard this news, he became very worried because he knew that Foolish Grandpa had made a firm decision, which he would never change. In order to save the mountain from destruction, the god of the mountain immediately moved it to another place.

This story was difficult to accept in a number of ways. First, the sense of time is so much longer than the average American attention span. I was used to expecting to finish things immediately if not sooner. I had thought I could thoroughly learn Chinese in nine months, but I was very wrong about that. My longest range plans were all less than five years. It never occurred to me to consider projects that might stretch on for generations. Within my first few months in Taipei, I had to stop wearing a watch because the Chinese sense of time drove me crazy. I was used to arriving for events fifteen minutes early, and I expected meetings or appointments to end at their stated time. Most of the Chinese people I knew would arrive thirty minutes to an hour late, and meetings, appointments, or meals would stretch on interminably. It was better for me if I did not know what time it was.

The second difficulty for me was the sense of family duty. My American family is close and supportive in its American way, but we do not really have multi-generational family projects beyond the education of the youngest generation. Everyone contributes to education, but once a young person is educated, he or she is free to choose a path and make the best of it. There are no expectations placed on him or her beyond using the education given to carve out a successful life. The traditional Chinese family had family projects and a multi-generational economy. When my husband was born, his parents lived in a three-sided traditional farmhouse with his grandparents, his grandfather’s brothers, their wives, and all eleven of the male cousins in my father-in-law’s generation plus their families. My father-in-law was the youngest of the eleven cousins, so his family had a loft under a tin roof over a storeroom in the far corner of the compound. My mother-in-law had to climb a ladder to get up to her room to give birth to her first three babies. Each “small family” had its own activities, but the entire clan worked together on other projects. Sometimes, they would join forces with the “upper branch” of the family, who lived in another three-sided farm house up the road. The “upper branch” had split off in the days of my father-in-law’s great-grandfather. When my mother-in-law was pregnant with child number four, Joshua’s “small family” moved out of the clan compound, but they did not entirely lose the sense of working as a family. Whenever anyone in the family has a need, everyone pitches in to solve the problem. They attack problems in swarms, buzzing at full volume, but they do get things done. I had three babies in the space of fourteen months, and then six months later, I had a bone graft in my left knee after a motorcycle accident. If we had not been living in a multigenerational household with a strong sense of family duty, I do not know how I would have made it through those situations.

In mainland China this tale has taken on a different significance because Mao Tse-tung wrote an essay about it. Mao’s main point was that as long as all the people in the country worked together, they could move mountains. He used this strategy to organize peasants to fight the Japanese with guerilla tactics during World War II. He used it again against the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War, and it was the basis of his thinking in the Great Leap Forward and in many of his other projects. Of course, in Taiwan in the 1980’s the only thing that could be said about Mao Tse-tung Thought was that it was evil and terrible. I found out about his changing the parable many years after returning to the US. Nevertheless, both the Nationalist and the Communist interpretations of the moral tale emphasize the importance of community over the individual. And that is a difficult concept for a ruggedly individualistic American to accept; however, in the light of recent current political and economic situations here in the US, I sometimes wonder what would happen if all of us "little people" banded together to fight for one goal. Could we solve our present problems?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sai Weng Lost his Horse

My American family’s culture believed in absolutes. Certain things were absolutely good, and we were expected to strive as hard as we could to attain them; other things were absolutely wrong, and we had to strive equally hard to avoid them. The story “Sai Weng Lost his Horse” was one of the first major disruptions to my worldview. I am just going to translate the story from my first intermediate Chinese reader: Chinese Moral Tales. I have posted pictures of the Chinese text and its illustration for those of you who want to practice your Chinese (or your English).

Sai Weng was a philosophical person. He believed that in this world there is no such thing as an absolute calamity or an absolute blessing. Every situation had to be measured by the objective state of affairs. Hence, when he encountered misfortune, he did not get worried; when he met with great luck, he did not rejoice overmuch. In all matters, he took the stance that he should wait and see how things progressed.

One day, one of his horses wandered away. After his friends heard of the situation, they all came to console him. He said: “Thank you, but I am not sad about this matter, and I am not going to go out looking for the horse. Losing a horse might not be such a bad thing after all.”

After a few days, the horse returned of its own accord, and it brought with it another more valuable horse. When his friends came to congratulate him, he said: “This is not something worth celebrating. Obtaining a horse may be a stroke of bad luck.”

Sai Weng’s son loved the new, valuable horse; he always rode the horse out for recreation. That horse galloped swiftly, and one day Sai Weng’s son fell off the horse’s back, breaking his leg. When their friends heard this bad news, they all come to console Sai Weng. Sai Weng serenely said to them: “It is still hard to say if this broken leg is calamity or good fortune.”

Later, China went to war with the northern barbarians, and all the young men were drafted into the army by order of the government. They were sent off to protect the country’s borders. The war dragged on for years, and many young men were killed in battle. Only Sai Weng’s son was exempted from military duty because of his broken leg. He remained at home living a peaceful life.

When I first studied this story it bothered me terribly. I could not accept the fact that Sai Weng would just sit there and say, “Who knows, this might not be so bad (or so good) after all.” I thought he should take things into his own hands to make his own luck by finding the horse or getting a better doctor for his son. Our teacher spent much time using stories from her own personal experiences and those of her friends to prove to us that there are many things in life beyond our control. She believed that some of the greatest shortcomings in Western culture were its insistence that its way is right and its refusal to accept situations as they arise. She kept exhorting our class (especially me) to learn from the bamboo and bend with the wind in the face of storms. She told me that if I did not learn to go more with the flow, I would snap in two during one of life’s very big storms. If I learned to accept things and go with them, I would be able to bend almost to the ground like bamboo in a typhoon; then when the storm was over, I would spring back up unharmed.

Teacher made some very good points that I could not refute, but even so, it was excruciatingly difficult for me to accept her thinking. I walked back and forth to school arguing with myself about whether or not I should fight the windmills of life and dream impossible dreams or learn to just go with the flow. In the end, I think that I came to a point somewhere in the middle. I tend to fight with fate more than the members of my husband’s family do, but I tolerate life’s disruptions of my plans more than most members of my American family.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Culture-Defining Stories and My White American Core

The People who Shaped my World-View: Great-Grandparents, Grandparents, and Parents

My grandparents: Philo and Nellie Zimmerman and John and Margaret Ryder. June, 1960 at my parents wedding, 11 months before I was born.

The Zimmerman side Great-Grandparents with my parents: Gramps and Grammie Heritage and Grandma Z.

The Ryder side Great-Grandparents: Grandma Ryder and Kelly (Margaret Kelly Dyer) with my parents Anne Ryder and Gary Zimmerman

Grandpa John Ryder's Pictures of China in the 1920's when he worked on a China trading ship

Workers in a rice paddy

Village with canal near Haining

Fish Vendor near West Lake, Hangchow (Hangzhou)

Temple at Lin Ying, Hangchow

Canal through a Country Village

I once read that culture is contained in the stories passed from one generation to the next, but I never understood what that meant until I began reminiscing about my intermediate Chinese classes for this blog. The major part of every class at the intermediate level was spent either listening to Teacher tell us the stories from her childhood or repeating and rewriting the stories until they became ours. All of Teacher’s stories had a message, and each story was told with the goal of helping us enter into Chinese cultural patterns of thought.

During my intermediate Chinese classes, my mind became a battlefield of dueling stories. There was an internal struggle between the American concepts of my psychological constitution, and the Chinese concepts I was trying to learn. This post is a digression from the story of my life in Taiwan because I want to share the stories from my childhood that define the American core of my being. These stories may not be entirely accurate as to the facts, but this is what I believed about my heritage after listening to adult family members during my childhood.

My own family has been in America since 1775, when my ancestor Joseph Zimmerman emigrated here from Germany. A later Zimmerman was an officer in the War of 1812. The main story that I got from the Zimmerman side of the family was that we have deep American roots. My Grammie Zimmerman was a Daughter of the Revolution and came from another old, established American family. Gramps Zimmerman grew up as the son of a bookkeeper in a logging camp near Oswego, Oregon. He was brilliant at Math and graduated from university Phi Beta Kappa. Gramps passed the CPA exam on his first try and made a killing in the stock market long before I was born. He was semi-retired by the time I had memories of him. Grammie Zimmerman was the perfect business wife. She could single-handedly put out a homemade multi-course dinner for one hundred people and serve it with formal settings, polished silver, etc. My dad was their elder son. He graduated from Cal Tech, went on to get a PhD in Chemistry and was active in developing the field of Clinical Chemistry. One of my daughter’s friends recently saw an old picture of him at our house and asked why a person from her chemistry textbook graced our bookshelves. I had not even been aware that Dad was so well-known in the field. Understated excellence was expected in the Zimmerman family. Education was important, and we came out of college debt-free, but then there was a strong expectation that we would take that education and training to make something of ourselves. Zimmermans are expected to excel almost as a matter of course, but they are also expected to be modest, self-effacing, and keep a stiff upper lip.

My mom’s family, the Ryders, also arrived in North America before the Revolution. They were sea captains in Nova Scotia and did not come to the United States until much later. My Grandpa Ryder’s father and his older brother died when Grandpa was quite young. He became the man of the house doing several jobs from the time he was eleven to support his mother, younger brother and sisters. He delivered milk before school and drove a trolley after class. He spent some time working on a ship and posthumously contributed the pictures of China at the beginning of this post. Eventually, he began to work at a bank and over the course of his career went from teller to Executive Vice President. Grandpa Ryder was one of an extinct breed: an honorable politician. He served in the State Legislature for twenty years and was respected by everyone on both sides of the aisle for his integrity and straight-dealing. He was close to the Governor of Washington and the US Senators from the state when we were growing up. It was not uncommon for my brother and me to come in contact with the leaders of Washington State when we visited Grandpa.

My Grandma Ryder also had a hard life. Her father died when Grandma was five, and her mother, my Great-Grandma Margaret Kelly Dyer, raised her two daughters single-handedly. Kelly lived to be 101 years old, and I was 17 when she finally passed away. Kelly was the first white child born in O’Neal County, Nebraska. She was the eldest of 13 children in a large Irish pioneer family. She told me numerous stories about taming horses with her father, interacting with the Native Americans, leaving home to work as a seamstress so her younger siblings would have enough to eat, and moving to Montana with her sisters to run a boarding house for miners. My mother absorbed the Ryder ethic of fighting to overcome adversity and attain one’s goals in life. Mom competed for and won a scholarship to Radcliffe College (women’s adjunct to Harvard University) where she did really well in her studies. When I was eight she went back for a Master’s and had several successful careers as a librarian, lobbyist, and finally a lawyer.

Both the Ryders and the Zimmermans advocated personal excellence first and foremost; then they expected family members to use their talents for the common good without taking too much credit. There were also strong themes of individual integrity and overcoming all obstacles to make good. My parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles were leaders in the Seattle community and even in the State of Washington, but the sense I got was that their prominence did not give us a free ride. My brother and I would get an excellent education and introductions to movers and shakers, who could possibly advance our careers, but we had to work hard and earn our own way in the world. I do not know if it was intentional, but I always got the sense that I would not be considered a true success until I had found some adversity to overcome as my elders had before me. The way success was achieved was also as important as the act of succeeding. Honor, integrity, lawfulness, and working for the common good got top billing in our family’s traditions.

There were common threads between my core stories and the core Chinese stories that Teacher told us, but at certain crucial points, the stories were almost diametrically opposite. Learning Chinese fluently required me to frequently accept concepts that were very different from my own worldview.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Intermediate Chinese Classes

Intermediate Book One: Chinese Moral Tales

Intermediate Book Two: Chinese Customs and Traditions

If you want to read an interesting discussion of the differences and similarities between marriages in China and India, see the recent comments by me and Aghori after the 2/5/09 post "Student Life in Taiwan".

At the end of 1983, our class finally finished the second conversation book. Teacher Chin entered her favorite stage of the teaching process: the intermediate readers. The first reader of the series was called Chinese Moral Tales and the second one was called Chinese Customs and Traditions. Teacher Chin told us that she was going to begin teaching “on a plane.” She would be telling us the stories, backgrounds, and secondary meanings to all the vocabulary and idioms in our lessons, and she expected us to take good notes. She had been stringent in teaching us to read and write every word in the conversation books so that we would be able to take notes in Chinese from her speaking. She was quite proud that we had come this far, and she had high expectations for our class.

The first extra-textual proverb that she taught us that day was 一日為師, 終生為父. (If you are a teacher for a day, then you are a parent-figure for life.) She said that because she was our teacher, Chinese tradition obligated her to become a parent figure to us. She realized that we Westerners, especially the Americans and the French, did not value or desire parental input after we left home. But Teacher assured us that we were all still young and in need of a strong guiding hand to set us on the proper path in our adult life. Since we had chosen to learn Chinese, and because we had been brought by Fate to her classroom, she was now going to change us forever by introducing us to the concepts and thought processes inherent in the Chinese culture and language. She warned us that if we wanted to leave our Western prejudices intact, we needed to immediately transfer to another class section with a teacher who would skim the surface of the stories without imparting the deeper cultural heritage at the core of each text. In short, she promised to make us part Chinese as a result of her teaching.

The next day we had our usual quiz at the beginning of class. Instead of the expected test on the material from the text book, we had to write the extra-curricular proverb in characters with the correct bo, po, mo, fo symbols. After grading that half of the test, she had each of us give an oral summary of what she had told us the previous day about how true Chinese teachers differed from their counterparts in the Western tradition. I think we all flunked that test. None of us was prepared for how thoroughly she would test us on every story, every joke, and every word that came out of her mouth. We had foolishly thought she was just helping us practice our listening comprehension by telling us interesting anecdotes. We did not realize that in her more than twenty years of teaching those text books, she had all her lesson plans memorized. She knew exactly what she was going to say at every page of the book without looking at any notes. And her passion, her mission, in life was to impart a solid understanding and sense of the Chinese culture into all her intermediate students. She had been doing this for years, and she was the best in the school at that level of instruction.