Clashing cultures within the family

Elise T. Chisolm

September 11, 1990|By Elise T. Chisolm

SHE CALLED ME recently one night from their home in Virginia. She was whispering into the phone, and she needed my help, she said.

In her lovely Vietnamese accent she begged me to call her mother and persuade her to let her go to the beach for a weekend with her friends. She hadn't been away all summer.

Chinh is 18, the oldest of four children, and a pretty young woman.

They used to be our neighbors. Their way of life -- their food, their customs -- inside their house was strictly Vietnamese, but outside the home they were American -- the children's clothes were from the mall, they drank Coca-Cola and their slang was strictly U.S.A. today.

The children were always well-mannered, so respectful of one another and so gracious in their ways that I would feel as though I were in their country.

But the mother and father were strict with their offspring, as is the tradition.

Chinh (not her real name) and I had become close friends. We had a lot of long talks and laughs together.

I miss them as neighbors, but we keep in touch.

To get to the point -- I was put in a terrible position, that of Devil's advocate, or the permissive American parent.

Chinh wanted me to intercede between her and her parents.

She wanted me to pretend that she had not called me, and I was to call her mother later just to say, "Hi," and chat. And then I was to lead into why Chinh should be allowed to go to the ocean for a week.

This would be a hard assignment. There was so much that was wrong with this picture.

First of all, I was caught in between. Yes, I thought she should be allowed to go with her friends, one of whose parents would be there as a chaperon. But she is not allowed to date yet. She was not allowed to go to her senior prom.

Secondly, I think Chinh is old enough to go alone. She goes to college alone. She is studying to be a lawyer, and she makes excellent marks.

She tells me her parents are scared of the rough tide in the ocean, the crowds, the drugs and the alcohol, and of course the boys.

But I understand the Vietnamese mores. Young girls are held back. They usually marry with their parents' consent, nice girls don't wear makeup at 12, and, above all in the Asian culture, you don't disgrace your family.

While thinking about all the people who come to America to make it in the incredible melting pot, I realize I don't want these diverse cultures to neglect their ethnicity.

As democracy spreads, shouldn't we be more respectful and inquisitive of other cultures and beliefs?

With communism on the wane, there will be many thousands of foreigners traveling to America and some staying on, of course.

My dilemma with Chinh is an example of the clash between first generation and second generation Asians.

The first generation has its value system, and the second generation abides by it.

Many of the old ways are rooted in the beautiful tenets of Confucius. In that ancient culture the old take care of the young and the young take care of the old and infirm. There are hardly any nursing homes in their society.

So when I see an Asian family with their ingrained customs -- holding on to their heritage, and their children, with love and grace, I wish we could take lessons in that special bonding.

After all, the American family is certainly not in good shape; splintered by divorce, single parenthood, drugs and absorption with materialism.

We could stand to borrow from the precepts of Asian family life.

So Chinh's parents are caught between two worlds, the young and the old, the new and restless America and the revered, traditional land of their birth.

Can you see that I did not want to interfere?

Chinh went to the ocean with her parents for four days.

So there was a slight compromise.

As a wise Korean friend of mine said, "There are disparities now; learning to co-exist is sort of like a marriage -- there's a clash of ideas, and both sides have to give a little."

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