SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2005        Personal Memory Ethnographies


Clash of the Cultures

One warm Saturday morning in May, 1995, I had to get my two children, Catrina and James, up and ready to attend the funeral of a long time and dear family friend who had recently passed away.  Catrina was five and James was two years old.  The weather was clear and both children were in a very good mood.  This friend had known my side of the family since my childhood, but my husband didn’t know the decedent very well, so he decided to stay home.

The funeral service was flawless but very lengthy and both children were becoming restless.  When the service was over, I decided to stop by my in-laws house to return a few dishes.  My in-laws, Nay-lee and Xiang-je had inquired where we had been earlier that morning.  I informed them that a long time and very dear family friend had recently passed away and that we had been at his funeral.  My children had also known the decedent and were friends with his grandchildren, so I felt that it was important for them to attend the service.

All of a sudden, my in-laws started talking among themselves in their native Mandarin language; I could see by the expressions on their faces, the occasional stern glances, and the heightened emotion in their voices that they were upset.  Well, soon I found out that it was a mistake to tell my in-laws that I had taken my children to a funeral, because I then discovered that they had very strong beliefs and fears that “ghosts” or “evil spirits” may have followed the children home!  I tried to reason with my in-laws letting them know that “no evil spirit will bother my children” and that “they’ll be ok.”  No amount of reasoning would work; my in-laws were set in their beliefs and wouldn’t hear anything else.

This belief about “ghosts” and “evil spirits” following us home rather surprised me because I had never heard of this superstition until now.  My in-laws were both from China and I have learned over the years that they have many Chinese superstitious beliefs which I am not familiar.  I have had many “cultural clashes” with my in-laws over the years because of their strong beliefs and the feelings I have had that they try to control other people’s lives based on their fears.

My in-laws were very worried and distraught about the children being at the funeral and immediately brought out two large bags of candy bars, one for each child.  They insisted that the children should take the candy.  They explained that in Chinese beliefs, the children need to be given a lot of candy in order to ward off the evil spirits.  When I saw the size of the candy bars and how many were in each bag, I thought to myself… “this is going to be a nightmare!”  I didn’t want my children to have the candy because it would be bad for their teeth, bad for their health and I simply didn’t want to “give in” to my in-laws superstitious beliefs.  My children, on the other hand, wanted the candy no matter what!

I argued back and forth with my in-laws because I didn’t want them to put any of their superstitious beliefs upon myself, my husband or children; we were simply not going to live our lives according to their fears!  But, as the arguments continued, I began to realized how distraught my in-laws were and how seriously concerned they were for the well being of their grandchildren, therefore I decided I would give in this one time and let the children have the candy.

Catrina and James are Nay-lee and Xiang-je’s only grandchildren and I began to remember when they were born how my in-laws took the time and care to give special Chinese names to them.  Nay-lee said that Catrina would be “Meigui” which means “perfect rose, because the beauty of her soul would be like a perfect rose” and James would be “Zhi-xiang” which means “purpose, self determination and joy, because we saw in him inner strength and a promising future.”  These names were carefully selected by my in-laws and were terms of endearment that reflected the deep love they have for their grandchildren.

Many times, personal beliefs come from our own experiences. 
“As a child, one of my uncles died and two days later his son was nearly killed in an accident.  It is said in traditional Chinese beliefs that evil spirits will bring bad luck on surviving family members if care is not taken toward off these effects with sweets,” Nay-lee said. 
“Our only concern is for the safety of our grandchildren and we will protect them in the only ways that we know how,” Xiang-je assured me.
My husband and I decided many years ago that we were going to raise our children along traditional American customs and as Christians, however I do realize that my in-laws have a very important role in our children’s lives and that they have their own customs and beliefs that are different from mine and my husband.  I have come to realize that in order to keep harmony within our family that everyone needs to acknowledge, respect and accept everyone else regardless of our personal beliefs and different practices.  My in-laws will always be an important part of my children’s lives for a long time and although they have a different way of expressing their love and concern for them, ways that seem bizarre to me and others, nevertheless the love is there and that is what is most important.

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