Being Chinese In The Streets Of Chinatown Cultural Studies Essay

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Strolling through the streets of China, I noticed the scent of Dimsum in the air, the foreign alphabet plastered on the store signs, and the slant of the eyes of the residents. As much as the sights and scents felt alien to me, there was a sense that the elements themselves acknowledged this sense of being foreign. As I observed the residents of Chinatown, I realized that they too must feel some sense of being unfamiliar to their surroundings. Chinese immigrants have struggled to strike a balance with protecting their native culture and being relevant to their adoptive culture. Through the course of this paper the struggle of immigrant Chinese who took up residence in the United States will be discussed.

This paper will reflect how much of the native Chinese culture has been retained and how much of it has changed as a result of the transfer of Chinese families and individuals to the United States. Even though the Chinese strive to retain their native culture it cannot be avoided that the very nature of culture dictates that changes are integrated from surrounding behaviors and practices of outside influences. A hybrid Chinese-American culture has been birthed with mostly Chinese practices being followed through the lens of an American democratic mentality. Preparing for the Homecoming

Chinatown is a recreated version of mainland China. I noticed that the building designs and the interior designs were patterned after the Chinese style as practiced in mainland China. Even the streets were reconstructed to look like the streets in China. The people dressed in American style but their food preference and their daily language used remained to be Chinese.

I also observed that the business stores were manned by the children of the owners. The parents were usually found behind the cash register and the children could be found speaking with and entertaining the customers. This showed that close family ties were being fostered and more so, that respect for one's parents was being taught. Both of these traits were noticeably more Asian than American in roots. I noticed also that usually families were composed of few members - there being one or two children only. This showed a preservation of the Chinese one-child policy. Chinese had been promoting such limitations of family growth so as to control for their increasing population. All these observations showed that there was a clear presence and proliferation of Chinese native culture.

Unlike other peoples who had been involved in one form of diaspora or another, the Chinese had not been subject to persecution in or forced abandonment of their homeland. The Chinese migration had been mostly voluntary. In the case of the Chinese diaspora to the United States, the migration had been the result of American need for cheap labor (Takaki 193-194). Heads of Chinese households queued to be sent to America to earn a living for their families who were left behind in the mainland. America for its part did not welcome the Chinese as citizens of the country. Citizenship was denied Chinese-Americans even when the next generation of Chinese-Americans was born on American soil (U.S. vs Wong Kim Ark, 649).

This history shows that Chinese-Americans were not threatened with the loss of their homeland but were only encouraged to believe that return was merely being deferred (Penderey 205). This mindset promoted the preservation and passing on of the Chinese culture to younger generations. By keeping native customs alive, immigrants were ensuring that the reintroduction back to the mainland was not foreclosed. But it will be shown in the succeeding section how the fight to keep native culture was not successfully attained by the immigrants.

The Changing Nature of Culture

Chavez discusses that the replication of culture does not produce an exact copy of the original (295). Rather, the act of replication and passing on already integrates new information introduced to the transferors and transferees. In an environment where two separate and distinct cultures exist side by side, as is the case with America and Chinatown, the transmission of each culture must take into consideration any interaction between the two. This measure of interaction between the neighboring cultures is actually translated into the culture passed on. There is an impression made on the submitted culture. For example, the Chinese culture is sprinkled with American behaviors, beliefs or practices.

For example, in Chinatown the older Chinese-American residents either spoke English with thick accents or they spoke Chinese and communicated with the help of a translator. In contrast, the younger residents spoke with slighter accents. They also had a markedly wider vocabulary than their elders. Given that the children attended schools where the medium of instruction was English, it isn't surprising that their communication medium has also shifted.

To be noted though, with the shift of language use there is also a concurrent shift of perspective paradigm as language serves as the container through which ideas might be expressed. Language thereby both limits and expresses thought patterns. The fact that a language shift may be observed in Chinatown shows a simple yet fundamental redefinition of Chinese culture as it was being replicated in the United States.

In order to better understand the change observed in Chinatown, it should be kept in mind that culture is not a static concept (Chavez 295). Culture is a fluid construct that is constantly integrating external and internal influences into the continuous cycle of practices being replicated in a community (Chavez 295-296). To say therefore that the Chinese culture as practiced in the United States has variations tinged with American influence is not to mean that Chinese culture is being watered down. Chinese culture, by its very nature as culture, must be constantly evolving even as it ensures the maintenance of core beliefs and behaviors.

The Democratization of Chinese Women

Going through Chinatown I also observed that there were many women engaged in business and even roaming the streets wearing business attires or school uniforms. This would not have caught my attention if I had not remembered the high value that Chinese give to male offspring. This resulted in male offspring being favored for educational, work and business opportunities. Such a distinction is not established in American culture which would be why I wouldn't find it striking that women would be equally influential as men.

It may be true that women in modern China are gaining influence and equal opportunity but the areas wherein they may actually excel are still limited and dependent on the government's prevailing attitude (Hom 230). Chinese-American women lobby for the equal protection of the rights of their Chinese counterparts. The Chinese-American woman is a highly empowered woman with limitless possibilities ahead of her. She may aspire to become a university teacher, an entrepreneur, a doctor, and the like.

The fact that Chinese-Americans take this capacity of women as a matter of fact reflects their shift in perspective. They have detached themselves from the Chinese mindset. Despite such detachment, Chinese-Americans still profess a concern for mainland China and they express a desire for mainland China to improve and progress in this area (Hom 233). This desire for greater productivity in mainland China was still based on a deep love for their native land.

The farther the generation is from the pioneer immigrant generation, the more distant their connection is to their native land (Pan 283). This shows why the shift from a patriarchal society was tolerated and even advocated by the present generation of Chinese-Americans. Given the number of years and generations since their families had moved to America, they were sufficiently detached from mainland China to now adopt new beliefs and to even consider such beliefs as superior to their inherited cultural practice.


The above sections have shown that numerous Chinese practices are still being proliferated and preserved in Chinatown to this date. The Chinese diaspora was a voluntary entrance into a land perceived as a temporary home. Mainland China was not seen as an antagonistic home shunning the immigrants. This therefore allowed Chinese-Americans to foster a love for the mainland and for its cultural practices. Moreover, the voluntary nature of their transfer to the United States gave the Chinese-Americans the impression that their return to the mainland was a fact merely being delayed. This gave them both the drive and motivation to continue practicing their native culture.

However, culture is a constantly modifying concept and as such it accommodates the influencers surrounding its core components. The strong presence of American culture around the nuclei of Chinese cultures allowed the incorporation of American ideals, beliefs and practices into the Chinese culture being replicated in the United States. The variations included not only manner of speaking but went so far as to include outlook as to the role of women in society. Despite the changes in Chinese culture it can be seen that the culture in itself is intact in America. The changes are a necessary consequence of the presence of influencers as well as the distance of the actors from the original Chinese-American settlers. However, the fact that numerous Chinese practices are still prevalent in Chinatown shows that Chinese culture is still alive in Chinatown.