The Decolonial Parent

a continuous work in progress

a woman sitting at a desk in a library

Evolving as Keepers of Culture

We’ve had a lot of conversations around here of late about what it means to be immigrant carriers of culture, and the dissonance of returning to your homeland after years abroad. Typically, the culture there has evolved and updated with the times, whilst often the culture carried abroad has ossified and become outdated.

Our cultural situation is fairly unique in a lot of ways. Maybe more on my side of the family, thanks to several consecutive generations of migration. Over the years, our family has preserved traditions that have become outdated in their homelands, and become so out of touch with those homelands that visiting them feels unfamiliar and unsettling.

In the case of my own family, my mother encouraged my father to share his culture with me – but when I tried living in my father’s country of birth as an adult, I felt more of an outsider there than in my own country of birth where I was the child of immigrants with a foreign nationality. Given that the people I was surrounded with were often also mixed and the children of immigrants, I eventually unpacked that my foreignness was mostly due to extensive language and cultural barriers. Growing up with remnants of culture from my father’s childhood wasn’t enough for me to feel like I belonged in that country. Raising your kids with diaspora culture isn’t the same as raising them in an evolving culture.

Prompted by this last point, I’ve had a lot of conversations with my own mum about how cultures and traditions need to evolve instead of being stuck in the past. Especially when the cost of visiting home is high, it can be years or even decades between trips back to rediscover how much the culture has developed. And, in a family like mine, where our country of origin is several steps behind us, sometimes we have no reason to visit whatsoever. (Sad as it feels to accept it, at this point in time, my family are as Chinese as any other westerners who spend a decent amount of time online.)

When I’ve spoken to friends and family about this, a common theme keeps emerging of a diaspora who get stuck in the old ways because they feel an obligation to uphold traditions. Typically, these traditions are heavy with obligation and expectation, require notable commitment of time, effort, or financial expense, and feel anachronistic in modern life. Anxious that they’ll lose their sense of identity and community, the elders in particular cling to customs that people who are still in the homeland feel free to release.

In turn, younger generations see these traditions as too weighty or involved to continue, and so they slip away. What if, instead of jettisoning our traditions entirely, we re-imagined them for a different version of life?

In the case of my mum, she has had a strong sense of identity associated with food and spent her decades in Europe clinging to specific ideas about what Chinese food was. I say “was” because those ideas have recently been evolving (thanks to the internet!), and that evolution has really been prompted by just two books.

Most recently, I gave her a copy of Jon Kung’s Kung Food: Recipes from a Third-Culture Chinese Kitchen. A frequent customer during my time working in Detroit’s Eastern Market, Jon’s cooking creatively combines elements of traditional and modern Chinese cooking, elements of Chinese and American cuisine, and ingredients that transcend strict categorization as one or the other.

In the past, my mum has been pretty resistant to what she calls “westernized Chinese food”, but that position has slowly softened thanks to her diet of YouTube Chinese chefs who demonstrate the way that even the food in China today is embracing typically “western” techniques, as well as her travels more widely in Asia (e.g. Taiwan, South Korea). Whether it’s because Jon looks like my cousin or because I knew him from Detroit, her mind has been particularly open to exploring his unique approach to fusion cuisine and releasing the expectations of tradition.

As we prepare to celebrate Dōngzhì (冬至) together tomorrow night, I find myself excited by her experimental approach to the dishes we would typically share, as well as her more relaxed approach to the concepts of feast days in general. I’m excited for the way our feast days will evolve over the coming years as she finds new ways to share them with her grandson.

I also gave her a book about postpartum confinement that has been out for a bit longer: The First Forty Days by Heng Ou. Now, Heng neither looks like a cousin nor do we know each other from Detroit, so my mum’s openness here is more to do with the content of the book than any parasocial relationship. As she’s preparing for my zuò yuè zi (坐月子), she has been voraciously consuming any and everything on the subject.

I hesitated to share The First Forty Days with her at first, as the book can have a bit of an LA-vibe at times and my mum has historically been dismissive of more esoteric practices and philosophies (both Eastern and Western), but she surprised me by devouring it from cover to cover and enjoying the non-food content as much as the food content. She appreciates the updated ingredients lists and the practical tips for balancing nutrition with the demands of a tiny tyrant, as well as the reminder that Chinese culture isn’t the only one that sets time aside postpartum.

I feel like we’re at a watershed where she understands the importance of traditions migrating with people but accepting their new environments, and she’s open to the idea of her own culture evolving as the world continues to turn. There’s something tangible in the air that feels like the wind of change. The Winter Solstice in western traditions is a moment of rebirth or renewal, as daylight begins to reemerge, so I’m feeling all kinds of hopeful about what this fresh cycle of the sun will bring.


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