Discussion with a first-generation immigrant: Preserving traditional culture

March 15, 2023 — by Zack Zhang
Seeing my younger siblings grow up and lose grasp of our traditional culture in only three years since moving to the U.S. has me wondering: How can we preserve, celebrate and pass down traditional culture in a foreign country?

Xin nian kuai le!” 

My family greeted two other friends’ families at the dinner table in celebration of Lunar New Year here in late January. It’s the most special time of year: Red paper lanterns hung from the ceiling and intricate traditional paper cuttings of fu, or the Chinese symbol for luck, stuck to the windows. My grandparents busily worked in the kitchen, nimble fingers wrapping skillfully around soft thin circles of dough for dumplings. Several younger children, thrilled, jumped in excitement to receive red envelopes filled with money. 

Still, this celebration was muted compared with what we experienced in China. Unlike there, nothing but silence and darkness pervaded outside. The red decorations here attempt to be similar, but in place of the universal warmth and popularity of the celebrations typical in China — where whole streets and communities are covered in red lanterns, for instance — gatherings are fewer and smaller in a land thousands of miles away and across an ocean. 

This is only my third year in the U.S. after immigrating to the Bay Area in 2020, but that sense of emptiness when celebrating traditional festivals in a different cultural environment sometimes overwhelms me and reminds me of the struggles of being a newcomer caught between two worlds.

On the other hand, my younger siblings, who are ages 6 and 9, have readily assimilated into American culture and treat the Chinese traditions I hold dear with relative indifference. I see how they don’t have any early memories of grand New Year’s celebrations in China and grow increasingly distant from our traditional culture — they can’t read or write Chinese, and they question why we still keep and treasure many ancient practices today. 

To them, traditional festivals do not hold any special meaning; rather, it is just a day when they can enjoy a grander family dinner and have some extra free time. 

To my disappointment, my siblings look forward to and know much more about Western holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas compared to traditional Chinese festivals since they are surrounded by Western culture daily at school. 

While the reality upsets me, it also inspires me to learn more about the growing distance between immigrants and our traditional culture and how we can prevent it. 

My father’s journey to the U.S. — racism, assimilation and preservation of culture

My father Heng Zhang, now 44, experienced the most dramatic change of his life when he immigrated to the U.S. with my family three years ago for my siblings’ and my education. To this day, the new language, environment and way of living in America still challenge my family in day-to-day interactions. 

When my father moved to the U.S., he often experienced discrimination in the form of both overt racism and commonplace microaggressions. While immigrants who experience prejudice because of their cultural background may feel embarrassed about their heritage, which can then contribute to a loss of cultural identity as they try to assimilate into their new culture, experiencing racism first-hand only further affirmed my father’s love for his culture.

“I remember going to a local pizza restaurant one time where I had experienced the most racism,” my father told me. “Our white teenage waitress rolled her eyes at me and showed visible impatience whenever I stuttered and spoke English with an accent. I have always known racism is an issue but never experienced it this closely myself. I felt extremely unpleasant and disgusted after that experience, but at the same time, I never felt ashamed of my home culture or the mother language I speak.”

In part due to the racism he was facing, my father made friends he believed would help him recapture the familiar Chinese culture he left behind. However, despite most of his friends sharing the same cultural roots, their unified cultural identity — the sense of belonging to a particular group based on a deep understanding of various cultural practices — had been eroded by the Western culture and environment over time.

“Before coming to the U.S., I had imagined numerous times how immigrants of my culture would keep the celebration of festivals and cherish the traditions,” my father said. “But shockingly, the reality is so different from what I expected: Immigrants who have parted from the old culture for a long time have little regard for the traditional festival, and some of them don’t even know the dates [of cultural holidays].”

To my father, traditional culture is not just the clothing, cuisine or language of a group. At its core, culture comprises the values and practices passed down from generation to generation. 

As such, although my father still keeps in touch with the groups who have lost their cultural understanding, he makes closer friendships with the few who celebrate and cherish culture the same way he does. 

“Losing connection with one’s own culture is scary because tradition often embodies important values and beliefs that have been shaped over generations,” my father told me. “When these values are lost, society may become more individualistic and lacking in social cohesion.” 

Use of language to strengthen connection to traditional culture

Having to fit into a new environment at such a young age, my younger siblings face the pressure to conform to their new culture without the maturity expected of young adults well beyond their years. My siblings have to adapt, learn, accept and balance two different cultures simultaneously and struggle from the pull of acculturation, which has led them to detach from their traditional culture. 

As the oldest child in my family who spent 13 years in my home country, watching my two younger siblings integrate into the U.S. so well and so quickly makes me feel exceptionally happy from the bottom of my heart. Yet, it’s also frightening for me — for one thing, they’ve forgotten how to speak their mother language in just a little over three years. 

I feel upset, worried and powerless to reverse the change, having experienced the arduous and gradual process of losing cultural connection with my siblings. It begs the question: Is there a way to prevent the younger generation of immigrants from losing connection with their culture and country?

One way to help young immigrants engender a closer connection with their culture is through language — a key gateway to culture as it intertwines with its traditions, values and beliefs. My father, worried he would lose touch with his children if they became distanced from their Chinese heritage, also brought classical Chinese readings, a practice that has since become an enjoyable family pastime. By learning their cultural language, the younger generation can gain a deeper understanding of their heritage and the practices associated with it. 

For young immigrants who may feel trapped between two cultures, learning their mother language not only helps build a stronger sense of cultural identity, but also improves their communication with family members who speak little to no English. By understanding and embracing traditional culture, the younger generation can feel more grounded and confident about themselves.

In the case of my family, my grandparents, who visit back and forth between China and the U.S., speak no English, and they are already struggling to communicate with my young siblings who are immersed in an entirely English-speaking environment at school and other activities. As an older brother, I try to engage them in more Mandarin at home — the only place where they can be exposed to the language with their parents and grandparents. I am relieved my siblings were able to engage more in family conversations, connect closer with our grandparents and further appreciate the cultural norms. 

Personally, I find it helpful to consistently practice my Mandarin and learn Chinese history through historical documents. During this process of holding onto my roots, I re-establish my relationship to my culture. 

Striking a balance between assimilation and tradition 

The shift in the way people celebrate traditional festivals is not unique to the U.S.; it is a phenomenon that also occurs back home in China. 

In my father’s childhood, for example, he recalled that children looked forward to the new year for new clothes and a lavish feast. To him, that same level of excitement is now hard to come by.

“Since the quality of people’s lives has improved so much as the years go by, it is hard for the younger generations today to relate to that sort of experience 30 to 40 years ago,” my father said.

While some slight changes in the way people celebrate festivals are to be expected over time, my father sees the necessity for later generations to keep in mind what elements can be changed or compromised and what should not.

“I am also trying to find a way to balance assimilation and tradition for myself as I stay longer in the U.S.,” my father said. “Much different from my younger children’s situation, assimilation is harder for me than keeping hold of the traditions; I have spent half of my life in China and, essentially, since I do not have an immersive environment for language and culture in the U.S., it is challenging for me to fit into non-Asian groups.” 

While this shift in how people celebrate Lunar New Year and its weakening significance in foreign countries can be attributed to limited cultural resources, new immigrants like myself may find it challenging to recreate the same excitement from their home country. The population of another culture is, after all, a minority in the foreign country; my family and I face the reality of attending smaller and more intimate celebrations. 

As a result, the heterogeneity and preservation of my culture are sacrificed. I can only try my best to preserve the most important elements of traditional practices to blend with components from the new culture. 

To me, finding a balance between assimilation and the preservation of traditional culture is especially important because it allows individuals and communities to maintain their inherited cultural identities while also adapting to a new environment. Having experienced the difficulty of trying to fit in without any prior knowledge, I know very well that the process is slow and painful. 

I had my first ever American school experience at Miller Middle School on Feb. 26, 2020, a date I will remember for the rest of my life; however, the haunting memory of introducing myself in front of the whole class and making sentences out of only a few English words I knew left a scar on my confidence even till this day. 

Coming to a foreign country without the ability to communicate in their language was scary, but joining a school in the middle of the year was even worse because students already formed their friends groups and social circles. No matter how much I tried to talk first or show kindness to people around me, real friendships seemed out of touch. 

Ironically, the outbreak of COVID-19 that forced the school to shut down saved me from experiencing the torture and unwillingness to go to school at the time. 

Everything took a positive turn in my freshman year]. Not only had my English skills made a giant leap over the years, but there were also a considerable number of students from other school districts just like me. I was glad to no longer be quite an outsider like I was in middle school. I quickly adapted to the setting of an in-person school that had gone long-missing for years and made lots of close friends who do not look at me with sympathy or pity.  

Interestingly, once I found a middle point between the two cultures, I gained an alternate perspective when solving problems in life. It allowed me to be open-minded whenever I approached different situations or beliefs. Especially in school, I am friendly and understanding when interacting with different people since I do not hold any judgmental view on their ideas. 

This balance between various cultures has improved in the last few years. My father believes these traditions have recently made a resurgence, in part due to the increasing number of Chinese immigrants to the U.S., which peaked at over 2.5 million in 2019.“Because the number of Chinese immigrants has increased over the years, many traditional cultures are restored in people’s hearts again,” my father said. “Especially after the California governor recognized Lunar New Year as a state holiday last year, I feel proud and glad the festival is being celebrated more widely. With more public appreciation, I believe traditional cultures will grow back. I hope my children will pass down the traditions, practices and values which were brought from their mother country by first-generation immigrants like me.”

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