I took Dillon and one of his classmates to the Chinese New Year parade in Chicago’s Chinatown yesterday. You have to love culture in an urban environment: there were dragons and lion dancers and colorful floats from various Asian-American Chambers of Commerce, but also the Irish Shamrock Rovers and marching bands and drill teams from a few area high schools, comprised of mostly African-American students. What I enjoyed most about the day as we dined at a Chinese restaurant, was my Brazilian/Jewish 7 year old explaining to the out of town visitor from Lithuania at the table next to us, the significance of his brightly colored shirt (good luck) and the red envelopes (to give gifts of money, in even numbers), to the Chinese New Year. I loved that we could be a bridge to help perpetuate cross-cultural understanding by sharing our knowledge and empathy.
However, without diminishing the value of this “cultural tourism” experience, I also recognize that it can’t be left in isolation. As we neared our destination yesterday, the boys looked at the car next to us, and my son said, “Hey, there’s a Chinese man in that car,” as though it were something different-part of ‘our’ cultural experience of visiting Chinatown. Lamely, I said something like “Oh, maybe he’s going to the parade too,” or “maybe his lives in Chinatown.” Why did the boys feel it was so out of the ordinary that they needed to announce that the man was Chinese, and how did I perpetuate the idea of “otherness” by basically stating that if he was Chinese, he must live in Chinatown.
The boys had learned about the Chinese New Year at school this week, I googled and printed out fast facts about the Chinese New Year from blogs and websites to read over lunch, and I enjoyed the familiarity that our ‘pre-study’ afforded us during our experience of the event. For that knowledge, the true interest of the kids and the delighted, surprised smiles we elicited as we shouted “Kung Hei Fat Choy,” (Chinese blessing for prosperity and future success-not Happy New Year, as I had thought). I am grateful. But I’m also keenly aware of the ongoing follow up work I need to do so that rather than being a single event with a start and finish, it becomes part of the ongoing thread in developing an intercultural conscience.
Did you celebrate the Chinese New Year? How? How would you have responded to a child’s announcement of the neighboring driver’s presumed cultural identity? Was it simply a statement of fact, and am I projecting my own unconscious biases by so deeply analyzing it?