Bean articulates Asian-American biculturalism

Cathy Bao Bean, author of The Chopsticks-Fork Principle, spoke at the convocation for Asian-American Heritage Month 2010 last Thursday evening in Paresky Theater. Her talk about negotiating bicultural identities included anecdotes from her life as a Chinese-American woman. The event was coordinated by Asian-American Students in Action (AASiA).

Bean encouraged the audience members to “look at the ordinary events in life such as bathroom etiquette, elevator behavior and the first day of school” so as to find out what is “culturally extraordinary” and embrace their own individual biculturalism. The title of her book, The Chopsticks-Fork Principle, reflects the significant differences Bean discussed in her talk by focusing on not what we eat, but also just how we eat it. Bean urged students to consider often overlooked and monotonous everyday actions as insights into how people negotiate their Western environments including homes, schools and jobs.

One particularly amusing slide in her presentation demonstrated Bean’s personal engagement with biculturalism in the context of her home: Her husband had altered a farm silo near the couple’s New Jersey residence to look like a traditional pagoda.

Bean spoke of a visit to the White House during which the Clintons honored her and her husband in an art celebration. When her mother, who had immigrated to the United States from China in the 1950s, saw a photo of her daughter and Hilary Clinton, her first comment was about the first lady’s jewelry. Bean explained that her husband’s accomplishment was overshadowed by her mother’s apparent disbelief at the “tacky Christmas lights” that adorned Hilary Clinton’s neck.

Bean’s use of humor in conveying life stories was abundant during the talk. She drew on many personal anecdotes to explain how she defied her family’s plan for her life and how her personal journey influenced her writing and family life. Bean explained to the audience that her parents chose her amongst her siblings to essentially be the family scholar. However, Bean did not see the ivory tower as part of her future, and instead married a Caucasian artist to become a writer instead. “No father – especially an immigrant from China – says to his daughter, ‘Please, marry an artist,’” Bean said to a laughing and nodding crowd. She commented further on the need to live a rewarding life regardless of expectations, especially those derived from cultural roots.

Bean then offered some preemptive parental advice as related to multiculturalism: “Children have multiple realities, fantasies, cultures, but adults ask about favorite colors and best friends, habituating them to have only one.” Bean explained that it is important to not close the door on the multiplicity of children’s identities. By accepting complexity in childhood, Bean said, children become less averse to selecting only one identity. Also, she elaborated that the process of discovering and accepting one’s bicultural identity can be difficult and, at times, painful later in life.

AASiA selected Bean for the talk because of her engaging presence and some AASiA members’ familiarity with her. “Some students had heard her speak before at a larger conference and really enjoyed her,” said Susan Yoon ’10, AASiA co-chair. “I liked how she expanded the boundaries of culturalism.” Bean’s talk was met with a round of applause, after which she spoke individually with students in Paresky.

Although Asian American Heritage Month is officially held in May, the College chose April for its celebration due to next month’s hectic end-of-year and exam schedule. A variety of events will take place this month under the larger theme of “A Taste of AASiA.” Yoon put the lecture and the Month in the larger context of broadening community understanding. “The month has events for the campus and Asian Americans that allow them to experience kinds of events not often available in such an isolated area,” she said.