The author analysis the case of an identity crisis of a young woman growing up between two different cultures.
Section I: Description of the critical incident causing le choc identitaire.
Wengun Jhuy is originally from China, she is 25 years old and moved to Italy from a little village in the Shangai province when she was 3 years old. She lived in Milan with her aunt until she got her university diploma and then moved to Rome to live with her parents, arrived from China the year before.
During her university studies, she lived at the students’ residence sharing a double room with me for a total of 3 years. We used to go out during the weekend with our friends, we studied together, we went to the students’ parties, we also decided to organize our summer holidays together with other friends ...we shared almost everything for three years! During our last academic semester we applied for the Erasmus and thus for six months we studied abroad and she went to the USA. Considering that her name was quite difficult to be correctly pronounced by me and our Italian friends, as soon as we got closer, we started calling her Jin and even if at the beginning she did not like her nickname (as it sounds exactly the same as the drink you usually drink in the pubs!), then she really started enjoying it!
At the end of our undergraduate studies, her parents “kindly suggested” her to move to Rome joining them there. Many times we talked about that and every time she did not seem to me to be happy as well as proud of that; her original plans were rather different! She would have liked to go back to the USA and apply there for a Master Programme in Business Administration...she wanted to become a manager of an important multi-national company! Moreover she confessed me her parents told her she was “too old” to keep studying...the time to marry someone and to have her own family was arrived...and even passed by!! Of course, the future husband had to be Chinese and directly appointed by her parents, no reason to chose him by herself, as in the old Chinese tradition!
At that time she was 24 years old and she confessed me she did want to become the standard Chinese wife and mother as her mother and grandmother did before her...she felt “different”, quite far from the traditions. However, she finally moved to Rome. As it usually happens in these cases, especially during her first weeks there we kept in touch...almost every night we virtually met on the internet to chat. At that time, she kept asking me about university, the lectures I was attending, the exams planned, the internship and so on...she was very curious about that.
It seemed to me that it was her way to live that kind of life she dreamt about. She barely talked about her new-Chinese life but she told me her mother continuously talked about marriage because she wanted her to get married as soon as possible.
After six months she came to visit me and the other class-mates in Milan with one of his friends but they did not want to stay at our place as thus decided to sleep at her aunt’s place. She seemed different, quite “distant”, no more interested in our affairs as she kept talking about her Chinese friends, the Buddhist temple she went every Saturday for the holy prayer and other similar issues as the little Buddha niche she had in her family house in the middle of the dining room.
Finally, before living, she announced us: “Next month I go back to China to get married”. Quite embarrassed, we asked her who was the lucky guy and she simply answered their parents introduced him to her as the two families decided to organise their marriage. I personally asked her whether she liked him and she firmly told me “I will”. After the dinner, the only thing that came into my mind was “She was no more our Jin but Wengun”.
Two months later, I got an international call from the USA, it was her saying “Hallo Chiara, it’s me Jin calling from Los Angeles!!” I was very surprised, she did not give me the time to ask any kind of question related her previous as well as new life as she immediately told me what happened to her in China. As agreed with the two families, her parents and those of this expected husband, one month after our meeting in Milan, she went to her native village together with her future husband, to prepare all the administrative documents for the wedding.
As a matter of fact, one day she went to the office of the village to sign some document and while she was there waiting her turn, she saw a young Chinese girl, probably 18 years old, perfectly dressed in the traditional Chinese dress with her future husband, ready for the wedding ceremony. Jin looked at her, her way of acting, in particular her typical Chinese walk-style, and also her way of looking at her husband. Right after that, Jin decided to leave...
The process whereby she completely changed her mind started in the exact moment in which she was the Chinese girl, in that moment Jin realised she was not so different from her, she could not recognise herself any longer. The way the young girl was dressed was exactly the same of hers (meaning the traditional Chinese dress), the way she looked into the eyes of the man next to her before signing the wedding contract made Jin immediately reflect on her own relationship with his future husband, a stranger to her (as for her counterpart), someone appointed by her parents and not chosen by her.
For a while, when Jin saw the young Chinese, she said to herself “She is too young to get married and then it is clear she does not love him, how can she do that?”. Immediately after Jin realised she was looking at her as in a mirror: she was the (still) young girl wearing a traditional wedding dress ready to marry someone not truly loved.
At the time being, she is in the USA studying Business Administration and she is not married!!
Section II: Case analysis.
Wengun Jhuy was born in China but she grew up in one of the most important and rich city in Italy, Milan, surrounded by Italian friends. Although she lived with her aunt, she went to the Italian public school, going out with Italian guys and girls, eating pizza, pasta and even hamburger with them. Especially at university she totally shared her life with Italians without feeling as a foreigner! The cultural system ( cadre de reference) related to the typical way of living she referred to, mainly consisted in the occidental one: guys and girls leave their parents’ place to attend the university, the go out together, they usually study at university until they are 24 years old (or more!), they find a job and then one day the meet someone with whom they fall in love and they get married.
Men and women have the same duties and same rights, both can also live alone without never getting married; as a matter of fact, someone who gets married at 20years old is an exception! Even though she looked physically Chinese she totally shared the Italian values, she felt to be Italian, and she lived in this way since she had to move to Rome at her parent's place, forced to quit university.
Once in Rome, the cultural context she faced was rather different than the one she used to refer to: it was the traditional Chinese system of values. The traditional Chinese system is a culture that has evolved for thousands and thousands of years and contains a strong enchantment with history; for these reasons, people of the west part of the world, find both traditional and modern Chinese life full of mystery as it can be difficult to understand. The same has been for Jin as she grew up in an Occidental system of values.
In this new system in which she was forced to live, family life has always been extremely important to Chinese culture as Chinese use to live in large family units and, even when they expatriate and live in smaller units, family still remains a major issue. As a matter of fact, relationships within families are very important as well as extremely formal as certain formal rules need to be respected by both counterparts. Family honour has also very much emphasized as members of every family are expected to know their right place in the society. It means that also younger generations (as in the case of Jin) need to give the family name a good reputation as they represent the family.
To this effect, older members of the family, especially parents, expected their children to show unquestioning obedience, even (and above all) for marriages as they concern both families. Weddings are still usually arranged by parents as they concern the whole family and not only the future husband/wife; the majority of Chinese marriages are usually decided when the children are only infants.
Another important issue to be taken into account is the Chinese dressing-style: an outstanding characteristic of traditional Chinese clothing is not only an external expression of elegance, but also an internal symbolism. Each and every “piece” of traditional clothing communicates a vitality of its own. This combination of external form with internal symbolism is self-evident in every occasion and although the way of life now is much modernized, especially for expatriates, traditional values of family importance and reputation still is felt by all members. As Jin arrived in Rome, she barely accepted the above mentioned cadre de reference: the intensive way we kept in touch almost each day and also her deep and continuous interest in my life at university demonstrated her disease.
Throughout our exchange and the questions she continuously asked me, she wanted to be involved in that cultural system, trying to know as much as she could. She barely accepted the new context she was experiencing and thus she also refused to talk about that. As a matter of fact, her first reaction was to put all her efforts not to be taken away from her previous life and all the values she used to refer to when she was in Milan. Her decision not to answer my questions on her “new-traditional” Chinese life and also her silence, were the evident proofs of this reaction.
However, during the six months she lived in the cultural system of her parents (the Chinese one) her previous (Italian) identity as well as her values have made her feelings as a foreigner: she needed to feel and to be considered as a member of that group. Her first month was rather difficult as she felt different and she also perceived this difference by looking at the others’ behaviours. However she did not want to be excluded by her cousins, her relatives and her new friends, she barely liked the idea to feel as a foreigner and thus she put all her efforts trying to seem no longer a stranger but a member of the community, one of them, someone who shared the same values and principles. The way the others saw her became very important to her in the specific context (Tap, 1986). She started wearing the traditional Chinese dresses, going to the Buddhist temple and accepting to be called again Wengun.
The process whereby she wanted to become a perfect Chinese also highly influenced her decision to marry the guy her parents introduced to her. Also the fact that, she wanted us to call her Wengun by using her real name can be interpreted as a sign of her desire to be considered a member of the Chinese community. As in Markus and Kitayama (1991) in the Japanese context (as well as in the other oriental communities like the Chinese) the social role of the individual in the society is considered to be relevant. One of the most important aspects determining the personal satisfaction is the capacity of the individual to be in harmony with the others and the social context in which someone lives.
Even the definition itself of one’ s own identity is conceived as interdependent with the others meaning that it is highly influenced by the social context. The others, in this case, Wengun’s parents, friends, cousins, neighbours etc, played a relevant role in defining her social identity. Thus, the role of the others in defining her social identity as well as the context surrounding her (the Chinese community in Rome as well as the Chinese village where she was to get married) should be considered two key-dimensions.
Although during the dinner we had in Milan she acted as a perfect Chinese, she did not realized how much she has been influenced during her stay in Rome, she seemed to be perfectly comfortable with the Chinese lifestyle and with her Chinese boyfriend. However, there is a precise moment in which she realized her identity had been menaced: the wedding ceremony in China. When she saw the young Chinese girl, she immediately realized she was living exactly the same situation. An in-dept conflict arisen, her identity, her selfhood, the way she was, had been fragmented (in the sense of fragmentation du moi); a conflict arise between the social identity (the role she played in Rome in the Chinese community) and the personal identity.
At the beginning she felt confused: she was proud of her transformation, her ability to perfectly fit in the Chinese cultural, but at the same time she was totally angry for having lost her identity and the control she had on her life. The “exit strategy” implemented has been drastic and very effective: quitting China. As in Camilleri (1990), the following areas had been touched in a way of menacing the selfhood: (i) differences within the structure of the family, (ii) differences related to the sociability, especially in terms of codes, (iii) differences related to the religious spheres and (iv) differences in representing the cultural change.
Concerning the inter-groups dimensions (Tajfel and Turner, 1986) there is a clear trend within the group to valorise the members of the group itself, mainly highlighting all their positive aspects in relation to the other not members. In such a way, the social dimension of a group is even more stressed and the social identity of each one become very important. As Wengun arrived in Rome she immediately experienced this feeling as everyone around her wanted her to play a certain role within their group. During the dinner we had in Milan, the words she used to valorise what she was doing within the Chinese group are a clear example of that.
In a certain way, by highlighting the importance of going to the Buddhist temple, being an “expert” of the tea traditional ceremony and talking about the value of having a Buddha niche in her apartment, she was under-estimating the other group (us, the Italians) underling our negative aspects. Also her decision not to sleep in the campus with the other students is strictly connected to the above mentioned intergroup relations. Moreover, it is possible to analyse this case on the basis of the Codol scheme of analysis and, in particular, deeply analyse the four identity’s dimensions to be menaced in this intercultural situation. It is then possible to apply the four Codol’s components (1981) to this specific case of conflit identitaire and to the four steps in which it is realized:
(i) she realizes to be different (as she moved to her parents’ place),
(ii) she starts respecting the social and cultural rules of the new Chinese context (mainly when she goes to the temple, wearing the traditional dress and deciding to marry a Chinese guy appointed by her parents),
(iii) she does not recognize her anymore (when she is China for her wedding and
(iv) she leaves everything flying to the USA.
More specifically, the four Codol’s dimensions applied to the text are:
- Sentiment de sa différence: she feels to be different, not physically speaking as she looks like as a perfect Chinese young lady, but in the cultural sense of the word. She used to dress jeans, drinking coke and not the tea in the afternoon and, above, she spoke better English and Italian (with the Milanese accent) in stead of Chinese! As soon as she moved to her parents’ place in Rome she immediately felt this difference: she also perceived this strange feeling surrounding her and she tried not to be directly involved in the traditional events (as for the tea) or the prayer of the Saturday. As in Kondo (1990), she becomes a bit agoraphobe as she started avoiding all these situations, feeling comfortable only at night chatting with her Italian friends. All the others, especially her parents and family’s friends, played a relevant role in defining her social identity.
- Sentiment de sa permanence: even though after a couple of months, she started to be more and more involved in the cultural and social rules/roles of the context surrounding her, she continued perceiving her as the same. She had this feeling of seeing herself always as Jin, even though she started going to the Buddhist temple, wearing traditional Chinese dresses and perfectly serving the Chinese tea. Although the different roles she was playing she had the feeling of being always the same, exactly the same person she was before living her room in the campus in Milan. The feeling of a temporal continuity was perceived by her.
- Sentiment de sa cohérence: concerning the spatial dimension, she experienced the need of taking off all of those elements, creating a sense of incoherence. In such a way she needed to be perceived and to feel not as a foreigner in that specific social context. The coherence related to the context as well as the one related to the time passed by (as for the previous point) is a crucial dimension: she felt the importance of being one the group, not a stranger.
- Valorisation: she totally tended to valorise her self, her role in the Chinese group and her social strengths, in the sense of control to be done on everything around her. Her activities in the temple, her capacities of serving the tea and all these qualities/aspects considered to be important by the group and by her were often valorised. She defiantly had a great esteem of herself and her role in the society in terms of capabilities and possibilities of controlling what happened around her.
By looking at the other Chinese girl ready for her marriage, le decalage arose and the only way for Wengun Jhuy to not to loose her identity was to quit China and go back to the USA.