"Gan bei!" I raised a glass of beer above the fish balls, crab legs, spring rolls and steaming hot pot for a cheers with a 78-year-old patriarch. I was having quite a lot of fun this Chinese New Year in Fuzhuo China with my host family — perhaps more fun than with my own family in Christmastime Australia.
I’d only known my hosts for a couple of days and they spoke nearly no English, yet I still felt comfortable, as though I was just another nephew who had returned home for the holiday.The next day, I began thinking about why I didn’t feel as comfortable with my own family during the holidays, and got the sense that my time at home, although full of love, was also filled with arguments. Sometimes these arguments were about social or political issues in which my opinions had changed since leaving for university, but most of the arguments dealt with my independence.
Back home, I'd have frequent conflicts about minor issues like staying up late, eating unhealthy food or wearing my pajamas all day. While criticism about these habits from my parents was not new, I felt as though I had grown independent and mature enough while abroad to be able to control what I did without their input. Their input, although I knew it came from a caring place, felt belittling.
Drenched in sweat, with my thighs throbbing in exhaustion, I stopped beneath a gazebo for lunch. As I hungrily consumed mandarins and dumplings prepared by my host mother, I realized that I actually had less independence in Fuzhou than at home. My hosts were choosing my activities and my meals and insisting that I be home by 5 p.m. for dinner. Yet somehow, in this environment, I was enjoying relinquishing control.
I figured I was able to enjoy myself simply because I was viewing the situation differently. In Fuzhou, because I was an ignorant outsider, I had consciously decided to let my hosts make decisions for me. This acceptance of my position allowed me to enjoy and embrace it more.
I wondered if the young people in my host family felt comfortable in their familial role, or if they felt the need to strive for independence like I did at home. I spent the next few days observing the way members my age interacted with their parents at lunch and dinner. While I couldn’t understand what they were talking about, I noticed there were no arguments or anger. The young people also seemed to enjoy the time they were spending with their family — no one was distracted by their mobile phones or wanting to spend their time somewhere else.
I wanted to know whether this behavior was specific to my host family or part of a broader Chinese cultural trend. While researching, I came across a passage by the Chinese philosopher Confucius. His statement, “Let the prince be a prince, the minister a minister, the father a father and the son a son,” seemed to enforce my observations about people accepting their roles in the family unit.
Perhaps I had unknowingly adopted a Confucian ideology of acceptance here in Fuzhou that allowed me to enjoy myself more. Perhaps, too, this Confucian ideology was influencing the way the young people in my host family interacted with their parents, allowing them to live in the moment more effectively.
As my wonderful holiday came to a close, I had gained a newfound appreciation for interdependent and collectivist ways of living, along with a budding interest in Confucian philosophy. Perhaps as I return to the individualistic life of a study abroad student, I will be more willing to accept my role in the various groups in which I find myself. While I don’t hope to give up my individualism entirely, I hope that by deciding to relinquish a little control, I can be more comfortable and have more fun.
Daniel Brown is a columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.