Rituals sustain dual-culture identity

August 07, 1999

Chicago, Ill. --- Everyday routine rituals such as dining practices, work and family activities play an important role in the development of a bicultural ethnic character, sociologists say.

"In race relations research, most assimilation theories assume that the immigrant minorities gradually adopt the host society's culture," says Dr. Jian Guan, assistant professor of sociology at Penn State's Delaware County Campus in the Philadelphia area.

"Cultural pluralism theories look at how immigrants retain their distinctive heritage while interacting with the larger host society, but these theories fail to adequately explain the mechanisms of biculturalism -- how a group can practice two cultures at the same time."

"Our research analyzed the mechanics of people's daily lives and their impact in supporting a bicultural identity," Guan says. "We looked at ritualized practices and activities that permeate their lives daily or weekly in both formal settings like work and school and informal settings like home and recreation. "

Guan and J. David Knottnerus of Oklahoma State University presented their results today (Aug. 7) at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association held here.

The sociologists applied structural reutilization theory to an analysis of older and newer generations of Chinese Americans in contemporary American society. Structural reutilization examines a group's symbolic practices and interprets them by a ritual's level of importance to the groups' activities, the frequency with which the ritual is practiced, the perceived similarity among different rituals among groups, and resources available to the practice of a ritual by the groups.

The older generation of Chinese Americans, mainly from pre-World War II southern China, lived and worked within the isolated boundaries of Chinatowns due to economic and legal barriers created by prejudice. Daily behavior and routines followed by the older generation emphasized traditional family relationships -- the father as head of the family and the mother in the caretaker role -- speaking Chinese nearly exclusively, conducting business and socializing only within the Chinese community, and a strict etiquette code based on social status.

The newer, post-WWII generation, including American born and more recent immigrants, were professionals and intellectuals, urbanized and English-speaking. They broadened their choice of education, careers and residential locations, often in the suburbs. This group worked in mainstream American companies, lived in neighborhoods with mostly white Americans and sent their children to schools with majority of white Americans.

Yet this newer generation has not been completely assimilated into the majority culture, although they enjoy participating in the majority environment, the sociologists say. Despite higher educational and income achievements, this group has encountered prejudice and barriers to higher social and political status. Therefore, they have maintained their ties to their original culture and identity, resulting in cultural dualism or biculturalism, say the researchers.

Rituals followed by both Chinese generations include dining practices such as eating together in a group without television and sharing food already cut into small pieces and served on communal plates. Families assemble in frequent family gatherings i.e. weddings and birthdays, and observe Chinese holidays, even if they live far away from Chinatown, the researchers say.

Parents also send their children to Chinese schools and language centers on the weekends to supplement their American education, appreciate Chinese arts and music, attend Chinese churches and retain friendships with other Chinese families, the sociologists say.

The globalization of politics and economies has attracted attention from the ethnic communities living in America. As Asian countries affect U.S. government and economic policies, many Chinese Americans have extended their contact activities to people in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. For example, some Chinese American churches have hosted visiting students from the People's Republic of China and added a Mandarin service to current services in English and Cantonese.

"This dualistic bicultural character is the outcome of a variety of social forces and dynamics operating within the host American society, the ethnic group itself and the global environment," say Guan and Knottnerus. "Although interacting regularly with the larger society in work, school and mass media, the newer generation has to retreat to their own ethnic group for social support when faced with discrimination. Such a condition makes it more likely and not a contradiction for the group to practice dualistic rituals in their everyday lives"
EDITORS: Dr. Guan is at 610-892-1452 or at jxg30@psu.edu by e-mail

Penn State

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