First, you must make two assumptions: one, that you are bicultural in some way. Two, you must (or pretend to) have a sense of humor. This is how writer Cathy Bao Bean opened her presentation to the Chinese Heritage Foundation last October. In her in presentation that served as both a memoir and teaching lesson, Bao Bean expanded on how her own experiences of growing up as an immigrant, marrying a Caucasian American artist, and raising a biracial family
shaped what she refers to as “The Chopstick Fork Principle.” In its essence, it is an idea on how to approach diversity and multiculturalism in a world where many people take several cultural excursions every day. In her talk and accompanying book, Bao Bean utilizes her own stories and anecdotes as an immigrant as a framework in which every person can make their personal cultural journey in understanding others as well as themselves.
Bao Bean was born in the little town of Bao Kwei-yeein, China, and immigrated to Brooklyn, New York, with her family. Her family finally settled in Elmwood Park, New Jersey, where she, in her own words, “learned to think in English and forget in Chinese.” In America at the time, there was nothing remotely close to ESL classes, so the growing pains every immigrant child experiences are doubled when the mannerisms and traditions of a new environment are vastly different from your own culture at home. In grade school, Bean Bao and her sister struggled with both understanding their studies as well as their teachers.
There weren’t many Chinese immigrants living in the United States during the ‘50s and ‘60s. As young immigrant children, Bao Bean and her sister found they not only struggled to understand their identity within their own culture, but had to juxtapose Chinese thinking within the perspectives of an American community. There were many obstacles; and the path to overcoming them, as Bao Bean points out, is found in many different and complex ways.
Although Bao Bean faced fewer language barriers in her transition to college and adulthood than in her earlier years, she still had to address cultural and personal barriers. In graduate school, Bao Bean met her future husband, a ceramics graduate student with many of the same qualities as her: curiosity, humor, and courage to change. These were qualities that she admired, but her Chinese family didn’t see him as “proper marriage material.” She noted, “No father - especially an immigrant from China - says to his daughter, ‘Please, marry an artist.’.” But she did, and together the couple discovered that their carefree and unstructured attitudes toward life were not just encompassed within their own cultural standards, but were more of personality traits of two extroverted creative-types.
Bao Bean’s experiences as a professor, business owner and mother bloomed and she showed great empathy for others, instead of reacting emotionally. Where many of her neighbors presumed that she was a maid, she found the stereotype comprehensible in light that many of them had only seen immigrants within those roles. Only a decade ago the Washington Post headlined that 20-25 percent of the United States viewed Asians in a negative light. Instead of jumping on the bandwagon that this country would never accept Chinese culture, Bao Bean took the high road – 75 percent approval is not perfect, but it’s not too bad. Bao Bean’s stories, from early childhood through school to becoming a wife and mother, serve as anecdotal lessons of how one should approach diversity, multiculturalism and society in general. The blurred line where dysfunctional stereotypes meet functional generalizations should be met with both sincerity and humor; if you aren’t going to see to funny side of culture mixing, then you probably aren’t going to have much fun with it either. Bean Bao’s attitude toward her life’s challenges is uplifting. Never fitting into society’s structures, her lack of pessimism is a way to deal with others who saw her race, gender, or carefree attitude in a negative light. When it came to understanding Chinese or American cultures Bean Bao’s advice is to always approach it with enthusiasm and discovery. As she put it, “You must find the extraordinary in the ordinary.” In our desperate search within our own past, own family, and our own cultures, it is equally important to look at the little things, from fashion to food to elevator etiquette, and have fun along the way.
This method of embracing cultural differences while maintaining respect for each one is how Cathy Bao Bean came up with the title of her book. On its surface,” The Chopstick Fork Principle” serves as reflection on the incredible journey one immigrant’s life story from a tiny village in China to become a business leader, teacher and mother in America. Where many may build barriers between different American cultures, Bao Bean encourages us that although never easy to understand ourselves or other cultures, we must at least be willing to fail and try again.
Editor’s Note: This presentation was sponsored by Chinese Heritage Foundation Friends
which included a book signing and an optional dinner with Cathy Bao Bean at David Fong’s
Restaurant in Bloomington, Minnesota.