Discharging Chinese Internalized Oppression

From talks given by Francie Chew at the West Coast USA Chinese Workshops September 1998 and August 1999.

I want to explore how Chinese internalized oppression affects our lives as Chinese living in the United States.

We learn in RC that the content of much of our “personal” distress is the internalized oppression we carry. Its original source is the oppression that came from outside or that came at our families or someone earlier in our culture.

RC theory also says we can choose to look at that internalized oppression and discharge it. At the same time, we get to take initiative and actually go out and try to change things.

Many things about Chinese culture affect us. One that affected my own life a great deal comes from values dating from Confucius, about 2500 years ago. In old China if you had a son, you could educate that son. Imperial exams were held periodically, and if your son was bright, he could learn certain kinds of things. If he did well on the exams, he could then become part of the power structure. Even the poorest family had the potential for a son to rise and bring the entire family up. Of course this sets up a few expectations on the son, doesn’t it? (laughter) I think part of this is a brilliant idea, a kind of brain drain. You get the brightest. But it was also insidious. As long as even the poorest families had hope that they might be able to gain power and influence and material comfort for the family, nobody would challenge anything. People said, “We’ll just work harder and make it within the system.”

The examination system and other efforts to unify Chinese culture had even more insidious effects. There is still an idea that Chinese culture is monolithic “from the Emperor on down”—even though the Chinese Emperor has not existed for generations. “The Chinese Culture!” In thousands of years of recorded history, we absorbed everybody. (laughter) (Or that’s what the Chinese like to think. Don’t ask anybody of the more than fifty ethnic heritages that exist in China about that. Or Southeast Asians whose countries were influenced by the Chinese. China got only acquiescence.) The message of this culture is: You are only worth as much as you can produce. You’re fundamentally worthless because you can be replaced, because there are so many of us. That’s particularly true if you are female. But it is also true if you are male, because your only worth is in terms of how you can work. Your thinking is not valued.

Furthermore, if you do dare to put yourself in a position of leadership, you become a target for attack and criticism. Fitting into the system is so important for survival that if you care about somebody, for example your children, you try in the “best” way possible to prepare them to be able to fit into society. Parents care very much about their children. Chinese figured out something about their very young children that is very precious. For older children, though, it starts to get hard. Doing something wrong and getting somebody mad at you could result in death. It was that serious.

So what if you disagreed with the system? You had a couple of options. First, you could make a decision to disagree but not show it. If it is not safe to make your opinion public, it is also not safe to openly care for somebody.

My father and I could sit close—shoulder-to-shoulder—but not figure out how to communicate. I wanted to ask him what it was like working in a cigar factory, what it was like being a house boy. I couldn’t.

Showing each other that we care would help shift that distress. It would also help shift that distress to realize that we are precious and in any relationship we get to stand up for ourselves and not just endure. We are good at enduring. (laughter)

Now you might ask, “Why bother? Life is comfortable now. We are doing quite well.” But enduring (and being quiet) is just one thing you can do when you disagree.

Second, you can “go underground” and hide your disagreement. But it is still there. You haven’t given it up. Chinese can hold grudges . . . for a long time. They get passed from generation to generation. Revenge is a big tradition. So is rebellion.

What happens if you take grudge-holding tendencies into your workplace? Here’s an example I’ve experienced: You decide you have a great idea. You recruit your friends to help you. Somebody higher up gets a little upset and says, “Don’t do that.” What do you do? One possibility is to say, “I am taking my toys and going home.” You leave the system. You don’t participate. You don’t accord the system any worth or contribute your thinking. Another possibility is that you make trouble. You say, “I’m right! I’m the only one who is right, and you are all stupid!” Anybody ever have this thought? (laughter) You think, “I’ve been silent for so long, I’d better contradict this by standing up for myself.” Then we do self-righteous rebellion. But it doesn’t help. It’s a pattern.

I would like to encourage us to get to the root of this pattern if we can. It affects us. It has affected me in many ways. It has paralyzed me from being able to see that I can deal with human relationships in flexible ways. I get in big fights, and then there is nothing left to do but walk out. (laughter) This is not a good situation.

* * * *

I want to talk more about us getting close to each other as Chinese living in the United States. Living for an extended time outside China or being born and raised outside China, you acquire an extra degree of isolation. It comes from experiencing oppression because of language, skin color, and minority status.

I have been the coordinator of graduate studies for my department. We recruit a small number of students from China every year. I have noticed that when I ask about travel arrangements and try to help with housing plans, they always ask, “Can you give me the contact for the Chinese students’ club?” They have the full expectation that if I provide them with this students’ club contact, they are going to be able to make their needs known and someone is going to help them because they are Chinese. Before I know it, they have everything all arranged. They have e-mailed someone Chinese they do not know.

Side by side with mutual aid, we have Chinese self-reliance. Self-reliance is good in one sense. Many of us feel we would not be anywhere without this pattern. But if we are going to give mutual aid and remake connections that have been taken from us by oppression, we have to give up one piece connected to the pattern. That piece says, “I am not going to let you know what I am thinking.” If you hide what you think, you make it hard for Co-Counselors to do their work. We need to get close, be tender toward each other, and be open. Not hide. Remember, Co-Counselors have the same commitment to each other as family from the point of view of believing, “We can help you. You can help us.”

As the oldest child, I was often put in charge of my two brothers when my parents were away. My version of this big-sister thing was: “Take care of yourselves. Leave me alone. I want to do my own thing.” (laughter) Having that attitude toward my brothers, I would not be surprised when they would angrily say, “You don’t care. Okay, we’ll go off and take care of ourselves.” And I would think, “They are taking care of themselves.” We’d get this cycle going. (laughter) Yes, I am taking care of them, but I don’t know what they are thinking or feeling.

If we are able to counsel each other, our attitudes will shift. We’ll begin to think, “If something happens, I will do my best thinking and probably be adequate to the task.” This is a fundamentally different mindset from “I am small and can’t do anything.” But we can’t do the necessary Co-Counseling work without being completely open to each other. When you risk being open, you risk someone getting mad at you or upset. In the old days, you risked the Chinese version of “off with your head.” Probably the heads of your family, too. Then, it was not safe to share secrets. As immigrants in this country, it also wasn’t safe to show yourself. It was taken as a sign of weakness. Now, I am suggesting that we risk showing ourselves, no matter how humiliating or embarrassing it may feel.

* * * * *

Harvey Jackins died last month. I would like you to have an opportunity to counsel about that. If you have found Co-Counseling in any way useful, know that he is the foremost developer and theoretician of Co-Counseling. I’d like us to “bury our dead” that way.

I’ll tell one story about Harvey. He died right after an international RC conference in mid-July. At the conference two delegates from China and I had supper with him. We discussed plans for connections between the RC overseas Chinese Community and the RC Community in China. He gave us permission and joked, “How much money do you need?”

 I said I thought we could probably raise some money.

He said, “What! You will not use this Chinese self-reliance pattern! My money isn’t good enough for you?”

* * * * *

By “burying our dead” I simply mean taking the trouble to counsel on difficult experiences of the past. I think it is important for us overseas Chinese. People who are not Asian can be under the impression that we are a “model minority.” They expect we are able to do certain things. Our parents expect we are able to do certain things. But we Chinese raised in the United States have gone through, and survived, a lot.

Jim Lin and Karl Lam have written for Present Time about the costs of being a model minority. The cost includes being driven to succeed, to work your butt off, to never let up, to never sit by yourself and reflect and be in command of your own time. The cost includes losing touch with a piece of your own humanity. Will you talk a little about that, Jim?

Jim Lin: I have survived being a “good Chinese boy.” One of the hardest things was being in grad school and my parents had told me that everybody in the Lin family was getting a PhD. Not until I went to my family reunion did I find out that my brother and I are the only ones who got our PhD’s.

Another hard thing happened there when I was working in the library on Christmas Day. Another Chinese guy, Tito, was also there working his butt off. And he jumped out the window. I came walking down there at night, lights were flashing, and this guy had killed himself. I cried my eyes out.

But then I look at my life after that, and not until my mid-thirties did I realize I could even think about what I wanted.

Most Chinese guys on some level don’t really know what they want. Plenty of Chinese guys don’t even know what they are feeling. They will say they feel fine, but their blood pressure is up. Or they say, “I injured myself and I wonder how,” because they don’t have any consciousness about how their body moves. Imagine spending all day in isolation making five thousand calculations and five hundred of them go wrong and it takes a year to find that out, then driving home and walking in the kitchen door and your four-year-old tries to talk to you. How do you come back to the normal world?

Francie: I think about burying one’s dead as a critical piece of liberation. We don’t often pause to say, “We did come through that,” or, “That was a big thing!” When we don’t pause, we go numb.

To “bury our dead” is to pause, to discharge, to say, “This is what happened. This is what I felt during the time. This is how bad I thought it was. This is how scared I was. This is how bad it actually was.”

I want us to go back and notice all the many big and small things we have survived. And notice that whatever conditions were, they were adequate to let us survive. We were powerful enough and smart enough that we made it through.

If you recall what you have survived and get to discharge about it, you get a glimpse of how powerful you are and how much your own intelligence, strength, perseverance, and whatever else you have, helped govern the course of what happened to you at crucial times. That’s pretty startling.

I have my own example. Shortly after my fiftieth birthday I had a frightening, almost-bad car accident. The car went into a skid, spun, and ended up crosswise in the fast lane. Fortunately, the traffic all came to a stop.

When the car finally stopped, I saw nobody was hurt, so I turned the key on, rolled down the window, waved to everybody and drove off. What else was I going to do? (laughter)

I was pretty numb, even after weeks of Co-Counseling. In the last few months, though, I have counseled on the accident enough to get a glimpse that I had some intelligence controlling the car. I have had a tremendous number of enriching re-evaluations out of that glimpse. For some reason, noticing that I survived intact gave me a glimpse of how good, worthy, and deserving I am. I see I deserve to have love and support in my life.

To pause and reflect with someone’s attention is not an idle activity. We have operated under many conditions where it has been necessary to press forward to do something. We did not feel we had a choice.

* * * * *

There is one more piece I want to say about counseling on the past. Some of what we perceive as historical context is undischarged hurt and worth paying attention to.

As people of Chinese heritage, we have a long cultural history. Stories have been handed down. An example is the Chinese myth of Mulan, a girl hero who fought military battles and was a military general. Listening to my parents tell stories, I heard both the content of what was said and also how it was said. The story is the content. But other things also get handed down that are distresses, but that’s too abstract a word. They are more like prescribed attitudes toward things, or pictures of how things are.

Until those things get discharged, they get handed down from generation to generation unexamined. Some parts may be a few thousand years old. One reason I was interested in having us overseas Chinese and Chinese meet is that many of the people who raised us or raised our parents left China before 1911 or 1949, China’s two gigantic revolutions in the twentieth century. When we meet the Chinese Co-Counselors, we hope to be able to decipher what is old and what is new. 

Last modified: 2014-09-17 18:29:23+00