Ting Hua: Obedience and Filial Piety in Chinese American Parental Relationships: Background information when reading White Ivy

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White Ivy

by Susie Yang

White Ivy by Susie Yang X
White Ivy by Susie Yang
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2020, 368 pages

    Jul 2021, 368 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Debbie Morrison
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About this Book

Ting Hua: Obedience and Filial Piety in Chinese American Parental Relationships

This article relates to White Ivy

Print Review

Of all the demands made of Susie Yang's character Ivy in her debut novel White Ivy, few are more pernicious than the constant demand that she be ting hua, or a "good" girl. For Ivy, to be ting hua means, more than anything else, obscuring her individuality and right to self-determination so that her family can see the version of her they are most comfortable with.

In an article for Vice, writer Doris Lam explains how this concept of "filial piety — a traditional Chinese moral value where children should respect, love and take care of parents to give back and honour them," can have a negative impact on first-generation children. Acculturation is the process whereby a person becomes assimilated — adopts behaviors that will help them fit in — into a new culture. The "acculturation gap distress theory" hypothesizes that "parent–offspring acculturation mismatch precipitates greater intergenerational conflict in immigrant families, which in turn increases the risk for psychological problems among offspring." This is the kind of harm to mental health that Lam discusses in her essay, whereby many Chinese American children face an incredible amount of cognitive dissonance between the values and cultural norms at home compared to what they experience (and need to exhibit in order to successfully integrate) when outside the home.

Studies suggest that acculturation differences within immigrant families play a much more significant role in creating discord and "negative child outcomes" than other differences, such as uneven division of duties between the sexes, which were previously thought to be highly impactful. When considering the novel, this is a theory that Ivy herself would ascribe to. Her attempts at assimilation, whether it be trying to attend a sleepover or enjoy afternoon brunch, are thwarted by what she perceives as her parents' complete ignorance of American social situations.

Interestingly, a 1999 study on the differences between child reading practices in the U.S. and China found little variation between the two parenting groups in their values and child-rearing practices. In fact, this research held that (at least in the 1990s) American parents were much more likely than Chinese parents to value obedience over independence in children. Moreover, a 2017 study suggests that the practice of filial piety often fosters close and loving relationships between Chinese immigrant parents and their first-generation children. The significant difference, the study's authors assert, is that American cultural norms, such as physical demonstration of affection, often supersede Chinese cultural norms, where affection is shown through "...sacrifice, particularly for the child's education, future opportunities, success, and needs."

This is a significant finding in that it suggests a hierarchal relationship within the U.S. in which American practices are seen as normal and preferable to those of other cultures. Such comparisons, if left unexamined, can lead to devaluation of immigrant practices in ways that further exacerbate the acculturation tension between parents and children. More positive and inclusive representations of multicultural parent/child relationships that deviate from the American norm would serve as an effective antidote to this tension.

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

Article by Debbie Morrison

This "beyond the book article" relates to White Ivy. It originally ran in February 2021 and has been updated for the July 2021 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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