Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What is it that makes it so hard to talk to each other? How to break down the emotional war?

*The questions above will be answered based on the film directed by Wayne Wang and the short story written by Yiyun Li, both entitled " A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (ATYGP)".

Chinese customs have since long been influenced by the effervescence of Buddhism in which many pious Buddhists notion that every human being has but a very ancient soul resided within, reincarnated countless times as driven by all the deeds he/she did in the previous lives. In the story of ATYGP, Mr Shi prized his relationship with her daughter so much so that he claimed in the text:

"...It takes three thousand years of prayers to place your head side by side with your loved one's on the pillow. For father and daughter? A thousand years, maybe. People don't end up randomly as father and daughter..." (pg 192)

The extract above truly sums up the whole idea of the film and the story alike. In Chinese superstition, father and daughter are even deemed as a couple in their previous life, who happen to be reborn into the present as a continuation of their relationship and intimacy. In fact, Chinese cultures, despite deeply influenced by Buddhisms, have also nurtured philosophies like Taoism, Confucianism, which further incorporated their respective teachings into one another and laid the foundation for the mentality and perceptions of Chinese society towards issues surrounding them. One crucial subject is relationship, which happens to be prioritized by many Chinese in the family institutions: Respect and modesty before the elders, compromises between siblings etc. Thus, this is closely conjugated to one of the themes addressed by the movie or the short story: the breakdown of relationship between a Chinese father and his daughter. To begin with, the parent was having difficulty communicating with his daughter, with whom he was so eager to meet that he hightailed from China to United States merely to express his concerns over her post-divorce life there. So, one question arises here: Why the utter silence between the father and his child, providing that in the context of Chinese customs and Buddhism beliefs their relationship actually takes "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers' to come across? Is there any solution to it?

The story takes a meticulous and observational account into the daily life of Mr Shi while living with his daughter, Yilan in Spokane, Washington. However, the crisis of Mr Shi's relationship with Yilan was quite evident even from the beginning of the film in which Yilan greeted his father in the Spokane Airport without so much a hug or even a warm greeting. As the plot developed Yilan hardly spoke a word to his father during, for instance, dinner - besides, no compliment for the hard work Mr. Shi put into preparing the meals that which he tried to reconcile the hostility of their relationship. Nevertheless, another character came into the picture, who was probably intended as a juxtaposition to Yilan's indifference - Madam, an old Iranian woman who fled to United States after the revolution in her origin country. Neither Mr Shi or Madam speaks fluent English, yet the language barrier only add to their daily routine of rendezvous in the park. Their conversations mainly comprised of gesturing and talking in different tongue, but a short-lived friendship was henceforth developed.

Notably, there were many scenes in the film encompassed by non-verbal interaction between the two main characters which, in my opinion, provided a platform on which the cultural conflicts and emotional dilemmas are conspicuously displayed before the audiences. One example was during the dinner and the successive meals (as the plot developed), the dining table was full of luscious dishes yet Yilan showed little interests. Even though Mr.Shi tried several times to start a conversation but to no avail. This could be construed as the emotional clashes that were SILENTLY manifested between the father and the daughter - with one side being compromising and another hardly budged up. But, nearing the end of the story(in text), Yilan finally shed her defense and so too did Mr Shi, where both of them came to realize the true reasons behind the issue.

" Baba, if you grew up in a language that you never used to express your feelings, it would be easier to take up another language and talk more in the new language. It makes you a new person." (pg. 199)

"I was not a rocket scientist because of a woman. The only thing we did was talk. Nothing wrong with talking ... but no, talking between a married man and an unmarried girl was not accepted. That's how sad our time was back then." (pg 201)

Apparently, Mr Shi was stripped off of his pride as a rocket scientist when he refused to admit his "love affair" and gave a self-criticism - an affair that which he was mistaken for merely talking to a girl at his workplace. Notably, as stated beforehand, China society, whose mindset was already molded by various philosophies from the past, was in the wake of cultural transition at that times as western influences were assimilating into this two-thousand year old nation. Mr Shi was then trained to be reticent, for he regarded his profession as confidential. Yet, when he was demoted to a clerk, this added on more to his humilliation despite the gossips about his love affair with the girl. How could he have admitted everything to his wife and daughter, seeing that he was raised in a stoic culture that was heavily imposed by male chauvinism and social punctilio at that times?

Yilan wise, she perfectly mirrored the life of an immigrant in a foreign country from which she seemed to rebuild her new identity as a Chinese American. Furthermore, she signified an emancipation from her origin culture under which she was raised to an adult, but this story gave a twist upon the arrival of her father to her house - which she might see as an intrusion to her new-built identity in America. For example in the film, his father heartily hung a Chinese ornaments at her front door (which was supposedly reserved for mistletoe during Christmas, I guess!) but she resented when she saw it; during the dining time, she looked awkward in the presence of her father, but as the phone rang she gave a pivotal change in her personality: She abruptly became open and cheerful when speaking to her Russian lover, which her father regarded as "immodesty".

Cultural transition they both underwent, but different one: this reasons for the wide gap distanced between the father and the daughter. The conflicts of emotions, opinions, beliefs and thinkings actually brought them to this detriment of relationship. Lacking of communications was another factor why Yilan was so reluctant to talk to her father, for she was since long accustomed to such "quiet" life in China. Between her father and the Russian lover, she assumed two personalities that was so contrasting. Notably, she was born in a post-colonialism era and western culture may seem more interesting than her own, and forgoing her origin indentity was very much alike of how she despised her father. However, the revelation in the end, in my opinion, brought no more closure between them than easing the tension of their relationship. Though they spoke of the truths it was just a matter of transparency: a sudden acknowledgment developed over a generation and cultural gap - and the gap was still there!

In fact, it is a reality that Mr Shi and Yilan each embodies a very different set of cultural values that has been practiced by them for a long time. To change it may require a compensation of equal amount of time or more, despite the fact that both of them are not living under the same roof in the story. Emotional war can be very short-lived, but cultural conflicts last. The movieand the text put me into a very deep thought of how Chinese families nowadays are facing the very same situation in their lives - younger generations being westernized while the elders are having difficulties communicating with them, which witness a sharp regression in the Chinese cultural values in modern times.

Yilan and Mr Shi in the movie.

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