Manners were emphasized when I was a child. We were always, always to greet older family members. We were never, never to eat without offering what we had to everyone in the room, which meant if there wasn’t enough of something to go around (say for an unexpected visit), no one got it. The flip side of this is that my friends were allowed to stay over for dinner anytime, as there was always enough of something to share.
I’m not into glorification: I’m perfectly aware that Asian mores have their drawbacks as much as any other grouping: the rigid hierarchies, the blind obedience, the harsh discipline. And if you met my kids, with their imperfect manners and loud extroverted ways, you could be forgiven to wonder whether I’m teaching them much of anything, and whether they were Asian at all.
But they are and so am I. I love my Canadian home and don’t want to live anywhere else (except for this and next month when anyplace less frigid would do), but I do find myself trying to impress on my kids the thing I find most valuable about our Asian heritage, and that’s a fundamental concern with the well-being of the collective.
The individual is prized in “the West”. There are many benefits to this, but I really believe in the collective too. So when I think of manners, it’s not just a matter of tradition or cooth. I’m focused more on a way of being with the whole, to show respect for and acknowledge the importance of people and things outside oneself, and to recognize our interdependence.
Lofty principles behind some simple words (hello, please, thank you, sorry, etc.), I know. But although they routinely are, I’m not sure that manners should be underestimated. Their impact is everywhere and felt viscerally. I still remember as a child often being told that I had good manners, and what I remember most is how much this seemed to matter to the person saying so.
And now I’m an adult and can see the other side. Volunteering for my son’s class skating trip the other day, I was surrounded by children waiting for help to put on their skates. While on my knees doing one child’s skates, a girl interrupted me and rather imperiously asked me to tie up her skates. She had not greeted or acknowledged me in any other way, and I couldn’t help feeling repelled. I’m willing to disclose that I assisted other children instead as they were all in equal need.
It was the last child who said, while I knelt before her working on the first skate, “thank you” (and she would say it twice more before I was through). It’s a nasty business, tying up pairs and pairs of skates, and none of the other children I helped had thanked me. I stopped for a moment, looked up at this girl, and said she was welcome. In other words, we had an interaction as two people doing something together, and the room felt a little brighter for it.
We’ll be celebrating Chinese New Year this weekend at my mother’s house. When we get to the door, I’ll be reminding my boys to greet and say “Kong Hee Fatt Choy” to every person they see, especially, let it be known, to their elders. And when they get their red packets containing money presents, they will say thank you (probably on their own, but I’ll be in the wings as needed). Some may consider enforcing these patterns of behaviour outmoded, unnecessary, or even preventing some uninfluenced-by-external-factors-like-parents code of morality to spring up from the uncoerced child. But the boys are part of something larger than themselves, in this case a family, and it feels like the right thing to do.