An Asian-Canadian Take on Manners

2010_01 - Various 269I’ve been living in Canada a long time, since I was four years old.  For the most part, I feel pretty assimilated.  But when it comes to manners, I feel Asian stirrings in me.

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.

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8 thoughts on “An Asian-Canadian Take on Manners

  1. It’s not outdated. It’s manners…we should all have them. I sometimes am appalled when my kids (teens now) forget to say thank you. It drives me crazy. Don’t you know better? Haven’t I taught you better?? Lol

    • It’s true we all should have them, and I should have added somewhere in my post that Asia has no monopoly on manners (obviously!). I’m just speaking from my experience, which happens to lead me here. I have a feeling your kids are quite polite 😉

      • I’m half Filipino and Hawaiian, English, Scotch and manners were a very big thing in our household. My dad says that in Hawaiian culture, when gathering to have a meal as a family over many generations, the eldest gets to make their plate first and then so on etc to the children. I’d be lucky then cuz I am eldest of five siblings. Ha!

        My stepmother, who is Jewish, says that when she was a young girl, both she and her sister would sit for hours quietly and politely whenever they went with their mother to visit someone as “children are meant to be seen, not heard.” Now, that is hilarious because that is an exercise for any one at any age and my stepmom is now one of the chattiest people I know!

    • When it comes to our children, it’s easy to think about what’s best for them (they’re important individuals), but other people matter too.

      • I too have talked about the collective when explaining to my children why manners matter. They get that when it comes to please and thank you (not that they necessarily put that into practice without prompting–but conceptually, they grasp it), but it’s how I’ve explained table manners too when they’ve balked at the nagging. No one wants to see your food when you’re chewing, and no one wants your elbow in their face (or ribs) because you’re holding your spoon funny, and so on.

  2. Hi Annie, I can’t reply to you up there but I enjoyed hearing your anecdotes. I’m glad the “children seen and not heard” silliness has gone the way of the dodo. So says a child master: “A person’s a person no matter how small” (we just read Horton Hears a Who last night!).

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