Yufeng grew up and attended school in rural Xi’an. At age thirty, she came to America with her husband, a temporary resident researcher for a NJ company at the time. By the end of their residency, they decided to make their home in America. We spoke with Yufeng on May 18th, 2021 to discuss her views on the Chinese Cultural Revolution, differences in traditional values, and the future of the next generation.
Serena: So, I understand that you have experience living through like, the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square protests in China,. What was that like, and what were the responses of people around you regarding the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath?
Yufeng: Okay. The Culture Revolution, it ends like 1976. I was like a 5 or 6 year old when it ends. 但是他end啦之后他实际上的那一种。。。真么说，那个culture还持续了一段时间对不对，他不可能就是说等到1976年it ends, it will end immediately. It’s just different, you know, in the Culture Revolution, in that time, China has a very centralized government. The government basically controls everything, from the economy, until politics, until you know, the people, what you think. The government tells you what you have to think, then you think the way the government tells you to think. I think there is no freedom of the choice. Regardless in the economy what job you do, what major you study, basically the government lays an outline of everything. That’s what I remember when I was a little kid. I wasn’t involved that much about politics, but all I remember is that it’s pretty government outlined everything basically. That time, we have a university, but after you graduate you know what job you do, the government assign you the job. I remember my parents work in the factory, and basically you don’t have that much choice. The government tells you what to do then you do what they tell you. And, the thing which I have the most memory is that day when Mao Zedong died. You know at that time, I think people probably got brainwashed. My parents live in a factory, and we live in the factory- you know, all of our house is inside the factory, all my neighbors work in the same factory, it’s like you know exactly what they do. That’s transparent to everyone. No privacy, you can tell that way. And that day when we heard Mao Zedong died, everyone cried.
Serena: My mom told me about this too! (laughs)
Yufeng: Yeah! (laughs) Then we feel so hopeless, we feel so confused you know, like a god died. You don't know what is going to happen. It's—I think people probably—you would think at this point people all got brainwashed. At that time, the people cried from the bottom of their hearts. They feel very very sad. They feel that Chairman Mao was the greatest person in the world, in the history, and when he died, it was like—it was like—that is the thing which I remember the most because I remember we went to the ceremony and then the people in there, all the people cried. Not some people pretended to cry, it's from the bottom of your heart.
Serena: Oh, okay.... Wow. (laughs)
Yufeng: So that is a thing, and at that time, all that I remember most is there's - that there's no privacy. You know what your neighbor - exactly what they do, you know how much money they make, you know how many kids they have, so I think at that time, it's like that very government-controlled society. So everyone is laid out, you are small piece, and you never think, okay, can I be something different? You do whatever work the government tells you to, this is the Cultural Revolution what I remember the most. Because I was a little kid at the time.
Serena: Yeah, I totally get that. Do you think that the perspective of the Cultural Revolution and of Mao in China has changed drastically, like, over the years?
Yufeng: Yeah! I think right now, if you go back to China, you know - people are totally different, and the government is totally different. But I think still - some people still - In the U.S., you may think the Cultural Revolution is such an evil thing.
Serena: (laughs) That's what we're taught.
Yufeng: Yeah, (laughs) you may think it's such an evil thing, but if you go to China, actually, some old people they miss that time. So, and - it's just, they were brainwashed and until today they are still brainwashed. So, if you go back to China, people think that was bad, but they don't think it was as bad as U.S. thought it to be. You might think the people in China all hate it, but actually no. They feel at that time the government was very powerful, you know, it's very organized, so, it's just a- but right now, I think that China is definitely not like that.
Serena: Yeah, yeah. Okay, that's really cool. On the topic of history, um... I grew up, you know, going to the Chinese school in Bridgewater, and they had like a history class there, and we learned about Chinese history going back to like, the very beginning basically. And my Mom also talks about this a lot with me, but do you think there's a very large difference between a nation's like cultural values and values in general based on how deep their history is?
Yufeng: Yeah.... Actually, I feel like in the Chinese culture, there is, for me, the most significant difference is—in Chinese culture, we, how do I say that, we think that the individual should sacrifice for the community. Like say for the pandemic, right? Like wearing masks. Or some people - I cannot say wear masks. Like say, you cannot travel. Like say even your parents passed away. You have to travel, right? But, in Chinese culture, people will think, you cannot travel. You have to sacrifice in order for the community to be the best. But in the U.S., I think the individual is the most important thing. You know we have to value the individual's needs. But for China, people will think—most people will say no. You know, if some day it's my turn—you know, I have to sacrifice, I will sacrifice, but if it's your turn, you have to sacrifice. You probably understand—you probably went back to China a couple times, you see China has lots of new developments in safety, right? They just tear down the old house. And they build the new house, right? But for the people who live there, do they want to move? Probably some do, some don't, right? In the U.S., if you want to tear down a whole community and build something new, it's very difficult. Because people wouldn't like you, right? Because I don't want to move. No matter—even if you give me a million, I don't want to move. But in China, the people will think you have to move. No matter if you like or you don't like, because it's good for the community, it's good for the country. I think this is a major difference, do you know what I mean? In China, let's say,.... Like say here, we give kids lots of choice. We tell kids, like say 'okay, if you want to go to a good college, it's fine, if you don't go to a good college you may still have a good life.' Right?
Yufeng: But in China, they'll tell you, "you have to go to a good college. If you don't go to a good college, you will have a very bad life." Okay? So if you think about this, Serena, like say you have a hundred kids, right? Because we all tell people "you have to go to a good college, otherwise you will be a loser," but among these a hundred kids, probably ten kids, they don't need to go to a good college. But because of this culture, we sacrifice them, they have to study very hard, they have to struggle in the study, eventually, their talent gets killed. Because they have to do something everybody does. So this ten kids have got to sacrifice. But, the ninety kids—people tell them, 'okay, you have to do good, you have to go study hard', those ninety kids become okay. But in U.S., we tell kids, 'okay, from very young age, you pursue your individual needs. You do whatever you want.' Those ten kids may become Bill Gates, Steve Jobs. Right? They do whatever they want. But those ninety kids, say like forty of them, they just suck at their life. They are not that talented, right? So, that's different. That's just different culture. In China, we just like—it's very—a majority has a common value that everyone has to follow. That is what the society tells you to do. That's the reason Asian-Americans here, you guys, most of you have a very good grade. Because your parents tell you, our culture tells you, that you have to study hard. But probably among you some of them your talent got killed because of this. Right? But overall, you are successful. Asian-Americans are very successful because - but some individuals got sacrificed in this theory. Some people may very talent at fashion, some may very talent at acting, but you won't get a chance to do that. You just have to study hard, and eventually you lost your talent. So that's overall - I think this is one thing that the Chinese culture and American culture are very different. Chinese culture focus on the majority of the people, some people will get sacrificed. You know, it's unfortunately - but, all Chinese people agree with that. I say probably, you will be a very good actor, but your parents tell you, "you study hard, go to a good college, do engineer," like eventually, you may not be a great actor, but you will have okay life being an engineer. You can support yourself, support your family, so that's what Chinese people think. You may get sacrificed, but overall, from society's perspective, we are okay. But in America, it's different. America, you know, is very focused on the individual. It's very focused on the individual, everyone is responsible for their own thing, you know, give everyone a chance to excel. But you know sometimes too many choices may not be a good thing, but at the same time, you know, America produces Steve Jobs, produces Elon Musk, Chinese culture won't produce those genius people because their talent—you know, most likely will get killed at a very young age. I think it is very hard to see which is the best way to go, but from a culture side, I think this is one thing which is very different between China and western culture. Another thing is, I think Chinese culture is very- what can I say— just that it has a very common value. Everyone sort of has this— this is good, they all follow these ones. That is what I think is the most significant and different between us.
Serena: Yeah, I can definitely see how that's like a major point of contention between these two cultures. Personally, my parents also think this way, and I think it's really affected the way I view the world at times as well. So in regards to your Chinese heritage, how has it influenced your role as a parent? Because a lot of us (Asian-American children), grow up with books and films by Chinese-American authors about cultural discord between immigrant parents and their children, so do you ever like experience that kind of cultural conflict with your family?
Yufeng: Yeah... Are you asking for myself as a parent, or for me as a daughter to my parents?
Serena: Oh, I guess more of as you as a parent.
Yufeng: For me as a parent, as I said, you know, I tell my kids many times, I said, "I recognize the things I tell you to do doesn't follow the main culture of U.S. Lots of things, I understand, you know, you guys are struggling between us and the society. Because in the society, everyone does one thing, but your parents tell you to do different things which the mainstream doesn't do. Right? It's the same for you, Serena, you probably have a lot of conflicts with your parents. But you have to sometimes understand they are from a different culture. I tell my kids, I said, "you know, I understand lots of things you may not want to tell me, because you feel I won't understand, I will not agree with you. It's okay you talk with your friends, you know". I said "but, just sometimes keep both sides in your mind and balance those. So, that is hard to be a parent like us here. Because there are so many things. And another thing is different as a parent from a different culture is, in Chinese culture the kids are told to be 100% obey their parents, you know? What parents say, you do it. What teachers say, you do it. As a young kid, you have no right to say no. Just do whatever they tell you. But in this country, you know, the kids from a very young age are told that "you make your own choice. Your parents can make suggestions, but you don't have to listen." So that is another thing, as a parent here, we used to say, "why don't my kids listen to me? Why I tell them A, they do B? That is only bad kids do that, only bad kids don't listen to their parents." I could never argue with my parents when I was a kid. I could never argue with my teachers when I was a kid. So that is another thing, you know, because of differences in culture, we as parents have to adjust. And you kids, I know you also have to adjust because you feel it is so unfair, my parents ask me to do a thing which I wouldn't want to do, but they force me to do. You guys may feel like we force you to do these things, but no, we feel that it's so natural we tell kids something to do, they just do it. Why they question us? That is also another cultural difference—we think that is so normal that kids listen to their parents.
Serena: Yeah, I totally get that. My parents are like that too.
Yufeng: Yeah! Like I said, you guys are very smart, intelligent—just as a parent, I have to remind myself all the time that you guys grew up here, you are not us. Like say, me as a child living through the Cultural Revolution there is no choice, the government doesn't give us any choice. The parents don't give you a choice. There is no such thing what I want to do, there's only what you should do. You know when I was a kid, there is no such thing as "I want to do this", no! This is what you should do, there is no what you should not do. So, you know, the difference is just—U.S. is different. I have to adjust, you guys have to adjust.
Serena: True, I find that's a really common thing when Chinese-American or Asian-American kids talk to each other. The one thing that we all seem to like, have in common is "oh, we all have such strict parents!" But in the end, we all do know that it's for our benefit, you know, they really care about us and that's why they do the things they do.
Yufeng: Yeah! Another thing you have to realize is that we don't realize we are forcing you to do things. We- we just think we are asking you to do the right thing, we never realize we force you, you know. I think my kids always tells me, "you force me," but I said, "I don't think I ever force you, it's just—it's a culture difference, it's a background difference."
Serena: (Laughs) Yeah, for sure. Then how do you think the cultural differences between America and China have impacted your role as a daughter to your own parents?
Yufeng: It's actually very similar to you guys. China is advancing, right? This year, I think in the last like ten years, China is more and more like America. Like say, when I was a kid, China was very separate from the world. We don't see the movies, we don't see the books, we don't see anything from the U.S. We probably only see some movies from the Soviet Union, and from North Korea, like Communist countries. We don't see anything from here. So, I think people from China, they are more and more, you know, knowing what the outside world likes. So the same thing with my parents, and the same thing with you guys. Like say, I married, and I have my own family. I don't think my Mom should involve—Like say my in-laws, they lived with me for several years. And, at that time, I wasn't that comfortable because they were here watching my kids, but they always wanted to give us opinions on things. They want to involve, like say, what we should do to David and Samantha. For me, you know, I will think, "I'm grown up, I have my own family, I don't need you to tell me what to do, right?" The same thing as you guys. And I feel I am very independent, but they feel, "I am doing this for you", right? (Laughs) You know, "I came so far to a country which I am not used to, and in a strange environment to watch my grandchildren—f course, you don't know much about the kids but we raised two successful kids—we definitely know more regarding how to raise kids than you guys. You guys are new parents. You know nothing." So at that time, we also had conflicts. What to give our kids to eat, they have their opinion, I have mine. You know, they say we raise kids based on the book, that it's not practical. They feel our theories are not real ones, and I feel the way they raise kids is very outdated, it's not right, it was proven by the new books that they are wrong. So, the same thing- there are conflicts, not related to how strict you have to study- our main conflict is on how to raise kids. Their grandchildren, our children—they gave many opinions I feel, "why do you involve so much in my own family." So it's the same thing, because I stayed in the U.S. for so many years, and I gradually, you know, leaned towards U.S. culture to say each family is different, once kids get a family, parents should stay away, right? `Not involved—I know your grandparents lived with you for a long time.
Serena: They did, yeah.
Yufeng: Yeah, so it's probably the same thing—I think in the U.S., probably, American people would not understand why grandparents still involve in their kids' lives. But in China, it's just so normal, you know, to see the big family living together. You know, even when I went back to China, still people would tell me- even if you're grown up, you have to listen to your parents. You know, you just cannot argue with your parents, you have to obey to your parents—that's still the culture in China. But because I stayed here for so many times, I just feel... differently. So as a daughter, you guys feel like we are very Chinese parents, but for my parents, they feel we are very American kids. You know what I mean? My mom feel—"the way you think is just so strange! How can you think that way?" You know?
Serena: Then what do your parents think of us? Like Chinese kids born in America.
Yufeng: For you guys, they just feel you guys are—one way I can see it is that most—if you guys meet Chinese people, not just your grandparents, they will feel you guys at first are very impolite. You don't talk with the older people in the same way... You guys are just very independent. You express your opinion. If you want to say no, you say no, right? But in Chinese culture, people don't do that. You know? In U.S., you feel that a 20-year old and an 80-year old are equal. But in Chinese culture, they feel that when a 20-year old talks with an 80-year old, they should be on a lower level. Chinese culture is very aware of who is in a higher ranking, who is in a lower ranking. Just like when you go to a restaurant, who should sit on which seat, you know? It's not like you want to sit where you sit where. You know, they have a hierarchy, like older people have to sit here. Before the old people pick up their chopsticks, young people not supposed to start eating.
Serena: Oh, really?
Serena: Wow, I never knew that.
Yufeng: (Laughs) Yeah, so Chinese people has very—you guys, you know, when you talk with an 80-year old, you just give them their opinion, "this is what I want to say." But in Chinese culture, when you talk with somebody, you have to say, "Oh... yeah!" You never—not argue—give your very different opinion to an elder or to somebody older—your aunt, your uncle. Just mostly you have to respect. That, like I just said, is a bad thing. They will think, "why she talks this way?" You know? But on the good side, I think they feel you guys are very brave. You do things lots of Chinese girls wouldn't do. You explore new things, like say if you guys are in China, you would probably be in high school, right? They would feel high schoolers are not able to do many, many things. They would think you guys have to do things under parent supervision. So when they see you guys can do so many things on your own in America, actually my Mom was very impressed by what my kids can do. You know, they feel you are very much like a grownup. Another thing is that they will think you don't have to think about anything else besides studying. You don't have to think, "What am I going to do when I grow up?" You don't think—you know, "is my hair look good today? What hairstyle-" you know, they will think that's not something you should think at this point, at this age. My parents think you guys are very mature, independent, you guys is much more mature than Chinese kids at your age. But sometimes, the way my kids talks with me, you know, my mom feels, "why your kids talk with parents in such a way?" I cannot say rude or impolite, but they also feel "why?" These two things are connected—if you want your kids to be mature, then they have to talk with you as a mature kid, right? So they are equal with you, and they talk about these things - but my family will think, "why kids talk like that? They should listen to their parents, just do what parents tell them. Why they argue? Why they question?" So that is just one thing two sides.
Serena: (Laughs) I can totally relate to that. My mom is sometimes like, "why are you so abrasive when you talk to me and dad?" But I don't feel like I'm being abrasive at all.
Yufeng: Yeah, exactly. You guys wouldn't feel that way. But if I want you to talk to me, you know, and listen to everything I say and agree, you won't be that mature. So that's just two sides of one thing. You just say, you get this, you have to pay that price.
Serena: Yeah, totally. Okay, so my last kinda question is, that when you see a lot of vilification of China in the media, like I know recently there's been a lot of stuff surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, or especially in recent years the trade war, and also just China's economic success - when you see the media making China into the "bad guy", how does it make you feel personally?
Yufeng: I feel pretty bad actually. You know, I grew up in China, but I lived in the U.S. over twenty years. Actually, both are my countries. But all my, you know, thoughts, are still Chinese style. So I feel very sad whenever I see these two country conflicts. And so badly these days. It's not only the conflict, it's just - it's very hard, but I understand, you know—China becomes a threat to the U.S. and at this point, it's something that China has not done completely right. You know, China has been behind the U.S. so many years. How can you catch up? If you just follow every rule, China wouldn't catch up, to be honest. So China has to take some shortcuts, has to do something that you would say—why Chinese government let their country to do so many evil things? But at the same time, you have to think about it—China was so poor, like twenty years ago. When I was a little kid, I was so—you know, it's amazing. I told my kids, at that time, even a banana is a luxury thing for us. So if China was just so poor, then Chinese government, in order to become rich, it has done many many bad things. You know, like steal from American, but what other choice they have? My relatives back in China became rich. So whenever I saw this news, I feel pretty shamed that China has done so many bad things, but at the same time, my relatives benefit from that, so what you want me to say? Just blame China, and say it's okay that China stays poor another twenty years? It's just... from a different perspective, you know? It's like in the U.S., since you guys are in high school, I want the government to spend money on education. But probably when you start work, I want the government to spend money on social security when I get old. You know, it's very... it depends on where you are. Everywhere, no matter where you are, people are selfish, countries is selfish. You know now, U.S. blames China for so many things, because for the benefit of the U.S.. But Chinese government has to do many things for their own sake. For me, in between the U.S. and China, it is very hard. And whenever I talk with my friends in China, they blame the U.S., because U.S. cut so many things, like exports, to China, cut lots of the technology to be exported to China, and they raised the tax, you know, on things imported from China. So my Chinese friends say that China is so evil, they do so many evil things, and U.S. says Chinese government is so evil, they do so many evil things—I just don't know which side is right, because each side does things for their own reason, for their own country. So it makes me very sad, and I know when you guys grow up in this country, in this environment, it's going to be very hard for you guys.
Serena: Yeah... So we've kind of seen some of the effects of this, like with the rising hate crimes against Asian-Americans recently and COVID-19, with the media pinning a lot of the blame on the Asian-American community. We kind of touched on it, but what effects do you think this kind of portrayal of China in the media has on the Asian-American community as a whole and in the future?
Yufeng: You know, to be honest, regardless of politics, none of them favor Asians. I feel that Asians are stuck in the middle, and our population is very low. Even if both parties say they care Asians, I think none of them really care Asians. So... It's just very difficult. And I don't know. I think it's going to get worse. You know, right now, two parties become more extreme. I came to the U.S. in the year 2000, and the two parties did not conflict this much. Now, I think, these days, I think the right side becomes more right-y and the left side becomes more left-y. So we got left out. So I think this will probably get worse, because in order to maintain the people who support them, these two parties will become more and more extreme. I think Asians are not involved in politics at all. Most Asians, you know, stay away from politics, so our voices are not heard. I think, you know, when more and more Asian-Americans like you guys grow up, you will take more important roles in the society - like an engineer, as a scientist, as a journalist, as a writer. More and more of you guys, your voices will be heard. For us, right now, our first generation, nobody hears us. Regardless how many protests Asian people do, you know the people like me, nobody cares because they are not in power in this society, and we are not that type of people to raise our voice. So I just hope you guys, when you become our age in this society, many important things are under your charge, and you can raise your voice to be heard by the whole country.