Thoughts on Intergenerational Discourse

“You know, these people are welcome to protest. But why did they have to smash up so many shops? It looks more like rioting to me.”

My mom was browsing her phone a couple months ago during the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing when she casually tossed this into our conversation. I paused for a second, struck by her insensitivity. As I searched for a comeback, though, I found myself at a loss for words. Like many Chinese parents, my mother doesn’t often sympathize with protestors. Having been brought up in Chinese society, she has long abandoned the notion of generating change through protest and has chosen to adopt social conformity instead. Over the next few days, my mom showed me post after post on WeChat denouncing the Black Lives Matter protestors as violent rioters who wanted nothing more than to profit from the chaos. These posts were based on blatantly racist stereotypes, yet they were widely accepted among friend groups of Chinese parents.

I found myself wondering how many of the people who I looked up to could not only hold these beliefs but also share them so publicly and unabashedly. I also wondered if I was in the wrong. Over the last two years, as I’ve become more aware of the U.S.’s extreme politicization, I’ve often wondered whether I’ve developed my views through individual research and thought or whether I’m simply echoing popular ideas. I’ve always firmly believed in exposing myself to both sides of a topic, and my disbelief at each video my mom showed me was a harsh reminder of the extent that I have disengaged with those in my life who are ideologically distant from myself. 

While processing my mom’s assertion, my mind drew parallels between the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. right now and the ones in Hong Kong last summer. In both cases, police retaliated with undue force, wounding peaceful protestors and journalists. Yet Chinese state media and its various news offshoots turned a blind eye to the millions who marched in solidarity despite police violence, choosing instead to brand these protestors as rioters and criminals. Media coverage of the Hong Kong independence protests asserted without grounds that these protestors were financially backed by foreign forces, criticizing them even more harshly than the U.S. protesters this summer. In both cases, my parents had reacted with insensitivity, but our discussions quickly deteriorated into squabbles whenever I tried to correct them. I became more wary about what I said, choosing to restrain myself rather than risk another confrontation.

Chinese families, especially those who have decided to raise their children in foreign countries, are facing an increasing ideological split along generational lines. Parents are often more conservative, while their children, who have been more deeply affected by Western culture, are inclined towards more liberal values. Through conversations about this summer’s protests, I have noticed another phenomenon: the difficulty that first-generation immigrant children face in reconciling their values with their parents’. It’s hard to form your identity and to feel secure in your beliefs when the people you admire adamantly oppose them.

We’re taught today that discourse is the key to solving issues, and that many solutions are the result of conversations. Engaging in civil and rational discussions with our own parents could be a powerful start towards making an impact on societal prejudices and fighting against systemic injustices. Difficult political conversations often take place online or among groups of like-minded friends. While these discussions can be productive, starting with those within your own family whose ideas differ from your own may give you the opportunity to change their beliefs. Unlike attempting to convince a stranger over the internet, there will always be a concrete bond between you and your family, regardless of how heated the discussion may become. An open dialogue could also help both you and your family members come to terms with each other’s perspectives, or at least to acknowledge them. For my mother, who has worked tirelessly to climb up the social ladder and to send her kid to a boarding school in the U.S., security and stability are her primary concerns. It’s easy to see how she might feel threatened by the news coverage of the looting earlier this year, even if it doesn’t justify her opinion. And though it’s hard for me to agree with her views, engaging with her in a political conversation has allowed me to begin to understand them.