Hunting Confucian Cowboys (Part II)
View Part I of “Hunting Confucian Cowboys” here.
Recall your parents’ teachings;
every day burn fragrance to
venerate your ancestors.
Foreign lands will become home, and it will be different. What parents teach will not always be meaningful, relevant to the new. Heaven and earth will switch places.
My mother comes to me with a task. Here is a business letter your father is trying to write. Your English is much better. Could you correct it? I am a young teen, and suddenly I am better than my parents. I scoff at his grammar and spelling mistakes.
Years later, I receive an email from my father, and the missing overlaid accent takes me by surprise. I realize how many assumptions I have had.
In the town my father grew up in is our family temple. In the temple is an altar. On the altar is a family tree listing every person in every generation since the first to arrive on Taiwan. Except the women, who were married out, of course. Outside is a statue commemorating the mother who brought her two young sons from China, though the generational count begins with the sons. She is not in the temple.
On the wall is painted “obey your parents” in Chinese.
My father has an old photo of himself in the temple, offering incense. I have little idea what to do in this temple, and even if I did, how does a spirit of respect live alongside the erasure of women? How should I, a foreigner, venerate my ancestors?
I am the oldest and only son of an oldest son. What role do I have to play? What are the aspects of ren that matter to me? What kind of incense should I burn?
My first memory of conventional masculinity: Grandfather takes me, recently arrived on Earth, on his motorcycle through the small village. First son of his first son. Warm breeze, starlit sky, his cigarette. To this day I wish I could recreate the experience. Like a letterpress broadside, I am imprinted with its pleasure.
As my father grows older, I feel some pleasure in the idea of stepping into more of a caretaker role. It is a responsibility, an aspect of ren, that feels good. It also happens to be something I am obligated to do. To see obligation as pleasant is atypical in the United States.
Perhaps this is how I venerate–by acknowledging that my legacies are complicated. Pleasure is complicated. It is not always good for you. But neither is it something to deny. To step into manhood is not inherently wrong, but blood is not the only legacy. People’s movements for freedom are also my legacy, my chosen ancestry.
Heaven bless the Liu household.
Young men, prosper together.
Heaven will send its blessings to the men if the foregoing conditions are met. This advice poem is a contract seven and a half centuries long. It is a contract between my ancestors, me, and gender.
Everything is gendered. Heaven. Liu. Young men. A blessing is a male blessing. Prosperity is male prosperity.
Can an Asian American man “be a man” in a white supremacist society? I am pressured to assimilate, while simultaneously posed as unassimilable. True imitation is impossible, it will always be incomplete or lacking. Otherwise there would be less self-flagellation, more self-acceptance. I do not aspire to be a better Confucian cowboy, and in this is an opportunity.
In Mandarin Chinese, the word “ta” is used to refer to another person regardless of their gender. My father often uses “he” and “she” interchangeably. Crossing borders. What happens when there is slippage in translation? Can we pry open that gap and redefine prosperity? Can we crack heaven open? On the other side is a new foreign land. Stay on course.