Unsolicited Endorsement #11: Eat Drink Man Woman

I’m still sick, so I spent the evening vegging in front of the TV with roommate, Nick. (It was either that or forcing myself to do a couple of miles on the treadmill at the gym to get rid of an alarming gut that I seem to have acquired in recent weeks. But I thought that might not be the best idea, given my compromised respiratory condition. See? I’m smaht after all.) 

Anyway, in the midst of channel surfing, we eventually landed on the indie film channel and caught one of Ang Lee’s earlier films, Eat Drink Man Woman.  The 1994 film was nominated for an Academy Award and was critically acclaimed. But I freely admit that I wasn’t into foreign language films at that point (given that I was 15 and all). I probably wouldn’t have been able to appreciate it then anyway. Let me just say: If you haven’t seen this film yet, queue it on your Netflix list. 

One of my other academic passions is cultural identity development. Surprisingly, there’s not much out there in the current literature on this topic, especially because the notion of cultural identity is easily mistaken for other things, like racial or ethnic identity. I think cultural identity, however, is broader and encompasses an individual’s racial and ethnic identities. Fundamentally, I think includes all the elements that make up how a person defines him or herself as a result of membership in multiple cultural groups, whether those groups are defined across racial, ethnic, gender, religious, or even socioeconomic lines. In a sense, at any given time, an individual has a racial identity, an ethnic identity, a religious identity, and so on and so forth. These identities are fluid and respond to the demands of various contexts. Context is what determines which particular identity takes precedence over the others. I think at some point I’ve given a previous example of a deaf African-American Christian woman who happens to identify herself as a lesbian.

Predictably, the inherent tension between the demands of these multiple identities makes for some interesting drama. Somehow, I think it’s a little more pronounced in eastern cultures, where achieving the balance between individual desires and group obligations is a constant struggle.

To me, however, it’s fascinating to see how people negotiate the various conflicting demands that result from their membership in multiple cultural groups. As someone who has constantly tried not to fit any mold, I’ve come to identify this struggle, especially growing up as a “Third Culture Kid.” I think I am genuinely curious at how people make sense of the various voices that pull them in opposite directions. Effective coping with these competing stresses is what Coleman (1992) terms as “bicultural efficacy,” or in other words, how well an individual meets the demands of two cultures without sacrificing one or the other.

I think our success in doing so varies significantly. Some of us are just better at integrating our identities than others. Most student development theorists put integration as the last phase or step in their stage theories but readily admit that few people actually make it to that point.

This movie (along with some other related works, like Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter or The Joy Luck Club or even Ang Lee’s earlier film, The Wedding Banquet) portrays some very real pictures of this constant struggle to make sense of competing values and competing demands. It’s the human conflict at its most basic: the struggle to find self in the context of a need for belonging. And that conflict makes for some very good drama.

(See, this is the problem with being in a doctoral program. I start over-analyzing the brainless things I enjoy and try to make them fit into theoretical frameworks. I am such a freaking dork…) 

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