Filial Duty and Cultural Anatopism Across Generations in ‘Bound Feet and Western Dress’

Bound Feet and Western Dress is a dual memoir, telling the story of Pang-mei Natasha Chang and Chang Yu-i, a great-niece and great-aunt who share their stories of growing up in the Chang family, each taking turns narrating the story in the first person. The Bedford Glossary of Literary Terms defines this as a point of view “…in which an ‘I’ or ‘we’ serves as the narrator…” (Murfin). Pang-Mei and Yu-i’s dual narratorship of the memoir Bound Feet And Western Dress is used to show how each woman’s struggle to reconcile Chinese traditions with her own Western ambitions is similar, as displayed by their sense of filial duty and the feeling of cultural anatopism.

Filial duty is a major theme throughout the book, both in Yu-i’s life and Pang-Mei’s. According to Yu-i, “In the Chinese way, your parents have your best interest in mind” (Chang 68). This philosophy affects every aspect of a young Chinese person’s life.Yu-i’s sense of filial duty leads her to marry Hsu Chih-mo, the man who ultimately leaves her for another woman and asks her to abort their child. When Yu-i is asked what she thinks of marrying Hsu Chih-mo, she replies that it is not important. Of this statement, Yu-i explains, “… according to Chinese tradition: I would marry the man my family had chosen for me” (66). Despite her own reservations about being married so young, Yu-i must follow her parents’ wishes because it is her filial duty. Pang-Mei also feels this sense of duty regarding her own romantic relationships, as evinced when she speaks of her parents’ implication that she needs to marry a Chinese man: “… I felt torn in two, more uncertain that ever of whom I might find to love” (66). Both women, despite the change in marital customs over time, felt obligated to marry a man of the same ethnicity that their families approved of, even at the risk of jeopardizing their Western goals.

This sense of filial duty also extends to one’s married family, and both Yu-i and Pang-mei felt the pressure to be a good daughter-in-law. Yu-i claims that her mother instructed her to never say no, and that “… what ever happened between my husband and me, I had to treat my in-laws the same” (84). Several decades later, Pang-Mei says, “My mother told me that marriage was all about compromise… when I married a man I also married his family” (82). These women shared similar feelings of filial duty, despite the generational gap. In some ways, the idea that Chinese parents always have their children’s best interest at heart is comforting to Yu-i and Pang-mei. Both women know that their parents want what is best for them, but they do not always agree with their parents’ guidance. Yu-i elaborates on this feeling when she speaks of the way she would treat her own daughter: “I would not bind her feet and restrict her from studying” (92). Yu-i’s desire to gain knowledge and be free is limited by her mother and father’s plans for her future. She is allowed to go to school but is not allowed to finish because she must get married. When Pang-mei endures taunting at the hands of her classmates, her parents tell her to insult them, or tell that they wished they could also be Chinese. Pang-mei felt like this was an awful idea, but later in life she realized “…it was their pride trying to guide and protect me” (54). Her parents’ response to the insults didn’t make sense to Pang-mei until later in life, just as it took Yu-i time to understand her parents’ decision to marry her to Hsu Chih-mo.

Anatopism is defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary as “…out of its proper place…” (“Anatopism”). Culturally, both Yu-i and Pang-Mei feel out of place with their Chinese traditions because of their Western ambitions. This is shown when Yu-i claims, “I was born into changing times and had two faces…part of me that stayed East and the other that looked West…” (Chang 15). Yu-i struggles with her desire to become an educated woman and her duty to follow the path of the Chang women. When she speaks of the women in her life with bound feet, she effectively sets herself apart from them, thus furthering the distance between Yu-i and traditional female roles in the mind of the reader. Pang-mei shares a similar feeling when reading about the accomplishments of her male ancestors: “…I did not know to what extent I dared identify with them… Chang women were clearly held to a different standard… I worried where that left me…” (39). Pang-mei’s concern about being a woman and becoming as educated as the Chang men is the same struggle that her great-aunt had faced decades earlier, despite how society had progressed in the time that elapsed.Yu-i felt that her unbound feet set her apart from other women in China and set her free tofollow her ambitions, to an extent. However, as she grew older, she says, “…my own big feet lost their magic for me. I had thought they made me modern, but instead they became my enemy… they could not make me educated. Nor could they make my husband care for me” (89). Yu-i, having once thought that unbound feet made her special, began to feel that they prevented her from being accepted by her in-laws and the people of Xiashi, while still not being Western enough to please Hsu Chih-mo. Pang-mei’s feeling of cultural anatopism stems from her lack of connection with China. She mentions “As the first generation of my family born in the States, I was torn between two cultures…” (4). Later in the book, she wonders if she is less Chinese because she has been raised in the West (110). Pang-mei has access to the Western world and education that Yu-i so desperately longed for, but she still feels a similar cultural disconnect to the kind that Yu-i felt as a result of her unbound feet.

Pang-mei also worries that she is an outsider, just as Yu-i felt like an outsider during her time in the West with Hsu Chih-mo. Pang-mei writes of Chinese students who socialized with each other, “… They always looked so comfortable… whenever I was with other Chinese, I could not help but feel… concerned… that others would think we were foreigners… ” (111). Despite having been born and raised in America, Pang-mei still felt like an outsider when she associated with other Chinese students. This feeling of separation is similar to Yu-i’s feeling of separation. Both Pang-mei and Yu-i felt the pressure of Chinese traditions when trying to pursue their ambitions in the West. In her final few words, Yu-i tells Pang-mei, “Now I come to the end of my story, and in a way it is you: you are the end of my story” (201). Despite the years that elapsed between their youth, these women felt filial duty and cultural anatopism in their upbringing and young adulthood, which affected their Western ambitions.

Works Cited

“Anatopism.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster,www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/anatopism.

Chang, Pang-Mei Natasha. Bound Feet And Western Dress. Transworld Digital, 2011.Murfin, Ross. “The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms.”

Google Books,books.google.com/books/about/The_Bedford_glossary_of_critical_and_lit.html