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Older Chinese Women Immigrants and Their Leisure Experiences
(August 2002)
Ching-Hua Ho, M.S.
Jaclyn A. Card, Ph.D.
Jaclyn A. Card, Ph.D.
Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism
105C Anheuser Busch Natural Resources Building
University of Missouri
Columbia, MO 65211-7230

The concept of leisure generally focuses on men.  This is especially true in traditional Chinese society where women seldom express their thoughts about leisure.  For many Chinese women, the integration of household and leisure is necessary to find meaning in life.  Based on this concept, we explored older Chinese women immigrants' leisure experiences before and after their immigration to the United States.  We also explored barriers to their leisure that the women faced in the United States.  Using in-depth interviews, we delved into the leisure lives of nine older Chinese women.  Four themes emerged based on the interviews:  (1) leisure participation before and after immigration to the United States; (2) leisure constraints experienced in the United States; (3) effect of filial piety on leisure; and (4) the meaning of leisure and life satisfaction.  Excerpts from the interviews illustrate each theme.
Keywords:  Chinese women, qualitative research, women’s leisure 
The United States has experienced an influx of Chinese immigrants. For the period 1990 to 2000, 661,327 Chinese people immigrated to the United States with an average of 60,121 people immigrating every year (INS, 2002). With the conflicts between the Beijing regime, Hong Kong and Taiwan and the open door policy in China, the numbers are likely to increase over the next decade.  Yet, a paucity of information remains regarding Chinese people living in the United States.  In particular, we know little about the effects of life in the United States and changing roles of older Chinese women, particularly their roles in the family, constraints encountered in the United States and changes in their leisure pursuits after immigrating to the United States. The purpose of this study, therefore, was to explore the leisure experiences of older Chinese women immigrants before and after immigration to the United States and to discover barriers they encountered in their leisure pursuits.

In traditional Chinese society, Chinese women dedicate their lives to family including all responsibility for daily chores and child rearing; to the women, it is their duty, their life.  Many Chinese women today, unlike in traditional Chinese society, are more conscious of their own being and desire to be treated equally (Tseng, 1992).  Constraints, however, still exist in that even if a woman works outside the home, she still must assume responsibility for the household duties with little time to think about herself and even less time for leisure.

With the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965, immigration opportunities to the United States increased for Chinese women (Cafferty, Pastora, Chiswick, Greeley, & Sullivan, 1983). After its passage more women immigrated to the United States, affecting the Chinese culture. The traditional Chinese value that older Chinese immigrants are to be taken care of by and to live with their children in the United States began to change (Kim, Kim, & Hurh, 1991).  Immigrants may live with their adult children in the United States but they are now taking care of family members instead of being taken care of by their adult children. In addition to their lack of time due to family duties, older Chinese women immigrants encounter  language and transportation barriers, cultural differences, loneliness, helplessness, economic disadvantage, and lack of a social network (Lee, 1992).  Many older Chinese immigrants cannot read, speak, or write in English and cannot drive, isolating them from and causing a lack of integration into American culture (Kauh, 1999; Tsai & Lopez, 1997).

To gain a richer understanding of Chinese women's meaning and the process of leisure, one must explore this meaning within their social system.  Using a qualitative paradigm under the symbolic interactionism theoretical framework is the appropriate methodological and conceptual choice (Howe, 1985).  Henderson and Rannells (1988) used symbolic interactionism when studying the meaning of work and leisure among farm women.  This theory encourages women to use their own words to explain the world in which they belong.  'When addressing a phenomenon like leisure, it was useful to go to the world of the persons describing the experience' (Henderson & Rannells, p. 49).  The work of farm women provided social interaction with their families, spouses, neighbors, and community and church members. Their leisure was most meaningful to them through integration with work.

Women's Leisure.  In the past decade, growth occurred in research on women’s leisure with much of the research focusing on the relationship between gender and leisure.  For instance, Shaw examined women’s constraints in their social life and concluded that ‘Evidence of gender equality in many areas of social life leads to the expectation that inequality is likely to exist in leisure as well’ (Shaw, 1985a, p. 9).  Is it that women are so oppressed that it is impossible for them to have a fulfilling leisure experience?  Other common constraints to women’s leisure include temporal constraints, economic constraints and lack of opportunities or facilities (Jackson, 1988). The ethic of care is also connected to women’s roles as the first caregiver in the family and helps to explain how family responsibility restrains women’s leisure.  One must be aware that leisure is not gender-neutral (Samdhal, 1992).

Another approach used to analyze constraints on women’s leisure examined ways in which women’s leisure has the potential for resistance from societal imposed constraints (Shaw, 1985b). The ideas of agency and leisure as freely chosen or as self-determined are two important theoretical notions.  The idea of agency indicates that women (and men) are social actors who interpret social situations and actively construct their responses (Mead, 1934).  This argument is also based on a conceptualization of leisure while penetrating notions of personal choice, control, and self-determination.  Through these notions, traditional views are challenged and women may regain or create a sense of themselves, even effecting gender equality (Shaw, 1994).

Women's leisure studies from a constraints perspective are based on three principles -- 1. recognition of the contradictory aspects of women's leisure; 2. the different ways in which constraining factors are associated with women’s leisure and, 3. the different ways in which resistance can be associated with women’s leisure (Shaw, 1994). This framework incorporates the diversity of women’s lives and experiences and emphasizes the need to understand women’s leisure in the context of their everyday experiences as mediated by social structures.

International Women's Leisure.  To understand a specific ethnic population’s needs through the eyes of women, researchers have conducted interviews with the women to ascertain activities in which they participate and constraints they encounter.  Allison and Geiger (1993) interviewed 25 older Chinese-Americans about the types of activities in which they engaged, the nature of those activities and the reasons for continued participation in those activities. The types of leisure activities the older Chinese-American immigrants engaged in (e.g. walking, gardening, watching television, and reading) did not appear much different from other older cohort groups. These same activities were traditionally characterized in Chinese culture.

Tirone and Shaw (1997) interviewed 10 women from India about constraints affecting their lives.  The women pointed out the centrality of family and the lack of private time, which are often associated with reducing the opportunity for leisure.  The women did not view leisure as something important or desirable and cultural traditions continued to affect the women's lives. Thus, one cannot assume that the Western view of leisure will be viewed positively by people of diverse ethnic backgrounds who have different life experiences.

In traditional Chinese culture, a woman’s status is confined by gender roles.  One Chinese maxim states that 'a woman before marriage must identify her fate with that of her father, after marriage with that of her husband, and after the death of her husband with that of her son' (Tseng, 1992, p. 78).  Today, the norms are not quite as stringent, but women’s main role is still primarily family responsibility. Most older Chinese women (and men) live with their adult children because 'filial piety is the very important Chinese social value that promotes caring relationships between children and parents' (Tsai & Lopez, 1997, p. 80).  The three major aspects of filial piety include respecting parents, bringing no dishonor to parents, and taking care of parents (Sung, 1998). In the United States, however, most young couples work outside the home so household duties and childcare become the work of the older adults, especially older women.  Taking care of grandchildren and doing daily chores are not viewed as work, but rather a type of leisure.  Church is another important aspect of older immigrants’ lives because it acts as a socialization outlet (Pogrebin & Poole, 1990).  Often, activities outside the home are limited to ethnic religious institutions or ethnic senior center meetings (Kauh, 1999).

Older Chinese women may face many obstacles in their lives and in leisure after they immigrate to the United States.  Studies support the obstacles women face in their everyday lives such as cultural, language, and transportation barriers and how their lives change when they move to the United States.  However, researchers have not addressed the barriers women face in their leisure and how their leisure has changed since moving to the United States.  We address these issues in the study.

The researchers used the phenomenological approach, focusing on 'what people experience and how they interpret the world (in which case one can use interviews without actually experiencing the phenomenon oneself)' (Patton, 1990, p. 70). The phenomenological approach seeks the meaning, value, role, and experience of leisure in the lives of people who are isolated by ethnic identity and by cultural heritage. Using a qualitative approach reflects the value and role of leisure in the lives of those marginalized by cultural heritage (Hughes, Seidman, & Williams, 1993).

Participants were recruited from a Chinese church and a community Chinese organization.  Nine women (five from Taiwan and four from China) agreed to participate in the study. Immigration status for the women included three permanent residents and six naturalized citizens.  Their ages ranged from 60 to 76 years old.  Seven women were married and two were widowed. The women had lived in the United States from 2 to 40 years, two less than 5 years, two between 6 and 10 years, three between 11 and 20 years, and two more than 30 years. Seven women followed their adult children to the United States and two came to the United States as students. Four women were living with their husbands, sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren and three were living in the same community as their adult children. One lived alone and her children lived in another state.  One woman had no children and was living with her husband. Four women could not speak any English and three women could speak only a little English.  The two women who had been in the United States for more than 30 years spoke fluent English.

The researchers used a small-scale qualitative research method under the symbolic interactionist theoretical framework.  One researcher, fluent in Chinese and English, conducted the interviews. A bilingual assistant accompanied the interviewer to assist in interpretation and clarification.  The interviewer and her assistant met with each participant in a quiet, private place (interviewer’s apartment, participant’s home, Chinese church, and participant’s workplace).  The interviews lasted from 50 to 80 minutes.

The researchers created four broad research questions (Henderson, 1991) based on the qualitative philosophical assumption that there were multiple truths which were socially constructed. The four main questions included: What activities in your daily life would you consider leisure?  How does your role as wife, mother, grandmother affect your leisure?  What leisure experiences did you enjoy doing when you were in your homeland?  How did your leisure change after immigrating to the United States?  Dialogue flowed freely from these questions but the interviewer maintained control of the interview by reminding participants to express their opinions, probing for answers, giving encouraging feedback and responding to both positive and negative emotions. Tirone and Shaw (1997) pointed out that some interviewees might not understand the term 'leisure'.  To compensate for this misunderstanding other terms such as 'recreation', 'enjoyment', 'relaxation', and 'satisfaction' were used when the interviewee seemed puzzled by the question.  The interviewer tape recorded the sessions and transcribed them, first into Chinese and then from Chinese to English.  Following the transcriptions, the researchers worked together to discover themes regarding leisure experiences (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).

Following the qualitative analysis, four main themes emerged from the interviews:  (1) leisure participation before and after immigrating to the United States; (2) leisure constraints experienced in the United States; (3) effect of filial piety on leisure in the United States; (4) the meaning of leisure and life satisfaction.

Leisure Participation Before and After Immigration to the United States
The women described activities in which they engaged in during a typical day before and after coming to the United States.  First, the interviewer asked the participants about their personal interests and activities in which they participated in Taiwan and China.  Four women practiced Tai Chi and disco or folk dancing.  One woman remarked:
'After retiring, I went to exercise and practiced Tai Chi with my friends in a park every morning. There was a senior’s club near my house.  There were many kinds of activities there, such as Tai Chi, chess, and older adults’ disco.'
Another stressed her varied activities:
'I had a lot of personal interests when I was in Taiwan, such as flower arranging, cooking, and learning English.  I loved learning things; also, I loved doing exercise. I joined the folk dance club in the park nearby every morning.'
Sadly, one woman expressed her lack of enjoyable activities:
'I did not have any special interests.  When I was young, I learned to embroider and weave clothes.  Most women learned these when they were young.'
Exercising, walking, shopping, gardening, watching television, and attending church were the most common activities in which they participated in the United States.
 ‘I usually get up at 6:00 a.m. every morning and exercise alone in front of our house.  Sometimes my husband and I take walks around the community or exercise together... Almost every weekend, I go shopping with my son and daughter-in-law.’
One woman said she doesn’t think she participates in many activities but:
'My husband, son and daughter-in-law all work, so my current responsibilities are to cook for my family and do the housework. Besides taking care of my grandchildren, cooking for my family and doing the housework, I am also busy with the church....the only leisure activity I do is grow vegetables in the summer.'
Chinese television plays a major part in their lives as substantiated by two women.
'I love watching Chinese videotapes. I don’t understand English.... He (my son) installed cable TV for me, so I can watch a lot of Chinese programs.'

'After returning home (from work), I usually watch Chinese news or other Chinese TV programs and then go to bed.'

Religious activities were a major focus for the women.  As one woman commented:
I do not go anywhere to have fun, but sometimes my son takes me to church on Sundays.'

'Besides taking care of my grandchildren and doing the housework, I spend most of my time in church.  I cook for the church every Friday and Sunday and visit other church members every Wednesday night.'

Women participated in several activities when they were in Taiwan and China.  In the United States, however, they commented they seldom participated in activities, even those activities they enjoyed in their homelands.  According to one woman:
'Actually, I don’t engage in any activities.  I know, in the United States, there is a place I can go to practice Tai Chi, but it is too far from my house, so I don’t go there.... I love to exercise with friends just like I did in China; I don’t like to do it alone.  So, after immigrating to the United States, I just take walks with my husband; I do not do those other activities any more.'
Another woman said:
'I also joined the older people’s disco after I retired. After coming to the United States ... I used to organize older church members doing Tai Chi, but because of the decreasing number of older members, I do not organize it any more; now I just do it at home sometimes.... I brought the materials for calligraphy but I’m never in the mood to do it.'

'After coming to the United States, I feel lonely sometimes, so I look for things to do; for example, when somebody asks me to take care of their child, I always say yes because I am very glad to have company.'

Leisure Constraints Experienced in the United States
Most participants talked about how constraints limited their opportunities to make friends and to become part of mainstream society.  The amount of time they had been in the United States did not appear to influence these issues.  One woman who had lived in the United States for 16 years said:
'I still remember three big problems we met after first arriving in the United States: having no car, and not being able to speak and read English.  I felt I was like a deaf person, a blind person, and a person with no feet.'
Another woman who had lived in the United States for 10 years said:
'I would like to learn English but I cannot remember the material and I have no time, so I still have not attended the exam for being a citizen.  Moreover, I have no car and I cannot drive, so I cannot go to school.  I even cannot go shopping by myself; the only thing I can do is stay home.'
A woman living in the United States for two years commented:
'I think language is the biggest barrier.  I can drive but my son doesn’t want me to because he worries that if I have a car accident, I won’t be able to communicate with others and explain the situation.  The reason I learned to drive is because it is more convenient for me to go to church…but gradually I accepted my son's opinion.  Otherwise, if I had an accident, it would have been a burden on my children.'
'Language is a barrier for me.  I always have problems communicating with Americans.  For example, I cannot understand what salesmen say to me; they always speak too fast.'
The women described their experiences stemming from their inability to drive and to speak English.  One woman said:
'Someone took me shopping and agreed to pick me up, but they forgot the time. I was so nervous and I didn’t even know where the phone was.  So I would like to learn English.  I heard there is a school here, but I do not know where it is.  Many older adults have not attended the exam for being a citizen just because they cannot speak English.'
Other women remarked:
'When I just arrived here, I was even afraid of picking up the phone when it was ringing.'
'Actually I don’t like going out because I cannot understand English, and cannot even read the signs.  I miss China very much.'
'You know, if you cannot speak English, it is very difficult to be involved in American society.'
Most women identified cultural differences as barriers.  One woman said:
'It (language) limits many chances to make friends with others and because of the different cultural backgrounds between Chinese people and American people, our life space is limited.'
Three women remarked about cultural differences in family life and friendships:
'I like to be close to my family, but neither of them is well established; one is doing graduate work, one just started a job even though she manages to be pretty stable with her job, and neither of them is married.  Every parent seems to like to be close to their children, but children don’t really need you; it’s you who needs them.  If I go there, I will not know anybody.  They have their own lives to live, and it’s not a particularly happy situation I have because in America it is individualistic…But it’s an American community which is subject to American ways of life, that is busy, busy, busy, so it’s not like the life in Taiwan where you visit each other a lot, dropping in on each other unannounced, constantly in touch.  It’s not like that here, even among Chinese families.  You have much more privacy, but the other side, you have much, much less together time.'

'When I was in China, I had a lot of friends to talk and exercise with, but I can hardly find any here...I feel lonely sometimes…'

'I hope my children can "walk out”, that is, to be involved in society; I really hope they can do so.  We have been here more than ten years, but our living space is still very limited…My children asked me many times, "Mom, why cannot we be involved in American society?”  I don’t know how to answer.  I sincerely hope they can walk out.'

Effect of Filial Piety on Leisure in the United States
Their roles - wife, mother, grandmother - occupied most of their time and leisure was not central to them. As the women in the study reflected on their lives, traditional Chinese values played a very important role.
'In traditional Chinese values, taking care of children is the most important thing, then taking care of your husband; these are more important than I am.'

‘I do not think being a mother affects my recreation.  I never complained in front of my children no matter how tired I was…They always told me, “Mom, take care of yourself.  You do not need to work so hard.”  I hardly complain because, in my opinion, a mother should do her best to take care of her family and her children.  This is beyond doubt...I do not think I make a sacrifice; I do my best in whatever I need to do.'

'Because my husband was the only child in his family, I had to take care of his parents and my six children.  And also because my husband owned an electric appliance repair shop, I had to help him operate the business…Actually I married my husband in my early teens, so I did not have the chance to go to school and I had to do most of the housework.'
'It (taking care of children) is very important and it’s your occupation.'
One woman summed up how important it is to take care of family members:
'It depends on how you look at it.  If you regard taking care of your mother as a kind of recreation, then you will be very glad to do it.  But if you insist that exercise or going out are types of recreation but taking care of parents is not, it will be difficult for you to feel happy.  In the United States, taking care of my grandchildren has the same meaning for me.'

The Meaning of Leisure and Life Satisfaction
The interviewer then asked what they considered leisure and five women commented that leisure was relaxing.  One woman mentioned the importance of relaxing in her life.
'I think the most important thing is relaxing.  For instance, if you are in a hurry while practicing Tai Chi, you cannot relax, and cannot gain health from exercise, not to mention that you cannot experience recreation.  So I think relaxing is very important when I experience recreation.'
Another woman remarked:
'So when you ask me what experiences I would call leisure, I think relaxing is the most important factor, so even staying home relaxing by myself during a weekend, I would call it leisure.  If you worry about something when you go out having fun, you cannot relax.'
Two women had never thought about leisure and encountered difficulty answering the question.  One woman stated:
'Actually, I never think about it. I never even think about taking a rest.... I always think I want to do my best to take care of my husband, my children, and my grandchildren.  They feel happy and so I feel happy.'
Though the women faced constraints in the United States that limited their opportunities to engage in previous activities, most still felt satisfied with life in the United States.  They gradually adjusted to the American way of life and enjoyed living in the United States.
'I feel more relaxed after coming to the United States because I do not have to worry about anything and the environment is beautiful as a park and the air is very fresh.'

'Actually my life is very relaxing and without worries.  The only hope I have is to go out more often…I have been living here for almost twenty years, so I gradually got used to the way of life.'

'I am getting used to living here and I really appreciate it...especially after retiring, I do not have to worry about anything; I feel released completely.'

Our goal in this study was to explore older Chinese’s women’s leisure experiences. Though we caution extrapolating the results of the qualitative paradigm, we urge readers to understand that the study was the first in an area that requires greater attention in the future. By delving into the lives of the women, we garnered rich information about the leisure lives of older Chinese women.

Through the interviews, we discovered that leisure is a universal concept that the women understood though the term itself may not be universal.  The women’s interpretation of leisure not only included what activities in which they engaged, how often they participated in those activities, or how much they benefited from doing those activities, but how they perceived the experiences as well.  Leisure as typically understood by those in the leisure profession was often difficult for the women to comprehend yet they understood the concept of leisure.  Leisure for the women was a perception of an experience that coincides with Neulinger’s (1982) definition of leisure.  Leisure appears to have no cultural boundaries in that women participated in different activities, but their concept of leisure did not change.

Though barriers such as language, transportation and cultural differences influenced their activities after immigration to the United States, the women perceived pleasure, enjoyment, and fulfillment through leisure.  The women participated in different activities before and after their immigration to the United States, but the concept of leisure remained the same.  By doing different activities, they pursued experiences that contributed to their feelings of satisfaction, enjoyment, and fulfillment, stressing the universal interpretation of leisure.

The leisure experiences of the older Chinese women immigrants changed after their immigration to the United States, similar to Allison and Geiger's results (1993).  Barriers such as language, transportation, and cultural differences prevented some from engaging in their previous leisure activities.  The major barriers experienced by older Chinese women in this study were the same as the barriers identified by Kauh (1999) and Tsai and Lopez (1997), pointing to the conclusion that regardless of the country from which women immigrate, barriers are similar.
We also discovered that segmenting leisure from work and family obligations was not appropriate for investigating the meaning of leisure for the women.  Filial piety played a major role for these women in that they lived near or close to their adult children and the adult children cared for their parents.  In turn, the older women cared for the grandchildren and assumed most household duties because ‘…that reverence of children for parents is filial piety…the ideal of children respecting parents and parents in turn being benevolent toward them’ (Sung, 1998, p. 4).

Leisure became meaningful to the women only because they integrated leisure with many aspects of their lives, such as family and religious activities.  Consistent with previous research involving older adults (Henderson & Rannells, 1988; Kelly & Kelly, 1994; Siegenthaler & Vaughan, 1998) leisure was intertwined with life’s activities.  We concluded that leisure is not an isolated concept but part of every aspect of life.

Filial piety was another important Chinese value that maintained the caring relationships between children and parents, so all but one of the women with children lived with or close to their adult children, implying that traditional Chinese values had a profound effect on the women.  Our conclusion is similar to that expounded by Tirone and Shaw (1997) in that cultural traditions from the person’s country of origin continued to affect the person’s life.  

Future Research
The trend of older women living independently may indicate a weakening of the traditional extended family. A reoccurring reason mentioned by the women who limited their opportunities to make friends with others and to be involved in society was the language barrier.  We suggest studies comparing immigrant women with diverse cultural backgrounds to see if they encounter barriers as those identified in the study and to see if their view of leisure is the same as that of Chinese women.

The study raises questions about the effect of Chinese traditions on women’s lives, the inability to segment Chinese women’s lives into work/leisure dichotomies, and the centrality of family on Chinese women’s lives.  The themes may provide hypotheses for future studies that examine the lives of Chinese women as integrated through work, leisure, free time, religious activities, and family life.  Researchers may also study whether women in Western society have the same characteristics as Chinese women.  For instance, do work and leisure intertwine in Western women’s lives?  Is family the center of their lives?  Perhaps similar characteristics exist among women from diverse cultures, and the differences are only a matter of degree.

Implications for Leisure Service Providers
The failure of service planners and providers to offer culturally relevant services may be based on assumptions that family members act as caregivers to older Chinese adults (Gutierrez, 1992); however, we do not support this assumption.  Women acted as the caregivers to other family members and were not the object of the care giving.  They had limited time, limited English language skills, and a lack of transportation, creating barriers to leisure participation.  To target these barriers, local government and community officials should recruit bilingual and bicultural professionals to understand women’s needs and consult with leisure professionals to provide adequate leisure activities for older Chinese immigrant women.  This issue cannot be ignored as more and more Chinese women immigrate to the United States.

We also suggest that local communities organize educational programs for immigrant women to learn English, to understand the local customs and practices, and to learn national, state, and local laws.  With the help of such services, the women may ‘walk out’, be close to American society, and participate in a variety of leisure activities.

More and more Chinese people are immigrating to the United States, and so the number of older Chinese immigrants is increasing; their unique language and cultural barriers differentiate their leisure needs.  Policy makers and practitioners should be sensitive to the needs of older Chinese immigrants and respond with policies and programs to help them with life in the United States, contributing to their life satisfaction.

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