Category Archives: Culture

The old man at the wedding

1985, I came to America.

The following week was my birthday, and it was also the very first time I put on makeup, making myself look pretty–Because I can now, I’m in America. There was no birthday celebration–It coincided Cousin Robert’s wedding.

At the dinner reception, I quietly sat and watched people dancing with music, laughing through the night… Wishing a handsome boy would come to ask me for a dance. But, instead, there was a strange old man with a very long white beard sitting next to me, smiling. I smiled back. His wrinkled face bore a pair of white eyes… I mean his irises were white, he had white hair, and was all in white. But somehow he knew me, so he came to me. I didn’t know him, but I did not feel threatened, nor did I feel I was in danger. There we sat, and though he was blind (or was he?) He knew where I was, and he was facing me. Then he asked:

“剛到嗎?” (Just got here?)

“是,上禮拜剛到。” (Yes, just got here last week.)

“歡迎來美國,有沒有對相了?” (Welcome to America, do you have a boyfriend?)

Suddenly I felt my entire body’s blood rushed into my head. How did he know I was wishing for a guy to pick me up for a dance? I couldn’t say a word, wanted so bad to have a place to hide. By then I was convinced he was not blind, because he knew I was embarrassed… He laughed, so heartily, like Santa Claus, “Ho Ho Ho Ho Ho… 不要緊,我逗妳的!” (No worries, I was teasing you!)  Then, with a long pause, he seemed to be studying me. He penetrated my eyes with his white irises, leaned closer and said slowly with a sincere and steady voice:

“妳遠從台灣來,是為了遇見妳未來的丈夫。但妳必須要爭取他、才能得到真正的辛福。” (You’ve come a long way from Taiwan, to meet your future husband here. But you must compete for him, in order to be truly happy.)

“但是媽媽說女生不應該追求男生呢… ” (But mama said a good girl shouldn’t be chasing a boy…)

Before I finished my sentence, a dancing couple lost control, and came fast towards us. They crashed between me and the old man. Luckily they didn’t knock over the whole table. By the time the couple got back on their feet, the old man was gone. I looked around, he was nowhere to be found.

Years gone by, his words were forgotten, through a brand new American western culture, a new language to learn, a new life to live, to fit in, to get by… But, no matter how much I changed, how well I spoke the English language, how much I became “Americanized,” how many boys I “chased,” deep down, I felt guilty to have chased boys, to have been intimate with too many friends who were not my type, to have been wild, bold and outspoken… Deep down I still love Mother’s cooking, still am humble for my achievements, still believe in fung-shui, still pray to Buddha during Chinese New Year, still believe my grandparents are watching over me, and I still believe there are people among us who are messengers of the gods, who can see the future, like the old man at the wedding.

About fifteen years later, I fell madly in love with a man whom I shouldn’t have been in love with, and he shouldn’t have been in love with me. But eventually, seven years after the fall, we got married. And through all of this rollercoaster ride, the old man never surfaced in my memory… Until almost thirty years later, I vividly recall–the old man at the wedding.

“Please… Enjoy my horrible dish!” (“請多指教小人的拙菜”)

If you ever happen to attend a Chinese immigrant’s dinner party, and when you are about to dive into to what seems like a delicious meal, chances are, you may hear the chef saying something like what the title suggested. The literal translation for the Chinese expression above is “Please advise me in this horrible food created by little me.” 

I bet this is very confusing for the westerners. For the sake of explanation, it is an expression of modesty. This kind of expression applies to any creative work, not just culinary, when a Chinese person presents to his/her guests and strangers. 

 

Statue of Confucius
Confucius (551 – 479 B.C.)
The ancient Chinese philosophers taught us to be humble: Modesty is a virtue — even when we know we’ve done good. Because, the more we are humble, the more we are to listen. The more we listen, the more we learn. The more we learn, the more we improve. 

The word “proud” (驕傲,)in Chinese, has a shared character “傲” with the word “arrogance” (傲慢.)  It makes sense because pride, when not curbed, can easily become arrogance, which is detrimental to one’s self-improvement. So we, the Chinese, have been taught from very young age to be humble at all situations, and to avoid any chance for ourselves to become arrogant. 

A very good example here: With the western influence, only the latest generations of Chinese people had begun to admit that they are proud of their children. Because, in the ancient Chinese language, one would refer his son as “犬子” –meaning “dog-son”– when conversing with other people.

In the western world, display of humbleness would often be mistaken as passiveness, weakness, cowardice, lack of self confidence, or even lack of self esteem  (“自尊”).  Thus, when the Chinese are modest about their achievements, they often do not get the respect they deserve. It maybe the reason why the Chinese government decided to show off during the opening ceremony of 2008 Olympics.

Here’s another related social interaction case:  When someone pays a Chinese person compliment, the Chinese does not say “thank you” but, instead, he/she says “I do not deserve this,” or say nothing at all, or play deaf. The reason is simple: With humility in their every being, the Chinese may feel that the praises would feed into their ego. And, in order to prevent themselves from becoming arrogant, they would shy away from the compliment. This reaction therefore could easily be wrongly perceived by the westerners, and the poor Chinese person could wear a hat as an “unappreciative jerk.” 

So when you see Chinese people being modest about their success, it’s is not them being dishonest, nor being unappreciative–It’s them being Chinese. 

The Chinese community, however, has been more aware of this cultural difference that caused them lots of missed opportunities. So there have been many discussion forums and articles written to inform everyone to accept compliments with gratitude. There are also warnings about being overly modest in a competitive situation, such as a job interview. 

By the way, the Chinese government’s grandiose display during the 2008 Olympics opening ceremony, and its lavish spending on new constructions for the event, is nothing short of an arrogant exhibition… In my most humble opinion.

References:

“Why do Chinese people humble when they hear words of praise” (中國人為什麼聽到讚美的話會謙虛?) 

Excerpt from “Not reconciling lost of competition to the witty: Wittiness is ability, understanding silence is wisdom.” (”輸給會說話的人不甘心:會說話是能力,懂沉默是智慧“) 

“The authenticity of modesty to progress of self-improvement” (謙虛使人進步的真偽與對錯)

Bubble Tea: A popular international sensation

bubble tea
A typical Bubble Tea

 

The world popular Bubble Tea was originated from Taiwan, the same place where Giant brand bicycles and Acer computers came from. Here’s a little fun fact about the sweet milk tea, how they invented this international favorite. 

The very first bubble tea was called “Boba milk tea.” (波霸奶茶). And it was invented in Taichung, Taiwan. By the time it made it to Taipei, I was an awkward young tween girl, walking by a vendor with a brightly colored poster.  I was blushed by its name, and refused to try it.

Boba Tea
The original Boba Tea was served in a big round glass

It was originally served in a big round glass, with the same milk tea and tapioca balls that sank to the bottom. It has to be served with milk already blended. Because, the whole image in the big round glass, containing milk with round pearls at the bottom, are like a woman’s breast– “Boba” is a Taiwanese slang for “big breasts.”

Boba Tea thereby was invented as a result of primitive admiration and obsession of the male population towards God given motherly feature of every woman’s body. The secret of the tea’s success could be the consumers’ experience of sipping Boba Tea, while the sweet tapioca balls flow through their tongue… You get the idea.

When Boba Tea was gaining popularity internationally, the marketers had to reinvent it into something less overtly sexual to some. Hence, instead of the round glass, they served it in a conventional cup and called it “Bubble Tea”–-the word “bubble” comes from the foam of a shaken tea, and it sounds like its original name.

Since my first sight of Boba Tea as a blushing tween in Taipei, I only resolved to have my very first cup as an adult living in the United States, sipping the same famously delicious drink in the name of Bubble Tea.

P.S. This entry was originally written as a response to a reader’s question “…Do you know how they came up with [bubble tea?]” commented at a recent blog by Ryan.Thoughts

Reference: Wikipedia

A Particular Lunar New Years Custom

Last week I went to Mother’s home, joining the rest of the family in celebration of Lunar New Year, the Year of Goat. I stayed with my eldest brother, who is quite in-tuned with traditional customs. One custom in particular, with my personal lifestyle and current situation, maybe borderline superstition–This is another story, as a result of being far and away from my roots over the years…

As I mentioned in my previous entry, a nice custom about Lunar New Year is when everyone gets busy, in the final weeks leading to the changing time–washing their cars, cleaning their houses, shopping for new clothes, etc. That was exactly what happened in my brothers house. They rearranged furnitures, changed the living room rug, washed all the clothes, sheets, even hired a cleaning crew to deep clean the house… All this happened before New Years Day.

I, the traveler living out of her suitcase, accumulated some laundry during my stay. But the laundry machine had been occupied. So the only time I found both the machine and myself available to do the wash was after dinner on New Years Day.

So I washed my clothes on New Years Day. It was loud. The whole house could hear the machine running–Especially the dryer–when my jean buttons contantly banged on the rolling drum. My brother came and asked, “Are you doing laundry?”

“Yeah. Why? What’s wrong?”

“You’re not supposed to do laundry on New Years Day! Forget laundry, any kind of wash is sacrilege!”

“WHAT? Oh my god, REALLY?! What ghost or God did I offend now?”

“THE WATER GOD!!”

“Ugh… What am I supposed to do now with my clothes all wet?”

Realizing me not knowing the custom, my brother forgave me at once. “It’s Ok,” he said, “Don’t worry about it. Just keep drying your clothes.”

I racked my brain with causes and effects, ecological effects, philosophy and science… If washing offends Water God, should we instead on New Years Day offend people around us with B.O.? 😬

I welcome anyone who knows more about this custom to enlighten me, and to share your insight with my readers. Thanks in advance.

Memo on Chinese New Year

The Chinese New Year celebrates the New Year’s Day in the lunar calendar. This year, the Year of Goat, would start on Thursday, February 19th. The festivities are like a combined celebration of different western holidays.

It’s like Christmas, instead of gifts, children and unmarried young generation would receive red envelopes from their elders for wishes of good fortunes in the year to come. For those who don’t know, red envelopes contain cash. More on this tradition later, in a future entry.

It’s like Thanksgiving, immediate families gather for traditional meals, connecting across generations, across worlds, from the Eve through the midnight moment, into New Years Day; then extended families, relatives, and friends gather in the subsequent two days and enjoy good food and good times.

It’s like the fireworks on Fourth of July, every household lights up fire crackers at zero hour of New Years Day to scare off evil spirits. And children would play with fire crackers around this time of year.

And it’s like the solar New Year, the lunar New Year is a celebration of new beginning, with many things happening in not just one day–People would get busy even before the Eve to prepare for the new year. They would clean their houses, wash their cars, shop for new clothes to wear… And of course shopping for cooking ingredients for dishes to be served during the 3-day long celebration…

For a traditional Chinese New Year dish recipe, check back next week. 😉