Category Archives: language and culture

Precious Chinese surnames with traditional values

Our surnames are worth gold.

When kids disagree with each other, you might hear an exchange like this: “I swear if I lie to you, I’ll abandon my surname!” Or, “I swear, if I lose, I’ll no longer carry the surname my father has given me!” Or, “Promised? If you lose, you will drop your surname, and follow my surname?”

When a Chinese kid places his surname as a bet, you need to take him seriously.

Outside Salisbury Cathedral -- Boys are superior in Chinese culture

Outside Salisbury Cathedral — Boys are superior in Chinese culture

Does it sound strange to you? As a child, when I argued or swore with the boy next door, we used the most valuable bid — our surnames. I’ve never heard an Englishman bet his surname: “OK, if you win, I’ll abandon my surname Smith and adopt your surname Barker.”

Surname is important. Sons are important because sons carry on the family surname and lineage. Sons carry incense sticks when worshipping the ancestors. They preside over ancestral rites, especially during the Tomb Sweeping Day.

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Seeing the world through my names

Janet is not even my real name.

I adopted this English name when I was 20 years old. My first English teacher at a university in Taiwan was a plump American lady. In out first lesson, she insisted that all her Chinese students should have an English name.

Having an English name is trendy to many foreign learners. Young Chinese people particularly like to be called John or Mary when they learn English. Having an English name does not mean that we kowtow to the western culture, as some conservative Chinese people worry that abandoning our original name equals to a loss of our identity. I don’t think so. Having a foreign name is just fun. The silliness is part of the experience of learning English as a foreign language. Continue reading

An age with relative freedom

We played some music by the band Queen yesterday. When listening to the song, I Want to Break Free, my husband commented that many radio and TV stations in the USA banned this song since its release in 1984. I was surprised. I have always considered the USA a relatively ‘free’ country, much freer than many Asian countries, but why would it be so prudish as to ban a music video of four men dressed in women’s clothes? Or, could it be because some people in power didn’t like skinny ballerinas performing a modern dance in skin-tight leotards?

What does it feel like being shackled? It is the sense of total isolation, in the deafening and incoherent cacophony. Continue reading

Oriental and western views on postnatal confinement

Private Eye: Woman has baby

Private Eye on the royal birth: Woman has baby. Image by Duncan via Flickr

When I saw the Duchess of Cambridge (Kate Middleton) beaming radiantly outside the hospital with her baby boy, George, just 27 hours after her birth, I felt slightly uncomfortable.

Strangely, I heard my mum’s voice ringing in my head: “Terrible! Why is she walking about? She should be lying in bed. Poor girl — oh no, she had washed her hair? Look! It’s so windy. The wind is so bad for her. What? She’s wearing high platform shoes? Not wearing socks? Good grief!”

What’s the one-month postnatal confinement?

Traditionally, Chinese women must observe a strict one-month postnatal confinement. Even now, a lot of modern and highly educated women still follow the tradition. Though there are regional varieties with the rituals and taboos about the confinement, the common taboos are as follows: Continue reading

Magnificent display at Buckingham Palace

If you were a five-year-old, what would your idea of a perfect gift be? China’s Last Emperor, Pu Yi, gave two huge vases to King George V (great great great grandfather of the new British royal baby George) in 1911. Soon afterwards, Pu Yi was deposed.

Pu Yi, the last emperor of China.

Pu Yi, the last emperor of China.

I learnt about this fascinating fact today in London, as I was a special guest at Buckingham Palace.

The pair of beautiful vases are huge, measuring 217.0 x 80.0 cm. “Pair of large, ovoid, cloisonné enamel vases, with bronze dragon handles, decorated with dragons on a green scale-pattern ground.”

The oriental dragons portrayed on the vases are playful, sweet and even smiling. They are serpent-like, in gold, benevolent, powerful, typical qualities of Chinese dragons. Continue reading

Pondering Freedom of Speech during Ramadan

I love British comedy: dry, witty and deep. However, even with the help of subtitles, some of the time, I still don’t understand the jokes. I would need interpretation. My husband has become fed up because I keep interrupting him, and he would reply, “Don’t worry. You won’t get it.” or “It’s not worth explaining.”

I remember when I first watched British comedies 14 years ago, I was shocked with horror what comedians were allowed to say in public. They freely poked fun of the Pope and the Queen, made rude jokes about themselves, politicians, people with disabilities, or made sarcastic jokes about religions. I constantly told my husband — No, in Malaysia or Thailand or Singapore or China, you definitely can’t say this, this, this, this……, using horrid stories about judicial caning, death sentence and disappearance as solid evidence.

My husband will never understand my fear of total freedom of speech.

Being the youngest in a typical Chinese family. A family of 10.

Being the youngest in a typical Chinese family

I grew up in a culture that guarding my words was important. I grew up in Malaysia, surrounded by Muslims, Hindus, and Chinese of all religions. Each group has its unique tradition, taboos and belief, and I learnt naturally to pick up cues of what to say or what not to say to different groups of people. We learnt to live harmoniously by accurately understanding our boundaries. We embraced peace, not trouble.

I had fear.

I’m very used to living within boundaries since birth.  As the youngest child in a traditional hierarchical Chinese family, I must show filial piety to my parents and respect my elder siblings. Obedience is a great value. Silence is gold. Continue reading

Do you remember the victims’ names in Asiana plane crash?

Three teenage girls from China recently died, when their plane smashed into a sea wall in front of the runway at San Francisco International Airport on 6 July. The girls from Zhejiang, an eastern coastal province in China, were passengers on the South Korean Asiana Airlines Flight 214. Their dream of a fun and exciting summer camp in America was cruelly shattered.  

In response to Lorelle’s blog exercises: How to Write about Something Someone Else Wrote, I’ll examine this tragedy from a fresh angle, a person’s name and its cultural identity.

How many people remember the victims’ names? The girls’ names were: Ye Mengyuan 叶梦圆 , Wang Linjia 王琳佳, and Liu Yipeng 刘易芃. Their names in Chinese meant “fulfilling dreams’, ‘grace’, and ‘lush’ respectively. However, the media was not interested in these names, which carried their parents’ hope and love.

People now seemed to remember the pilots’ fake oriental sounding names. The news anchor from KTVC, a TV station serving San Francisco Bay Area, told viewers the purported names of the pilots on Asiana Flight 214 were: “Sum Ting Wong,” “Wi Tu Lo,” “Ho Lee Fuk”, and “Bang Ding Ow”. Continue reading

Wool, paper and nuclear

Helen: Wool against weapons, in Reading high street

Helen: Wool against weapons, in Reading high street

After finishing my teaching in Reading last weekend, I explored the Reading high street (i.e. shopping) and saw this scene:

This is a beautiful scene as the contrast is powerful: a beautiful young lady with flowers on her hair was quietly knitting, smiling.

Her friend Mike with an explosive hair was trying to fold an origami crane. I watched on silently, after a few minutes, I offered him my helping hand to get his crane completed. Continue reading

Sharing my favourite things

Today, Lorelle on WordPress encouraged us to share a few of our favourite things:

“Tell us why these things are special to you. Did they influence or change your life? Do you have a story or experience with these favorite things? Share the story.

By sharing your favorite things you reveal a little more about yourself to your readers.”

I’d like to share one unique passion of mine — origami. Making things out of paper gives me pure joy. It calms me down completely. The excitement is that I now can fold many things from memory, such as cranes, lotus, lily, boxes, spinner. I can entertain or bore people with them. Continue reading

Memorial: grief and celebration

Last weekend (June 29), it was the fifth national Armed Forces Day in the UK. The day aimed to raise public awareness of the contribution made by those who serve and have served in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. It also gave people an opportunity to show their support for the Armed Forces community.

Lorelle wrote about how United States celebrated Memorial Day (originally known as Decoration Day) on May 27,  a day “dedicated to remembering those who died while serving in the United States military services.” The BBC also reported that Memorial Day honoured the dead in US conflicts from the Civil War through Korea and Afghanistan.

Armed Forces Day and Memorial Day are linked. Whatever views we may have about wars (euphemistically ‘conflicts’), especially modern wars, we learn from history about mistakes, sacrifices and bravery. We learn about humility. Continue reading