Friday, 8 February 2013

Old vs New and Chinese vs English Languages

CCTV Headquarter, Beijing, China
CCTV Headquarters
There's a taxi scene in Karate Kid 5 where Dre (played by Jaden Smith) and his mum Sherry just arrive in Beijing. As Drei cranes his neck out of the taxi window and looks up at the CCTV headquarters building with its sleek, futuristic architecture, Sherry comments to Drei that not everything in China is old like he imagines it would be.

Every country has that modern facade, no matter how traditional it is. China is no exception. In fact, China and the Middle East have some of the most modern and tallest structures in the world. After all, we're living in a modern world.

Soon after the movie, I went to a desserts store in a hawker centre in Singapore. a customer was being addressed as 'auntie'. Looking to me in her late 30's or early 40's, she growled at the staff that she wasn't married. The female staff, in her 50's apologised, "Sorry miss". But the customer went on, "Do I look like an auntie?"

Don't know if she having a bad day, I'm quite sure that this isn't the first time she has been addressed as 'auntie'. Plenty of people who are my senior in places of business like supermarket checkouts, barber shops, etc addressed me as 'uncle'. The first time, it came as a bit of a shock, even though it was coming from a youngster. Later, they frequently coming from people who are decades older than me. It doesn't bother me any more. My pain is now totally numb.

In Singapore, I suspect 'uncle' and 'auntie' is simply a Chinese equivalence of the English 'Sir', and 'Madam'. Indeed, in a larger and more established business premises like banks, post offices, etc, male and female customers are being called 'Sirs' and 'Madams' - a term that's somewhat more neutral in age. The problem is that Chinese put respect over vanity. Instead of addressing somebody younger with the appropriate younger equivalent address like "younger sister", or "younger brother", they think it's safer to call somebody with a senior salutations like 'uncle' and 'auntie'. Actually I thought the term 'xiaojie'(= '小姐' = 'Miss', which literally means "little sister") is quite standard especially when an elder person like the above mentioned store staff addressing a younger customer (or any peer or older person addressing a younger female). I guess Singaporean tend to be quiet even if they're offended, and so the staff is none the wiser in using term 'auntie' loose and fast for all customers.

My close friend is a Westernised (actually Australianised) woman despite her early Chinese upbringing. She speaks English far more fluent than her Chinese, and so tends to understand Chinese culture via Aussie eyes. She's utterly against her hubby calling her 'laopo' (='老婆'). 'Lao' is 'old'.  'Po' is so loaded in meaning that it's actually quite untranslatable. Its closest translation is 'granny', or 'old woman'.

Here's the crux of the matter. The word 'old' has very different connotation in the English and in Chinese, in fact, they're opposite. 'Old' in Chinese is more like 'home' than 'house'. It's supposed to give you that warm and fuzzy feeling.

The Chinese word 'lao' (='老'='old') has two aspects to it. The 1st is being used in terms like 'laoshi' (='老師' = 'Teacher'), 'laoshou' (='老手' = 'old hand'), 'laoma' (='老馬' = 'old horse'), 'laosifu' (='老師傅' = 'old master (of trade)'), 'laoban' (='老闆'='boss'), etc. These and many others are terms that command respect that derived from seniority and experience.

Another facet of the same word like our slang term in question 'laopo' (='老婆' = 'wife'), 'laoyou' (='老友' = 'close friend'), 'laosi' (='老死' = 'best mate', literally 'old dead'), are used for intimacy. They're terms of endearments. Not insults. If your surname is 'Wang' then your friends would automatically call you ' Lao Wang' to show closeness, and it has very little to do with age unless you're a teenager. So the term 'laopo' has both old words together, and it's therefore doubly good.

As you can see, these two uses of the word 'old' are both positive. On the other hand, English phrases come to mind like 'old timer', 'old fashioned', 'old geezer', 'old shoe', 'old people', etc tend to be negative. The phrase 'good old time' needs the word 'good' to negate the negative connotation of 'old time'. If 'old time' is positive, the word 'good' would be unnecessary. Similarly, in the expression, 'oldie, but goodie', you need the word 'but' to butt out the negative implication of 'oldie'.

The latest popular term in the long line of pedigree of good old words that's prefixed with 'lao' is 'laowai' (='老外'='foreigner'). 'Wai' is short for 'outsider', which in Chinese language is neutral. But in Chinese history, especially in the 19th century, 'foreigner' is a dirty word due to colonisation attempts. But just having placed the word 'lao' in front of it turns everything that follows it into something positive. It's a term of respect and endearment.

LeBron James the big-time NBL basketball player is quite popular in China, and to his adoring fans, he's been nicknamed "Lao Beijing" (="老北京", Chinese sounding of LeBron James). It means "Old Beijing". In USA, I'm sure as a sportsman, he wouldn't want to be called Lao anything. In fact, most athletes retire before they're considered old. In China, Old is good.

A proud Chinese loves that old - thus good - quote, "we Chinese have 5000 years of history". If old is a good thing, then the quote is gold. Those who respect progress might have the opposite view of that quote.

Chinese culture favours tradition and so 'old' is good, while Western culture favours progress and 'old' is antithetic to it. Of course, I'm over-simplified to highlight the differences. Since progress is also associated with technology, and without question, you wouldn't want to own old technology. The Chinese respects for the Old is one of the dozen of factors that held China back from progress in the last 2 centuries.

Linguists believe that not so much that our languages reflect thought pattern, it's more like our languages pattern our thoughts. Regardless of which of the 2 statements is true, it remains that in Chinese language, the word 'old' has quite different connotation than in English. Language is probably the most important part of cultural expression.

Filial piety is a highly regarded virtue in Chinese culture. It follows from the respect for the the elders in the society. One of the requirement of filial piety is obedience to your parents. In the West, we call you mommy's boy or daddy's boy to discourage such obedience. In China, you will be called a filial pious son. A highly respectable term.

Perhaps, there's no better examples of the old versus new than the Chinese classics of the 24 Examplars of Filial Piety. Specifically the examplar 22 of She Breastfed Her Mother-In-Law.

Examplar number 22: The story of She Breastfed Her Mother-In-Law., Haw Par Villa, Singapore
Examplar number 22: The story of She Breastfed Her Mother-In-Law.

In this story, because Madam Tang's mother-in-law has no teeth, she breastfed her instead of her baby. What's better to show this preference of the old over the new?

This diorama shows the Examplar 22 could be found in Haw Par Villa in Singapore. You can read my article of trip to this place here. This place contains a lot of unique exhibits showing traditional Chinese values.

Old people, old tradition, old anything is valued more highly in China. This is all part and parcel of the Confucian value. But it's changing like everything else in China.

Confucius statue, Jurong Chinese Gardens, Singapore
Confucius statue
(Jurong Chinese Gardens, Singaore)

So next time when you're in China, and somebody use the term 'old' to call you or describe your certain aspects, don't get offended. You're being either complimented or being liked (similarly, when somebody calls you fat. This (the 2nd half) of this article explains why fat is good in China.
Remember that, my dear old and fat readers (even if you're young and slim. I'm calling you that out of respect)).

After the Fall of Roman Empire, the West plunged into the Dark Ages, it was a series of historical rebellions that saw the West rose to their prominence today. The 1st rebellion is called Scientific Revolution where the long held established religious dogma took a backseat to Science. The religious power also held power in Europe. The 2nd rebellion is called the American Revolution where the old British Empire gave way to the rising New World of republican USA (the French Revolution also falls into the same category. The Rise of Republicanism. I'm not going to debate which of these 2 revolutions are more important). The 3rd rebellion is the Hippie Movement, the spirit of freedom and rebellion catalysed the subsequent social movement like the promotion of social, racial and gender equality in the 1960s. The consequences of those 3 rebellions define the very shape of the modern world.

Science is another name for Rebellion. Science is about challenging the old established thinking. This lies in the very heart of Science. Nothing is too sacrosanct to be questioned. Absolutely nothing. Even so called "Laws" are being challenged. And had done so for many times over.

Spare a thought for majority of Singaporean who are exposed to these contradictory influences of Chinese and English cultures in equal measure. This leaves our deserts store staff quite confused as to the proper term to address her customers. Should she go with the Chinese ways and uses 'old' terms to show respect and/or friendliness, or should she apply the English usage and avoid 'old' words as much as possible? Things are grey, complicated and slippery than ever. No wonder she's perplexed. This is a prelude to the kind of ambiguous ambivalence that's going to experience in China in the next generation, if it isn't already happening. This is a well documented phenomenon of what I like to call Cultural Fusion of Confucian confusion. If you think it's hard to say it, it's far harder to negotiate it.

And more than any place in the world, China is learning the melting of the English and Chinese cultural value from HK. After all, the HK people have been doing it for at least 3 decades while China had its bamboo curtain tightly drawn. And the popularity of HK movies (not just within Greater China), is providing a reasonable successful model of such cultural fusion of East and West for China to emulate. We know that nothing has more impact on the populace than pop culture.

Aren't this kind of imported value from outside that clashes with one country's own predominant culture is an issue that has to deal with by all countries in the world of globalisation? I guess nowhere is this cultural intrusion more apparent and extensive than some of the Gulf States like Dubai and Bahrain where the population of foreign workers are higher than those of natives. In the case of Dubai, at one stage, almost 2 to 1 foreign workers to Emirati.

I guess I would live in the West when young, and retire in a Confucian societies where the old are being respected. If these societies still exist when I retire. If Confucianism could survive globalisation.

If Confucianism is still a viable option in the 21st century. It had survived more than 25 centuries. Can it soldier on? I suspect it had outlived its usefulness. Its expiry time stamp may read, "21st Century". Sometimes we still consume stuff after its expiry date because it seems like a waste to throw it out, especially after it had sustained us for so long. So we still nibble on its moldy content. For a culture that respects old things so much, it isn't easy to bring in the new. Could globalisation in the 21st century be as powerful as colonisation in the 19th century? Time will tell. And I'll be dead before I can find out. Or would I? Let have a race to see if I head to the grave faster than the speed of globalisation. This is one occasion where I like to be a loser.

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