What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

“阿姨,请给我买单!” “Ayi, Please bring me the check!”

Yesterday, I was enjoying a sushi dinner when I heard one of the other customers call the server 阿姨 (auntie). She would reply by calling all of the customers 孩子(child). While it would not be uncommon to hear a waitress in the States be called Mama, or something similar, this got me thinking about names and the ways that they are used differently between cultures.

As we discussed in class last week, I’ve found it interesting to see how different people address each other in various cultures. While I can’t say exactly how people interact in other cultures, I know that the Chinese way of viewing other people you know is to treat people like family. Growing up, I was always told to address people older than me as Uncle John or Auntie Gina. Whenever my friends came to my house, my mom always reminded them to call her Auntie Katharine. Even if it was the first time I had a friend over, they’d immediately be treated like family. My mom would bring out fifteen different snacks, and come check on us even five minutes to make sure we were eating. When I asked my mom to let us hang out in peace later that evening, she told me that it was important to make our guests feel at home at all times. She made it clear to me that I should always be sure to make my guests feel at home, and that giving them food was a great way to do this.

For little children, I’ve noticed that is also very common to use terms like 哥哥 (gege, older brother) and 弟弟 (didi, younger brother). Back home, when I went over to my friend’s house, her cousins were often there. While I had no relation to them, it was common for them to call me Gege Alex. During my time here in China, I’ve noticed this happen as well. One time when we were playing Frisbee on the Guang Hwa Lou lawn, a little boy approached my friend and me. He asked her if he could join us. While we were playing, I noticed that my friend would address the boy as 小弟弟(little brother). He referred to her as 姐姐 (older sister). While I’m sure these names were simply used as a sign of respect and not out of the ordinary, it surprised me when I first heard them.

While I cannot say from personal experience what relationships are like in other cultures, I’ve found it interesting to see how people here in China interact with others around them. It’s been fun to compare what I see here with many of the customs I grew up with back home. There are many simple things that I’ve gotten used to doing that I did not realize were more Chinese than Western. While I’ve often done them out of habit, now I am getting a chance to see people around me doing similar things. I’m excited to learn more about the Chinese culture and the small easily forgotten aspects of everyday life.

Talking About You: Traitor

American Born Chinese, also known as ABC’s, are always looked upon as not fellow countrymen but as a different breed of Asians. This story begins at the Lantern Festival in Lanshun Park, where many Chinese children were with their parents or grandparents. There were also Asian and foreign couples at the park. I went with a group of Davidson students and took pictures of the different exhibitions. When I looked around me, the only person next to me was Katie Wells. We became separated from the main group and had lost them. Katie and I decided to continue forward and take more pictures of the park. Katie focused on the small children in the park, while I focused on the lit attractions that were scattered all over the park.

As we walked together, I started to hear different Chinese people saying “Mei-guo Ren”, or Americans. I did not notice it at first since the Lantern Festival was so beautiful. But as we walked further into the park, I listened intently to the conversations of the Chinese people who were talking. They were talking about Katie and I and how crazy or treacherous I was for walking with a foreigner instead of with an Asian. Only two couples had talked, but as Katie and I decided to go home, another couple started clucking their tongues as soon as I walked past them. I did expect this to happen to me. Of course I would seem like a traitor for speaking English instead of Mandarin or some form of Chinese while in China. But only now have I understood that instead of an occasional person giving me an evil glare or talking badly about me, it was more than I had anticipated.

It seems there are still pockets of xenophobia among the Chinese population. China has been suspicious of foreigners since the humiliating defeat of the Opium Wars and the imperialism of different Western countries. These events definitely left a black mark on China’s history. The Chinese government has always made a push for nationalism through propaganda and subliminal messaging. I thought that a century would change the older and current generation’s minds into forgiving foreigners and the people who are associated with them. However, I am wrong and have personally seen and been the target of old and young couples disapproving of me hanging out with foreigners. Chinese nationalism is definitely stronger than ever and is a force that has caused xenophobia while causing most of China to always be wary of foreigners.  I hope that one day the people of China would all be accepting of not only foreigners but also their countrymen who live in other countries and become a welcoming country like Canada.

Wisdom, Wrinkles and Workouts

Lu Xun Park is a green space located in the middle of residential high rises in the Hongkou area. Katie and I arrived in this neighborhood early on Saturday morning, hoping to capture some photos of the older residents practicing t’ai chi in Lu Xun. Getting to Lu Xun Park proved challenging. After walking around the neighborhood block for half an hour and asking the locals for directions, we managed to find a smaller park hidden behind cement walls. We walked down the park’s path following the music playing close by. With each turn, I observed people peacefully practicing their morning exercise routines within the enclaves of the garden. In the main opening a large group was following the instructional voice of the loud music. The older men and women of the group massaged their temples, patted their legs and swung their limbs in unison. Seeing as it was only 6:30 in the morning, I was thoroughly impressed by the group’s energy and movement.

Without wanting to interrupt their routines or show disrespect, Katie and I asked for permission to shoot photos of the individuals nearby. Our one question quickly evolved into introductions with over ten exercising participants. Our new friends were eager for a photo shoot and a conversation. What struck me the most during our exchanges and conversations was the reoccurring subject of age. As I attempted to chat in Mandarin with three older women, each one voluntarily and proudly stated her age without being asked.

“I am seventy-five,” said the first woman gazing up at me.

“I am eighty-eight,” stated the next in line.

Lastly, “And I am ninety!” the last woman exclaimed.

Their age transparency was refreshing and, in my opinion, contrasts the majority of American women who intentionally try to mask and hide their age. The elderly exercising in the park and on the streets of Shanghai represent the importance of longevity in Chinese culture. Nonetheless, the American and Western concerns for youthful beauty and sexuality are visible in Shanghai.

According to Suzanne Z. Gottschang, “the importance of sexuality and interest in bodily appearance are increasingly a concern that urban Chinese women must contend with as a part of their identity” (2001: Kindle Location 1173). Gottschang observes new mothers in urban China and their reactions to commercialized breastfeeding campaigns versus formula company advertisements. Both the government’s posters and the formula company’s brochures emphasize the prepregancy, fit body. This strategic tactic is ideal for reaching a generation of women who strive against the signs of aging, including motherhood. I question whether this advertising approach would have been appealing to the elderly women of the park when they were beginning their journey as mothers.

Conversing with a Cabbie

Yesterday was my first time experiencing taking a taxi in Shanghai. As a form of transportation, taxis in China seem remarkably inexpensive from an American perspective. It’s a mere 14RMB (a little over 2USD) for the first two kilometers; a trip from Yangpu District, where Fudan University is located, down into the city proper costs about 50RMB. If you have two or three people going along with you, that can be a very affordable way of getting around.

This is assuming, of course, that you’re willing to brave a ride on Shanghai’s streets. For an American, Shanghai drivers (and, from what I hear, drivers in China in general) seem to have little regard for anything apart from getting to their destination as quickly as possible. Stoplights are guidelines; yellow solid lines are suggestions; pedestrians have de jure right of way, but drivers will just swerve around you rather than stop. Driving – or riding a taxi – in Shanghai is not for the faint of heart.

My roommate, a Chinese American from California, and I boarded at taxi from the 大众 Dazhong (The Masses or The People) taxi fleet and told the driver our destination: the Shanghai South Bund Fabric Market (上海南外滩轻纺面料市场 Shanghai Nan Waitan Qingfang Mianliao Shichang).

A few minutes after departing, our cabbie struck up a conversation, asking where we were from. He’d assumed that my roommate was Korean, and when I assured him we were both American (which prompted, in broken English, “Oh, America!”), he asked if he was a Korean American. I asked if he’d ever been to the states, to which he responded that he hadn’t: “My car couldn’t make it there!” (没有… 我的车子开不到阿 meiyou… wo de chezi kai budao a)He wanted to know where in the states we were from, and upon hearing that my roommate was from California, he asked how to say California in English. For reasons unknown, the pronunciation of the word was incredibly amusing to him, and he quickly started asking for other English proper nouns:

Cabbie: How do you say Oubama?

Me: Obama

Cabbie, laughing: Obama… What aboutXilali?

Me: Hillary [Hillary Clinton is often referred to by her first name alone in Chinese, I assume to differentiate her from her husband]

Cabbie, laughing more: Hillary… Hillary… Clinton?

Me: Clinton

Cabbie: Clinton. What about Buxi?

Me: Bush

Cabbie: Bush. Bush. Say it again?

Me: Bush

Cabbie: Bush. That one’s translated pretty well. [slight pause] I think Bush is strange: his dad was president, and then he gets to be president too? His dad isn’t even dead yet! [Laughs]

Looking back, it’s interesting that this driver, who had never been to America and couldn’t speak English (or even write it – later, when he had trouble pronouncing another word in English that he had asked about, I asked if he could spell English, to which he replied that he couldn’t) and whose radio was set, not on a news station, but on a station called “Love Radio” that alternated between popular Chinese and American ballads, was curious about the names of leading American politicians rather than leaders of pop culture.

The conversation turned as I asked if he could speak Shanghainese and explained that I was interested in learning some. He shared the phrases for “waiting for a red light” and “hit [someone] in the face” because he thought they were particularly funny, as the Shanghainese for these phrases sounds like “eat a red light” and “eat [someone’s] face” in Mandarin, respectively. I then discovered that the phrase “I don’t understand” is the same in Shanghainese as it is in Mandarin:

Me: How do you say ting budong?

Cabbie: Ting budong

Me, more slowly, afraid I mispronounced something: How do you say ting budong in Shanghainese?

Cabbie: Ting budong

Me, being hopelessly dull at this point: How do you say the phrase ting budong in Shanghainese?

Cabbie: It’s ting budong! I’m Shanghainese, aren’t I?

I shouldn’t misconstrue all Shanghai cabbies to be particularly loquacious; a taxi I rode in later the same day had a driver who was quiet to the point of being taciturn, saying only “Where do you want to go?” and “Here you are.” However, my first taxi ride in Shanghai was an interesting and educational experience, and I look forward to more conversations like the one outlined here.

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