Two thing to know. As Singaporeans, one of the little things that we take for granted is our exposure to multiculturalism. And not the “melting pot” multiculturalism of old America, where regardless of your ethnic origins, your culture mixes and meshes with other cultures and becomes “American”. And then you have New York Pizza. Or California Maki. Or Tacos, Burrito and Chimichanga. And Hawaiian Pizza. (I’m deliberately avoiding mentioning “American Chinese food”. I’m as tolerant as the next guy, but I have to draw the line somewhere.)
No. Singapore’s multiculturalism is the sort that celebrates the differences, and the unique identity of each culture, while allowing each to maintain its unique and distinct identity.
So… Chinese New Year.
In Chinese culture, relationships and status are important (aren’t they in all cultures)? So while in English, I may call my maternal grandfather, “grandfather”, and my paternal grandfather, “grandfather” and hope they don’t both turn up at the same family gathering (mostly cos both of them are DEAD!) and get confused when I call out “grandfather”, in Chinese there are specific terms for each relationship.
[Paternal Grandfather is “Ye Ye”. Maternal Grandfather is “Kong Kong”.]
So PL and I were visiting her maternal grandmother (her “Puo Puo”… and that will be the last translation) and her uncle (ha! try figuring out his relationship to PL based on the generic and totally uninformative “uncle”) was there with his son, and the son’s wife. And so the uncle asked what was the (Chinese) term for PL’s relationship to his son.
Which is how most Chinese New Year conversations go – meet a distant relative during your visit to grandma (whom you visit just once a year), chart out how you are related, and then figure out what’s the correct term in Chinese.
Which makes me wonder if perhaps that was the point of the specificity of Chinese relational terms. Probably 5000 years ago, the ancient Chinese sat around and came up with specific terms to mess with their descendents. Or realised that in future, family relationships may be so superficial, that people needed some conversational starters. Well, it worked.
So the “cousin” (PL’s uncle’s son) and his wife, who’s Japanese and looked like she might be in her late 20s (28?) suggested that perhaps they might be older. PL gave them the facts (her birth year) and set them straight.
Which brings me to the second thing to know. Japanese women age very well. Generally. The cousin’s wife looked like she was 28. However, PL knew the cousin was a year older than her younger brother, which means if the wife was about his age or a little younger, she would be in her mid 30s.
They were surprised that PL was older.
So when PL set them straight, she just “out-Japanesed” a Japanese.
Or maybe she’s part Japanese.
Anyway, having established the pecking order and determined the correct relational term to be used, the Uncle and his son left. Next year, we can repeat the conversation, this time with the next generation (her cousin’s kid, if any, with our kid, if any). And if either or both have not produced the next generation, well, that’s another conversation.
[Side question/musing. If they thought she was younger (say in her twenties) and I look the way I look (middle-age), they must have thought I was either a cradle-snatcher, or a dirty old man with a mid-life crisis trophy wife. All true, of course, but still…!]
[After note: PL and I were eating some mandarin oranges, Ponkan I think, and she said that her mom would call the uncle in the above story “Ponkan face” because he had a rather rough face. His son though had a more smoother face, so I suggested that he would be Mikan face. Also, because he got a Japanese wife.]