Wednesday, October 06, 2010


It crossed my mind recently that most white people do not understand the Cantonese girl dynamic, and the Cantonese mother phenomenon.
Or grasp that in some ways, many Chinatown girls are dysfunctional to a fare-thee-well.

啊媽 - MOM!

Old-fashioned Cantonese mothers can be absolutely vicious to their daughters. This is traditional, and often thoroughly appreciated by Cantonese-American men.
You see, women are pretty much worthless. The only measure of their value is how many sons they produce, and whether those sons go to college. Daughters are a burden, and drain family resources. Who in their right mind even wants to spend money on a daughter's education?
It only needs to be done because it's illegal to drown the little nuisance at birth, and you have to get rid of her somehow - can't marry her off if she's illiterate in this crazy modern world.

[In the past, female children were expendable. Rearing them took away resources that could be far better applied to raising and educating sons, and it was common knowledge that literacy and food were wasted on girls. Even though China has modernized, and people in cities such as Hong Kong have different attitudes, many old ideas about females are still fairly pervasive. Not everyone has an increased appreciation of the worth of women, but everyone does have tons of relatives and neighbors who still think in traditional terms. Outside of the urbanized areas, there are many who rather resent that women now have rights and even a voice. You may treat your daughters like human beings if you wish - but you have relatives who think you're spoiling them, and are convinced that you are insane or an idiot for doing so.]

There are many Chinatown girls who are going to City College or SF State University, working part-time at shitty jobs to pay for their own education, while their brothers are at a decent school and subsidized by the entire family. Not all boys have their academic life paid for by their folks, but if there are limited resources, the boys will be first in line.
The daughters of those families will have from early childhood on probably been accustomed to wait their turn, even if it never comes, and yield the better morsels at dinner to their brothers or sacrifice their own comfort for the males of the family.

At this point, dear reader, you may be thinking that I exaggerate - what I am describing is impossibly old-fashioned, this is the twenty-first century, surely attitudes have changed, and in any case this cannot possibly still maintain in the United States.

Forgive me for saying so, but you need to get your head out of that donkey.


The daughter of a certain family was expected to work several hours a day at the family store in Chinatown in addition to helping her mother with housework AND getting straight A's in her college courses. She did her homework in between stocking the shelves, attending to customers, and cleaning up. This did not particularly please her dad and his brother who ran the shop - studying takes too much time! She was thin as a rail and hardly spoke.
When I first saw her brothers, I did not even realize that they were related - the boys were chunky and well-fed, and their faces showed that they lived happy lives. Gregarious and cheerful. They hardly ever showed up at the store - they didn't have to.

Bright, vivacious, super intelligent. Her mom frequently verbally abused her in public, and the entire family got on her case for being admitted to Berkeley - stupid girl, so much money! So she never went. Did City College for three years, committed suicide in the fourth.
Her brother went to Stanford, and had his own apartment in Palo Alto. His education was funded entirely by his grandfather, because the boy would make the family proud.
Last I heard, they were very proud of him. He's a PHD.
It is forbidden to ever mention that bad luck girl. Who?

"Why did we educate you if you can't even find a man to marry?"
The woman in question has two PHD's, a very good job, and is well-read, interesting, reasonably well-adjusted. She's also a lesbian - a problem, you will agree, when her parents believe that the only thing still needed to make her a real person is for her to get married and give birth to at least two or three boys.
"Lesbianism, what's that? Oh, only silly white people get that, let us find you a good man..."

壞女孩 - BAD GIRL!

One of the most appalling scenes in Chinatown is seeing a mother venomously abusing her little daughter while her fat-faced spoiled brat son is misbehaving up a storm.
Boys are allowed to be noisy and act out, girls are expected to suck it up.
Many little Chinese boys need a good whipping. Unfortunately, that's far more likely to happen to the girls.

This isn't universal, but it is common enough. Even urban educated Chinese will allow boys greater latitude, while expecting obedience and conformity from girl-children. That's just the way it is.

Such traditional attitudes are strongest among American-Chinese from country districts and with less education, such as the majority in Chinatown, who are from Toishan. Professionals who emigrated from Hong Kong are not as likely to be unnecessarily cruel towards their daughters, and may actually be quite fond of them. In any case they often wish the best for the girls, and hope that things go well for them. They're also more likely to live out in the avenues away from Chinatown - there's a cultural divide in residence patterns that matches how well the family has adapted.

Given that the deck is stacked against Cantonese-American girls within the confines of their own ethnic group, it should come as no surprise that many of them marry out. Very few young ladies want a Cantonese mother in law, and almost none of them are willing to put up with the pampered son attitudes of many Cantonese-American men. From the point of view of an American-raised Cantonese girl, seeing the contrast between Chinese social norms and regular American social norms, it seems that white men have more egalitarian attitudes and fewer domineering relatives - a different environment entirely, and a mother who acts rather human - and that not being SO Chinese means far greater freedom.
Certainly less repression.
And many of them wouldn't inherit in any case - the family wealth stays with the sons. So it doesn't matter so much if they find a white man.

Every body likes to be treated like a human, right?

好似馬鞭! - LIKE A HORSE!

There is a corresponding idea among Cantonese-American young men that Caucasians prey on little yellow women, and that the only reason why they themselves can't get a date is because of all those white boys luring away the pretty girls with their big endowments.
That their own atrocious behaviour, always expecting Chinese girls to listen to them and act admiringly, and that their fright-bitch mom might have less than no appeal, never seems to cross their minds.
The reason why so many Cantonese-American girls still live at home is because they won't date Chinese boys (see previously mentioned atrocious behaviour), they can't date white guys (imagine everyone talking about her voracious sexual habits), and living alone is not an option.
The reason why so many adult Cantonese-American men still live at home is because they can't get a Cantonese-American girlfriend (see previously mentioned atrocious behaviour), have zero appeal for blonde chicks, are getting pampered at home, and are saving money to spend on themselves.


As a side note, when my father and his wife said that Savage Kitten should just come right out and inform her kin that she was living with me, I looked at them like they had taken leave of their senses. Clearly they did not understand a thing, despite their own experiences and openness to different social norms. The same holds for everyone else who said that telling her family about our relationship was the thing to do.

Unremarkably, all of the people with this opinion were white.
None of them had any exposure to the operatic aspect of Chinatown life.

"Oh woe is me, that my worthless smelly daughter who should have been a boy is now whoring around with a degenerate white man who entirely lacks real-estate! She is sleeping with a stinky ghost-devil! I am undone, I'm having a heart-attack! Bitch-slut daughter, how can you do this to me?!? You're killing your brothers, you are ruining their chances of EVER finding a stupid obedient home-town girl to marry! They hate you! They want to kick you fiercely until you bleed and weep! And I will let them! Our tenants / neighbors / customers will henceforth point at me and laugh, saying that I have no face! Because my daughter has no respect for me, and exposes her tortoise parts to thieves and soldiers!
I shall now continue to carry on insanely on a crowded street using multiple exclamation marks, loudly telling the whole world (consisting ONLY of our fellow Toishanese in San Francisco) in colourful detail about what an immoral hussy you turned out to be, must be your dad's side of the family, szey-yaaaaah! lord knows it wasn't anybody on my side, I'm not even convinced you're really my daughter, should've drowned you at birth, waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa, I've always been the best of mothers, you worthless pile of dog doo, why couldn't you marry a dentist? You are mow-yong! You should kill yourself! You have no shame! Not even human! You are NOT allowed to associate with any of your family ever again, and you don't exist. Pay me back for all the food I ever gave you! Listen while I repeat everything insistently, and much louder!"

Please imagine that in public. Multiple times yearly. And broadcast, with much imaginative detail, to every soul the Old Bag knows.
Yeah, I'm sure it would have been very entertaining.
But the Old Fruitbat would've had been a right bitch if her sons ever talked to her daughter again, and would've made their lives miserable.
Savage Kitten loves her brothers. They're the only family she really has.

The Venomous Old Sow would be overjoyed if she ever found out that Savage Kitten and I are no longer a couple - "Hah, dead smelly girl, you are worthless now, no one wants you! Stretched out wide as a tunnel. Never should've gone to live with that szey lo fan! Keui-ah, kang-hai mow mat yong! Should've obeyed me, you'd be married to a rich businessman, have five kids by now! But noooooooo!"

Entirely unknowingly, her mom was a factor in our breakup. It's that poisonous old-biddy miasma, I guess.

臭氣 - PUTRID!

One Cantonese mother I know burns the sheets after each time her daughter and white son-in-law visit. She says that no amount of washing can remove the smell. Another keeps suggesting that her white son-in-law must be a drug-user, and prefers that he keep his distance - she regularly gives her daughter the names of good divorce lawyers. A third is convinced that white people reek of slaughtered cows and wet dogs. All stinky, lah!

Being able to speak Cantonese, by the way, does not win me any brownie-points. Whenever a Chinese person says "you're so smart, should marry a Chinese girl", they always mean someone else's daughter. Other people deserve a white son-in-law. Not them. Besides, that way I'll take some useless girl-thing out of the herd, and reduce the chance of a nice Chinese boy being saddled with her.
Yeah, I know I sound just a little bit bitter right now. It's just me.


啊媽 - Ah maaaaaa! Imagine a girl howling 'mom' in that good lord how excruciating way. Common exclamation.
死丫頭 - Szey ya-tou: 'Dead slave-girl head'. In which 'dead' is a curse, and slave girl (ya) is modified disparagingly with 'head', meaning in this case mere object. Common exclamation.
壞女孩 - Hwaai noey-tsai: 'Rotten girl-child'. Hwaai also means thoroughly disobedient. Common exclamation.
好似馬鞭 - Ho chi ma-pien: 'very much like a horse penis', as one might exclaim upon seeing a gifted exhibitionist.
Pien, while technically meaning 'whip', is also colloquially used for animal regenerative members.
臭氣 - Chauhey: 'the smell of something rotten or decayed. Unflatteringly applied to many things, including people.

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:

All correspondence will be kept in confidence.


e-kvetcher said...

I assume you've read "The Joy Luck Club"?

e-kvetcher said...

The Chinese sound more fucked up than the Jews, which I didn't think was possible.

Someone needs to write a Chinese version of "Portnoy's Complaint"

The back of the hill said...

Tayere e-kvetcher,

Yes, I have read The Joy Luck Club. As well as much of Maxine Hong Kingston’s work, Jade Snow Wong’s books, and much else by Chinese and Asian-American authors. The fact that they are literate, and well-able to express themselves, formulate their thoughts, and frame their world, means that they cannot even expose half of what goes on – they have not experienced it to that degree, they are somewhat insulated from those who do experience it, and they have intellectualized and digested it far better than their sisters. They have achieved distance.

Amy Tan, in particular, has been separated from the roughness – it was adjacent, nearby, in view. But not really raw and real. Her ability to speak Cantonese should also be doubted. In her books it seems that she is more familiar with Mandarin. Not, strictly speaking, a significant part of the Toishanese linguistic world. Besides, she writes in White. That alone is telling.

And yes, the Chinese are more fucked up than the Jews. Probably for the simple reason that there is as much if not more social restriction and societally required behaviour, and far less fully functional literacy. If your reading and writing is shadowy at best, your mental horizons are far more limited, your emotional adherence to the narrow known far greater.
Jews, besides, have a larger linguistic world; alphabets and abjads are easier to master, and there are shared knowledge sets.

Jews know that beyond the mental ghetto there is a real world. The Chinese know that the only REAL world is the Chinese world. Jews are used to the concept of going out and surviving among the non-tribe. To the Chinese, the whole point of doing that is to become more of the tribe. A Chinese person without Chinese family and friends, and lacking a huge number of connections to Chinese social networks, has failed. That person is automatically extremely suspect, possibly morally bankrupt, actively a complete non-embodiment and anti-representative of everything Chinese, and quite likely a degenerate. They are well-nigh irredeemable, and considered more dangerous and lawless than whores, gangsters, and gamblers – even those people have relatives, friends, and social networks! Not having such means you deliberately rejected norms, and willingly destroyed your relationships.

Add to that the fact that you cannot speak Chinese without hierarchical terms, and expressions which acknowledge and reaffirm the proper order of things……… Even the barely literate and emotionally damaged use linguistic structures which strengthen and validate everything that clamps them in.

e-kvetcher said...

God help us if China takes over the world... Though it seems more likely every day.

jonathan becker said...

i was going to mention the sheer numbers of "new york times best sellers" (a few of which i've read and enjoyed) that describe what you're talking about, but i see you and e-kvetcher are already all over that.

whoa, nelly! emotional pain is an artist's/writer's greatest resource, and you are writing some great stuff here. beats the "joy luck club" imo. but take care! watch yourself. don't go overboard.

i too am currently involved in an emotional maelstrom/breakup with my significant other of 7 years, as it happens of polish cossak/russian american neurotic jewish ancestry- not simpler than chinese i think you know. it hurts. it's inspiring in a sick way. it makes me look at your posts in a different and more personal light. sometimes i even approach them with a kind of fear, since i think we think alike in some ways. i feel for you. i wish you the best, and if savage kitten is the best i hope you guys work it out. be strong and keep writing, whatever happens. some of us are actually listening.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I'm white. I've had a Chinese girlfriend for 8 years, and just lately mentioned to her that it probably is time to meet the mom and perhaps get married. She is so freaked out now that I think she wants to break up. I'm not a doctor or a lawyer, but, jeeze, I do OK, and this is a blow to the old ego!

Snodbod said...

For the truly obsessed:

Ninjarina said...

I'm a Cantonese-American raised by Mainlanders and thankfully, my parents were and are loving people. My mother is one of those crazy bitches but unfortunately for her, I inherited her obstinance. No one could ever convince her she couldn't do something and it's more or less the same for me.

I consider myself extremely lucky b/c my mother found a man that is willing to put up with her shit and she held onto him for dear life. My father found a woman who would be fiercely protective of her family and extremely driven to succeed despite her odds. Together, they are the cutest old Chinese couple you'll ever meet. Many times, I wonder if in the case of immigrant wives, that they spend so much time and effort trying to live out the lives their circumstances could not afford them b/c they are so unfulfilled in both their working and personal lives. Out of all of my aunts and uncles (blood related and otherwise), I can say with certainty that my parents are the most well-adjusted and consequently, my brother and I, while not particularly financially or even academically successful, are as my mother said, "good, decent people." It is the highest compliment she could have ever given us and she has told us this repeatedly. They helped put us through college and never demanded that we study something we didn't want (although we were not so subtly pushed toward it), just that we could find work and lead stable lives after we graduated. And isn't that the whole point of going to college anyway? They loved us SO much, they didn't hold it against us that we BOTH got our degrees in political science and we both decided to abort the path to law school. I'm getting ready to go into a physician's assistant program (on my own accord) and my brother is on his way to getting a MSW (Masters in Social Work).

I hope that my story cheers you up. My mother may have done some of those terrible things that Cantonese mothers do and I will NEVER agree that those methods are anything less than abuse (this really gets my mother's goat, not being able to tell me "I told you so!") but I know she loves her kids and she has definitely mellowed out with age. She raised two very independent-minded, responsible, kind, happy kids.

P.S. I also played piano when I was a kid and I was never forced. My mother agreed to pay for lessons when I asked for them.

Anonymous said...

About that thing on Amy Tan and The Joy Luck Club: when you say that her Cantonese ability should be doubted, and that she is probably more familiar with Mandarin, why is it that you make Cantonese and Mandarin so distant? Does the seemingly minimal language barrier between Cantonese and Mandarin make such a difference?
On another note, I was a bit confused when you put "阿媽-MOM" because in Mandarin (I'm a 2nd gen. Taiwanese),阿媽 means grandmother.
My parents weren't QUITE so abusive, but they called me "trash", hit me, time-out, yelling matches, etc. However, they considered it shameful to do anything of that sort in public. But I don't live in Chinatown, I live in Orange County. And since apparently I live "in the top 5% of the U.S. in Yorba Linda and Placentia", that could factor in. The resources are not so limited. Also, my father moved to New York to go to high school; my mother came for college. So they were a bit more integrated into "American culture".
I have an older brother, who is 6 years older and quite intelligent. When he turned down a scholarship to CalTech and full-ride to Columbia, going to UC Berkeley instead(oh, the horror- not an Ivy League school), they turned the resources towards myself and my older sister. Neither of us are in college yet (still in high school), but I'm confident that when we are, my parents will be there for me, emotionally and financially.

I hoped this makes you feel better. Not everyone is East Asia is fucked up. (someone told me Koreans are like that too?) Or maybe that's just because I'm not Cantonese.
Good luck~

The back of the hill said...

"when you say that her Cantonese ability should be doubted, and that she is probably more familiar with Mandarin, why is it that you make Cantonese and Mandarin so distant? Does the seemingly minimal language barrier between Cantonese and Mandarin make such a difference?"

Actually, it does, and it can be an immense barrier. In writing, if one is literate, the two languages are mutually intelligible. But the spoken vernaculars differ enormously. The pronunciation of words is quite different, the vocabulary is often distinct, and the grammar is only marginally similar.

As just an example, note this hypothetical conversation, in which one person is looking for other people who might know details of something in Canton city:
唯細佬啊, 你係唔係廣州人嘅咩? 唔係, 我係香港嘅..., 不過佢哋都係廣州人
Pronunciation: "Wei, sai lou, ney hai m-hai kwong chau yan ge me?" "M-hai, ngoh hai heung kong yan ge..., patkoh keuitei dou hai kwong chau yan." Meaning: "hey, young fellow, aren't you from Canton?" "Nope, from Hong Kong..., but they're all Guangzhou people".
[Explication: 係唔係 = 是不是; 佢哋 = 他們; 細佬 = 弟弟, 小子]

"I was a bit confused when you put "阿媽-MOM" because in Mandarin (I'm a 2nd gen. Taiwanese),阿媽 means grandmother."

Well, words shared between the two languages do not necessarily have the same shade of meaning. They probably did several hundred years ago, but Cantonese, Hokkien, Shanghainese, and Mandarin are all different though related languages now. And Cantonese often uses words that haven't been common in other versions of Chinese for a very long time, as well as dialect words that are quite unknown. The usage of "阿" in front of names or terms for relatives in Cantonese simply softens the word while emphasizing the person, if you will. Hence such locutions as 阿兄弟 and 阿生.

"However, they considered it shameful to do anything of that sort in public."

Countryside Cantonese like to live out loud, and will vent in public. Fewer inhibitions than folks from further north, perhaps, and definitely more 'operatic'.

"Neither of us are in college yet (still in high school), but I'm confident that when we are, my parents will be there for me, emotionally and financially."

Yeah, but you know that they'll put the pressure on so that you excel, right? And they will be quite unsubtle about what subject you should major in.

" I hoped this makes you feel better. Not everyone is East Asia is fucked up. (someone told me Koreans are like that too?) Or maybe that's just because I'm not Cantonese."

In this world, almost everyone is fucked up. Not everybody the same way, nor to the same degree. And different cultures in different ways.
You should see some of the things I've exposed here about the Dutch.
We all carry some baggage. But some people have a lighter load.

Anonymous said...

Sleeping with a white guy means you hate yourself, and hate Chinese.
That's what everyone knows.

It's nearly as bad as sleeping with a dog or a Jap.

Anonymous said...

White girl dating a 1st gen Cantonese-american man here. He is the kindest, most caring, selfless man I have ever met.

Ive dated many other races and I have to say that there is something that goes beyond culture :integrity and character. He has it.

His mom is abusive, manipulative narcissist. I combat her anger and am learning to play her game while also preserving my sanity and kindness.

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