Monday, January 31, 2011


The realization suddenly dawned on me that the last two decades have been unendingly miserable.
No, this isn't gloom over my love-life (or current absence thereof), this is about popular culture.

And really, it should not have been so sudden a revelation, as the symptoms were evident for years.
I should have spotted it sooner. But I'm a bit dense.

Throughout the eighties and most of the nineties I did not watch television, nor listen to the radio. For many years, I didn't even own either of those contraptions.
Finally exchanged the horse and buggy for a boob-tube in 1995, and got cable.
Since then I really haven't switched on the teevee very often.

Without Forever Knight, Monty Python, and the X Files, there just isn't that much on.


Amusing story: For several weeks I had been thrilling myself and nauseating a statuesque blonde coworker with stuff about New Guinea, focusing on head-hunting, poison magic, tokpisin, and kuru (human spongiform encephalitis). She didn't believe half of what I said, but thought me a right freak anyway.
One day I brought two books in to the office - one specifically on kuru, one a lovely illustrated cookbook with New Guinean recipes. She absolutely refused to look at either publication, and hid from me the rest of the day.
That evening I turned on the television and saw my first ever episode of the X Files.
It was, appropriately, the Arkansas chicken ranch cannibal episode. Lovely.
The next day at work everyone was talking about it.
My coworker was convinced that I had done it, deliberately, using evil voodoo, to piss her off.

She disappeared soon after.

I had nothing to do with it.

Since then I have probably seen most of the X files.

But until a few years ago, that was pretty much the extent of my exposure to popular culture.

Then Karaoke became common.

Most people sing the songs they know and love.
Stuff I had never even heard, popular music from the eighties and nineties.

It's a cesspool.

Nothing says gangsta rap like a bunch of loud white suburbanites drunk on fruity vodka.

About a fortnight ago, my nightcap at a local bar was coloured by middle-class twenty-somethings hollering out the dulcet tones of Bad Daddy Gonad and Sistah Crack Ho......
Thumpa thumpa thump.
More in yo' face they could not get, but lordy, did they try!

There's something obscene about waspy-types pretending ghettotude.

Yo yo yo!

If Raoul Duke had been there, he would've shot the damn machine.

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:

All correspondence will be kept in confidence.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


This past week families all over the city have been furiously cleaning house and preparing decorations for the upcoming Chinese New Year.
Per tradition, several things must be ready by the time the festival rolls around.
Matched poetic scrolls hung on each side of the main entryway (and often also in the main room), fresh citrus fruits on the family altar as well as elsewhere in the house, an array of sweets, cards to distant friends, little red packets of money for the young and the single ('why, pray tell, are you not married YET - we expect ten more grandkids here next year!'), and bright new clothes.

[Important words: 春節 Cheun jit = Spring Festival. 正月 Cheng yuet = First month of the new year, first new year's day. 節元旦 Jit yuen daan = Festival of complete dawn. 節 Tzit / Jit (Tet, in Vietnamese) = Festival, holiday. Node, section, segment. 元旦 Yuen daan = New Year's Day.]

Frenetic activity! But it all boils down to one thing: start the season well, and the rest of the year will follow in that pattern.

To that end, dress nicely and present a cheerful face, wish your friends and family well, and do not create any discord. Having symbols of good fortune, happiness, and prosperity in the house might make those things happen, and will definitely increase the chances that you feel properly festive.

[吉祥話 gat cheung wa: "propitious utterances".]

Almost everyone has heard the phrase 'gung hay fat choi', and knows that it is a traditional greeting. It isn't the only one, though it is perhaps the most common.
Contrary to what the San Francisco tourist brochures might tell you, it does NOT mean 'happy new year'.

[恭喜發財 GONG HEI FAT CHOI - Reverent joy and get rich.]

Other standard new year's wishes:

富貴長春 FU GWAI CHEUNG CHUN - Wealth, honour, and a long spring (youth).
年年有餘 NIEN NIEN YAU YU - Year after year surplus.
新年快樂 SAN NIEN FAAI LOK - New year happiness; happy new year.
歲歲平安 SEUI SEUI PENG ON - May you have peace year after year.
生意興隆 SANG YI HING LUNG - Thriving enterprise and prosperous business.
發財聚寶 FAT CHOI JEUI BOU - Strike it rich and amass treasures.
萬事如意 MAAN SI YIU YI - May all your aspirations be fulfilled.
身體健康 SAN TAI GIN HONG - May you have robust good health.
長命百歲 CHEUNG MENG BAAK SEUI - Long life one hundred years.
闔家全福 HAP GAA CHYUN FUK - Entire family complete happiness.


Oranges, tangerines, and pomelos all symbolize happiness and prosperity - partly because their colours are traditionally considered joyous, partly because yellow and orange are the colours of wealth.
Other 'lucky' foods are fish (abundance), melon seeds (many children), peanuts (long life), egg rolls (wealth and a good maturity). The names of these items are homophonous with the words that have those lucky meanings.

But such symbolism goes one step further - there are numerous dishes that have propitious names, many of which will be prepared for New Year's eve - the night before the new year is the most important Chinese family celebration, and everyone will try to be there, often travelling hundreds of miles for the occasion, bringing gifts and looking forward to seeing kin they may not have seen in twelve months.

[年夜飯 nien yeh fan: "year evening meal".]

The essential dishes are a whole fish, symbolizing surplus, a whole (unchopped) plain-cooked chicken, traditional as an offering, green vegetables (lettuce - same symbolism as in English, but by name more than colour), a purely vegetarian dish, round foods such as meatballs or sweet puffs (completion and completeness), a dish of mixed main ingredients, signifying a multiplicity of relatives, and at least one soup and one roasted meat dish.
Plus rice - it isn't a meal without rice.

Noodles mean long life, so a simple mixed noodle dish is also a good idea - the roasted meats may be mixed in with the noodles.
Combining chicken and duck is exceptionally appropriate too, as it stands in for a harmonious pairing, like a lucky couple. You will still need a plain-cooked chicken, though.
Five dishes stand in for the five blessings though five, as an odd number, is not particularly good. Six dishes are for flowing good fortune and prosperity (not so much in Cantonese - 'six' and 'flow' are homophones in Mandarin). Eight dishes is always excellent - eight sounds the same as 'getting lucky' or 'striking it rich'.
Avoid four - it sounds the same as 'death'.

If you are a northerner, you will probably also want boiled or steamed dumplings later in the evening, considering that they recall the shape of a silver or gold ingot.

[吉祥美食 gat cheung mei sik: "lucky beautiful eats".]

Homophony and appearance are key in the following dishes - what the names of the ingredients sound like often determines their inclusion, what some of them resemble makes them appropriate.
If they are luxurious and rare too, so much the better!

A bright and illustrious future: Assorted meats.
前 CHIEN = In front, forward. Before.
前程 CHIEN CHING = Forward agenda.
錦 GAM = Brocade.
繡 SAU = Embroidery. Elegant cloth; (often 鏽 is substituted because it sounds the same as 繡 and has the same radical as 錦 - it means to rust or corrode, and is not a wise choice of words).
秀 SAU = Flowering, elegant. Luxuriant. Graceful, refined.
錦繡 GAM SAU = Embroidery. Symbolic of rich garments and official robes.

Entire family united: a sharkfin soup with bamboo shoots, scallops, seacucumber, abalone, chicken, ham, black mushrooms, quail eggs, and various vegetables. Same as 佛跳墙 FAT TIU CHEUNG (Buddha Jumps over the Wall).
合 HAP = Combine, unite.
家 GA = Family. Home.
團 TUEN = Mass, ball, lump.
圓 YUEN = Circle, round; complete.
合家 HAP GA = Entire family.
團圓 TUEN YUEN = Reunite; to have a reunion.

Both fame & profit to come: Carps in casserole.
名 MENG = Name. Fame. Reputation.
利 LEI = Profit, advantage. Gain.
雙 SEUNG = Set of two. Couple, pair. Both.
收 SAU = Accept. Gather, receive. Harvest.

All happiness to the dwelling: Four large pork meatballs en casserole.
四 SEI = Four.
喜 HEI = Happy. Pleased, delighted. Enjoy.
臨 LAM = Approach.
門 MUN = Gate. Portal, doorway.

The whole world at peace: Cooked pigeon with white fungus.
四 SEI = Four.
海 HOI = Sea, ocean.
昇 SING = Ascend, rise.
平 PENG = Peaceful. Flat, level. Equitable.

Good events and strike it rich: Dried oysters cooked with black moss (髮菜 fat choi - "hair vegetable") and often either fatty pork or pig's trotters - the latter more common among Hakka.
好 HO = Good. To love.
事 SI = Matter, affair. Incident.
發 FAT = Issue, send out. Occur, happen.
財 CHOI = Money, wealth.
發財 FAT CHOI = To get rich.
Also included is a traditional Hakka variation.]

Looking forward to good business coming: Dried oyster and chopped vegetables served in lettuce leaves.
好 HO = Good. To love.
事 SI = Matter, affair. Incident.
齊 CHAI = Even, level, all together.
來 LOI = To come, to arrive.

Riches, honour, and good fortune: Chicken in a crust.
富貴 FU GWAI = Riches and honour.
吉 GAT = Propitious.
吉祥 GAT CHEUNG = Auspicious.
祥 CHEUNG = Good luck, happiness. Good omens.

A surplus of riches and honour: Abalone in oyster sauce.
富 FU = Rich; abundance; wealthy.
貴 GWAI = Honour. Respect. Worthy of respect.
富貴 FU GWAI = Riches and honour.
有 YAU = Have.
餘 YU = Surplus. Extra.

Year after year surplus: Steamed whole fish.
年 NIEN = Year.
年年 NIEN NIEN = Yearly; year after year, every year.
有 YAU = Have. To possess. There is, there are.
餘 YU = Surplus.

Intimate affection, deep fondness: Honeyed ham.
柔 YAU = Soft, pliant; gentle.
情 TSING = Feeling, emotion. Sentiments.
蜜 MAT = Honey.
意 YI = Idea, intention; expect, anticipate.

A flood of fortune fills the heavens. Good luck all around: Prawns and tofu in a rich tomato broth.
洪 HUNG = Immense. Flood.
福 FUK = Good fortune.
齊 CHAI = Even, level, all together.
天 TIEN = The sky, the heavens. Heaven. The deity. Day.

Add both sons and wealth to the family: Chicken in wine.
添 TIM = Append, add, increase.
添丁 TIM DING = Add a son to the family.
丁 DING = Male, masculine, robust.
財 TSOI = Wealth, valuables, riches. Homophone with 才 = Talent, ability.

Old and young together safe and sound: Steamed mashed shrimp and beancurd.
老 LOU = Old, long lived.
少 SIU = Few, less, inadequate. The young.
平 PENG = Flat, level. Peaceful.
安 ON = Tranquil, calm, quiet. Secure.
老少 = LOU SIU = The old and the young.
平安 PENG ON = Safe and sound.

Happiness and good fortune for the whole family: Assorted meats in brown gravy.
金 KAM = Gold.
家 GAA = Family.
福 FUK = Good fortune, happiness.
祿 LUK = Good fortune, salary, official position, happiness, prosperity.

Gold branches jade leaves: Noble and refined. Shredded gonpoy and bright green vegetables with a savoury sauce.
金 KAM = Gold.
枝 KEI = Branch. Rod, stick.
玉 YUK = Jade. Gem.
葉 YIP = Leaf.

Money filling the palm: Mushrooms braised with duck web.
金 KAM = Gold.
錢 CHIEN = Coin, money, currency.
滿 MUN = Fill, full, satisfied. Stuffed. Packed.
掌 JEUNG = Palm of hand, sole of foot. Paw.

A couple growing old together gracefully: Dried black mushrooms and fresh champignons in oyster sauce.
鴛鴦 YIUN YEUNG = Mandarin ducks (a symbol of marital harmony).
並 BING = Equal to, compared with, side by side.
蒂 DAI = Peduncle or stem of plants.

There are many more - almost all traditional propitious sayings are also appended as names to food, but most especially Chinese New Year wishes.
These are among the ones that you are most likely to encounter, though.
Or they would be, if you were invited.

Tune in tomorrow for more Chinese New Year material - I'm a bit tired, and the several cups of tea I've had today are wearing off.
I need to go home now.

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Friday, January 28, 2011


My apartment mate needs to work tomorrow. So I think I will get up late, fix myself some tea and buttered toast, and twiddle my long toes in front of the telly.
Perhaps watch some enraged sputtering by the Foxcasters, or some happy riot footage from somewhere.

I might even take a bath. Miracles happen.

Around early afternoon I shall probably head over to the office to spend several hours on the internet. The office is a nice peaceful place on weekends, with only the customer service department or someone in graphics puttering about. It is, in fact, the closest one can come to a forest glade in downtown San Francisco.
Calm, quiet.
Here and there a bit of dirt or a scurrying small creature.
I may actually shatter the calm and quiet by playing something at full blast.

Purcell’s Trumpet Voluntary?

Perhaps a bit of rock and or roll.

I think mr. Badger would like that, yes.

Note: sketch above made while on phone - more or less a self-portrait.
NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:

All correspondence will be kept in confidence.


Dat die twee goed met elkaar opschieten is wat mij betreft echt maagzuurwaardig. Ik heb er GEEN vreugde van - slechts nu begrijp ik goed wat aambijen bijdragen aan de beschaving.

Werkelijk, dit is om te kotsen. Ik erger mij er rot aan.

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Thursday, January 27, 2011


Nothing says good solid entertainment better than an elderly drunk dancing with a sword.
If Billy Shakespeare had ANY sense, he'd rewrite King Lear right now to include that. Seriously. Gotta get the audience's attention, dude.

Oh wait. I just heard. Never mind.

倩女幽魂A Chinese Ghost Story

Ning TsoiSan (寧采臣), a rather timid scholar played by Leslie Cheung (張國榮 Cheung KwokWing, 1956 - 2003), is a bill-collector (收帳) travelling through the hinterlands on his rounds. He arrives at a town where no lodging is available, and is advised to go stay the night at a deserted temple in the forest.

A hermit Taoist (道士) who lives there would much prefer that he didn't. Whereas a thousand-year old tree daemon (樹妖) is just fine with the idea - which we don't quite find out for a while, as she sends an enslaved female spirit, 聶小倩 (Nip Siusing), played by the stellar Joey Wong (王祖賢) to seduce him and make him ripe for some serious vital essence draining.
He proves to be too decent a fellow, and then things start going horribly and weirdly wrong. The tale soon becomes a struggle between the Taoist (燕赤霞 Yin Chek-haa - "swallow in the rosy glow of dawn") and the tree daemon, with young master Ning and miss Nip being the starcrossed lovers caught in the middle.
All more or less ends well - Ning TsoiSan and the Yin ChekHaa prevent her from being married off to a daemon king in the underworld, and retrieve her ashes so that she can be reincarnated.

Great movie. Well worth seeing.
Comedy, tragedy, love story, and all round good entertainment.

With a dancing drunk.

The Taoist Yin Chek-haa is played by veteran actor 午馬 (Ng Ma), real name 馮宏源 (Fung Hongyuen).
Who is almost unrecognizable with whiskers and weirdly flaring eye-brows,

In this clip, he practices a strange form of martial art.


Ning TsoiSan gets seriously freaked out during the opening credits, which gives us a very good impression of his character.


I would give full links to the entire movie, but the chances of those links being worthless at some point soon is far too great - posting that material on Youtube is a copyright violation, and such things eventually are pursued, the links taken down, the account holder barred.

Instead, just borrow the movie, or buy it off the internet. You'll be glad you did.

[A CHINESE GHOST STORY - Made in 1987, Hong Kong. The Chinese name of the movie is 倩女幽魂 (Sing Nui Yau Wan - 'winsome girl secluded soul'). Directed by Ching Siutung (程小東), produced by Tsui Hark (徐克).]

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Wednesday, January 26, 2011


A colloquialism I used recently to express a tightness of funds or a limitation on resources that might apply to some people in Chinatown was, in five easy words, 欏朝唔得晚 loh chiew m-tak man.

"What is gotten in the morning isn't sufficient to last until evening."

As I said, five easy words. In Cantonese. And only if you realize that the first character is a homophone of the verb 攞 loh - to take, to get. The character 欏 is also commonly transcribed, however, even though it makes no sense in the contexts in which it occurs - it means a tree fern - and the Cantonese speaker will automatically adjust the brain to make room for the usage. This is because spoken Cantonese does not perfectly match the characters easily available. As a language, it doesn't actually have a standard dictionary.
Given that until recent times Chinese literature was written in a style and with a vocabulary derived from the classic language, not all words in the Chinese regional tongues have written forms. For Cantonese, some words have different meanings than they do in the national standard language.
Some other words are common in Cantonese, rare in other languages.

And some words just don't have a written form that can be blogged.

Which is why I didn't throw in the colloquial expression I really wanted to use: maan maan gan.
'Gan' (緊) means tense, tight, taught ; nervous; firm.
'Maan' means to be mounted, to clench.

I actually know how to write the correct character for maan, I just have no clue how to get it onto my computer.

Left side radical 才 (choi: talent, ability; only) attached to 蠻 (maan: rude, barbarous, rough; quite). Altogether 28 strokes. Easy.


One can break the phonetic element 蠻 down as follows: fine silk, word, fine silk, over a bug.
糸 si 言 yin 糸 si, 虫 tsung. Six strokes each.
Note that used as a word as by itself, 虫 is correctly written 蟲. Such three-repeat characters are not unusual - the pattern indicates a more abstract concept that can have a solitary instance, rather than a single unit representing a general idea.
Examples of three-repeats: 鑫 (yam) prosperity, surname Yam: three golds (gold is represented by a pulley on top of a mine shaft with two levels branching off, ore in the lower level represented by the two diagonal dots). 轟 (gwang) rumble: three chariots seen from above. 磊 (leui) lumpy, uneven, a rock pile: three rocks. 聶 (nip) whisper, surname Nip: three ears.


Originally 蠻 was a very good descriptive term for certain tribes on the periphery of civilization, being a pictograph of a silk-producing bug - not the silkworm of northern China but its wild cousin in the subtropical zone, source of a fabric similar to Thai silk - in its own way quite desirable as a trade item. By extension, then, it was applied to the non-Sinicised natives of the southlands, coming eventually to mean what it does today: barbarian, coarse, and brutish - which is what the hill-tribes and proto-Thais were in the eyes of Northern exiles.
It is no accident that a near-homophone (according to the phonetics of many centuries ago) became the term for Fujian province: 閩 man (pronounced 'min' in Mandarin). It likewise has a bug. The gate 門 that encloses it is both the phonetic element AND the radical by which you look it up in the dictionary.

[I suspect that 閩 is merely a simplification of 蠻 with a little fine-tuning - fourteen strokes instead of twenty eight. The modern simplified version of 蠻 is 蛮. That 'gate' (Mandarin: men) and 'verminous tribal kingdom' (min) sound similar is a happy coincidence.]


The problem with using 蠻 as a phonetic element is that whatever radical is then appended drives the number of strokes up beyond a convenient level. No, it's not harder to memorize such words - that being the alleged reason for imposing the simplified characters now commonly in use on the mainland - it's more difficult to write them, neatly and legibly, yet keeping them the same size as characters with fewer strokes.
Compare, for instance thirty three stroke 麤 or 籲 with such easy constructs as 生 or 本 at four strokes each.
[Explanation of the characters: 麤 (tsou): rough, coarse, rude: pictorially, three deer. 籲 (heui): to implore: bamboo radical over a reed organ on the left and a suspended page or leaf on the right. 生 (sang): life, alive, to be born, to give rise to - a stalk coming out of the earth with a seed attached to one of the branches, but actually a flame coming from a primitive candelabrum. 本 (pun): root, origin, source: a tree with part shown beneath the surface of the earth.]

The net result is that while the number of possible characters at the lower end of the stroke count is limited - there's only so much you can do with two or three lines - the number of characters in the upper reaches is also less. The vast majority of characters are between eight and sixteen or seventeen strokes. Once you cross twenty or so , most dictionaries start becoming sparsely populated. More than thirty strokes is really rare.

Maan has twenty seven strokes. Four units of six strokes each forming the phonetic element, a radical of three strokes - though you would have to look the radical up in the four stroke radical category, as 才 (choi) is an abbreviation of 手 (sau): hand.
You can't even find maan online.


So, what does the colloquialism 'maan maan gan' actually mean?
To be tightly mounted, clenching the bony back of one's nag firmly between one's own stringy thighs, as if scared that even that miserable possession will be lost from underneath one.
Straightened circumstances, barely able to make both ends meet.

Which, of course, explains why there are so few Chinatown girls whose fathers buy them a Benz.


This post is particularly for four people. Oregon intellectual Tzipporah, who will no doubt read it with avid curiosity. The Search for Emes, who posted the Hong Kong Mambo (and whose musical selection is rather addictive - the Jewish hijackers has a certain wry appeal). Commenter Bookish Ice-cube Tray, whom I miss, even though he/she only visited for the first time two days ago.
And especially Crystal Tao, who has graciously permitted me to guest post on her blog - in two parts:



Reader comments will be welcome on any of the links I have posted here - including the one below.

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Readers who tuned in to this site yesterday expecting more of my neuroses will know that I guestposted on Crystal Tao's blog. My article dealt with the circumstances of women in Chinatown - you'll have to read the post to know what I said.

[THIS POST: 唐人街的女人 - 第一章. Don't worry, it's in English.]

There were a gratifying number of commenters.

I crosspost my responses here.

To Ziccawei: Just Cantonese women, particularly the ones in SF Chinatown – though it also applies to Cantonese women in most inner-city C’towns elsewhere. There are rather wide cultural and social variations between regions in China, and even in the next province over (Fujian), things are quite different.

To HongBaoNaLai: Yes, there are geeky boys there. Dysfunctionality strikes both genders. Not really my issue, nor particularly a concern of LLC. And as far as girls with BMW/Benz – which Chinatown? Certainly not in SF Chinatown - there’s no where to park that thing, and most families living packed in a two-room walk-up don’t have a garage (they'd put the kids or grandma there if they did). If Chinese girls have their own condos, they sure as heck ain’t living in this part of SF, probably not even the Sunset or Richmond districts. For a large number of people living in Chinatown / Northbeach, circumstances are tight - 欏朝唔得晚.
Perhaps you’re speaking of Philippino-Chinese or well-educated Taiwanese immigrants in Monterey Park.

To Casey O’Rourke: Often somewhere between ‘good riddance’ and ‘you never should have been born’. Though there are a few who are genuinely pleased as punch that A) she’s found someone she loves, and B) he’s an interesting person with a great sense of humour (he’ll need that when dealing with some of the relatives).

To Wandering American: You are a very lucky man. Mazel tov!

To HongBaoNaLai again: Travelled in Malaysia before I learned Cantonese – whenever I tried speaking Hokkienhwee or Bahasa Melayu, they looked at me funny. Turns out they all have aunties who talked just like that.
You might get a kick out of this post:

To Jay K.: 嘩, 你食咗啲葡萄好酸嘅咩!

To Ziccawei: 我真想知道, 你家庭嘅人係乜地方嘅咩?

To S.K.Y: What you described is not really unusual. Both SF Chinatown and Oakland Chinatown have mental health clinics and social workers who deal with high rates of suicidal tendencies and family issues. I hope your friend finds happiness and stability.

* * * * * *

You'll have to go over to the actual post on LoveLoveChina to read what the commenters wrote. My responses may not make much sense otherwise.
And of course I am keen to see your feedback there as well.

Especially when Part Two gets published.

NOTE: There was one reader to whom I really wanted to say "Not entirely sure you’re human. Please stay away from women".
But I chose to be diplomatic.
Brownie points if you can guess who it is.

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.

Monday, January 24, 2011


Today I am guestposting elsewhere. No, not on any of the usual sites which you might suspect, but on LoveLoveChina, which is Crystal Tao's blog.

Miss Tao describes herself as "a common Chongqing girl who believes that her blog can help foreign men to understand Chinese girls better".

In other words, it's a guide for the perplexed.

Regarding Cantonese girls in particular, I myself am somewhat less perplexed now than I once was.
Or just a lot more opinionated, and possibly even full of hot air.
Feel free to tell me which of those after reading what I wrote.

The post in question is this:
Chinatown Women - Part I (唐人街的女人 - 第一章)

[Tempting quotes: "Consider her family, what they are is what you will have to deal with, and she resembles her mother..."- "all women end up like their mothers" -"things that she did wrong".]

I also encourage you to read the other articles on Crystal Tao's blog - one which is particularly interesting is about Chinese men and what they are like as husbands.
Even if you're not Chinese, you may recognize yourself.

Her post about mah jong also struck a particular chord. A woman I knew a long time ago in South-East Asia was always furious whenever her husband went off to play mahjong with the guys.

"Men would always find something more interesting than their wives"

What she didn't realize was that when he was on a business trip to Taiwan or Singapore, the mahjong addiction kept him from being dragged to massage parlours or girlie-bars by the people he was visiting. Sure, he could always have found something more interesting than his wife - but mahjong kept him loyal.

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


She doesn't smoke, she doesn't drink. Yes, in her hometown dialect she swears like a dockworker - courtesy of her mother's rhetorical habitus - but she has never sworn at me.
In all ways except that she was seeing me, she was an exemplary woman.

And she still is. We broke up half a year ago. She's now seeing someone else, though she still shares the apartment.

Even when she told me it was over, she was as gentle as she could be.
I don't think she wanted to hurt me, but she never realized how deeply it did actually wound me. After twenty one years, she ended up believing that our relationship had run it's course.
It hadn't. Not for me. But she does not understand that.

In a way I can see her point of view - not that I agree with it, please understand - and I do not want to win her back. What's done is done. She needs to live her life her own way.
I am honoured that she still considers me her friend.
Possibly more than anyone else could be, she is my confidant, my fellow conspirator. She is someone whom I have trusted with things that no one else can know, and I am certain that those secrets are safe in her care.
Trust is not easily earned - and there are things she has told me I likewise will not divulge.

Whoever I have the good fortune to fall in love with in the future will also have her own secrets held safe, and will similarly be nicknamed rather than identified on this blog or elsewhere on the internet.
I excercise caution in my affairs (the horrible wordplay is accidental, NOT intended), and I am resolved that my attentions will not be aimed at someone lacking certain characteristics - characteristics which Savage Kitten in fact exemplifies.
Such people deserve privacy.

However, that rather leaves me hosed and S out of L in this town. Someone of moderate and reserved personal habits - who does not have tattoos, piercings, or a history of flamboyantly reprehensible behaviour - where does one find such a person?
Someone trustworthy and unflinching?
Someone who reads, thinks, responds thoughtfully, and tries to be ethical and honest - in San Francisco?
Decades ago it could have been easier. Behaviour was more controlled (or so it now seems), and even young people often had standards. Not standards that were exceptionally high for their era, but which are nevertheless rather rare in this day and age.

I also think that literacy was more valued then. My parents generation (or at least they and their associates) considered books to be worthwhile acquisitions, precious possessions.
Other than us 'eccentrics', does anyone STILL value texts?

When Savage Kitten graduated from college, with two degrees, summa cum laude, I was so proud of her. She had paid for her education herself, and had studied in the face of her parents' typically Toishanese insistence that academia (beyond something purely cosmetic, like 'secretarial skills') was wasted on a girl. Her brothers had been supported through college, but for several years she was actively discouraged from pursuing it much further.
Just graduate, girl, and then get married.

I was in the back row at her graduation, because her family was also in attendance. But at the ceremony for the dean's list, I was the only one she invited.
Even today, nearly two decades later, I am incredibly pleased that she asked me to be there.
I could not be more honoured.

I am still inordinately proud of her perseverance and her determination.
She is a woman of valour. Her new boyfriend is one lucky son-of-abitch.

I have been rather extraordinarily fortunate in my life. I know Savage Kitten.
I know several fine people in our little branch of the great conspiracy - rabbit mom and her husband and children, the doctor and his family, the Torah reader and his two sons.
Plus a book merchant and his educator parents, Rabbi P. and the ursine blogger, and several other people whom I shall not describe in any detail. Including quite a few folks who are fluent in Dutch, Yiddish, German, Russian, Lawyerese, Designer-gibberish and Engineering, plus a number of Cantonese, Hokkien, and Indonesian speakers.
All of these people are blessings - and I do not say that lightly. I'm rather picky, and I set the bar far far higher for my associates than I would ever do for myself.

[Yeah, quite unfair, I know. Though why on earth should I demand as much of myself as I do of others? These are the people with whom I really want to associate - a man is judged by his friends, and from the rabbit holders to the toireh leyner, it gives me great pride to know these people.]

But where and how shall I find a new helpmeet of whom I can be as proud?
How am I to find a thoughtful woman, who reads (habitually and with great enjoyment as a passionate personal enterprise), who does not think inordinately much of her sexual attributes, does not make a public spectacle of herself, or get tattoed like a hunk of meat?

Are there, really, any young ladies in this city in whom one can have such pride? Are there still women who value themselves too much to engage in conceited and self-indulgent misbehaviour?
Women with realistic self-respect?

Or am I just wasting my time even considering people who are decent, intelligent, and actually have standards?

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.

Friday, January 21, 2011


An acquaintance of mine is dealing with the death of a relative. It was not a surprise when it happened, even the relative in question had acknowledged the inevitability, and when it happened it was quick and painless.
Still, there is a sense of loss. There always is.

What has proven disconcerting to my friend is that she has now come to regard herself as immature. Her reactions over the past several months have not been what she expected. The sense that something irreplaceable is gone now crops up in completely unexpected contexts, and often prompts memories from long ago.

It’s an interesting voyage of rediscovery, but she wonders now when she will finally grow up.
As she sees it, she's still far too much like she was as a child.
I do not know what she was like in those days, so I cannot judge.
But if I were her, I wouldn’t worry about it so. Anyone who can string several complete thoughts together in a logical and meaningful sequence is plenty mature.


Additionally, she is capable of thinking about things that she would rather not have to think about. She does not avoid the unpleasant requirements of life – she doesn’t embrace them with passion and fervor either – but she deals with matters as needed, and often pro-actively. That more than almost anything else shows maturity and independence. Her own character pulled her kicking and screaming into adulthood, she wasn’t pushed.
So any sense she may have that she isn’t ready for it yet is belied by the facts.

Still, I can’t help but wonder what she may have been like in those days.
She often seems playful, and still has the capacity for wonder. She sparkles around other people, and looks better than many women her age.
Additionally, any grey hairs have been pulled out, and from a distance the crows-feet are not apparent. If you didn’t actually listen to her, you might think that only her taste in whisky was truly adult.
She must have been one hell of a little girl.

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


When you didn’t want your family to know about us, I abided by your decision.
I recognized that it would’ve created problems – your mother would’ve made everyone’s lives miserable, both yours and your siblings, until you were out of the family and they had been forced to stop associating with you.
Your messed up Chinese family dynamics precluded any introduction going well.

Later you said that you were embarrassed by them, that you did not want to expose me to that environment. Above all you wanted to protect me from your harridan bitch mom, and didn’t want me to think any less of you by seeing what you came from, what you might turn into.
I know your mom’s type, so I can understand wanting to hide from her, and avoid the confrontation.

Because it would indeed have been a confrontation.
It would’ve been a declaration of all-out war, with all the worst emotions let loose, and every poisonous rhetorical weapon in the old lady’s arsenal fired off, burning everyone and everything in her path. From the very moment of first meeting she would’ve hatefully conspired, vociferated against you, denied that you were her child, rigidly enforced a complete cut-off from your siblings and their families, made sure that you and anyone associated with you would’ve been outcastes. She would’ve ripped up everything that you had left behind, burned all things that showed you had ever existed, cut you out of photos, and cut you off from all relatives.
You would’ve become a non-person.
The barrage would’ve been constant, continuous, and unpredictably vicious.
You also feared what she might try to do to me, or try to do to both of us. Or where her venom would surface, given that some of her ambit and her social circle included our neighborhood.
We’ve both seen old Chinese biddies blessing-out their children or their menfolk in Chinatown – it’s valid street-theatre and absolutely fascinating, but quite excruciating for the poor victims.

The likelihood of everything I have just described happening made you cringe, even thinking about it was deeply shaming.

But you love your siblings, and they also have successfully kept much of their lives secret from mom.
And since your mom had her several strokes, she has been out of the picture entirely.

Now you are going to introduce your new boyfriend to your kin.

So tell me, who were you really embarrassed about?

When, over fifteen years ago, you dragged me along to the year-end get-togethers of your martial arts gang, I knew it was because you needed the reassurance of a comforting and supportive presence. Required squiring. Smile and shake hands. No problem.
We did that for several years – each year, I would go with you to meet people who were nice, but whom I did not know, given that I only saw them once a year (even though you attended many social events with that crowd).

You changed martial arts styles over a decade ago.
I have not met any of your friends since then.
You have met all of my friends.

You’ve even met most of my relatives, although you didn’t feel comfortable with such a high level of whitey-whiteness – too many university degrees, too many waspy cultural elements, too much possible correctness about knives, forks, serviettes.
When they visited the Bay Area, you said ‘hi’. Then fiercely resisted spending more time than was absolutely necessary with them.

They’ve inquired about you, and I’ve told them that you are well.
I haven’t told them about what happened, because I don’t want to hear what they have to say about this situation.

I have never been part of your family or your social circle – in the case of one or two people, you even indicated that I was frightening, or not good enough, or too much and too weird for them to deal with……...
I know that you barely ever admitted that you were in a relationship.
All part of keeping the private life truly private, right?

Yeah, I know. Good Chinatown girls 'don’t do such things', nice Cantonese girls shouldn’t hang around with “eccentric” white men.
The you know what will hit the you know what if your mom ever finds out.

She’s been non compos mentis for TWO YEARS now.

For the several years before her strokes, she wasn’t exactly the model of agility or attention either.


Her final collapse into vegetativeness liberated you. It gave you a feeling of the world finally opening up.
And at that point, I probably also started to become a part of your past, the background that seemed to hem you in.
Her decomposition allowed you to grow.
I was no longer the asylum to which you could flee, and I no longer represented the rock of safety and sanity, once the tempest abated.
Instead, you started perceiving me as someone with an accretion of too many bumps.

You changed.

You like your friends. You love and respect your siblings.

I have never met them.

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.


I've always been fond of Moomins. But more so of Snufkin, and the Hemulen, both of whom have characteristics which I will NOT admit to sharing, but with which I can identify.

No, I'm not off my rocker, merely remembering fondly some books I read as a child, reread in my teenage years, and have since occasionally read yet again. Most of the characters ('moomin trolls') can best be described as Scandinavian hippopotami, although some resemble humans.

Snufkin, in particular, seemed a person worth emulating. Not so much in the clothes department as in his fervent dislike of fences and signs. One can well sympathize with him. There are far too many irritating signs in this world that tell you what you may not do.
No smoking. No food or drink. No walking on the grass.
No singing. No wearing flipflops. No public micturation.

[Okay, I'll admit that there may actually be a use for that last one.]

The problem is that I can also understand the Park Keeper's point of view.

[The Park Keeper, like all Hemulens, is obsessive. Absolutely nothing is permitted in his park.]

Little greenhatted anarchists like Snufkin are responsible for much that is wrong with the world. The campaign that Snufkin wages against the Park Keeper seems, more than anything else, designed to drive him mad.


Perhaps the most likeable of all the many characters in the Moomin universe is Fillyjonk.
Obsessive-compulsive, neurotic, and a totally retentive neat-freak.
Things must be in their proper place, and everything must be clean.

It is extremely upsetting when the world is not exactly as it should be.
Sterile. Spotless. Squeaky.

"Bacteria! Worms! Maggots! Creepy-crawlies! Don't touch them!"

For more images of Moomin people, go here:

We all know individuals like that. The type is universal. And very entertaining.
I've had teachers who resembled Fillyjonk, as well as a colleague.
One of my friends has a mother in law who is Fillyjonk personified (it drives him up the wall).

Such people can be likeable, loveable even.
But they are not anyone you wish to resemble.

Things will not always be right.

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


My dear, I shall not even pretend to understand what goes on in your head.
After twenty one years, I thought I knew you. Yet I cannot fathom why you dropped me (after 21 years, gddmt it!), and then started seeing that fellow.

It just makes no sense. I was there with you, and for you, during more than two decades.
You decided it had run its course, nothing more could be said. So you didn't even discuss what was going on in your mind, but presented me with a conclusion.

How the hell am I supposed to react when it's over? When you have already made a decision, regarding both of us, and thrown 21 years out the door?
Yes, I know you still like me, and that after all is said and done we share too much to break off all contact.
But we could've gone from the romance straight to the friendship a helluva lot faster.

And don't you think it would have been fairer to have at least involved me in the decision making process? My life too, you know - you've chucked two decades of it down the drain.

I haven't. I wouldn't do anything different. Those were happy years, many people don't ever have that much. I know your parents did not have it, they had fifty years of marriage, and ended up with less than we did. Your father faithfully watched "divorce court" like it was a religious experience.
My grandfather eventually considered the woman he married his personal insane response to the Bolshevik revolution - the photo I have that shows him and several other American officers, rail thin, celebrating his wedding in the American Mission in Kermanshah, probably represents the happiest and most normal day of his marriage. Their Russian cavalry swords are brawnier than they, it must have been an interesting time.
My own parents were not the best of matches - I've often thought that two such intelligent and complex people would've been far better friends than they were a married couple.
In the years that they were together, how happy were they?

But you and I had twenty one years, and those were exceptionally good years. Why did you not say anything? It was only in your mind, in the last six months, that it changed. You know I'm a bit oblivious, just like I know that you are neurotically obsessive.
I am certain that we could nevertheless have talked it out, you did not need to worry it to pieces. It need not have ended.
But it did. You terminated it.
Stubborn woman.
Your explanation still does not make sense.
I cannot ask you what really went on in your head - it's likely that you don't even know at this point, and too many months have passed - like all of us, you've reformulated your memories, and the thing is done.

Now you're seeing that man in a wheelchair. He has not known you for a fraction of the time that I have. What on earth will he give you that will last? Personally I don't see it. It's not likely I ever could.
I'm not betting on more than a year, though.

At some point I will find someone who is far better able to communicate with me. Someone who likes me for all the reasons that I like myself, the things that I admire about other people. Someone who herself is infinitely likeable and loveable, flexible, perspicacious and intelligent, and who can gently overlook whatever roughness that, after twenty one years of tumbling, I might still have.
Compared to you, I am a relatively easy person - I am socially functional.
And now worn smoother than I ever was before.

You and I will still be friends, my dear, but she may be better able to relate to you than I at that point. She'll have fewer raw spots and hard edges than me. Less grit in the emotional loafers.

I was a smooth man untill you decided that it wasn't what you wanted.
Did you really have to wait 21 years for that?
Sweetheart, my life could've been quite different if you had lost interest far sooner.

You're still a wonderful person. And I do want you to remain part of my life. But the next person who captures my heart will have precedence, that's just the way it will have to be.

You will always have a voice. But she'll have a veto.

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.


Friends have suggested that either I move out, or Savage Kitten should. Apparently the idea that two ex-lovers can become just roommates is too unusual to succeed.

They have correctly noted that I have quite a bit of anger about the entire situation - not only the how and why of the actual breakup last summer,
but also developments since then.

However, I balk.

Running away is not a solution.

I'm peevish at present, but I do not hate.

So I'm stubbornly going to insist that this will work.

Indeed, I do not like hearing about her new boyfriend. But the girl is excited and happy, so I'll put up with it. If her relationship crashes, I will not gloat in any way that she could notice, I'll be supportive, and I will absolutely not take advantage of the situation.
We've known each other for over twenty years. She's told me stuff that she could never tell her siblings, or G-d forbid her fright-bitch virago maternal unit. We are closer to each other than to our relatives, and we function reasonably well together as house-mates.
As long as we've known each other we have been allies.
I think we still are.
No longer lovers, we have less vested in each other than before - I am not responsible for her happiness, she isn't responsible for mine.
The pressure is off.

Yes, there are times when it is hurts to be around her, also times when it is torment to be in the apartment when she is not around.
I hide out at the office a lot.

Please imagine how much more frustrating and irritating it would be if I had a new roommate - someone with whom I did not have such a long history of trust, who wasn't used to my peculiarities.
Even worse, someone who had a cell phone, or insisted on playing music.
Or heaven forefend, a person with narrow culinary and cultural views.

So yeah, I'm keeping this one. She's been vetted by two decades of experience.
She's got good habits, and some splendid personal qualities.
She's stubborn and gallant, among other things.

I am not hoping that we'll eventually get back together as lovers. That situation cannot be restored, and at this point I would not want it to be.
There were twenty very happy years. We mean a lot to each other.
But we have grown in different directions.
She's moved on. I am doing likewise.

Life isn't simple, life isn't going to be fair.
Sometimes you have no choice but to reinvent yourself.
That's just the way it is.

The man in her life is mobility impaired. The apartment where Savage Kitten and I live is on a slope, and up the stairs. That means that he cannot visit, and she has indicated that she likes having her own space - distance probably does make the heart grow fonder.
This situation works for her. It also has certain advantages for me. The primary one is that I will never have to deal with him being around, nor ever have to observe them interacting in any way.
Another potential advantage is that she is often not around for several hours at a stretch.

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.


For some people, talking is the purest form of communication. Their thoughts are best conveyed by speech, accompanied by eye-contact, and accented by body language.
All their tools operate in tandem, and for them the process is complete and 'comprehensive'.

That has never really worked for me. Something was always missing, and any comprehension was scattershot and out of focus. At times I didn't quite understand what people meant, and was utterly unable to make them grasp what I was trying to say either.
Talking AT each other is not a very good way of talking WITH each other - much gets lost in translation. No, it isn't a language issue, the only two languages involved were our native tongue.

The odd thing is that as an observer to other people yacking I often see precisely how they miscommunicate and where mutual comprehension goes awry.

Sometimes it is better to be on the outside looking in. The perspective is better.

Eye-contact is clear only if there are no words. Body language is always relatively data-free. And sounds are in one sense just sounds.
Real communication is by text.

If you are reading this, you understand what I am trying to say.


Among my friends and acquaintances there are some who speak easily, and tailor their conviction to the spoken word. By which I mean that what they say, they WILL believe - they said it, they expressed it, they consequently feel that it is truth that comes from the fibre of their being, reality that penetrates to the bone.

With them I am at a disadvantage - their sounds are facile, but define their world. Texts are too opaque, and what I write may as well be in a foreign tongue.
They read, they will read, but they do not actually "read" read.

Those who "read" read may at times not see things the same way I do. But by their reaction and reflection there has been real communication. Not necessarily that there is more data, nuance, or even meaningful content in the text than in speech, but written words have fibre, meat, heft.
A paragraph will have depth and breadth where the spoken word merely has a vibrant sharpness at each new syllable uttered, and loses definition as earlier sentences fade from the moment.
With texts, the entire message is in focus.

I enjoy the blogs that others write in precisely that way. Neither they nor I always leave comments when we e-socialize, but we read each other, and consequently know each other more intensely than if communication were limited to audible vibration.

Real conversation is more spread out over time than is ever possible face to face. It enfolds far more, and what initially might not penetrate becomes clear as material repercolates in the mind. There is an overlapping temporal stretchiness to textual discussion.

We actually have little choice, we have to communicate this way - we aren't fully vested in noise.

There are several sites I visit every day. If I do not say anything there, it's because I might not have anything clever or incisive (or even relevant) at the tip of my keyboard.
But I come back regularly.
I appreciate the conversation.

If we meet in the real world, let's not say too much. Eye-expression and pleasure in each other's company will be enough, no need to struggle overmuch with sounds.
We can write when we're apart.
And I will read what you say with avid interest.

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


When I first returned to the United States I had almost no clue what Americans ate.
My exposure to white-folks food had been limited to what my parents cooked.
My father did roasts, goulash, garlicky Italian stuff, and curries.
My mother, having grown up in the day when officers’ families had servants, and then spending a decade and a half in the navy, or boarding houses while at Berkeley, lacked any significant culinary experience and inspiration.

My mother did most of the cooking.

When I was going through her study after she died I found a small notebook with eight "recipes" in it. For several years, every week we had eaten six of those dishes in precise order, Sunday through Friday. The seventh recipe was paprika chicken for special occasions, the eighth was risotto – which she tried to master for over a year and a half. The result was always inedible, but atrocious in a different way each time.

[Risotto: Largely as a result of my mother’s experimentation, I have not touched risotto since . There are a few other dishes I also avoid, having eaten enough of the United States Military Family's Version to last me a lifetime: leathery pork chops, shepherd’s pie, tuna casserole, meatloaf with hard lumps of cheese within, Yankee pot-roast, and rubbery omelette. Similarly, I also eschew Welsh Rabbit (inedible!), creamed chipped beef on toast (unimaginably nasty), and chili con carne (" two pounds ground round, two onions minced, a large quantity of extremely old and stale Spice-Islands chilipowder, and a bay leaf ").
Yes, I know that chili can be very good – I myself do a nice chile verde with chunks of pork in a sauce composed of roasted Anaheims and Mulatto Isleños for flavour, with various other green chilies to tailor the heat level precisely. I also like son-of-a-bitch stew.]

Saturday was always my father’s turn to cook. Usually curry, side dishes, fluffy rice.
It made up for previous suffering.

My father was somewhat relieved when I finally took over the kitchen during the week. Disconcerted, too.
My culinary "knowledge" at that time included a complete reading of the Larousse Gastronomique, an Israeli cookbook that mr. Kater had once gifted us, a few Eastern European recipes gleaned from different sources, and absolutely massive exposure to Indonesian and Chinese-Indonesian food at my aunties' houses. So the results veered rather wildly between classic French and something no Frenchman would touch with a ten foot pole.

Crepes with coconut beef, taugeh, and chilies? No problem.
Stirfried stringbeans with chilipaste, peanuts, and sugar? Okay, a bit weird, but at least not overcooked.
Blanched crunchy vegetables with a sweet-hot-fermented shrimp paste-chili dip? Let’s NOT do that again.

When my mother was home from the hospital, I would cook ‘normal’ food.
No chilies, no spices, no vinegar. No fishpaste. No flavour.

Two years after her death I returned to the United States, and boarded with my grandmother in Berkeley, whose cooking was halfway between ‘bachelor’ and ‘English’ – she had lived alone for nearly four decades, ever since the boys (my father and my uncle) had gone off to college, to war, back to college. She had a rather casual attitude towards food in consequence.
I once saw her time stringbeans in the pressure cooker for half an hour – which was how long it would take her to do something elsewhere in the house.
I have no idea what the result was, I ate out that evening.

In the decades since then, I have finally found out what Americans eat.

Thai food. Indian food. Cantonese food. Pizza. Sushi. Wraps, pockets, and burritos. Tacos, eggrolls, trailmix. Pho, fried wontons, and vegan tofu scramble.
Tofurky, frito pie, and tapas.
Teriyaki jerky, cheddar chips, diamond almonds, pickled eggs.
Plus icecream.

TGIFs, The Olive Garden, Birdcage Wok, Roundtable, Bob’s Big Boy, Mickey Ds, Denny’s Domino’s, Hardee’s, In-n-out, Outback, Sonic, Subway. Etcetera’s.
All with special sauce.

Heinz, Tabasco, or honey glaze on everything else.
Or all three combined, in which case it’s barbecue.

* * * * *

This evening, there will be a fried-chicken cook-off at a place I go to regularly.
Should be interesting.
I love culinary discovery.

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.


Often a reader adds perspective to something I wrote. It's something I've gotten used to over the years, and obviously it is one of the things that makes blogging worthwhile.
It isn't always about having my own soapbox and screaming mad nonsense into the void.

Today a reader added her comment underneath something I posted a while back, showing a completely different point of view; one which I myself have not particularly stressed - it is somewhat outside of my own perspective, as you will understand - but which needs to be given a place in the spotlight.

[Underneath this post: In which I explain certain things about Cantonese women that have also been detailed by many other writers - an entire passel of Chinese-American female authors in particular.]

"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."



It's good to see the other side. Especially because it normally doesn't claim centre-stage - happy people are often not noticed, whereas misery and frustration are immensely attractive.
Or at least entertaining and eye-catching.

[We like dramas with weeping, wailing, and epic teeth-gnashing, or comedies in which no one gets along with each other, even drives the other characters up the wall. That's why 'The Odd Couple' was such fun, and that's why we watch Woody Allen's later movies, despite knowing that at the end we'll feel cheated by his over-use of art-galleries and bookstores as backdrops, despite knowing that he simply projected his own shallow neuroticism on his actors, despite the hollowness of his message, and the ostentatious narcissism in his work.]

Becoming good and decent is a monumental accomplishment.
People who can say that about themselves or their children have achieved victory.

"They are the cutest old Chinese couple you'll ever meet"

I've seen folks like that. Their basic fibre was so compatible that despite each one of them being a fully flavoured ingredient by themself, they melded over time to a remarkable unity.
All facing facets ended up matched.

I suspect that both of Ninjarina's parents were obstinate, and respected precisely that quality in each other.
Which is probably what, without either of them even being particularly conscious of it, they encouraged in their children.
It is an admirable achievement

Thank you for writing, Ninjarina. It brightened my morning.


About the title of this post? Some of you will recognize a malformation of "eishes chayil, mi yimtsa, verachok mi-pninim michra" from the brachus ha mishpoche, ultimately from Mishlei ('Proverbs'), verse 31:10 'A woman of valour who can find? for her price is far above rubies'.
Which seems quite the apposite reference.

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.

Monday, January 17, 2011


For a while during the early eighties I associated with a number of Filipino Chinese. There was a commonality of circumstance and enterprise between us, and there were advantages for them to having a connection in the United Sates who could arrange things.

I would like to think that it was mutually rewarding, except that it wasn't.
Not entirely.

["Wa-fuy lang u Hoklo"]

One thing about Filipino Chinese that grated was the snobbism characteristic to their class.
Their appreciation of fancy Western brand name goods (especially designer merchandise) and a worship of America, while simultaneously insisting that white people smell bad ("except you") combined with an over-the-top top-of-the-heap arrogance towards the natives, whether in Manila or San Francisco - all added up to us not always seeing eye to eye.

The one notable exception was a family that lived in a run-down villa in Quezon City. Yes, they also insisted that Caucasians smelled horrid ( in the tropic climate, where it feels like with every step you're wading further into hot jello, there may indeed be quite a whiff to whitey) and they too were commercially connected at every level of kinship to other Chinese. But there the similarities ended. Bookshelves all over, and every table seemingly a reading desk. It was a domicile remarkably free of status-shopping clutter, and easy on the eyes in consequence.
All members of that family had an old-fashioned Chinese appreciation for scholarly pursuits melded with the love of reading that was once common in the Western World, plus more PHDs than you could shake a stick at. They also owned an exceptional collection of calligraphy; several of them were themselves masters of the brush.

But they were utterly anomalous to that time and that place, quite at odds with most members of their tribe. It was a privilege to be in their circle. Exceptional in many ways.

Chinese Filipinos can be wonderful people to know.

Unless you really know them.

Then they're fascinating.

And somewhat repellant.

Watching the boiler-room heat of Manileño-Hoklo social interactions is best done from a little distance.

[Hoklo (福佬): a person from the southern part of Fujian (福建), whose dialect is most likely the Amoy (Hsia Men 下門) dialect of Minnanhwa (閩南話).]

["Sangly keh tng kakilang"]

The best and brightest prospect for many wealthy Filipinos, ESPECIALLY Filipino Chinese, is the eventuality that they or their relatives will move to the United States. Which many of them actually do in order to finish their education. Not that they particularly value education for itself, but an American degree has much more status than a piece of paper from any institution in the Philippines.
It opens doors in Manila, it opens the door to the United States.

[The piece of paper, that is, not the education. In many ways the concept of education, especially education for education's sake, is entirely foreign to Filipinos and Filipino-Chinese. Hence the huge number of lawyers, and near complete dearth of historians, philosophers, philologists...... ]

With clever maneuvering, the erstwhile student becomes a permanent resident, and then moves yet another relative into the country.

A Filipino family with many American members is in the cat-bird seat.
Their stateside kin will be able to provide them with American labels and brand name merchandise. Plus valuable connections and introductions.

The only fly in the Filipino Chinese ointment is that Filipino Chinese are mostly Hokkien. Home is always and ultimately Fujian province, their social focus remains Manila and the wealthy Chinese business community, and their perception of status stays firmly centered on being able to maintain wealth, and influence among the lesser Philippine mortals.

Marrying-out, for many Filipinos, is the purest sign that one has arrived in the United States, that one also belongs in America, and that the family has become successful in both environments.
It is the best thing that ever happened.

For Filipino Chinese, it is also the worst.
Definitely déclassé, in any case.

While the Hokkienese-bourgeois value system remains constant for multiple generations in its Philippine hothouse, it frequently dissipates in ONE generation once transplanted to the United States - the formerly pure Hokkien Business Bloodline becomes diluted with other genetic and cultural material (i.e.: 'white'), and the drive towards proper Filipino social supremacy falters.

Such social ineptness may be elided over by the immediate kin, but everyone else in Makati, Greenhills, and Binondo understands completely.

Having relatives who are chyap chying (雜精) instead of pure lanlang (咱人) marks both success and, ultimately, failure.

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Several years ago I had a coworker down the peninsula who would leave work related voicemails on people's answering machines all weekend...