“Wah your ah boy in secondary school already ah? Heard he score very well leh. Aiyo your ah boy so smart!”
“No lah no lah, he very lazy one.”
For many of the larger families in Singapore, the Lunar New Year is a time of compulsory gatherings, discussed and arranged in the usual clandestine manner that middle-aged folks communicate in (i.e. hours of whispering between aunties over a landline). Planning the gathering, however, is nothing compared to being at the actual gathering. Amidst the slightly awkward dialogues and faltering false starts lie the true terror: finding a conversation starter with people you meet only once a year.
For beneath the superficial layers of “姑姑，ho bo?” and “阿公，吃饭” lie intricate strata of hidden meanings and customary deference. This article concerns itself with the latter, a topic that could go on forever, with the Chinese’s obsession with generational status and phatic tokens. In true blue (or true red) traditional families, a simple dinner might present itself as a complex script of unspoken cues and marks of respect; not unlike having a meal with an entire clan of SJWs from Tumblr. (“That’s SJW-ist! How dare you!”)
This strict code of conduct seems to creep into even the more light-hearted moments. Compliments, for example, are received in the same exaggerated way as one would accept an expensive gift, or a clearly thick ang pao. Like in the scenario above, we are virtually unable to break away from the habit of lessening ourselves in deference to an imagined superior (or just a mass of faceless gossip). Here’s the question I’ve been meaning to ask: Why are the Chinese so afraid of compliments?
The more pressing problem here is how most of us take it a step further past the point of neutrality, into the realm of negating ourselves as well. The oft-heard praise of children being “wah so clever ah!” is immediately met with an exhaustive list of the child’s bad habits, physical imperfections, and in extreme cases, birth defects. As a means of showing humility, just how effective is “No lah, my ah boy/ah girl last month got teacher complain he/she naughty leh”? What purpose does that serve? Does it really deflect the cries of “wah, jin hao lian”?
Perhaps we can take a leaf from the Westerners’ book and realise that a suitable version/translation of “You shouldn’t have!” is enough in this situation. Here it is in practice:
“Hello, happy new year! Wah your son in uni already right? So smart ah, your chew-ren!”
“Hi, nice to see you again. Happy new year! Yes, thank you. They worked very hard.”
See how both sides can continue the conversation without the uncomfortable tension that would have arisen from listing the child’s bad habits? A Japanese-inspired 90-degree bow works to a much greater effect as a mark of humility, but leans towards a more awkward tangent:
“新年快乐! I heard your daughter now lawyer/doctor/engineer ah? So crever, your ger-ger!”
“A most humble thank you from me and my family.” /deep bow/
“Wah your back not bad ah, so old already still can bow so low.”
“Thank you very much for your gracious compliment.” /deep bow/
But I digress. For the sake of our children’s self-confidence, let’s put aside our fears of being called out for being hao lian. Frankly, people who choose to interpret your positive mindset and self-esteem as signs of pride are not worth your time. Besides, you only see them once a year, anyway.
Now put this into practice and let’s end this unhealthy habit right here in this generation, before our children start introducing themselves at gatherings with a list of their bad habits, physical imperfections, and birth defects…
Photos courtesy of Kenny Louie