I have to admit I was surprised when the subcontractor recommended to install our air conditioning system at the house turned out to be Chinese. Most Chinese, when they come to
A couple of close friends of mine, who I helped through the whole process of emigrating from
So when the middle-aged Chinese air conditioning guy turned up with his team of burly young white Australian fitters, I enjoyed some conversations with him about my experiences being married to a Chinese for so many years and living in
It took a couple of days for him to finish the job, he fitted the whole house. On the afternoon of the second day, when he was nearly done, he came to me, slightly embarrassed and unsure. It was obvious he was going to ask me something and wasn’t sure of the reaction.
‘It’s my son’s girlfriend,’ he said. ‘Could you talk to her please? She calls me and my wife by our…’ He took a deep breath to share this awful news. ‘She calls us by our first names!’
‘But he’s talking about marrying her! How can we possibly have a daughter in law that calls us by our first names? She doesn’t show the right respect!’
… And I understood exactly what his problem was. Children in Chinese society are taught from a very early age to give all their elders a family title to indicate their respect. When they meet their relative, they “call” them, they’ll loudly say ‘Ah Poh’ (paternal grandmother) or ‘Ah Goong’ (paternal grandfather) or even ‘Lau Jeck’ (Maternal aunt who is older than my mother – yes the titles do go down to that sort of detail.)  The relative will then say ‘good boy/girl’ – maybe hand the child a sweet - and the conversation will continue as normal. All junior family members will “call” senior family members like this.
When I arrived in
So when the air conditioning guy asked me if I would talk to his daughter, I reluctantly accepted. I honestly thought that he and his wife should accept that things are done differently here. I was amused that he complained about her being too ‘liberated’ because she was a professional woman, when it’s quite normal for women in Hong Kong to own their own companies without being considered ‘liberated’. Maybe ‘liberation’ is more to do with a strong attitude.
He asked her to call me, and she did. I explained the whole ‘family title’ thing to her and she tried to understand.
‘So I just need to give them these family titles, and they won’t hate me any more?’ she said.
‘If you fold your hands in front of your lap, bow slightly, and call each of them by their family titles when you greet them, they will absolutely love you forever,’ I said.
‘If you ask him about it, he probably doesn’t.’
Two days later, the air conditioning guy called me. ‘Thank you!’ he said, full of delight. ‘She is so wonderful! My wife thinks she is marvellous, she wants to give her some gold!’ (This is symbolic of being accepted into the family as the daughter-in-law – the bride’s family, and the bride, are given solid 24K gold jewellery as payment for buying her. Really.) ‘You have changed her from being a rude problem to being a good daughter-in-law. We cannot thank you enough!’
Sometimes, I guess it’s the small things that make all the difference.
 All care but no responsibility. I think these are close to correct but they may be wildly inaccurate, it’s been more than 20 years since I did this myself.
Do you have favourite books which explore cultural differences? I've just been reading the Liaden books by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller.