Thursday, November 19, 2009

Kylie Chan talks about Cultural Differences

Kylie Chan writes contemporary fantasy books, based on Chinese mythology. Here she talks about how cultural differences can get in the way of relationships. Go here to find out about her books.

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 Australia, will grab citizenship as quickly as they can and then rush out and do something so difficult it is almost unattainable in China and Hong Kong – they’ll gain a University education in the subject of their choice.

A couple of close friends of mine, who I helped through the whole process of emigrating from Hong Kong to Australia, did this. When they arrived here, they were psychiatric nurses, both of them. ‘You have to be crazy to be a psych nurse,’ they often joked. The minute they could get citizenship, they took it, and went to University. He’s now a lawyer and she’s a dentist, careers completely unavailable to them in Hong Kong’s elitist higher education system.

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 Hong Kong. We talked about places in Hong Kong, about the restaurants, and it turned out we’d lived not far from each other when we were both there.

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!

‘This is Australia,’ I said. ‘You have to get used to the more casual way we do things here.’

‘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.) [1] 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 China with my husband, I was expected to do this and it was extremely difficult for me. Back home, if I waltzed into my parents’ house, and loudly said, ‘Mother!’ my mother would say, ‘What?’ I expected to call these people and have them grimace at me and say, ‘What do you want?’ After a while I became accustomed to it and it was something of a circus when the whole clan was in the house – my husband would stand next to me and prompt me with the family titles, and I would parrot them, one after the other. Everybody thought this was delightful.

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.

‘It’s just so strange,’ she said. ‘My boyfriend never mentioned any of this, he doesn’t even seem to realize that they have a problem with it.’

‘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.

[1] 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.


Flinthart said...


I definitely have mixed feelings about that one. I believe firmly that if you move to a new country and culture, you are under an obligation to accept and respect the culture of that country.

I guess one can only hope that with time, the parents will lighten up a little, and realise they can't carry all of Hong Kong with them wherever they go. In the meantime, it's a small compromise.

Unfortunately, in my experience, small compromises are very frequently the thin end of the wedge. What are the culturally understood obligations of a daughter-in-law in Hong Kong? I think you might very well want to have a word or two with the young lady about the future she's making for herself.

TansyRR said...

The little social details that make a difference are one of my favourite things to read about in fiction (and social history was my speciality in academia, too).

I'm trying to think of some examples of cross-cultural issues in speculative fiction and the first one that leaped into my head was from a book Maxine M hasn't had published yet. Or, I think, finished. Hurry up, Max!

Too hot, brain is fried. Will come back with some titles later...

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I loved the story you told at Gen Con, about the Chinese man with 5 sons and the English man with 5 daughters commiserating each other because in their cultures they were responsible for expensive weddings!

Kaia said...

I don't have any books to offer, but talking about and reading about cultural differences. The biggest one for me, one I saw on TV for years before I properly understood that it's really the American way and not just some sort of TV thing that people don't really do is the wearing shoes indoors thing. Here it's extremely disrespectful, but when I lived in the U.S. people frequently gave me odd glooks because I whipped my shoes off at any given moment. Of course, these days, back in Sweden again, I get odd looks for NOT always doing that...

I also had a really hard time understanding the way American threw "I love you" around with little discretion. These are just two examples, sadly neither which are about books.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


Those are both fascinating observations. I always feel uncomfortable when people take their shoes off upon arriving at my home, because it is like saying, my home is so precious, I won't let you in unless you take your shoes off.

By the way, I love you ID photo. Amalie is one of my favourite movies.