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Old vs New & Chinese vs English Languages

There's a taxi scene in Karate Kid 5 where Dre (played by Jaden Smith) and his mum Sherry just arrive in Beijing. As Drei cranes his neck out of the taxi window and looks up at the CCTV headquarters building with its sleek, futuristic architecture, Sherry comments to Drei that not everything in China is old like he imagines it would be.

Every country has that modern facade, no matter how traditional it is. China is no exception. After all, we're living in a modern world.

Soon after the movie, I went to a desserts store in a hawker centre in Singapore. a customer was being addressed as 'auntie'. Looking to me in her late 30's or early 40's, she growled at the staff that she wasn't married. The female staff, in her 50's apologised, "Sorry miss". But the customer went on, "Do I look like an auntie?"

Don't know if she having a bad day, I'm quite sure that this isn't the first time she has been addressed as 'auntie'. Plenty of people who are my senior in places of business like supermarket checkouts, barber shops, etc addressed me as 'uncle'. The first time, it came as a bit of a shock, even though it was coming from a youngster. Later, they frequently coming from people who are decades older than me. It doesn't bother me any more. My pain is now totally numb.

In Singapore, I suspect 'uncle' and 'auntie' is simply a Chinese equivalence of the English 'Sir', and 'Madam'. Indeed, in a larger and more established business premises like banks, post offices, etc, male and female customers are being called 'Sirs' and 'Madams' - a term that's somewhat more neutral in age. The problem is that Chinese put respect over vanity. Instead of addressing somebody younger with the appropriate younger equivalent address like "younger sister", or "younger brother", they think it's safer to call somebody with a senior salutations like 'uncle' and 'auntie'. Actually I thought the term 'xiaojie'(= '小姐' = 'Miss', which literally means "little sister") is quite standard especially when an elder person like the above mentioned store staff addressing a younger customer (or any peer or older person addressing a younger female). I guess Singaporean tend to be quiet even if they're offended, and so the staff is none the wiser in using term 'auntie' loose and fast for all customers.

My close friend is a Westernised (actually Australianised) woman despite her early Chinese upbringing. She speaks English far more fluent than her Chinese, and so tends to understand Chinese culture via Aussie eyes. She's utterly against her hubby calling her 'laopo' (='老婆'). 'Lao' is 'old'. 'Po' is so loaded in meaning that it's actually quite untranslatable. Its closest translation is 'granny', or 'old woman'.

Here's the crux of the matter. The word 'old' has very different connotation in the English and in Chinese, in fact, they're opposite. 'Old' in Chinese is more like 'home' than 'house'.

The Chinese word 'lao' (='老'='old') has two aspects to it. The 1st is being used in terms like 'laoshi' (='老師' = 'Teacher'), 'laoshou' (='老手' = 'old hand'), 'laoma' (='老馬' = 'old horse'), 'laosifu' (='老師傅' = 'old master (of trade)'), 'laoban' (='老闆'='boss'), etc. These and many others are terms that command respect that derived from seniority and experience.

Another facet of the same word like our slang term in question 'laopo' (='老婆' = 'wife'), 'laoyou' (='老友' = 'close friend'), 'laosi' (='老死' = 'best mate', literally 'old dead'), are used for intimacy. They're terms of endearments. Not insults. If your surname is 'Wang' then your friends would call you ' Lao Wang' to show closeness, and you don't need to be old. So the term 'laopo' has both old words together, and it's therefore doubly good.

As you can see, these two uses of the word 'old' are both positive. On the other hand, English phrases come to mind like 'old timer', 'old fashioned', 'old geezer', 'old shoe', 'old people', etc tend to be negative. The phrase 'good old time' needs the word 'good' to negate the negative connotation of 'old time'. If 'old time' is positive, the word 'good' would be unnecessary. Similarly, in the expression, 'oldie, but goodie', you need the word 'but' to butt out the negative implication of 'oldie'.

The latest term in the long line of pedigree of good words that's prefixed with 'old' is 'laowai' (='老外'='general term for foreign expat in China'). 'Wai' is short for 'outsider' or 'foreigner', which in Chinese language is neutral. But in Chinese history. especially in the 19th century, 'foreigner' is a dirty word. But just having placed the word 'lao' in front of it turns everything that follows it into something positive.

Chinese culture favours tradition and so 'old' is good, while Western culture favours progress and 'old' is antithetic to it. Of course, I'm over-simplified to highlight the differences. Since progress is also associated with technology, and without question, you wouldn't want to own old technology. The Chinese respects for the Old is one of the dozen of factors that held China back from progress in the last 2 centuries.

Linguists believe that not so much that our languages reflect thought pattern, it's more like our languages pattern our behaviour. Regardless of which of the 2 statements is true, it remains that in Chinese language, the word 'old' has quite different connotation than in English. Language is probably the most important part of an expression (pun intended) of culture.

Filial piety is a highly regarded virtue in Chinese culture. It follows from the respect for the the elders in the society. Old people, old tradition, old anything is positive in China. This is all part and parcel of the Confucian value.

So next time when you're in China, and somebody use the term 'old' to call you or describe your certain aspects, don't get offended. You're being either complimented or being liked (similarly, when somebody call you fat).

Unlike some of the things like skin colour, and body shape that I wrote in this article where Chinese and English cultures seem to have opposite attitudes, superficially, but deep down they're actually just different expressions of the same things under different circumstances. In this case, Chinese and English languages really do have opposite attitudes towards old

Posted by FrancisQ 23:04 Archived in Singapore Tagged singapore china language english chinese

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