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ALL IN THE FAMILY

Understanding Chinese practices

/ 05:03 AM February 13, 2020

I don’t understand names in China,” says Millie (not her real name), who went to Beijing on a business trip last November.“My contact is Shasha Wong, so when I met her husband, I called him ‘Mr. Wong.’ It turns out that he is Mr. Tsai.

“Shasha is married, but she retained her maiden name. I tried to call her Shasha Wong-Tsai, but she said she remains Shasha Wong. Interesting!”

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“When you were in school in downtown Manila, you had a Chinese name, didn’t you?” I ask. “When you got married, did you change it?”

“I see what you mean,” Millie says. “My Chinese name remains the same even now that I am married. My surname on the Philippine passport is now my husband’s, but my Chinese surname is still my maiden name. Interesting!”

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“In the Chinese mainland, almost every Chinese woman marrying a Chinese husband keeps her maiden name after marriage,” say Yi and Bryan Ellis in their book “101 Stories for Foreigners to Understand Chinese People.” Men and women are supposedly equals, so retaining one’s maiden name after marriage is “also a sign of women’s independence from men,” which is a social norm.

At dinner, Shasha inspected the duck meticulously before she agreed for it to be cut. She also ensured that the fish for dinner was indeed fresh.

“Shasha ordered the whole duck, and she wants to see that everything, head and feet and all, are intact before [the duck] is sliced,” Millie says.

When fresh fish is on the menu, the hapless creature is brought out in a basin, gasping for air, for diners to ascertain its freshness before it is cooked in the kitchen.

The duck and the fish were delicious, Millie declared, but she found it puzzling that she had to request for water to be served during dinner.

“The restaurant was posh, so why do they only serve tea?” Millie says. “Shasha had to ask the waitstaff for water for me, several times.”

“Tea is good for cleansing the mouth between bites,” Yi and Bryan say, “but [the Chinese believe that] drinking water will dilute the stomach’s digestive acids, making it more difficult to digest the meal and leading to indigestion.”

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While many Filipinos prefer to drink cold water during meals, Chinese generally prefer warm water.

“[The Chinese] feel that the cold temperature is a shock for one’s stomach and internal organs,” Yi and Bryan say, “and that warm fluids are healthier for the body.”

While dining, Millie saw customers in other tables fight over who would pay the check.

“KKB (kanya-kanyang bayad) seems to be more fair,” Millie says. “But Shasha says that tightwads are called tie gongji (iron rooster), referring to birds that won’t even pluck out a single feather as payment.”

Splitting the bill also means that “you don’t owe me anything and I don’t owe you anything,” Yi and Bryan say. Such perceived estrangement among friends is frowned upon by the Chinese.

Dinner was of course paid by Shasha.

Millie saw a coin taped beneath the restaurant manager’s calculator. “The coin represents wealth, so the manager did this to attract customers. Good idea!”

After dinner, Shasha gave Millie a gift wrapped in red paper.

“I got Philippine mangoes for Shasha,” Millie says. “But the mangoes were not wrapped. Shasha was delighted, though.”

“Did you open your gift in front of Shasha?” I ask.

“I wanted to, but we were getting up to leave,” Millie says. “So I opened it at the hotel. It was a very classy planner.”

In the Philippines, we often open gifts in front of each other, wanting to see the recipient’s reactions.

But for the Chinese, “if someone is too eager to get gifts, they are perceived as greedy,” Yi and Bryan say. “Whereas someone who modestly puts the unopened gift aside for later is deemed more cultured.”

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