Living the Chinese way

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By Celina Ann M. Tobias

FROM arranged marriages to giving lavish dowry, author Mabec Kawsek (nom de plume: Xin-Mei) offers insight into the traditions and beliefs of the Chinese in her first book, Afraid to be Chinese (Milflores Publishing, 2006), a collection of narratives based on actual experiences of modern-day Filipino-Chinese women.
In the prologue, Kawsek sheds light on her perception that being Chinese means being different. She writes, “Growing up Chinese in the Philippines, I learned that my ancestral heritage was full of issues having to do with family, honor, shame, and ‘otherness.’ It meant being the ‘other.’ It meant confusion and contradictions.”
This feeling of “otherness” is emphasized in the narrative “Singkit,” a touching account of a young girl’s confusion in dealing with discriminating issues related to her Chinese appearance: “I felt my cheeks and ears go hot. What did she call me? Did she say singkit?”
From appearances to traditions, “The Gifts,” a story about a mother giving advice to her daughter who is about to get married, depicts an interesting Chinese tradition—the giving of lavish dowry by the bride’s family to the couple. Kawsek’s simple yet skillful description of the dowry, which typically includes a new tea set, beddings, bedroom furniture, electrical household appliances, clothes, at least ten pairs of shoes with matching bags, and gold jewelry, offers readers a glimpse into the rich culture of the Chinese.
Aside from mentioning widely accepted Chinese traditions, Kawsek also delves into the more contentious ones. The narrative “Ah-wen” raises a lot of questions regarding the Chinese practice of arranged marriages. The main character in the story, who ran away from home because of an identity crisis and arranged marriage, said, “My parents have arranged for me to marry a man I have only met three times in my life! This is a marriage of convenience. Love has nothing to do with it.”
Kawsek also sheds light on the strict Chinese tradition of not having romantic relationships with the non-Chinese in “Entries from my Journal.” In the story about a group of teenage girls excited about meeting boys, the Chinese character Evelyn says, “Chinese girls do not go out with half-breeds, or worse, full-bred Pinoys…You will be branded ya hiao (being too boisterous or too flirty) if you are seen with him.”
Kawsek’s injection of Chinese words like hua-na gong (Chinese people who don’t speak Chinese) and hua-chaw (Chinese born outside of China), and her use of Chinese names for relatives like A-ko (father’s eldest sister), A-tsi (eldest sister), A-mah (grandmother), and Ang-kong (grandfather),  adds color to the narratives and emphasizes the Chinese culture in the book.
Although most of the narratives are touching and honest, a few are somewhat lacking in information and may leave the reader clueless. For example, in the narrative “Love Bus,” about a college girl betrothed to her friend’s cousin, Kawsek fails to clearly state the actual relationship between the two main characters, leading to confusion because the narrative loses its focus and flow. Also, the narrative “Purple Rice,” is abruptly cut short, making it hard for the reader to look beyond the superficiality of the story and grasp its deeper significance.
Despite its minor setbacks, the book is generally an interesting and easy read for those curious about Chinese culture and traditions or those who simply enjoy stories about the complexities of human relationships.

Montage Vol. 11 • September 2008