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The Oriental Emotion: An ‘Amateur’ Case Study of East Asian Cultures

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I believe East Asian people (Mainland/Hong Kong/Taiwan Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc.), while very different from each other, share a unique kind of emotion. In this post, I try to characterize this emotion by bringing up and studying five cases. However, as I am not an expert in such sociological/cultural research, most contents below are based more on my personal experiences or opinions, than on scientific evidence or methodology (as of what humanity research recognizes).

Before I dip down into the cases, I present the conclusions upfront – to capture such Oriental Emotion, one might (or might not) notice the following when interacting with East Asian people (be they real or fictitious):

  • Subtlety in Revealing Oneself
  • Common and Omnipresent Dissatisfaction
  • Sad & Beautiful Reminiscences
  • Socially Obligated Compromises
  • The Bearing of History
Below, I demonstrate these bullet points with concrete examples.

Case Study 1: ‘The Sight of Father’s Back’ by Zhu Ziqing (背影 朱自清)

The Sight of Father’s Back‘ is written by Zhu Ziqing – one of the best Chinese writers in the last century. In the story (based on his real experience), the son sees the father’s back as he clumsily climbs across the railway to buy some tangerines for his departing son.

“The next moment when I looked out of the window again, father was already on the way back, holding bright red tangerines in both hands. In crossing the railway track, he first put the tangerines on the ground, climbed down slowly and then picked them up again. When he came near the train, I hurried out to help him by the hand. After boarding the train with me, he laid all the tangerines on my overcoat, and patting the dirt off his clothes, he looked somewhat relieved and said after a while,” I must be going now. Don’t forget to write me from Beijing!” I gazed after his back retreating out of the carriage. After a few steps, he looked back at me and said, ”Go back to your seat. Don’t leave your things alone.” I, however, did not go back to my seat until his figure was lost among crowds of people hurrying to and fro and no longer visible. My eyes were again wet with tears.”

I studied this essay in my early junior high school. Even as a teenage boy, I had no difficulty feeling the father’s love to his son. But note that not a single word is said such as ‘I will miss you dad/son’, ‘take care’, ‘I love you’. Everything is implicitly embodied in small details of actions: buying tangerines for the son’s trip, overcoming the railway, making himself look ‘relieved’ (to make his son feel better for the departure), reminding the son of his belongings (always thinking for the son), etc.

A Chinese proverb says: father’s love is like a mountain; mother’s love is like water. It means fathers, no matter how they love you, always look somewhat serious and cold, never releasing any emotions; all they will do is always being there and quietly supporting you from behind. This has a lot to do with the hierarchical social structure of China. For thousands of years, ‘male responsibility’ was recognized and emphasized from managing to rule an ancient kingdom, to deciding which restaurant to go for the family get-together. Any male character is assumed to carry deciding responsibility, resulting in a local hierarchy (father->the entire family, husband->wife, brother->younger siblings, etc.). It seems that such local hierarchy contradicts an equal emotional communication. Hence, the father, as portrayed in Zhu’s essay, has his unique way of showing ‘love’, and the son has his way of getting it. The love never really weakens; it is simply hidden, deciphered,  and concealed.

Case Study 2: ‘Summer Snow’ (女人四十) by Ann Hui (許鞍華)

I describe Ann Hui as a director who films people’s real lives. She always reminds us that our life itself is a drama that worth our attention, observation, and empathy.

My favorite movie from her is ‘Summer Snow’ (or ‘Nu Ren Si Shi’ as appeared in imdb). The movie is about Mrs Sun – a middle-aged woman mediating between family, career, marriage, etc. Her family lives in a small, shabby, crowded apartment. Her father-in-law’s alzheimers is getting out of control, making him doing all sorts of silly things to the other family members. Her career is shaking – new and young employees, as well as the computers brought with them, are replacing her positions. Her husband is fed up with his driver trainer job and the embarrassing family situation, and seems to lose his directions in life. Mrs Sun is squeezed by such pressing mid-aged life, yet, always somehow stubbornly struggling to keep that life running, keep the family happy and together, keep her job well done. But life never shows any leniency to Mrs Sun’s efforts. When everything seems about to fall apart, the sudden death of her father-in-law brings back her nerves. At last, the old man remembers Mrs Sun. He gives her flowers and thanks her for everything she has done. Finally, he tells her, life, is actually an exciting experience. Mrs Sun returns to the rooftop of her home where the old man used to stay in his spare time. She seems to realize something and begins to re-embrace life, no matter how hard it is.

This movie received critical acclaims both domestically and internationally. One might wonder: is it because the character Mrs Sun is so special? No, Mrs Sun is just one of the hundreds of thousands of women struggling in low/middle class in Hong Kong. But why the success of such an ordinary story? My interpretation is: it wins the audience simply by telling the story. It tells the story that the public never realized could be a story at all. It shows us the many small touching details in Mrs Sun’s life, which, though do exist in real lives around us, are usually ignored by us. The spirit, the passion, the talent, and the love in Mrs Sun’s life, are seemingly replaced by all the responsibilities she has to carry. Is she not a funny, smart and romantic person? She sure is. But these many sides of her are just gone in the face of the never satisfactory reality. And remember, Mrs Sun is not meant to be a fictitious character. There are many, many Mrs Sun’s in our real life,  – maybe your mom, your wife, your daughter(in-law), your employee.

Case Study 3: the Teochew (潮州) Spirit

I was born as a Teochew (or Chaozhou-nese) – a much more precise identity than ‘Chinese’. Teochew people have been incredibly successful as individuals (Li Ka-shing, the richest person in Asia, is Teochew), yet they as a whole (e.g., the Chaozhou city) is falling behind in the Canton (or Guangdong) province. Why? I have been observing it for over 20 years and have come up with a theory: Teochew people are the Chinese extreme of resisting the reality to pursue individual interests. In around 1900’s, to fight against poverty, many Teochew people crossed the ocean and made a living in Southeast Asia (my great-grandfather did, and never came back). To protect themselves in the foreign lands, they ran townsmen associations (sometimes gangs). Later, some of them became so successful that their family business could influence a country’s economy.

I believe none of this success would be possible without what I call an ‘confronting situation’. In my recollection, I have never heard of Teochew people being grateful to their lives, be they rich or poor. The Teochew people seem never satisfied with the reality. And we somehow always form a confronting situation between us as individuals and the rest as reality. The dissatisfaction of one’s personal interest serves as a profoundly powerful motivation, driving Teochew people to fight for a better life. On the flip side, once the sides are set (individuals vs. reality), people are usually unwilling to give in, which impedes success at a more holistic level. For example, a factory (as a union of individuals) might succeed; an industry is likely not (simply because individual factories won’t trade off their own interest). This example sounds like an economic phenomenon; yet I think it’s more about the mentality.

Being a ‘Chinese extreme’, the ‘Teochew Spirit’ might shed light on some Chinese phenomenon. For example, consider Tiger Mom (from her last name I suspect she’s a Teochew descendent), why did she keep banging on her daughter’s every single performance? Because such dissatisfaction spurs on her and can always bring her more (though at the risk of jeopardizing the parents-children relationship).

Case Study 4 : Japanese Food Cultures.

For many of my western friends, Japanese food strikes them as ‘weird’, ‘small portion’, ‘should go to McDonald’s instead’, etc. Me, having never been to Japan, probably should not speak for its food culture. But I believe such culture is somehow mutual between China and Japan (foremost, given that some Japanese were once Chinese). And I do want to discuss my understanding of Japanese food cultures, focusing on the emotional aspects.

I believe Japanese food cultures carry at least two types of emotion: dedication and reminiscence.

In Japanese Kanji (Chinese characters), making food is called 料理 (or りょうり). Though maybe imprecise, these two characters, in Chinese, literally means ‘taking care of’, ‘process with care’, ‘organize and manage’, etc. In fact, its Chinese counterpart has been used more widely with these meanings. Whenever I see or hear this word, I couldn’t help forming an image wherein the chef is so dedicated to making delicious food for the customers that he or she is ‘organizing’ the many food materials, ‘managing’ the cooking process, and ‘taking care’ of the details and favors. Such utmost respect to the customers is fully embodied in the process of producing tastefully pleasing cuisines, which are then mildly presented with deliberately humble remarks such as ‘please have a try if you don’t mind’, ‘very rough cooking, please put up with it’. The dedication is as strong as it is subtly embedded in the food-making itself.

But how about home cooking? I believe reminiscence plays a more important role here. As is known, Japan is also the country famous for pre-made food (e.g., instant noodles). Recently, some voices were heard of calling people to treasure the taste of cooked food, which could be inherited and delivered across generations and eventually becomes a medium that connects people in the ever-complicating world. Even my family in China share similar ‘food complex’. I remember when eating steamed sweet potato with my grandparents, they sometimes recalled an old story of a friendly neighbor who invited the teenage grandpa to this food as his family was usually short of food back then.  I guess, for esp. Japanese people, food matters. It is not just for filling the stomach or pleasing the taste bud; it records information, and tells stories about one’s past, and his or her social/cultural identity.

Case Study 5: The Complex of Grasping the Elapsing Youth (青春, aka. the Asian Good Old Days)

Recently, a Taiwan movie became so popular across the Greater China areas. The story is about in high school, a group of boys fall in *love* with a girl and try to win over each other for her. Such a story might sound stereotypical, even cheesy. But why did so many people (albeit mostly young people) fall for it? What is the magic? I believe this movie is less about a love story but more about a youth story. I mean, people like it not because the story is so unusual, touching and romantic, but because the story represents and reflects what once happened to them when they were this young. The magic is the reminiscences of the past, the past wherein we hadn’t grown up, wherein we possessed the mindsets that were lost when we were growing up.

One might ask: is this so unique for East Asian people, don’t Western people recollect their good old days as well? I would say (at least for me) the ‘oriental youth’ is much more complicated. Foremost, the youth of each generation was defined by that particular historical period. I remember when I was a kid, I used to watch a TV drama with my mom where she was so touched by its story about the ‘Rusticated Youth‘ – something which she witnessed happening to her family and friends, yet which I could never have experienced in my youth. And since most East Asian countries (esp. China) had such a turbulent history in the last 100 years or so, each of its generation happened to have a youth period that was primarily defined, not by themselves, but by the historical situations. Hence history and individuals always conflicted, compromises were made, lives were changed, and dreams were never realized. I believe that was always the motivation of peoples’ ‘youth complex’. Even in my generation, though embraced by the Economic Reform period with a much more open and free society (relatively), we seem to continue such complex. Maybe we simply inherited it from the elders. Maybe our youth still rarely satisfied us that something always needs to be regretted –  words wished could have been spoken, risks wished could have been taken, girls wished could have been loved.


About Xiang 'Anthony' Chen

Making an Impact in Your Life


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