Author Archives: Kevin Tian

“Doing smartly is better than doing early”: a Traditional Chinese Proverb in Honor of Procrastination

The original proverb: “干的早不如干的巧。”

A phonetic transcription: “gan de zao bu ru gan de qiao.”

Direct, word-for-word translation: “do early is not as good as do smartly.”

Translation: “doing smartly is better than doing early.”

I suppose you might look at this and think that procrastination is the soul of Chinese work ethics.

But in all seriousness, given the context of the traditional work ethics, this proverb is almost necessary. The traditional Chinese philosophy towards work – and, one might say, life in general – is as the informant puts it, “about diligence and nothing else”. The informant speculates that this might have to do with the Chinese people’s early development of and dependence on agriculture – after all, there really were no alternatives for early farmers but to work as hard as they could and for as long as they could. Diligence and industry, it has always been believed, are all it takes to produce results.

This mind set was applied to virtually every aspect of the Chinese culture. Workers in every trade and scholars in every field and poets in every art are all encouraged to start work as early as possible and for as long as possible.

So here be a much-needed proverb that recognizes the importance of inspiration and methodology over a rudimentary notion of diligence.

THE INFORMANT

The informant is my mother. She would know of this tradition because, well, she’s Chinese. I certainly wouldn’t say that this is a favorite proverb of hers, but she certainly does enjoy reminding us of it whenever my brother and I are visibly stressed from work.

THE ANALYSIS

To me this case demonstrates what may be the most essential function of proverb: to remind of simple truths that are often forgotten because they run contrary to our intuitive beliefs. This particular case is especially interesting as the proverb counters one of the oldest and most prized Chinese virtues.

The Maple Syrup Festival in Quebec, Canada

It feels amusingly stereotypical to be writing about maple syrup as a Canadian citizen. But, besides all the joking around, maple syrup truly is one of the most important components of Canadian economy. After all, the maple leaf is at the center of national flag.

One of the informant’s fondest memories of her time in Montréal, Quebec was the maple syrup festival.

Canada is reportedly responsible for 85% of the world’s production of maple syrup, and Quebec is responsible for most of Canada’s production. Considering this it is perhaps not surprising at all that there is such a passionate love and celebration of maple syrup in Quebec.

The festival takes place every year in March and April. As it turns out, Easter is not just about rebirth and bunnies and chocolate – it also coincides with the most productive time of the year for maple sap. During the festival almost all Sugar Houses, or “cabane à sucre”, are open to public, providing not only candies and desserts and condiments made from maple syrup, but also an opportunity for the public to witness and participate in the extraction and refinement of maple sap into syrup, butter, and sugar.

Beside the pure, bottled maple syrup and the common dishes served with syrup – waffle, ham, pancake – a famed delicacy of the festival is the maple taffy, or “tire d’érable”: candies formed when boiling hot maple sap cools as it’s poured into fresh snow.

Another famous practice that shows off the esteemed Canadian nice-ness lies in the sugar houses. Since sugar houses are technically nothing more than production housings, they are mostly not equipped or meant to be restaurants. Hence the common practice – which as it turns out adds a marvelous sense of homely comfort and intimacy – is to have nothing but a long table in the middle of the sugar house, and the owner would serve the guests whatever they desire, as if it’s simply a house party.

THE INFORMANT

The informant is my mother. She took a special liking to the maple syrup festival when she spent two years in Montréal. Most of these details she recalls from one visit she took to the festival while I was 7 months old in her womb.

 

THE ANALYSIS

The maple syrup festival serves as a nice opposite to many of the other pieces of folklore that I’ve collected. Certain communities’ folklore (like those of the Dota 2 community and the anime community) may feel more or less a little exclusive and inaccessible, referencing several pieces of existing information at the same time. A festival such as this, however, is a very much inclusive experience; anyone is welcome to participate and anyone can, without having any prior knowledge about anything. It is, in a sense, a folklore as an exhibition.

To Catch the First Year

“To catch the first year” would be the literal translation of “抓周”, a ceremony that takes place when a new born child turns 1 year old.

In a very traditional (and privileged) Chinese family, the ceremony would be very elaborate: rituals and sacrifices for deities will be made; many relatives would flock to the house with gifts; the grandmother of the child (on the mother’s side) would be the host of the ceremony.

But the essential ceremony is the same in privileged families as well as non-privileged ones: a variety of different items would be laid out in front of the child, and he or she will have to choose one object. This object would be more or less a prophecy on the child’s future career.

The objects that are to be laid out can vary greatly from family to family. In our case, the informant recalls the list in her household, which includes:

A book – which, if picked, would indicate that the child is fit to be a scholar.

Pen and paper – the child would be a writer or a painter.

A seal – the child would hold power.

A Chinese abacus – the child would be fit for business or accounting.

A chicken wing – the child would be very fortunate, he/she would never be hungry or miserable.

A ruler – the child would be fit for architecture or engineering or design

A leek – the child would be very smart.

A garlic – the child would be meticulous and great at calculations

A celery – the child would be diligent

A straw – the child would be a prosperous farmer.

A sword – the child would enroll in the military.

This ceremony is still practiced by a considerable number of families, but more and more families (particularly the more educated population) are putting less and less stock in the ceremony, and either dismiss it completely or use it only for entertainment.

THE INFORMANT

The informant is my mother. She knows of this ceremony because her family has been an active participant of it. She refuses, however, to tell me of either her pick or mine; she does not believe that its right to attempt to look at a child’s future through a random act at the age of 1.

THE ANALYSIS

Chinese tradition has always been very restricting – almost to the degree of oppression – when it comes to a family heir’s future. This tradition of 抓周 serves as yet another example of it. It is a relief, nonetheless, to see how many modern Chinese citizen are now abandoning the tradition.

A Brief Collection on A Few Variations on A Few Common Words in English

Canadian, American, and British English are all recognizably similar – and different. So here follows a few phrases the informant has collected through his travels and studies.

Canadian: “washroom” vs. American: “restroom/bathroom” vs. British: “the loo”

The informant even has a story illustrating the difficulty for a Canadian to live and study in America: when he first arrived at his university in New York and asked for directions to the washroom, a kind-hearted schoolmate led him to the laundry room.

Canadian & east coast U.S.: “bubble tea” vs. West coast U.S.: “boba”

To this day the informant expresses supreme confusion over why this is so.

Canadian: “First Nations” vs. American: “Indian/Native American”

The informant draws upon his high school experience and hypothesizes that this is due to the Canadian government’s greater efforts at restoring and preserving its native culture, as well as the education system’s greater emphasis on teaching Canadian citizens of the aboriginal people and culture.

THE INFORMANT

The informant has had an international experience that allowed him these fascinating observations. He is currently a student at Parsons, New York. Prior, he spent most of his life in Vancouver, Canada. He has also travelled extensively – one of the destinations, of course, was England.

THE ANALYSIS

Considering our reliance on language, it is perhaps not surprising at all that the specific term we choose for an object – or anything – reveals our deeper understanding of the object – or the anything. It may be argued that folkspeech reveals a folk belief, and a folk attitude.

The rite of passage of the First Nations in Stein Valley, BC, Canada

The rite of passage is without a doubt one of the most crucial aspects of First Nation cultures. Some traits are almost universal across regions – the boy or girl must journey and survive on his or her own in the wild – while some other traits are much more unique to individual regions.

One unique aspect of the Stein Valley First Nations’ rite of passage is that it requires the child to remain in a cave for 24 hours. They call it the Mother’s Cave. Located in what may be argued as the heart of the valley, the cave is rough at the center of several other of their sacred spots. Physically the area looks nothing immediately breathtaking – but there is a certain grace to it. A natural landslide area, a gigantic pile of rubbles and rocks and boulders has cut off the trail that naturally runs along the river. The cave is hidden near the bottom of the rocks.

The child is to spend 24 hours there in an almost pure darkness, doing nothing but… being. Existing. Some of them would choose to leave a painting on the wall of the cave – or outside after they leave. Of course there is no way for them to monitor if the child had truly stayed in the cave for all of 24 hours – but that’s partly the point.

THE INFORMANT

She was my instructor in the outdoor education program that I enrolled into at my high school. She knew of their rite of passage because every year as part of the program’s curriculum she would take the class to Stein Valley for three days with F, a First Nation elder, as the guide.

On our trip F especially mentioned their rite of passage traditions as an essential part of not only their culture, but their identification with Stein Valley as their homeland.

THE ANALYSIS

An intriguing – and personal – aspect about this tradition is that it has been adopted by my outdoor education program. Every year on our last and longest trip, we would have a day reserved for “solo” – where each and every one of us had to spend 24 hours entirely alone. In this sense, then, this trip – and this program – would be our rite of passage.