Friday, August 08, 2008

The Greatest Show on Earth: Beijing Welcomes You

Aug 8, 2008 is an auspicious day, by Chinese numerology. So it's no wonder that the day has been chosen as one that would herald the opening of the 29th Olympics. The organizers even went one step further, selecting the start time as 8:08 pm (Beijing local time), an instant that would only recur in the next 100 years. It's the very first time that China is hosting the premier game, the world stage for athletes, the epitome of sporting par excellence.

You can always count on the Google people to come out with a topical search logo (top) that is appropriate for the occasion of the day, this time featuring the four fuwas (literally translated as blessed dolls/kids) holding each corner of the Olympics flag and the fifth, leading with the torch. The five fuwas, the mascots, are arrayed on the bottom image taken from here, representing, from left to right, the fish (ocean), the panda (forest), the Olympic torch, the Tibetan antelope (Earth), and the swallow (Sky/Space). Each is given a double-syllabic Chinese name that is repeated, an endearing appelation for children. Phonetically, the five names (a character from each since the two characters are repeating), when enunciated in the same sequence, translates to Beijing Welcomes You as calligraphically represented by Wify below.

Not sure whether there would be live telecast of the Opening Ceremony, I decided to stay home in the morning just so I wouldn't miss what has been billed as the greatest show on earth, live from Beijing. I knew this would be a long shot since the published schedule of the NBC's TV's coverage of the 29th Olympics clearly indicates that the time of coverage would start at 8.00pm today.

When Wify phoned home later in the morning, her folks were watching the live telecast in Malaysia. Why we in US are not able to watch the opening live, despite her distinct technological advantage, is just beyond my comprehension. Proximity issue? Timing issue? Contractual obligations?

Anyway, instead, we watched some of the pre-show highlights that the NBC Today's staff had in store for US viewers. One of the slots dealt with Chinese etiquette, the social norms that govern the daily lives of Chinese people, steeped in tradition and one that outsiders may view as pandering to superstitious beliefs rather than grounded on rational thinking. It has to do with numbers where the counterpart to the unlucky number 13 in the western society is 4, which is phonetically somewhat akin to “death”. So having a number 4 in a car's number plate or the number of a house is downright unpopular among Chinese owners.

On the other hand, the preferred number is eight, phonetically allied with “making money”. Hence the Chinese fetish for this seemingly symmetrical and endless (as in looped) numerological entity, as amply demonstrated above in the choice of the date and time for the opening ceremony.

This phonetic likeness also plays a role in gift giving, or rather what not to select as gift. It's perhaps logical to think that a clock would make a nice house-warming gift, what with its utilitarian value. But this is taboo in Chinese society as, you guessed it, the Chinese word for clock sounds every bit like “the end”, as in coming to the end of life in this world. Even umbrellas are not appreciated since they signal “to open up” or something akin to washing dirty linens in the open. This, I would have to admit, I'm not so familiar with.

Then there are other negative symbolisms as well, all having to do with the notion of death, a taboo subject that is not welcome at all in any conversation involving the Chinese. One such example is in relation to the proper place to leave a pair of chopsticks in the vicinity of a filled rice bowl. Sticking them upright into the rice is tantamount to wishing death since that would resemble incense sticks staked in a pot that is a common sight in any funeral setting and one for remembering the dead. The best is to leave them on the table, by the side of the bowl. For momentarily stepping aside from eating, it might be OK to put them horizontally on top of the bowl (but I would like to be corrected if I erred).

Even gift wrapping is a sensitive issue, the prudent thing to do being to avoid white color. Traditionally, in Chinese tradition, white symbolizes death or the departed. Examples are that monetary gifts of condolences for bereavement are termed “white gold” while a recently widowed lady often spots a white lily on her head.

Ann Curry, Matt Lauer and Meredith Viera of the Today's cast agonizing over the proper choices with regard to gift bearing, the placement of chop sticks, and gift wrapping, the three clusters on the table arranged from left to right. (Screen shot of the local NBC station in the Tampa area, Channel 7, Today's show)

Ann and Meredith listening to the featured Chinese host explaining the Chinese foods that constitute a Chinese breakfast. The third cluster from the left features fried flour sticks that were a staple breakfast item for me during my younger days back home simply because the vendor was our neighbor. So you can say I practically grew up with this simple Chinese food, without realizing the historical significance behind the mere action of frying the sticks, until much later. Suffice to say that the frying is a symbolic punitive action (wallowed in hot oil) meted out against a historical despicable chinese official of the court who had betrayed a loyal general back in the Sung Dynasty, Ye Fei. (Screen shot of the local NBC station in the Tampa area, Channel 7, Today's show)

Then there is the table manner. Most people would think that it's commendable to finish all the food on a plate, leaving a clean slate behind so to speak, no wastage. There are even eateries here in US serving buffets that charge the customers for unfinished food.

However, if you were a guest in a Chinese home, it's considered rude or uncultured to do just that. Instead, social etiquette demands that you leave some behind, sending a message to the host that you have had enough of the sumptuous treat, and not that you have not been given enough to savor.

That, in a nutshell, is what westerners should watch out for lest the Chinese sensitivity be ruffled. Now settle in for the Games of Olympic proportion that would soon unfold.


Kitty Girl said...

Heh, heh! Those little Google characters are pretty cute. I think the reason Americans had to wait to watch it was so that they could broadcast it on 8.8.08 too... Geddit? Although at 7:30 pm instead of 8:08. I don't know. Learning about Chinese customs and other cultures' etiquette is always interesting--I don't think I knew that it was rude to FINISH your meal... Hmm. Interesting. The only Olympics event I am interested in watching is gymnastics.

Say Lee said...

Did you know that the Google Search page has one logo for each Olympic sports per day? I have missed several and only managed to collect two (sheep/cycling and cow/rhythmic gymnastics) so far.

Actually, the televised time of 8:08pm is written as 20:08 based on the 24-hour convention. So 8:08am is the only claim to that auspicious occasion. But I'm nitpicking here.