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Monday, October 11, 2004

Traditions, traditions...

My cousin came over from Chicago this past weekend. We had a nice time together reminiscing the past. Apparently my Mom was his favorite Aunt because he loved her cooking. He was so happy to learn that my wife had picked up quite a lot of the family culinary secrets and so he had a wonderful time with us enjoying my wife's cooking.

When he left, he gave gifts of
Hong Bao or "red packets" to my kids. The Chinese give these "red packets" filled with money as gifts to their children and younger folk usually during Chinese New Year celebrations. I didn't know you had to also give out hong bao (literally, "red packet") when you visited a relative. Apparently he learned about this practice from my Mom! He told me that whenever she visited them when he was a young kid, she would hand out these "red packets". I didn't know this was a particularly Chinese custom.

When I was younger, I don't remember my relatives visiting us very much, but that is another story. Furthermore, I was separated from my parents as a young boy and lived with one of my uncles for a number of years, and whenever the rellies visited them, they did not hand out hong bao's to me, but I did get money sometimes, although I thought those were more like charity than any particularly Chinese custom or gift. Anyway, enough of that.

As an adult I had visited other cousins, bearing gifts for their kids but not hong bao. I hope they didn't mind. I am impressed that my cousin was determined to keep up a Chinese tradition even though we are here living in so far away from our homeland. Reminds me of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof:
A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof. Trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy. You may ask 'Why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous?' Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition... Traditions, traditions. Without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as... as a fiddler on the roof!
Traditions are important to one's heritage, and I hope to keep as much of the Chinese traditions alive for my children as possible. As a Christian, my wife and I have also set up some new traditions as part of the family tradition. Sometimes I do wonder about the interactions between Chinese and Christian traditions, and wonder what are some of the more important aspects of each heritage that I need to retain and pass on.

For instance, when my wife and I got married, we made it a point to include a Chinese customary practice in our wedding ceremony, which is the
tea ceremony. After the exchange of the vows, each of us poured tea to serve our parents. The tea ceremony is an important part of a Chinese wedding ceremony during which you address your in-laws by their title "Mom" and "Dad" for the first time. The in-laws also give you their blessings in the form of the hong bao. It was an emotional and meaningful part of the ceremony.

Now my #1 daughter has been talking about her own wedding, when that happens. She says she would also like to include a lion or dragon dance in her ceremony. I know when I got married, the church that I went to at the time would have thought that would be sacrilegious, because to most Christians imageries of the Chinese dragon is equated with such biblical imageries as the dragon of Revelation 13. I think it is so unfortunate.

I remember a friend of mine whose Chinese name was "Loong" meaning "Dragon" was asked to change his name to "John" because of the connotation to the Devil. What a pity I thought then! For the dragon motif in Chinese history and customs has nothing to do with the dragon of Revelation 13. I am reminded of reading an article about the difficulty of Bible translation. When translating Revelations 3:20, where Jesus was standing at the door and knocking, it presented some problems to some translators. In some cultures, you do not knock on the door before you enter; only theives and robbers would do that! And, in some languages, they talk about receiving Christ, not into the heart, but into the liver! Similarly, even though the two words are used, loong or dragon in Chinese does not mean the same thing as Dragon in Revelations. The loong in Chinese referred to the imperial throne and "symbolizes power and excellence, valiancy and boldness, heroism and perseverance, nobility and divinity" contrary to the dragon of Revelation. But unfortunately, not only were Western missionaries caught in the confusion many local Chinese Christians were also persuaded to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

And I can imagine this sort of confusion happens not only cross-culturally as in Western vs. Eastern but also "Christian" vs Western or more likely "Christian" vs. Post-Modern. In a certain sense, I suppose, all those mentioned are examples of the clash of cultures. Further, even in the Christian tradition, there are all sorts of sub-cultures and traditions. Ultimately, if we confuse what is merely cultural from the essence of the gospel we will have a harder time reaching out to those around us who so desperately need to hear the message of God's love and forgiveness. Thus we then become less effective in the mission that our Lord has charged us to accomplish.