Typical Chinese Issues

I had heard and thought about typical Chinese issues such as “feng shui”, “losing face”, and “ancestor worship” long before I arrived in Macau for the first time, but I had not assessed the impact of these issues on everyday life right. I think that this is virtually impossible; you just have to experience the impact yourself.

When I visited for the second time the apartment building in which I would eventually rent an apartment, I found that the brand-new entrance hall of this apartment building was thoroughly rebuilt. Before the rebuilding was completed, I found the origin of this: the instructions of a feng shui consultant. Most of the apartments in the new building were empty, so a feng shui consultant was engaged and in his wisdom he came to the conclusion that the entrance hall had to be rebuild according to his detailed instructions. The bad balance of the energies — whatever that means — in the entrance hall was considered the cause of the empty apartments. In reality, the excess of apartments in Macau was the cause of the empty apartments. Soon the economic situation changed in such a way that renting a relatively luxurious apartment became affordable for more average Macanese people. As a result of that the number of empty apartments decreased, but the decrease was of course attributed to the better balance of the energies.

Shortly after I moved into my apartment in Macau. I found that the connection of a tap to the water pipe was leaking. The plumber that was sent by the landlady to repair the connection was badly trained to be a plumber. Like many Macaneses working in the building industry, he used modern tools and materials wrong. Thus, he tried to wind synthetic tape around the thread at the back of the tap as in older days with hemp. However, the synthetic tape has to be wound with great care and according to certain rules in order to stem the water. In other words, each try of this plumber was fated to end in a leaking connection. The plumber, who arrived early in the evening, did not want to lose face and kept giving it a try till shortly before midnight. When he left, the plumber said that he would try again the next day. However, the next day I borrowed some tools at work, bought a small spool of the required tape, and repaired the connection myself.

Early in March, when my wife visited me in Macau, we went to a travel agency to book a package holiday in China during the summer season for the whole family. We were very politely told that we were to early. It was said that we could not yet book a package holidays in China during the summer season, but that we could book it early in May. If we would return at that time, we could certainly book the package holiday that we wanted. Thus, I returned to the travel agency in the middle of May. I was thrown into confusion: I could not book a package holidays in China during the summer season because they did not offer package holidays in China at all. The people at the travel agency denied that they had ever said something to the contrary and looked at me as if I was a fool. I left the travel agency lost in amazement. Eventually, I organized the holiday myself with the help of colleagues.

At first, I did not have a clue about this event. Later, I told Wendy Hoi, who was the most westernized among the members of the support staff with Chinese roots, about it and she explained me that this was a matter of saving face: the people at the travel agency told a lie during my first visit in order not to lose face. If I would have had Chinese roots myself, I would have understood that I was not expected to return for package holidays in China.

During my first days in Macau, I was among other things looking for an apartment. After the visit to one of the apartments that I did not rent, it was already dark, I was witness of a strange sight with a gruesome touch. An older woman, who looked in my opinion like an old hag, was burning pieces of paper that were reminiscent of bank notes in something that looked like an iron wastebasket. She did so by the curb in an obscure alley alongside the apartment building that I had just visited. Vivian, the girlfriend of Xu QiWen accompanying me, told me that the woman was thus sending “hell money” to the spirits of her ancestors in order to make their afterlife comfortable. Vivian, who has Chinese roots herself, told me also that this burning of hell money was still a custom among Macanese people coming from rural areas in South China.

My closest neighbors in the apartment building where I lived often burned incense on a kind of altar in the corridor between the front doors of our apartments. Later, I already lived in my apartment for several months, shortly before I would go to bed I first thought that my neighbors were burning a lot of incense at the same time. However, it became worse. Eventually, smoke was coming into my room through the slit under my front door. I opened the front door and saw that the corridor was full of smoke between my apartment and at least the lift. I was scared because it looked as if the building was on fire and that it would be very difficult to leave the building. I walked in the direction of the lift and found an old hag looking at something that looked like a glowing iron wastebasket from which a lot of smoke of burning hell money came.

It took many hours before the smoke and the smell of burning hell money had disappeared from the corridor. I called the Macanese police about this incident because I thought something so unsafe was forbidden, but they made it clear that they would do nothing about it. It turned out that people with Chinese roots in Macau often burn hell money in their apartments in high-rise buildings. In the case at hand, it got a little bit out of hand. The old woman became too enthusiastic and burned too much hell money at the same time. The result was fortunately only inconvenience.

Anyhow, the mode of thought of the Macanese people with Chinese roots is quite different from the mode of thought of Western people. When I go to a market in the Netherlands just before closing time, I generally get fruits and vegetables that are probably unsaleable the next day cheaper than earlier on the day because the market vendor want to get rid of them. However, in Macau, these fruits and vegetables become more expensive near closing time. I was told that the reason for this is that the shopper is in the fortunate position that the fruits or vegetables concerned are still available near closing time. I could communicate with people with Chinese roots about basal matters by means of gestures and facial expression alone. Therefore, I got the impression that the mutual incomprehension that I experienced in other matters originated from our different modes of thought and not from language problems. Later I have met several Chinese people who had succeeded to pick up the mode of thought of Western people during a long stay in Western countries — and I experienced no mutual incomprehension with them. I have not succeeded in picking up the mode of thought of people with Chinese roots during my stay of two years in Macau.

© Kees Middelburg, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kees Middelburg with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


About Kees Middelburg

Retired computer scientist
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