Category Archives: Culture and Traditions

Wedding Crashers!

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(Ruby and I preparing for the wedding…not ours, at least not yet!)

Not too long ago, Ruby and I were invited to her friend’s wedding hūn lĭ 婚禮. This was the third wedding I’d been invited to since I’ve been in Taiwan, so I knew more or less what to expect. There are lots of interesting traditions that accompany wedding ceremonies in Taiwan, though in recent years do to Western influences, many of these have changed. For example, long ago, one of the things that was expected of the bride was for her to hand-sew her own wedding gown, wear a traditional head-dress fèng guàn 鳳冠. Nowadays people just don’t do that, who has the time? But some traditional observances have survived.

For example, rather than giving presents to the bride and groom as we do in the west, friends and family give the couple red envelopes hóng bāo 紅包 when they sign in the guest book, and don’t be offended or shocked when the family records how much you gave, it’s part of the traditional culture so the bride and groom will know how to appropriately show their gratitude. Of course, close friends and family are expected to give more, and the minimum acceptable amount is typically 1200NT or about 36USD.

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(This is a picture of one of the red envelopes you give/receive at a Chinese wedding. The picture was taken from here.)

Before we even get as far as the wedding, it is still commonly expected of the groom to ask the bride’s family for permission to marry her, and often pay a dowry. The bride’s parents use this money to buy furniture and other necessities for the newly-wed couple, so the dowry is mostly a symbol that the groom will be financially able to provide for their daughter.

Once the parents have agreed to the marriage, the family then consults the traditional lunar calendar to choose an auspicious date for the wedding. Then they have an engagement party , which is paid for by the bride’s family, but when it comes time for the big day, the groom has to foot the whole bill! This is a little different from the way we do things back home!

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(A few shots of the venue, it was pretty darn fancy!)

At the wedding, which is usually held at a hotel or a restaurant rather than a church, there are lots of activities and games. One of the activities at this past wedding we attended was a guessing game. When we first entered we selected one of several colors of paper to write our name on then stuff them into their respective jar, and hopefully guess the bride’s second gown color correctly(the bride typically changes twice during the ceremony). The bride and the groom pull out slips of paper and lucky winners get to go to the front of the banquet room and offer words of congratulations, pose for a picture and claim a prize! We didn’t win, but I won’t hold it against those who did.

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(Ruby, at the entrance to the hotel. She makes those flowers look bad!)

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(the table where we guessed the bride’s dress color, and the guest book)

Another one of the activities was played later on. Everyone had a box of candy at their spot at their table, and those who had a sticker on the bottom we the lucky winners of a memorial pin of the couple’s wedding…Ruby was a winner this time, and I’m still jealous! These are just a few examples, but there are tons of possible activities. There is also usually a slide-show showing the couple’s story and their pictures over the years.

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(Ruby’s prize-winning bear)

If you have been to a lot of Western weddings, one thing you may notice missing is a wedding cake, but don’t worry, you will have your choice of traditional dishes, and at the end of the ceremony the newlywed couple will present you with a box of gourmet cookies xĭ bĭng 囍餅! The character is made by joining two of the character  , which means happiness, which makes sense, because your wedding should be the happiest day of your life, right? It’s not uncommon for newlywed couples to be given lots of gifts with on them, like napkins or coffee mugs for example.

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(The happy newlywed couple)

If you ever have the opportunity to attend a Taiwanese wedding, take it, it will be an interesting memory that you will cherish for the rest of your life.

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(That was fun. Not long before It’s our turn too!)

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Chinese phrases of the day:

婚禮= wedding

鳳冠= a traditional wedding headdress

紅包=red envelope(s)

訂婚=engagement

囍餅=the cookies that are given to friends and family of the bride at a wedding

=a combination of two of the character , which means happiness (used for weddings)

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The Man in the Moon, BBQ and a Typhoon!

I apologize for posting this so late, but the past few days have been somewhat of an adventure. Yesterday, my fiancé and I tagged along with a friend to volunteer at an animal shelter in sān zhī 三芝, near dàn shuĭ 淡水 in Taipei county(or xīn bĕi shì 新北市 if you prefer). Expect a detailed write-up on that tomorrow. The day before yesterday, however, was one of the major holidays in Taiwan, Moon Festival.

Moon Festival, or more accurately Mid-Autumn Festival Zhōng qiū jié 中秋節 in Mandarin, is an important national holiday that, much as Halloween or Thanksgiving, finds its roots in ancient harvest-time traditions. 中秋節 is celebrated during the full moon of the fifteenth day of the eight month of the traditional Chinese lunar calendar nóng lì 農曆. As a harvest festival, there must be a food that is in abundance, and in Taiwan there is no lack of pomelos yòu zi 柚子 at this time, and chances are if you are in Taiwan during 中秋節, you will be given enough of these citrus fruits to feed a family, so eat up and enjoy!

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(A pair of pomelos)

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(We didn’t have anyone do it this year, but one thing that kids often do is wear the cut-off pomelo skin as a hat! This picture is from a few years ago)

As with most traditional festivals, there are many interesting stories that accompany 中秋節, and the moon in general. For example, where Western people see a man in the moon, Taiwanese people see a rabbit!

As amusing as that is, there is a much cooler story associated with the moon. In the story of cháng é 嫦娥 and hòu yì 后羿, rather than the one sun we have, the sky was filled with ten suns! Don’t forget your sunscreen! 后羿 was a renowned archer and shot down nine of the suns with his bow(beat that Robbin Hood!), and having seen this an immortal sent him an elixir of immortality(a fancy way to say “live-forever juice”). He chose not to drink it so that he could stay with his wife on Earth, but as the story unfolds 嫦娥 ends up drinking the elixir and flies into the sky to live on the moon. So 后羿 started to place the things she liked in their garden so she could see them and not feel lonely. His neighbors started doing it too, and that’s how the Moon Festival began!

Every year during Moon Festival, Taiwanese families gather together and have a good old fashioned BBQ. We go to Keelung jī lóng 基隆 to return to my fiancé’s great-grandmother’s céng zŭ mŭ 曾祖母 home, where we meet every year. It is always nice to return to Keelung, as that was the first place I lived in Taiwan. It was a little bittersweet this time, however, as a recent heavy rain caused a building to collapse, and a near-catastrophic accident when a huge boulder fell out of the mountains and crashed into the street, nearly smashing a passing car. It really hit me close to home, as I used to live just a few minutes down the road from there, and Ruby still has a lot of relatives in the area. Luckily everyone was safe, but the families that lived in the collapsed building have lost their homes, and several businesses, including the local McDonalds have shut-down. But life goes on.

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(Ruby trying to calm the dogs down…they may look innocent, but they barked the whole train ride to Keelung!)

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(The patio in front of Ruby’s great-grandmother’s house is a great place to catch some fresh air…family gatherings are fun, but it’s nice to take a breather for a minute and check your emails.)

With a typhoon forecast to arrive, we had expected our BBQ to be ruined, but we lucked out. The rain wasn’t bad(rare for Keelung!) and it stopped by the time we started to barbecue and didn’t return until we were on our way back to Taoyuan County. We spent the afternoon chatting, watching TV, playing cards and eating moon-cakes yuè bing 月餅 and other snacks. Then in the evening we had our BBQ!

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(月餅 were created in the moon’s image by a general during the Tang Dynasty so that his soldiers would be able to carry them easily, and because they could last for a longer time. Now we eat them as a delicious snack, but they were originally created as military rations! Above are a few pictures of the ones we had this year. The first one has an egg-yolk and red bean paste filling, and the other has a green bean paste filling.)

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(Did I mention that I really like moon-cakes? And apparently my dog does too!)

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(First, we have to get the coals nice and hot. Using a paper plate it a nice way…)

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(But this hair-dryer works faster!)

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(Now let’s get cooking!)

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(L: Ruby with her family, grilling the night away R: The best thing about being on grill-duty is you get easy access to all the food!)

中秋節 is one of my favorite traditional festivals, it’s a great time to relax, forget your worries and enjoy good food and good company. Thank for reading and Happy Moon Festival!

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Chinese phrases of the day:

中秋節= Moon Festival/Mid-Autumn Festival

農曆= traditional Chinese lunar calendar

柚子= pomelo(s)

月餅= moon-cake(s)
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Lunch-On!

One of the things I love the most about living in Taiwan is the food. It may not be what you expect if you have never tried it though. It’s not quite the same as the Chinese food we eat back home(except for the fried rice chăo fàn 炒飯, that’s a pretty universally similar dish). Today we had a big family lunch, and my fiancé’s mother spent the morning preparing lots of tasty dishes.

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(This is where the magic happens, my fiance’s mother is a great cook!)

Meals are traditionally eaten at a round table with the various dishes placed in the middle. Unlike most Western style dining scenarios, where you have your own plate of food, what typically happens in a Chinese family is everyone fills a bowl with rice and then takes what they want to eat, serving themselves. Of course, there is etiquette that you should be aware of, such as older people get the first pick, and you shouldn’t grab the biggest and best pieces of meat or other dishes, and leave the lesser quality for everyone else(that’s just rude!). And you all know about sticking your chopsticks end-up in your rice bowl, right? If not, go check out my article on taboos in Chinese culture.

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(Pull-up a seat, lunch is served!)

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(L: delicious roast duck kăo yā ròu 烤鴨肉 R:a stir-fried egg plant, qié zi 茄子 dish)

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(L: yā jiăo 鴨腳 duck feet, yum! R: I love the fish, but I try not to look it in the eye…it makes me feel guilty)

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(L: boiled bamboo shoots, zhú sŭn竹筍 R: Thai style liáng bàn mù guā sī 涼拌木瓜絲, a crunchy dish consisting of slices of pickled papaya served cold)

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(L: stir-fried beef with yellow and red peppers R: a traditional staple Chinese dish, tofu dòu fŭ 豆腐)

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(a fantastic marinated pork dish called méi gān kòu ròu 梅干扣肉)

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(and no Taiwanese meal would be complete without a good soup, we had lián ŏu tāng 蓮藕湯, lotus root soup)

Do you know another good thing about home-cooked meals? The leftovers shèng cài 剩菜 baby!

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(Round two…FIGHT!)

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Chinese phrases of the day:

炒飯= fried rice

烤鴨肉= roast duck

茄子= eggplant

鴨腳= duck feet

竹筍= bamboo shoots

涼拌木瓜絲= a dish made from pickled papaya

豆腐= tofu

梅干扣肉= a marinated pork dish

蓮藕湯= lotus root soup

剩菜= leftovers

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This Little Piggy Went to Market

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(Recently I saw a procession of decorated, God pig trucks drive by. Too bad I was on a bus at the time so I couldn’t take better pictures)

Okay, so yesterday I wrote about the pet industry in Taiwan and how much people care for their animals. I want you to keep that in mind while you read today’s article.

The God Pig Festival is a cultural tradition that’s roots stem from Hakka origins.  A “God pig” called a shén zhū 神豬 in Mandarin, is a pig that has been raised to be a sacrificial offering. In the past the pigs were slaughtered in public and the meat was used to 拜拜, and then later shared with friends and family. The pigs are shaved but for a thin strip of fur, much like a mohawk, that runs the length of their back.

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(My new hair style. My fiance shaved it for me!)

After they are slaughtered, their skin is cut opened and stretched out to make them look larger and rounder and a pineapple is put in their mouth. The reason for this is that it is thought to bring wealth, as the word “pineapple”, fèng lí 鳳梨 which is pronounced o’ng lai in Taiwanese sounds similar to wàng lái 旺來 “bring  wealth and prosperity”. The character wàng 旺 means prosperous and many stores will have a sticker with this word written on it placed somewhere in them.

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(look at the pineapple stuffed in his mouth…that’s right, a pineapple, not an apple)

But nowadays this practice is seen to be cruel to animals, the days of public-pork executions are over.

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(The picture says it all…)

神豬 are force-fed to the point where they cannot stand, much less walk on their own feet. Families compete against each other in a contest with the goal of raising the fattest pig. It is not uncommon for a 神豬 to weigh over 1000 kg! And the title-holder (or former title-holder, seeing as he’s no longer among us) weighed in at a grand total of 1054 kg! That’s a big pig!

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(a contest where only the fattest prevail)

There has been a lot of controversy about the inhumane treatment of the 神豬, but it is an old religious tradition that is important to the Kè jiā rén 客家人, Hakka people. I am an animal lover, but I also respect other cultures and their practices, so I will stay neutral on the subject. The point of this article is to let you hear about a unique cultural practice that you might not have heard of otherwise.

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Chinese phrases of the day:

shén zhū 神豬= God pig (sacrificial offering)

fèng lí 鳳梨= pineapple

wàng lái 旺來= bring  wealth and prosperity

Kè jiā rén 客家人= Hakka people

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The second two images of the God pigs were found at http://vivoverde.com.br/em-taywan-ocorre-um-sdico-festival-de-louvor-a-deus-utilizando-porcos/ and the picture of Porky Pig was taken from http://free-extras.com/images/porky_pig_thats_all_folks-5172.htm

拜拜! Zhen Qing Temple

Today I went with my fiance’s family to a temple in Bali on guī mă shān 龜馬山(Turtle-Horse Mountain) called zhēn qìng gōng 真慶宮. My fiancé’s brother will be joining the military for his obligatory  year at the end of the month, so the family went to the temple to bài bài 拜拜, or pray. It is not uncommon for people to go to temples seeking guidance or to ask for help with their business or to look after their wellbeing.Taiwan is a peaceful country, and generally serving in the military is not very dangerous, but with political tension between Taiwan and the mainland being what it is, you never know what could happen, so we asked for her brother’s year in the service to pass safely.

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(Outside the temple from the bottom of the mountain, and up close and personal views)

This temple has been in construction for a long time, and besides the giant plot of land it is on, many Taiwanese families have donated millions of dollars in local currency to see it completed. It is also the largest temple in Taiwan to the God xuán tiān shàng dì 玄天上帝.

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(The money for each of these pillars was donated by devout families…they weren’t cheap either!)

The first thing we did upon arriving was to place incense sticks into the three giant incense holders. There are three at this particular temple. At each incense holder, we say a silent prayer, bow three times and place the incense stick with the others already burning to ashes. This is called shāo xiāng 燒香, burn incense, in Mandarin Chinese.
When you enter the shén diàn 神殿, the innermost portion of the temple, it is customary to use a branch with leaves to sprinkle blessed water on your head and two shoulders to keep you safe and protect you from bad spirits. The reason you put water on these three points, is because in Chinese Taoism/Buddhism these three points are believed to hold fires on them that protect you from evil.
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(Me cleansing myself to enter the inner temple)
In the inner sanctum of the temple, which is decorated heavily in gold ornamentation (gold is a lucky color in Chinese culture) lies a large table in front of giant statues depicting various Gods. here you can donate money and take a píng ān fú 平安符, an amulet, for luck and protection. The 平安符 are separated by color and animal of the 12 year cycle. I was born in the year of the rat.
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(We all got a new 平安符. Take a closer look at mine.)
After taking an amulet, you can make wishes or ask questions to the Gods with the jiăo bēi筊杯. Kneel on the knee-rest, hold the two wooden halves together in your hands, tell the Gods your name and address (so they can find you) and make your request. Then bow three times and throw the two halves to the ground. If the two pieces are showing opposite sides, then the answer is yes, if they are the same, it is no, so ask again!
Before going, we revisited one of the incense pots and “super-charged” our 平安符. It is customary to hold your amulet and circle it clock-wise three times over the incense smoke, and then to cup your hands and place the smoke over your head (again, because of the protective fires).
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(Bathing my 平安符 in the incense smoke, and a little on myself for good measure)             
I love the feeling inside temples here in Taiwan. The smell of the incense and being surrounded by the beautiful carvings and architecture fill me with a sense of peace and contentment. I can’t wait to see what this place looks like when it’s finished!
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(Some cool carvings from the temple walls, and an image of what the temple will eventually look like when it is finished)
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How To Get There:
The temple is located near Dansui in Bali. If you don’t have a car, the best way to get there would be by bus or taxi. You can take the MRT to Luzhou station on the orange line and then either find a taxi to take you there or you could take bus number 928. Here is the address in Chinese, so you can just show a cab driver, as well as the contact information. The temple is open from 6am-9pm.
Address: 新北市八里區中華路二段165巷33號

Phone: 02 2610 4373

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Chinese phrases of the day:

拜拜= pray

燒香= burn incense

神殿= the inner sanctum of a temple

平安符= a safety talisman

筊杯(pronounced ba-bwei in Taiwanese, and this is how it is usually called in Taiwan)= a pair of crescent shaped wooden tools, rounded on one side and flat on the other which are used for divination

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How To Use Chopsticks

One of the many interesting cultural aspects of dining in Taiwan, or many other Asian countries for that matter, is that people use chopsticks to eat. Everyone has seen chopsticks and knows what they are, but not everyone can use them. I remember many years ago when I first saw chopsticks(years before even moving to Taiwan) my initial thought was “How the heck do I eat with these!” So today, I will show you in 5 easy steps.

Step 1: Pick up a pair of chopsticks. In Mandarin, chopsticks are called kuàizi(筷子).

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Step 2: Place the end of one of the chopsticks on the webbing between your thumb and pointer finger, and support the other end with your pinky and ring finger. While you are eating, this chopstick will not be moving.

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Step 3: Now take the other chopstick and grip it with your thumb on one side and your pointer and middle finger on the other. This is the chopstick you will be actively controlling to eat with.

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Step 4: Now that you know how to hold them, it’s time to make those chopsticks work for you! It’s very simple and you should get the hang of it pretty quickly. Keep the first chopstick stable resting against your pinky and ring finger and across the webbing between your thumb and pointer finger, and use the other chopstick to pick up food by moving your middle and index finger. Think of it as a tiny lever and fulcrum.

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(The way I usually eat with chopsticks is to hold the two sticks parallel to each other)

Step 5: Now that you’ve got it down, all you need to do is keep practicing. Now go eat some Chinese food. Forks are forbidden!

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(Another way to use chopsticks, and the one favored by my fiance, is to hold them with the sticks crossing. The grip and controlling chopstick are the same, you are just picking up the food in a different way. Think scissors.)

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Chinese phrases of the day:

kuàizi(筷子)= chopsticks

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Superstitious Me

Okay, so last week in my post These Boots were made for Walkin’! I introduced the topic of superstitions and their relevance in Chinese culture. Seriously, Chinese people make us Irish look like a rational bunch! Whether its passing under a ladder, or opening an umbrella indoors, I have always found superstitions to be quite interesting. Having spent around five years here in Taiwan, and being engaged to a Taiwanese woman, I have had the opportunity to learn of quite a few Chinese superstitions that most people may not be aware of. And be forewarned, many of them have to do with GHOSTS!

1. Whistle while you work!

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(Mickey doing what he does best found at fromscreentotheme.com)

One of the superstitions that I have had a hard time coping with, has been the taboo on whistling at night. The sound is thought to attract ghosts, and nobody wants that! Now, while I am a mature adult(at least most of the time!), and I am more than happy to conform to my host country’s cultural beliefs and traditions, I honestly have a hard time with this as I often just whistle when I’m in a good mood! This bothered my fiancé when we first started dating, and I have tried my best to stop and rarely do so now, but hey, sometimes you just got to let your whistle blow!

2. Stick it to them!

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(Me playing with my chopsticks after watching Wolverine….Sweet!)

…Or don’t. One of the most culturally relevant superstitions to Chinese people, is that sticking your chopsticks end-up in your bowl of rice is bad luck. This was something that I was surprised to see in the new Wolverine movie (watch it, because it’s wolverine, bub, nuf said) when I watched it the other day, though I suppose i shouldn’t have been surprised considering how much cultural exchange there has been between China and Japan for centuries (though I admittedly know little of Japanese cultural traditions). The reason this is taboo is because in Chinese funerals Incense sticks are burned, and the chopsticks look quite similar to these. So proper table etiquette is to place your chopsticks lengthwise across your bowl.

3. Tic-Toc-Tic-Toc!

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(One of my all time favorite paintings by Salvador Dali taken from www.greatdreams.com)

Okay, so as I promised here is the reason why you don’t give clocks as gifts in Chinese culture. The reason is that to give someone a clock in Mandarin or sòngzhōng(送) sounds like sòngzhōng(送終) which is when you go to pay your respects to a dead relative or friend (like to attend their funeral). So if you give someone a clock for a present, it’s like you want them to die! Not something you do for a friend, but if you hate someone, then I guess it’s okay…cmon, I’m just kidding alright? Don’t do it, PERIOD!

I hope that you found this article informative, and if you knew everything already, then at least entertaining. Rest assured, I have not exhausted my repertoire of superstitions, so look for a future post to learn even more ways to annoy your Chinese friends!

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Chinese phrases of the day:

sòng(送)= give

shízhōng(時鐘)= clock

sòngzhōng(送終)= literally give an end; pay your respects for a friend or relative at their funeral

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