"We seldom realize, for example that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society."
Alan Wilson Watts
This is a Father's Day post.
One of the questions that people asked me the most after they found out that I had my first-born son take his mother's surname was, "How did your parents take it?"
That is an important question because I am Chinese and the very core of Chinese culture is the Confucian concept of filial piety. Disobedience to one's parents and ancestry is considered to be one of the most unforgivable sins a Chinese person can commit. Ensuring the continuity of one's family name - the 姓 or surname - is a sacred duty that is entrusted upon all Chinese men. Friends and colleagues asked me about my parents opinion on my son's surname because more than anything, they wanted to know how my family could accept my act of sacrilege.
I have always given vague answers to that question and occasionally, outright evaded it. What I usually say is, "I have discussed it with my parents before Darwin was born. He is my son and that decision was mine to make." That's usually enough to placate most busybodies. It also has the advantage of being absolutely true without actually revealing how my parents reacted to my, how should I phrase it... blood betrayal?
Fact is, that's exactly how it was taken: a betrayal of one's family and blood (never mind the fact that Chinese women are expected to "betray" their "blood" every day). My mother disowned me, said that I did it to hurt her and cut me off from my inheritance. One of my favourite aunts said many harsh things to me over the phone and we have never talked since. My father alternately blamed me, my wife and my wife's family, lashing out indiscriminately like a wounded proud animal, spitting many hate-filled utterances that I would never have imagined could come out of his usually gentle, soft-spoken mouth. He had, in his moment of outrage, called his one and only grandson a bastard.
I don't blame them and I certainly don't blame my father. In many ways, his reaction was understandable. The weight of thousands of years of Chinese tradition compelled him to denounce my action as nothing less than a complete abomination, and it is just as hard for him to put down that cultural burden as it is for a person raised as a Christian to blaspheme in the name of Jesus or a Muslim to eat bacon. From what he said, I gathered that he saw me as a weak, placating man who was either going beyond all reason to please my wife or was somehow bought over by my wife's family via monetary means. In a way, his disappointment in me; his perception of me as an avaricious, unprincipled coward was what cut me the deepest in this entire sorry feud.
That's because everything he accused me of is the opposite of that person who did what I did. I risked being disowned and disinherited for what I believe in. I stood my ground against the monstrous momentum of that thousands of years of Chinese tradition my father and family are yoked to when it crashed headlong into the unyielding, unbreaking backbone of my most cherished principles.
Growing up, I was fed a steady diet of TVB Chinese period dramas that impressed upon me the importance of one's family name which, in many ways, is synonymous with a person's honour. Only males have the exclusive power to pass down the surname and the few rare times the reverse occurred had always been depicted in the context of an impoverished, degenerate man changing his name and marrying into a wealthier, more powerful family which has no sons to pass the family name down. As you can see from my own experience, not much has changed since the Qin dynasty.
This patriarchal practice forms the root of the disproportionate treatment of men and women throughout the annals of Chinese history. Female children, with their inability to continue their family's line and the combined cost of raising them and the cost of dowry when they are married away, are considered to be net losses to a family or "money-losing enterprises", to loosely translate a charming Cantonese idiom. This devaluation of the female gender directly led to one of the darkest elements of Chinese traditions and culture: two thousand years of gendercide committed against the female sex.
Till today, and perhaps aggravated by China's one-child policy and the lower earning power of women, the Chinese people are still killing and aborting female infants to the tune of millions. The sex ratio at birth (SRB) of China in 2005 was recorded at 121 males to 100 females, rising drastically from 106:100 in 1979. By 2020, men are expected to outnumber women by 30 million. This is what our Chinese "culture" and "tradition" of passing down family names exclusively through the male line represent to me. Our Y-chromosomal surnames are the symbolic bloody knives that have killed hundreds of millions of innocent girls over two dozen centuries of deadly sexism.
So tell me: how can I brand these sins of our fathers into the very identity of my innocent baby boy? How can I meekly comply and add to the silent assent for this "traditional" idea that men are better than women, that I am somehow superior to my wife? Am I not a man of principle?
And I assure you that more than anybody else, I have considered the consequences that might be visited on Darwin because of his unconventional name. Will he be teased or even bullied for it? Will people question his legitimacy behind his back or even to his face? Will he hate me for singling him out by giving him his mother's name instead of mine?
|A 9-month-old Darwin, wondering how that piece of cardboard would taste like.|
I don't have the answers to those question. What I do know is that I do not want him to grow up thinking that men are more important than women. And I certainly do not want him to carry the same two thousand years old cultural burden my father did which resulted in the murder of countless baby girls and made a grandfather call his innocent baby grandson a bastard.
Besides, what the fuck is Chinese culture anyway? Some sinologists have argued that the earliest Chinese people might have even practiced matrilineal naming conventions because when we look at the Chinese character for "surname" (姓) we can see that it is made up of the radicals of woman (女) and born (生). I neither read or write Chinese, nor worship any of my forebears' deities but that is somehow okay? And why are we wearing T-shirts, jeans and Western-style dresses instead of changsans and qípáos?
We have to admit to ourselves that the "Chinese culture" of any century is going to appear strange, offensive and even blasphemous when examined by a Chinese person from a preceding century. That is because culture is a constantly evolving construct and anyone who tries to defend any cultural tradition as the "correct" version is going to fail inevitably before the jackboots of progress.
My parents are not the enforcers of Chinese culture but rather, its victims. Their beliefs which formed the barrier that separated them from getting to know their only grandchild are not their own beliefs, but that of generations past - all of them insolently making little changes to their cultural traditions every step of the way anyway. Now, nine months after Darwin arrived into this world, my mother have since let it go and have chosen to fully embrace him. As for my old man, I texted my him this morning with an awkward, tentative Father's Day wish. I have not given up on him. I once met a beef noodle seller in Subang Jaya who recognised me and told me that my father is one of the nicest, most decent men he knew, and refused to let me pay for my lunch. I know that. Deep inside my father beats the heart of a good man.
"Thank you, son," he replied.
It's a start. Perhaps one day, he might even be proud of what I did.
Being a Woman in Malaysia
On both sides of Father's Day,
k0k s3n w4i