Monday, May 21, 2007

Hakka: "Tziga Ngin"

It's Victoria Day in Canada so no work for me today. I went out for dim sum with my family and learned something extraordinary, or not, depending on how you look at it:

My family is Hakka, and as part of the greater Chinese diaspora, my parents were born in Guangdong, met in Surinam and emigrated to Canada in the early 70s. Like most immigrants, my parents worked hard - my dad worked as a cook in his uncle's restaurant in Hamilton to save money to sponsor my mother to Canada so they could marry. Once here, my mother got work as a seamstress and they eventually saved up enough money to open their own store in Toronto's East Chinatown selling fresh seafood. For the first 9 years of my life, we lived upstairs our store, and on our street, there were 3 other Hakka families with storefronts. And as a member of the Hakka and Chinese business community for 30+ years, my mother knows a LOT of people - it's not uncommon for us to go grocery shopping or out for a meal at a Chinese restaurant and for my mother to bump into an old friend of the family, a former vendor or regular customer.

Anyway, we went out for dim sum this morning and a familiar-looking Hakka lady about my mother's age came to our table to say hello. They carried on the usual smalltalk to catch up on the latest family news: she related how her mother was in Florida with her kids visiting her younger sister and when the lady left, my mother made some comment about her kids. (My hakka is rather rusty now...I was able to speak it fluently as a child because my grandmother raised us when my parents worked during the day, nowadays, my Cantonese is far better since my mother speaks to me in Cantonese.) I had to ask my mother to clarify, because it sounded like that lady's kids were actually her niece and nephew by birth. And they in fact were.

Apparently this lady's husband was impotent so they could not have kids of their own. Her younger sister and brother-in-law gave them two of their children to raise as their own. I was surprised by this because it seems like such a selfless thing to do - how could anyone give away their own children, even to their sibling? I asked if the children knew that the couple they called mom and dad were actually their aunt and uncle and not their birth parents, and the children do know - that's why they were going down to Florida to visit their "aunt and uncle."

It seems this is not an uncommon occurrence - my mother knows of 4 other such families in which the children were given up as babies by their birth parents to be raised by their aunts/uncles as their own. I don't know if this is something that only happens in Hakka families, I would think not, but all 5 of these families are Hakka.

It got me thinking though...I can't imagine something so selfless and...pragmatic(?) this happening amongst my generation. Chinese traditionally value the family and community above the self - and this "practice" (for lack of a better word) supports that - the way my mother explained it, it's better than going out and adopting a child of unknown origins, besides, all these childless couples have money and raised and loved the children as if they were their own - "Tziga Ngin" 自家人 (our own people) in the most literal sense.

While I consider myself very Chinese, I also grew up in a western culture, where the emphasis is very much on the individual. If my sister or brother couldn't have kids of their own, and I could, would I (and my husband) be able to have another child with the understanding that this child would be given away to be raised by my sister or brother as their own? Or vice versa? I somehow doubt it.

This to me serves as another example of the pragmatic perserverance of the Chinese people. I have other interesting stories but I'll save them for another day.

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