My name is Siyu and I'm the creator of Tiny Eyes Comics, a webcomic series that explores and shares Chinese culture through the details of everyday life.
A year ago, I published a collection of my comics on the differences between Chinese and Western culture (check it out). During the past year, besides cultural differences, I also realized the cultural connections and universal values we all share as people across cultures.
For this post, I put together a selection of my latest comics I thought you might enjoy. You can find more content on my social media pages listed below.
I went to a nice restaurant with my parents in Lyon. They were really curious to try something local but they didn’t understand a thing on the menu. “Why don’t they have pictures?” They asked. In China, lots of menus have photos that illustrate the dishes, so even if you don’t understand Chinese, you can still order by pointing at the picture that makes you hungry.
What are you talking about when you say something is big or small? “A big house” in the U.K.may not mean the same thing as in the U.S.; “Not many people” in China may not mean the same thing as in Norway; “Too cold” in France may not mean the same thing as in Russia. It’s the reference point you are talking about.
I recently realized that I tend to change the portion size of different meals as I travel from one country to another. This is all personal habits, and I still don’t know which way is the best for my health. In France, breakfast is usually small and sweet. A croissant with a coffee will do. I know many people who skip breakfast. For lunch, grab a sandwich or a salad, it’s richer but still quite light. I eat the most at dinner because dinner time is late in France and I often feel that I haven’t had enough from the previous meals. In China, there’s a belief that one should “eat well for breakfast, eat plenty for lunch, and eat light for dinner.” (早吃好，午吃饱，晚吃少）There’s a lot of choices for breakfast and it’s believed to be the most important meal of the day. Lunch is the time when I can eat as much as I wish, and my family like to have a light dinner, which is supposed to be good for digestion. In the U.S, when I cook for myself, I can still follow my normal routines as in China, but if I go out to eat or order stuff, I end up eating too much for every meal. I guess it’s mainly to do with the huge serving size, and I don’t like wasting food.
Eating Chinese noodles while watching Netflix after work has become one of my routines in Paris. I feel lucky that I’m living in this world where cultures are no longer restrained to their physical land. If you are living in a big city, chances are that you can also choose live pieces of different cultures: eating sushi, watching a French movie, listening to an African band, using a product made in Germany, or hang out with someone from the opposite side of the world. More and more of us no longer live a singular culture, instead, our lives begin to weave into each other, creating a richer texture.
When I studied in the US, I discovered the notion of “constructive criticism “, which means staying positive by saying what you like about something first, and then how it’s possible to be improved. In this way everyone’s happy and things can be changed. French generally have a more direct and “harsher” approach. They are comfortable with confrontation, and debate is expected. I often heard people (between friends, family, colleagues etc.) disagree loudly with each other. Unlike the American’s “Yes, and...”, French tend to say “No, because...”. It can be scary in the beginning for someone who’s not from the culture, but once you understand it’s based on trust and respect you’ll be comfortable to participate. Chinese usually avoid confrontation, because relationships (guanxi) is so important that we are afraid that disagreement will make the other person unhappy and harm the relationship. Instead, we use silence or doubt to show disagreement. Sometimes, even people say that they agree, they don’t necessarily mean it. It could just be a way to keep harmony.
Grandma was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. She is gradually losing her memory, submerging herself in her own world. Yesterday I went to see her. She didn’t recognize me, so I said my name repeatedly in desperation. Then suddenly, she understood something. "I like you," she said. She has never said anything like that to me before. Grandma has always been very reserved with expressing her emotions even though she loves deeply all her children and grandchildren. The disease has changed her personality. It was as if she could finally express herself freely like a child. Maybe she didn’t actually recognize me, but at least she likes me, and that’s enough. I’d love to be her friend, and I hope our friendship lasts forever.
“Still or sparkling water?” In a French restaurant, the waiter/waitress always asks this question before the meal. In the US, the default is usually still water with ice. I always wondered how people could survive with ice water in winter since it’s already so cold outside. In China, people drink hot water a lot, which is strange for lots of non-Chinese. For one thing, tap water is undrinkable, for another, people have the habit of drinking hot water and believe that it’s good for health. (I was told that drinking ice water will cause stomachache problems.)
If you have ever learned a foreign language, you’d have experienced the stage of not being able to fully understand others or express yourself, like a 3 years old child in frustration. I notice that when people switch between their native language and a foreign language they don’t master, it seems that their personalities change as well. When you are not fluent in the language, you appear to be less competent, and when you spake your native language, confidence shows through. People tend to associate your personality and with the way you speak. I sound quite “blunt” when I speak French because I don’t know all the nuances and connotation of the words. As a result, I can’t choose the right word in the right context. For immigrants, language is a very important part of integration in terms of access to information, communication, and self-expression. In a way, language is social power.
Disclaimer: What you see here is fictional and it only exists in my head. Please refer to real maps for travel purposes. Growing up in Beijing, I’m used to streets that lay out as an orthogonal grid in line with the four directions. Actually, lots of Beijingers use North, South, East and West to describe directions. In Paris, streets are not paralleled and it feels more like a radial web of triangles. I get lost from time to time, but there’s some general reference from here and there. Last time I when to Venice, I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere without my google map (even Google map was confused in some areas). It was like tangled threads without a clue. What is your city like?
If you ask a food critic to rate my mom’s cooking, she’s probably not going to get many stars. Actually, her cooking is probably too simple and her menu hasn’t changed over the years. Nonetheless, if you ask me, I’m going to give her all the stars that I have. It’s totally subjective. Her cooking is the taste of my childhood, warm and familiar. It’s something that stays the same against the change of time, a strong connection that I have with my past while exploring and absorbing other cultures into my identity, and a solid rock that I can always grab and rest upon in the flowing river of life.
Mom likes eating fish tails, she’s a bit weird. It took me years to realize my mom’s trick to make me eat the best part of the fish. I wish I could be less innocent and understood her earlier, then I could play tricks to take care of her too. If we make a list of things that are universal across cultures, a mother’s love is definitely on top of that list.
The English word “ouch” is commonly used as an expression of one’s physical pain, (refer to the episode for usage) although, in China, I would normally say “哎哟”（ai-yoh) instead. In France, the equivalent is “Aïe”. This got me curious, and while searching for other expressions, I bumped into an article from The Guardian —“Is ouch used worldwide?”. Well, the answer is no, and people being interviewed in the article have shared some amusing examples from their cultures, illustrated here. Even though the expressions vary from one another, one thing in common is that they all begin with a vowel, and are quite short to pronounce. I guess we all go back to our primal instinct when getting hurt.
We refer to the same thing with different words. We describe the same event with different words. We use words to explore the world that is at the same time limited by those exact words. That limitation is also called “perspective”?
My friend once told me that Chinese sounds like a melody to her because it has many tones. There are also sounds that don’t exist in other languages, which makes it more difficult to pronounce. Take myself as an example, lot of English speaking people pronounce my name “Siyu” as “see you”, and the common joke would be like “Seeyou, see you!”
I’ve met lots of second-generation Chinese immigrants who cannot speak Chinese or who can only speak but cannot read or write Chinese. Some of them choose to do so because they identify more with their current country, while others regret not learning enough when they were little. To them, the loss of language is also the loss of part of their identity and culture. On the other hand, for Chinese, English is important in the process of modernization: Understanding English allows you to get more information, to understand the global picture, to be able to have your voice heard internationally. It’s usually seen as a “useful tool”. I’m curious to know that, in a country like Singapore where there are four official languages, how these different languages coexist and how people feel about using them in a different context.
I met a girl the other day whose father is an ambassador. She has never stopped traveling since she was born and speaks several languages. She said every time people ask where she’s from she has to tell a story because she can’t summarize it with one word. I’ve also met people who have multiple lineages having similar situations. The encounter of cultures has created plural identities that are larger than the definition of one nation or one race, yet the questions we ask stay singular. Maybe one day we could just ask “Who are you?” instead of “Where are you from?”
My grandma met my grandpa on the day of their marriage, which is impossible for my generation to imagine because we are so used to the idea of romantic love. She spent the whole life with my grandpa until the end when he was really sick and need to be taken care of constantly. She knew all the details of his habits, likes, and flaws. Of course, there are all sorts of problems you could point out in this type of blind marriage, yet the strength and courage to accept and get to know another person, and to embrace all the changes with time are admirable. Nowadays we are lucky to have all the freedom to choose. Many people are eager to look for “the person” that will understand their souls from the beginning till the end without having to “work on it”. There’s less tolerance about flaws and problems that might evolve with time, and less patience to deal with it — you can always just find another person.
A demand that’s so simple requires a process that’s so complicated. My Chinese passport doesn’t leave me much flexibility with travel, and every time, applying for a visa brings out all my negative energies. The letter of intent, the proof of my identity, the proof of financial and marital status, the proof of returning in time. Everything needs to be proved—there’s no trust. It’s a process that reinforces separation than connection. The officers are cold and indifferent, but I know it’s just their job, and it’s the system that put us in these situations. In the age of globalization, have we become the “citizens of the world” or have we set up even more barriers?
A special episode for those of you who celebrate Christmas.
I’m not changing citizenship, but I know there are lots of people who have done it or are preparing to do that. As more and more immigrants move away from their birthplace looking for a new home to settle down, the governments have also raised the bar of citizenship by including citizenship tests as one of the basic requirements. It normally contains questions about facts and historical events that sometimes even people born in the country would struggle to know. How many amendments does the Constitution have? When was the 5th Republic established? Was Catherine Howard the sixth wife of Henry VIII? While it’s understandable that the test should emphasize on language, history, and politics of a country, knowing these facts and figures alone does not create emotional connections to the history or a sense of belonging between the aspiring citizen and his/her future country. What if we put more imagination, emotion, and stories into the test? What if we include food, art, and social customs? Is it wiser to give people a textbook of facts to memorize, or give them something to enjoy, be proud of and to be prepared for in case of cultural shocks in their everyday life?
Style is personal, of course, but it’s funny to see how certain fashion trends change with time. Beijing is usually much colder in winter compared to Paris. Down coats started gaining popularity in the 80s, and people usually wear a layer of long johns inside their trousers to protect them from the cold. Nowadays many young Chinese women perceive down coats as “old fashioned”, and prefer instead of dressing in “European style”. Yet here in Paris I started to see more people wearing down coats in winter, c’est la mode.
If century eggs and chicken feet are the nightmares for lots of westerners, then for me, raw stuff is the absolute horror. In my personal dictionary of cuisine, the word “raw” is associated with bacteria, bad digestion, and barbarians (human invented fire to cook great food right?). I still remember the horror I had the first time eating a steak in the U.S. My American friend had to convince me that it’s both safe and delicious to eat not fully cooked beef. With globalization, steak and sushi restaurants are no longer exotic in China. Yet traditionally, apart from a few marinated specialties, Chinese dishes are usually well cooked, whether it’s red meat, fish or vegetables. The word “salad” 沙拉 in Chinese is a direct translation of the sound of the English word, because it was a new concept. Having lived abroad for many years, I still find pure green salad a bit “tasteless”. (although I love Salade Niçoise where there are lots of mixed ingredients) “Why do Chinese people like eating ‘hot salad’?” It made me laugh when a Romanian friend asked me this question. I had never thought about it from the other side!
Chinese cuisine is often associated with words such as “rich” and “diverse”. Despite all its glamor and greatness, we all know that in many people’s mind, there’s also a dark corner of slimy, creepy stuff related to brains, insects, and eyeballs. In 2011, CNN selected the world’s 10 most disgusting food. On top of this winning list is Chinese “century egg”(皮蛋), which many Chinese find delicious, including myself (I mean, who wouldn’t want some congee with minced pork and century eggs?!). The comments of the CNN reporters triggered some serious rage from its Chinese audience, with a major Chinese food company demanding CNN to apologize. I still remember the first time I saw century eggs on a dinner table. I noticed the smell and the unusual black color immediately, but as a child, I was more adventurous and open to tastes, especially when my parents let me try, I knew that it must be something “safe” and “normal” to eat. I’m sure if my parents had made me insects instead of rice every meal, today I’d happily gobble down a bowl of steamed caterpillars with some fried scorpions. After all, culture is this arbitrary thing that we adopt from others. Do we really need to agree on what’s delicious or disgusting?
Do you remember the time when you saw people kissing (or have intimate body contact) on TV when you were little? How did your parents react? For a good part of Chinese parents, “changing the channel”, or “distracting their children” is the immediate reaction, because they think it’s improper for them to watch. In fact, what’s behind this reaction the inability to communicate. Expressing love directly is already hard for adults, talking about it, to a child, sounds even more awkward. So the best way might just be to avoid it completely. My parents are both very liberal, but we never had any open conversation on this subject. (And sex is a subject of taboo). Nowadays, lots of younger parents have adopted new ways communicate openly with their children on this subject.m, so that kissing becomes something natural instead of mysterious for their children.
In 1982, the “One Child Policy” was officially implemented as one of the basic national policies of China. No one has expected that only after 30 years, this policy has become history facing the rapidly aging population. Couples are now encouraged to have a second child, not only for the sake of family planning but also for the future of the nation. Ironically, the end of the “One Child Policy” didn’t lead to immediate population growth. Many friends of mine who live in big cities are worried about not being able to afford a second child, or not having enough time and energy to take care of their children due to the high social pressure. What’s more, women’s idea about having children has also evolved as they received higher education. Many choose to have children later in their life, and some, not having children at all. Maybe we could get some inspiration by looking at similar cases in the past such as Sweden in the 1930s and 1940s when the birth rate was at its low point. Following the proposal of Swedish economists Alva and Gunnar Myrdal, social reform and policies were implemented to support families, including better maternal and child healthcare, free delivery, maternity and housing benefits, and general child allowances. It focused on improving the quality of life, and the birthrate started to rise as a result.
The evolution of a word can reflect the evolution of society. The word “leftover woman”（剩女）is used in China to describe women who are single but who have already passed the “best age” of getting married. There isn’t an accurate definition of the word but these women often share common characteristics such as “over 27 years old”, “well educated” and “living in big cities”. The word was mainly seen as negative when created, but the connotation has been evolving since then. In recent years people start to associate “leftover women” with positive images, such as “independent”, “smart” and “happy”. Women begin to joke about being “leftover” and some are even proud of it. While the pressure of getting married for women still exist at large in Chinese society, more and more women (especially in large cities) start to choose their lifestyle at their own will.
“Spring Festival Travel Rush” is a period of travel in China with an extremely high traffic load around the time of the Chinese New Year, also known as “the biggest migration of humankind”.（this year between Feb.1 – Mar.12）It’s not rare to see online ticket system crashed due to large amount of people snapping up train tickets at the same time, because if you are slow you might not be able to get a ticket, or you might have to stand all the way on the train, but you know that your whole family is waiting for you to have dinner, and you have all the motivation to win this ticket fight.
My mom suffered from postpartum depression after I was born, but nobody knew at the time, she didn’t either. “It’s probably just a strange bad mood,” she thought. The word “depression” remains vague to lots of people, even though there are roughly 30 million patients in China, according to a recent report of the WHO. The lack of knowledge leads to two types of attitudes of the public: one treats depression as a scary mental illness, while the other thinks it’s simply an over-exaggeration of a bad mood. Recent years, with more people sharing their personal stories of fighting against depression, especially celebrities, people start to understand depression better, and more patients would go to doctors for proper treatment, but that’s not the majority yet, and most of them are not comfortable talking about it openly.
There’s a Chinese expression “因祸得福“，(a blessing in disguise) which refers to situations initially recognised as “negative” later turn out to be “positive”. (In this comic, falling down has led to a romantic encounter.) There’s a lot of Chinese expressions like this that shows the possibility of the transformation from the current status into its opposite. For example, 乐极生悲, ”extreme joy begets sorrow“, and 居安思危，“to be prepared for danger in times of peace”. They recognize the connections between the opposites and the eternal force of change. Most Chinese people are familiar with these expressions, which constantly remind them of a context that’s larger than the point of time they are living in. Taking my personal experience as an example, I failed college entrance exam, which initially was a disappointing event, but it also urged me to look for other solutions, so I went studying abroad, which turned out to be an amazing experience, but then, living abroad kept me far from my family and moving from place to place created long-distance relationships that didn’t work, which comes back to the negative side, yet again, this distance also allows me to appreciate more about my family and my culture afterwards… The loop goes on and on, and the game of the two sides shifting between each other will never end. Maybe that’s why the traditional Chinese way of being appears to be“mild”—not because people don’t have strong emotions, but because they are constantly seeking the balance between the opposites, being on one side while thinking about the other.
Inspired by a true story of a non-Chinese friend, who asked me why Chinese people say his Chinese is good even though obviously it’s not. “Is it because they think I’m a foreigner so I can’t speak Chinese at all? Isn’t that condescending?” My first thought, even though I can’t represent others, would be that because those people want to encourage him. The word “good” in this context does not necessarily mean the level of language as in exams, but the effort to speak another language. When I first arrived in the USA my English was not even half as good as it is now, but people would still say that my English is “really good”. I took it as a kind gesture.
Sidekicks and underwritten rivals, Asian actors are still stuck in supporting roles in western films and TV series (especially in Hollywood films). Although recent years have witnessed an increasing appearance of Asian faces, the reasons behind it are probably more about appeasing critics and making profits than telling diverse stories. If you put a famous Chinese actor/actress in a film, the box-office is probably going to expand. The characters themselves, though, have stayed largely stereotypical, unimportant, or irrelevant to the storylines. (Or, they can play important Asian villains!) Casting Asian actors doesn’t solve the problem of representation. Weaving them into the stories in a meaningful way is probably a better beginning.
There seem to be many “fake football fans” who don’t watch football usually but who suddenly become enthusiastic during the World Cup. “I don’t care about the clubs, but when it’s between countries I enjoy it," one of them told me. These people watch the World Cup not because they love football particularly, but rather the atmosphere, the spirit of a team/player, and the feeling of being engaged in a world event with other countries. What’s more, hanging out with friends in a bar and cheering together with strangers is simply fun.
I heard in Scandinavian culture the contrast of “before” and “after” drinks is even more dramatic because emotions are reserved and maintaining distance is important. Is it true?
In Chinese cooking, it’s very common to use the wok to fry different ingredients, which creates lots of smoke. In China, most apartments have powerful range hoods installed to extract smoke. However, most of the western kitchens are equipped with a sensitive smoke alarm which is set off by Chinese wok easily. It’s not rare to hear landlords complaining about oil stains or to see Chinese students covering up the smoke detector with tapes during cooking(could be dangerous, not recommend). It’s a little inconvenient, that’s true, but the food is delicious that’s also true!
During Chinese New Year, traditionally children receive red envelopes (红包) that contain money, which keep them away from evil spirits and bring them good luck. Nowadays it’s also very popular to send money (often in digital forms through Wechat) between friends and colleagues. Compared to giving gifts, giving money is rather direct and less imaginative. But when I see people going to the same store and struggling to buy something original for Christmas every year, I start to wonder if there exists a better way. What do you think?
I’ve never heard or said “sorry” so many times in my life as in the years I spent in the U.K. From commenting on the weather to sitting beside someone in the tube, it seems to be an indispensable part of everyday life. According to a survey in 2016, the average Brits says "sorry" around eight times per day – and that one in eight people apologize up to 20 times a day. Yet the word doesn’t always mean being remorseful as in the sense I’m familiar with. It might have several meanings depending on the context. For example, it could be a way to show empathy and build trust, or in other situations, to keep distance and protect privacy. “Our excessive, often inappropriate and sometimes downright misleading use of this word devalues it, and it makes things very confusing and difficult for foreigners unaccustomed to our ways,” says Kate Fox, a social anthropologist who has written several books that reveal the unwritten rules and behaviors that define English national identity and character. Check them out if you are curious
Mixing English and Chinese when speaking triggers mixed reactions in Chinese society. Some people think this is pure show-off by people who have been abroad, others think this is unavoidable in an international company culture where there are concepts hard to translate. There are also experts who are worried about the future of the Chinese language. Personally, I don't’ really mind the form of language I use as long as it facilitates communication in that context: I’d speak English to a Chinese person if there’re other English-speaking people in conversation, but I wouldn’t use English words when speaking to my parents because it will confuse them. When I met my Hong Kong friend last time we spoke a mixture of Mandarin and English because she was still practicing Mandarin, and I didn’t speak Cantonese.
Naming a child is an important event for most Chinese parents, even though trying to squeeze tons of meaning into one or two characters is not an easy job, especially when you have a reservoir of thousands of characters to choose from. Normally you want to choose something that’s beautiful, promising, and unique, while at the same time avoiding careless homophones that will turn the name of your child into a joke. In addition, depending on the family, sometimes you also have super engaged grandparents who enjoy offering their opinions and suggestions, which can bring lots of fruits, or other times, wars. You can also choose to make your life easier and go for something simple and low-profile. In the end, every name has a story to tell. What’s the story of your name?
During these days in Berlin, I often found myself mistakenly walking on the bike lane, which is often combined with the path for pedestrians. The separation is clearly marked out with paint but I was so used to the physically separated lanes in Beijing where I could close my eyes and walk safely (that’s not true because there are bicycles and motorcycles violating the rules). In New York, it’s common to see the bike lane lie between a parking lane and a traffic lane, or shared with vehicles. In Paris, there’s a mixture of all types of lanes (even contra-flow bike lanes where you have to go against the traffic!) and the rules are not obvious for first comers. I’m still not courageous enough to explore the city on my bike.
Every time a friend gets married, he/she will show me their album of pre-wedding photos, where the couple poses romantically in different settings wearing wedding costumes in either western style or Chinese style. Wedding photos were first introduced from the West to China during the period of The Republic of China, but the pre-wedding photo industry is fairly recent, gaining popularity from the 1990s. The photos can be done in a studio with a changing background. Or, if willing to pay more, the couple can travel with a professional photographer to other parts of the world for the shooting( Europe is the most popular destination). After the shooting, there’s retouching in photoshop, which renders everything “perfect”, to the point that it often looks a bit fake. The process could take a day or even weeks, requiring lots of energy, especially that you have to smile non-stop!!