“Ai-ya!”: 24-Carat Chinese Gold

A friend forwarded this to me in an email and I have to share it because I think it is genius. “Ai-ya” truly is one of the best phrases ever invented:

I had a craving for a sweet taste of childhood the other day; so I went shopping for a can of grass jelly. I was putting said treat into my cart and looking for my Ranch 99 VIP card when a woman with three kids in tow ran into my cart.

At that moment, both of us said, “Ai-ya.” The children giggled, she apologized, and I quickly replied, “M’sai. No apology needed.” Although it was a minor exchange, I later realized that Ai-ya is more than just two characters; it is part of the spirit of being Chinese … in a moment of surprise I could’ve said just about anything – my reaction was to say Ai-ya. I was surprised that I would instinctively use my mother’s tongue because I’ve always known that I don’t speak Cantonese well. No matter how far removed I’ve become as an American, there is something at my core that is Chinese.

I decided to conduct informal research about Ai-ya. First, I went to a national bookstore chain to review its Chinese language materials. I thumbed through all the Chinese language materials, but couldn’t find any vocabulary drill including Ai-ya. Seeing that the publishers of tourist books were not going to be helpful, I decided to observe its use in the community. I clipped my cell phone to my belt, grabbed a couple of bakery pink boxes and sat around San Francisco ‘s Portsmouth Square drinking 7-Up and eating dim sum . Lo and behold, I heard Ai-ya used in a variety of ways.

Based on my personal experience and this observation, I’ve developed a personal understanding of Ai-ya. Aiya is 24-carat Chinese gold. Ai-ya is more than just two characters; it is part of the spirit of being Chinese and may even go back to antiquity. It is used wherever the Chinese have been in the diaspora of the last sesquicentennial.

How you say Ai-ya can say volumes about your state of mind. For example, when the problem is minor, I can say “Ai-ya” in a short/curt manner. However, when I am extremely stressed, I can draw it out to nearly five seconds.

As you read the following ways Ai-ya can be used, the mental image to solicit is to picture any of the mothers from Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club”. For those who have met anyone in my family, you can picture one of my relatives instead:

Surprise: “Ai-ya! A surprise party for me?”

Joy: “Ai-ya! You got 5 out of 6 in Lotto!”

Distaste: “You expect me to drink that herbal medicine concoction of yours? Ai-ya!”

Doubt: “Do I have to wear that lemon yellow/lime green sweater my mother made? I wonder if she would notice if I accidentally’ donated it to
Goodwill? Ai-ya.”

Awe: “Your son got accepted into Harvard Law School !?! Ai-ya!”

Irritation: “Clean your room. Ai-ya! Why you live like a pig?”

Large astonishment: “Ai-ya! She switch majors from Business to Art History!”

Disapproval: “Report Card-5 A, 1 B? Always a B in Math. Ai-ya.” (Actual quote from my mother when I was a sophomore in high school.)

Shock: “What? Ketchup on Yang Chow Fried Rice … Ai-ya!”

Outrage: “Never clean your rice cooker with that steel scouring pad! Ai-ya!”

Verge of internal combustion: “I can’t deal with the family asking when and if I’m getting married! Ai-yaaa!”

Ai-ya is an all-purpose phrase that comes from deep in the soul. Ai-ya is both simple and complex: on one hand it is a couple of Chinese characters, on the other hand it can be a whole speech describing the state you are in. Ai-ya says, “I’m afraid”, “I’m in pain”, “I don’t believe it.” It is an exclamation of exuberance, a shout of hurt, a cry of fear, and the reflex of being startled, and the embrace of joy.

It is unfortunate that English has no equivalent to Ai-ya. It saddens me that American English doesn’t afford me a fun phrase to emote. “Shucks”, “Darn,” “Shit,” and the plethora of other swear words cannot convey what Ai-ya can. So, I’m going to propose that we start an initiative for American English should grab on Ai-ya or the Yiddish “Oy” for our use.

So the next time you go to a teahouse for dim sum or decide to go shopping at an Asian market, listen to the lively banter as friends and families meet. It’s a wonderfully vibrant, alive community out there. Who knows, you just might get caught up the lyrical rhythm of the people.

(This essay has been passed around through email; the original author is unknown.)

Someone on YouTube even took it upon themselves to create a video explaining the term (it’s in Cantonese, but Ai-ya is equally powerful in Mandarin and, I believe, a number of other Chinese dialects.)


Just in time for summer vacation: iPhone apps to learn Chinese

Two years ago when I got my iPhone, I searched for decent educational apps that could support my kids’ Chinese learning. They were few and far between, and mostly developed by Westerners for non-Chinese speakers to teach basic vocabulary. In recent months, I have followed tips I read on Twitter (thanks @lantaumama!) or on blogs and, ever since the iPhone was introduced in China, it seems the market has expanded and improved. These are a few of our favorites so far (this post will be a work in progress so please send in any tips of programs I may have missed!):

- Rye Studio: A series of animated stories, with the option to switch between English, Japanese and Mandarin. By far, the best, most engaging and professional Chinese app I have seen. They are cheap, several are free, and my kids love them. Mulan and the Monkey King are favorites and can be downloaded here.

- Apple Tree Books: Illustrated books including classics like the Hare and the Tortoise, the Boy Who Cried Wolf, etc. They have an option to read it yourself or have it read to you, which is nice for beginning readers. Not quite as sophisticated as Rye Studio but good nonetheless.

- FeedMe Chinese: A favorite with my three-year-old, the program asks simple questions about colors, shapes, numbers, etc and the child must drag the correct answer into the mouth of a silly purple monster. If the answer is correct, the monster gives a happy whoop. If it’s wrong, he spits it out and looks dejected and sad. Very cute.

- Just as I was finishing this post, I received an email about a new Chinese reading app, Catch Me if You Can, which is a fun character recognition game, where students have to “catch” the correct characters to recreate a sentence. My six-year-old tried it and was hooked right away. The only downside (for us) is that the versions using simplified characters are very limited. (I emailed the developer and she said they are planning more versions with simplified characters soon.)

- 5Qchannel: A great storytelling website has just started creating iPhone apps. I haven’t tried them yet but the content on their site is quite good.

- Doodle Chinese teaches basic vocabulary in three categories: Animals, Numbers and Greetings then offers quizzes with cute drawings to test your knowledge and expands to more complicated conversations. Good for a new learner.

- ABC Chinese: A simple flashcard application to teach basic vocabulary。

For my six-year-old, the best writing practice is simply the Chinese character touchpad input screen on the iPhone 4, where he can draw a character with his finger and it magically converts it into type.

Some others I have seen but not yet tried:

- Chinese children’s songs. Frankly, I don’t dare download it since I know my daughter will want to listen to nothing else. But it looks good for those whose kids are learning the standard Chinese children’s songs. And it’s free.

I don’t have an iPad so haven’t included any apps that just work on tablets. Beatrix Potter storybooks, in English and Chinese, with the original illustrations, look great but are only for iPads.

For those without smart phones, Childroad is a nice Chinese story and reading website.

What did I miss?


Happy Lantern Festival

Tonight is Lantern Festival (元宵节), and we should all be strolling the streets with our lanterns in hand, gazing at the full moon, and watching fireworks light up the sky. Here we did indulge in sweet, sticky, gooey, delicious yuanxiao (not homemade), and with that, Chinese New Year 2011 is over.

[photo by A God’s Child on flickr]


Scenes from a Lunar New Year celebration

The Oakland Museum Lunar New Year celebration is a feast of music, dance, food, stories and crafts from around Asia. The mochi pounding is always a highlight. See scenes from our visit today below, and I hope everyone else’s celebrations for the Year of the Rabbit have been as joyful and festive.

Watch video clips here.


Year of the Rabbit

The Year of the Rabbit is now upon us. My kids went off to school in their new outfits this morning, and I did manage to make noodles last night to ensure our long lives, but I did not clean the house from top to bottom nor give my kids haircuts, as custom mandates. I hope this does not bode ill for the Rabbit Year, which by all accounts is supposed to be placid and peaceful, just what we all need.

InCulture Parent has posted several fun craft projects for the Lunar New Year. My daughter came home from her Chinese daycare with a thumbprint plum blossom painting, and it is my favorite art project either of my children has done in four years of school. Simple and lovely and befitting the holiday. ICP also posted a recipe I put together for yuanxiao, a sweet treat for the holiday which is enjoyed all year around in our house (usually not made by hand, however).

While looking over our selection of Chinese New Year themed books, I realized that several were written by local authors here in the Bay Area. A new addition my kids got this year from friends is Year of the Rabbit, the latest in the series of zodiac-themed books by Oliver Chin. It presents a humorous and simple introduction to the animals of the zodiac, clearly aimed at children who did not grow up with the Chinese tradition.

A couple of years ago when I came across The Cable Car and the Dragon, I thought the book must have been written with my son in mind. Cable cars and dragon dances in one book! Do all five-year-olds feel so passionately about those two things? It’s a wonderful story about San Francisco, an escapee dragon, and a cable car come to life, which my son adores.

For those who are interested, Oliver Chin will be reading at several New Year events in the area. In the meantime, my son’s Chinese immersion school has the day off tomorrow, so we are going skiing (and bringing our hotpot with us).

Happy New Year! 兔年大吉!

[Image courtesy of OnTask]


Online Books for Young Readers

I recently discovered a fantastic site, Childroad, that presents online books in Chinese for young readers. Many of them are free, though you have more access and can download MP3 files if you become a member (I haven’t, so I don’t know exactly what the other benefits are). From my quick glance at it, it looks like a great resource.


Celebrating Chinese New Year in the Bay Area

If you live in the Bay Area and are looking for fun things to do for Chinese New Year, here is my rundown via Bay Area Mama.

Childbook also has a list of events throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Enjoy and Happy Year of the Rabbit!


Kindergarten in China

A beautifully-conceived documentary film, produced for Link TV, shows the first days at a boarding school in China where children as young as two live Monday through Friday and then return home on weekends. There is no narration except the sounds and voices in the school. With all this talk about Chinese mothers and education and discipline styles (even though Amy Chua’s controversial article had little to do with people in China), this film shows the actual lives for some Chinese children. The school is clearly for the elite in China and some scenes are heartbreaking, such as the little boy who says he is sent to the school because his father is too busy inviting people out to dinner and his mother too busy getting facials. Watch it here.


Chinese Mothers

[a Chinese mother by Helga’s Lobster Stew on flickr]

By now half the country has at least heard about an op-ed published over the weekend in the Wall Street Journal by Yale Law professor Amy Chua. Titled, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” it details the sometimes painful lengths she goes to to ensure the academic success of her two daughters. I am not a Chinese mother, nor was a raised by one, but I do have plenty of friends who are Chinese mothers, or were raised by one, and I am married to a Chinese father, so I know well enough that the piece does not come close to defining a universal experience in Chinese families. I have nothing to add to the firestorm that has already erupted over this article (see the onslaught of tweets discussing Amy Chua, for example) but thought it would be useful to sum up some of the reactions.

From China Hearsay, a blog written by a Western law professor in Beijing:

Does Chua really believe that all kids, no matter their background or DNA, can get straight ‘A’s and be at the top of every class as long as they try hard enough? Does she believe that her kids did not start off with some very substantial advantages in life that simply aren’t available to everyone else?

Why do I can care about this? Two reasons. First, I’ve seen a lot of kids here (some are my students) pressured unmercifully by their parents to the point where it is unhealthy. Shit, kids commit suicide from this kind of stuff when they can’t measure up to unreasonable expectations.

Are Western kids lazier than Chinese kids? To some extent maybe they are, and Chinese parents in general certainly push their kids much harder. Chua’s concept of parenting is brutal micromanagement; they should play the piano, stay away from their peers and popular entertainment. Studying 10 hours a day will indeed improve your grades, but I have a sneaking suspicion that there is a price to be paid for this as well.

Indeed. On her own blog, Betty Ming Liu writes a response to Chua titled, “Parents like Amy Chua are the reason why Asian-Americans like me are in therapy” in which she calls Chua, “a narrow-minded, joyless bigot.”

And a question on Quora also generated several interesting responses to Chua’s piece, including one by Christine Lu which tells the story of her seemingly successful Asian-American sister who committed suicide. Lu writes, “the notion of the ‘superior Chinese mother’ that my mom carried with her also died with my sister.”

Even the Village Voice got in on the act. And a discussion forum has taken up the topic, with a number of people showing more agreement with Chua’s points than the posts linked to above. And a post from the Big Wowo blog looks at the article from the perspective of Chua’s interracial marriage: “People like Chua talk one thing and practice another. ‘I love the culture so much that I searched long and hard for a man who didn’t embody it. That’s patronage.”

[a Chinese mother by kevsunblush on flickr]

Chua’s new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, from which her op-ed is excerpted, comes out this week. And now will surely sell. It is reviewed in the Washington Post:

…In many ways, “Tiger Mother” did not disappoint. At night, I would nudge my husband awake to read him some of its more revealing passages, such as when author Amy Chua threatened to burn her older daughter’s stuffed animals if the child didn’t improve her piano playing. “What Chinese parents understand,” Chua writes, “is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.” By day, I would tell my own two daughters about how Chua threw unimpressive birthday cards back at her young girls and ordered them to make better ones. For a mother whose half-Chinese children played outside while the kids of stricter immigrant neighbors could be heard laboring over the violin and piano, the book could be wickedly gratifying. Reading it was like secretly peering into the home of a controlling, obsessive, yet compulsively honest mother – one who sometimes makes the rest of us look good, if less remarkable and with less impressive offspring. Does becoming super-accomplished make up for years of stress? That’s something my daughters and I will never find out.

As a review of the book in Entertainment Weekly concludes, “We’ll just have to wait for her daughters’ memoirs.”

UPDATE: Read an American mother’s take on the essay. And a moving post by Shanghaiist’s Elaine Chow about her own experiences with the “Chinese mother” model.

UPDATE 2: There have now been far too many responses to Amy Chua to post them all. But I think this video from Taiwan’s Next Media Animation just about says it all:

[a Chinese mother by tylerdurden1 on flickr]



I don’t call them resolutions and I don’t make any promises. But I do have goals for this new year, which include:

- Regular exercise
- Eat well
- Take my vitamins
- Make time to read
- Resuscitate this website

Stay tuned. And Happy 2011 to all!