Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Jewish Roots of Spock

It was so sad to hear that Leonard Nimoy passed away on Friday. His Spock is such a classic that he will forever be the icon of a perfect combination of logic and emotion. Many people from Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and NASA paid their tributes. Even President Obama issued a statement, “Long before being nerdy was cool, there was Leonard Nimoy… I love Spock.”

Nimoy’s great legacy certainly includes the Vulcan Salute – the universal sign for “Live long and prosper.” One thing I didn’t know is that Nimoy himself invented the famous gesture based on his childhood experience at the synagogue. The Priestly Blessing performed by Jewish Kohanim is with both hands, thumb to thumb in the same position, representing the Hebrew letter Shin (ש). Son of Orthodox Jewish immigrants from now Ukraine, Nimoy understood the unique value of minority culture. “My folks came to the US as immigrants, aliens, and became citizens. I was born in Boston, a citizen, went to Hollywood and became an alien.” He saw the need for Vulcans to have their own way to greet each other, and suggested this.

Now Zachary Quinto has taken over. Will he inject some gay elements into Spock as acknowledgment to another minority group?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Sheep/Goat/Ram vs. Cousins


Today is the first day of the “Yáng” year. The word “yáng” in Chinese may refer to several different animals in the Western sense, ranging from sheep, goat, ram, to even gazelle. Brits and Americans are both lost in translation. Actually this is not the only Chinese zodiac sign that would cause confusion. “Shŭ” can be rat or mouse, “Niú” can be ox, cow, or bull, and “Jī” can be chicken, rooster, cock, or hen…

The Chinese language may be vague in terms of animals. But when it comes to people, it’s extremely complex and specific. In English, all non-sibling relatives of the same generation are call “cousins,” while in Chinese there are 16 types of cousins. In the West, male relatives of the parents’ generation are all called “uncles” and females all “aunts.” But there are 15 types of uncles and as many as 21 types of aunts in a Chinese family, depending on whether the person is related to the mother or the father, as siblings or through marriage, older or younger.

This certainly reflects traditional Chinese family values, where extended family members are still closely connected and hierarchy is well respected. We can also understand this as a result of different worldviews. Western traditions focus more on the relationship between mankind and the outside world. The narrative of Western civilization is the story of man understanding nature with science and enhancing it with technology. Chinese traditions are more about relationships between people, and the civilization is better represented by social and cultural achievements. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century when “Mr. Sci” finally arrived in China. That’s why Western thinking tends to be more direct, simple, and objective, while Chinese culture is a bit ambiguous, sophisticated, and subjective.