“You are so stupid.” Have Chinese Americans Been Overreacting This Whole Time?

8A-2013-04-18-Nciku-Screenshot-ben-stupidYou aren’t authentically Chinese/Taiwanese unless your mother has at some point called you stupid, or as I’ve heard it in Mandarin, bèn (). Don’t misinterpret: my parents love me to pieces and today, 30-some odd years later, our relationship couldn’t be stronger. However, I most certainly grew up hearing that word to the point where I recall apologizing humbly to people, “Oh, I’m really not that smart.” If I couldn’t solve a differential equation in under 10 seconds, my mother would fire away. “Bèn. So bèn. You are so bèn. Why are you so bèn? Bèn American children. Bèn, bèn, bèn. How did I give birth to a daughter so bèn?”

If she was teaching me calculus and I didn’t get her lesson on the very first try, she’d go at it again. “Bèn. How come you are so bèn? You are just too bèn.”

Every time I didn’t quite hit the mark, that word would come up. “Bèn. Hao bèn. Fei tsang bèn.” Stupid. Very stupid. Extremely stupid.

Did it bother me? Okay, yeah, it did. I now have semantical-PTSD, because when I hear a parent refer to her daughter or any loved one for that matter as bèn, I kind of go nuts.

If I’m in Chinatown and overhear a parent screaming at her child, “You are so stupid!” a really raw nerve in me gets struck. Every time I hear someone call another person who ought to be a loved one bèn, I tense up.

The other day my mother-in-law was talking about her younger brother, who is now the most successful member of their family. Everyone in that family admires his accomplishments and they prop him up as an example of what to do: work hard to go places. Yet while describing him when he was a child, she used that word bèn. I’ll translate directly what she said, underlining the words she emphasized in speech.

“He was so stupid. Extremely stupid. I would tutor him and no matter how many times I explained something to him, he could not pick it up. He was extremely slow and he was extremely stupid. However, he had a great work ethic and worked harder than the rest of us. That’s why he is the most successful one out of the brothers and sisters now. Through sheer hard work. Goes to show that you do not need to be smart to succeed. Just look at your uncle. He was extremely stupid. Now he’s the best. Higher than anybody.”

So there. No one can say I didn’t give the full context. There it is.

I heard that remark about him before I met the uncle. From her statements, I near expected a bumbling idiot to stumble through the doorway with the gusto of a mule. In fact, when you meet him, there won’t be a shred of doubt in you that you are facing a highly intelligent individual. It wasn’t “through hard work alone” that this guy made it in life. Give credit where credit is due. Guy is pretty damn smart, too.

My native Chinese husband got pissed off at me, though, when I commented about his mother. I had said to him, “How could your mother call him stupid? That’s just awful. I have never met someone farther from stupid.” The hubby accused me of misinterpreting. He said that the word bèn can’t be translated directly into English, because it isn’t so bad in Chinese, especially in certain contexts. His defense was that in her context, the mother-in-law was not insulting her brother. She was praising him.

Um, pardon? Gee, why don’t we repeat what she said to the uncle and let him decide? The hubby defended that the uncle would understand the context, know that older sister adores younger brother and the only reason for the emphasis on bèn was to emphasize how far he has come in life. I just couldn’t agree. You can emphasize how far a person has come in life, glorify that success, and not have to reiterate how extremely stupid he is.

The incident did give me pause, however. Maybe there has been a tragic miscommunication between Chinese/Taiwanese parents and their American born children this whole time. Maybe– all those times my mother called me bèn and I thought, “Mommy thinks I’m stupid,” I had thought wrong. Mommy was actually praising me. Maybe I have semantical-PTSD over the word bèn for nothing.

“It’s a term of endearment,” said the hubby. Oh, I get that. I agree in certain contexts. I’ve also been called xiao bèn dan, little stupid egg, which sounds just awful in English but agreed: mother used it affectionately. Just like how my mother used to refer to one of my sisters as “fat cat” and “little pig” because she was of average weight rather than Asian-girl-emaciated. And, of course, now that the sister is a young adult and actually Asian-girl-emaciated, she still thinks she’s fat. Just saying. Semantical-PTSD.

“Your mother shouldn’t be running around telling everybody that your uncle is bèn,” I concluded to the hubby. “I get that she means well and the point of her remark is that he’s come so far, but it still comes across demeaning, like a passive aggressive jab at how maybe he doesn’t completely deserve his success because, after all, he’s still bèn.”

Said the Hubby, “Wow. You have it so wrong it’s not even funny. You’re just trying to translate what she said directly into English, and that doesn’t work because you’re missing the cultural nuances.”

I shrugged. All right. Me and every other ABC or ABT has got it all wrong then.

So how does this get filed? Under Cultural Difference #3,234,890? Or  WTF Chinese People #8,900,012?

Screenshot: Nciku

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About akrypti

small town roots. enthusiast of many trades. oh, and yeah, high-maintenance like you wouldn't believe. tweet with me @akrypti.
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