A New Year Has Come – Looking Back to Move Forward

A New Year is here again. This is the time when many of us look back to take stock of our experiences in the past twelve months, and make plans to better ourselves with a list of resolutions.

The idea of New Year resolution is closely tied to modern concepts of time management and goal settings, although its root is traced to religious festivals from the West. At its centre is the notion that time exists on a linear time-scale, as indicated by the progressive numbers that mark each different year. However, time was not tracked in the same way in the old Chinese society, which used a lunisolar calendar tied to the four seasons of nature, as well as a recurring sexagenary (60 years) cycle. In this world that our forefathers were familiar with, perpetuity, and not progress, was the keyword.

The emphasis on the perpetual is critical in shaping aspirations and hopes in ways different to what many of us are used to. Here the individual self is merely a part of a larger scheme of things, and the pursuit of his/her personal ambitions are secondary. Instead future happiness is staked on the well-being and the achievements of the next generation. While this is not unique to the Teochew people, no one else takes this more seriously than any Teochew father or mother. At any family gathering, there is always a proud uncle boasting how well his son is doing in his career, or a grinning grandmother counting aloud the number of grandchildren she has.

Coinciding with the evolution of the competitive modern society, recent generations of Teochew parents have made their primary concern the performance of their children in school. Good grades, they believe, will translate into good jobs and security in life. By performance in school, this often refers narrowly to the attainment of high scores in academic subjects like English, Mandarin (or another local national language), science, mathematics, history, literature, etc. At the same time, any interests in other fields, including different aspects of the Teochew culture, is deemed as irrelevant and burdensome. More than once comments have been noted from young overseas Teochews of their parents’ criticism of their desire to pick up the “useless” Teochew language. Not a small number of friends have also questioned the purpose of promoting something as “backward” as the Teochew identity. Its practical value as a medium for business in Southeast Asia, they point out, has greatly diminished since the 1970s.

But as the old saying goes, there are many things money can’t buy. And moving forward in life is not only dependent on the plans we make today. Looking to the past to learn from those who ventured ahead of us in life’s journey is just as important.

One of the best ways to do so is paying attention to the counsel of our Teochew elders. You see, Teochews are traditionally “village people”, whose lives are not regulated by power of the law or the knowledge of elites, but by the agreement of members of family and neighbours on “the immutable law of reason”. This reason contains lessons in life picked up and accumulated over many generations, and further refined from endless debates over tea and across the dinner table. As a result, even a simple conversation with an old Teochew can yield nuggets of wisdom that cannot be learned in any textbook or prestigious MBA courses.

Take for example, five words left behind by my grandfather: zo nang dieh lao sik 做人著老實 – “we have to honest at all times” – forms a short, but precious cornerstone advice invaluable for anybody. My grandmother’s advice to me to marry only a partner who is of “one heart and mind” (dang sim dang yi 同心同意) with myself is another that I fully cherish. Because Teochew wisdom is not housed in books, but shared through daily interactions, enlightenment to the principles of living a rewarding life is not limited solely to the highly-educated, as this short interview with this sparkling former noodle-seller shows:

In the coming year some of us will be seeking “completion” by making “root-finding” trips to our ancestral homeland, while others will strive for the same by more learning and more sharing. The Teochew Store hopes that we can be part of your journey in 2015.


We wish all our fans and readers a Blessed and Fruitful New Year.

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