It was the Dragon Boat Festival （端午节） this Thursday, a traditional Chinese Festival, most importantly, a festival with a special treat related to it, rice dumplings（粽子）. While I failed to find my favorite ones with salted egg yolk and meat inside, I decided to buy ones with red bean paste to retain the festive traditions.
With promoting Chinese culture and introducing the delicious treat in mind, I started thinking about how to introduce the treat. Apparently, there is a story behind:
Qu Yuan was a minister in the ancient times of China. He was very knowledgeable and cared for the people immensely. However, the emperor thought otherwise. He neglected Qu Yuan’s advice and caused the dynasty to fail. People began to suffer while the country was subject to attacks from neighboring nations. Qu Yuan could not bear being unable to prevent his country’s fall and committed suicide by jumping into a river. The people threw rice wrapped in leaves to feed the fish, thus protect Qu Yuan’s body from them, which later became a traditional treat.
However, I soon realized that the story did not account for the dragon boats in the English name. The Chinese name 端午 means “Early in the 5th month of the lunar year”. Dragon boat rowing competitions are also a tradition of the festival, but I do not remember the reason. I had to look it up –
When people found that Qu Yuan had committed suicide, his body was drifting along the river. People jumped into their boats and rowed after him to save him. Thus, the dragon boat competition tradition.
That makes sense! And fits into the story, too. However, there is still something suspicious. Why would people wrap the rice in leaves? People could throw rice directly into the river, no?
According to some physics that I can no longer explain, by making rice dumplings, people can throw it farther towards the middle of the river, compared to loose rice. Also, the dumplings have a higher possibility of sinking to the river bed and staying around the spot where Qu Yuan jumped, instead of being washed away.
Now the story feels well fleshed out. I begin to worry that I do not know enough about my culture. After all, it is my loss not to fully understand the legacy my ancestors have left, and how can I promote my culture to the world while I am unfamiliar with it myself?
After all those investigating and organizing thoughts, I wanted to find an easy and direct way of introducing the treat to my colleagues.
In ancient times, a group of people wanted to go rowing on the river. It could be a long day, so they decided to take some snacks. However, the food could get dirty and they also had to wash their hands before eating which was cumbersome (apparently the river wasn’t clean enough), so they decided to use leaves to wrap the rice so they could bring the rice along.
This short story covers all the elements (time, leaves, boat, rice), but somehow misses the cultural implications. The heart of the story is not the clever trick and deliciousness of the snack. Qu Yuan is the emotional connector that adds weight and value to the festival, that transforms the tragedy into a memorial that carries the values through history and creates empathy. The tradition carried the spirit through China’s history and encouraged intellectuals to prioritize the country and the people.
Although my colleagues chose to work from home that day and I did not get a chance to promote the rice dumplings, I still learned something from the thought adventure:
- Know the details. People are going to ask. It is okay if you don’t know something and get back to them later, but having inconsistency would sabotage your credibility.
- Ask why. Get to the real basics to understand how everything works. Present or be ready to explain the logic.
- Be culturally aware. Things might change in how people perceive the story and interpret the reasoning behind it.
- Make people care about your story, mission, and values. This is the true power that lures the audience and aligns your goals.
- Culture is hard to incorporate in conversations focused on reasoning. However, it is the jewel on the ring that lights up the room and appeals to the listener. The cultural element is definitely worth the effort.