Monday, July 23, 2012

What's in a (Sur)name?

What is your surname? On the surface, it seems like an easy answer since most of us are born into patrilineal or matrilineal societies and we choose the appropriate surname accordingly. Yet, if we were to really think about the function and purpose of surnames, we run into several problems. Aside from tradition and customs, why should we be made to choose?

Let us suppose there's someone named John and his father's surname is Lim while his mother's surname is Ang (This is just an example. Any similarity is purely coincidental). Is he less of an Ang just because he comes from a patrilineal society? More importantly, what defines someone with a particular surname? We often hear about people clinging on to their surnames and boasting of a particular characteristic that comes with the surname. While such a declaration is more about establishing a sense of identity and belonging, there is really nothing that a surname does besides distinguishing our John from the rest of the other Johns that we might know.

Having established that, the main function of surnames is a utilitarian one, why are people so caught up with their family names and establishing this "Us vs Them" mentality? Worse of all, why are married couples so engrossed in differentiating between "my side of the family vs yours"? One may concede that the first case is due to the need to protect one's family and to ensure that all its members are bonded. But how does this explain the second case? It seems that getting so hung up about one's surname actually creates a divide in families as well.

Such a mentality can be attributed to culture to a certain extent. I will only be talking about the Chinese culture here in Singapore since I am most familiar with it. There is a common Chinese saying that a daughter is like water thrown out of the house once she is married. This is due to the fact that Chinese societies are largely patriarchal and the wife adopts the husband's surname. As such, she is no longer considered part of the family as she will be expected to serve her in laws. It is with this well entrenched mindset that we now see some women lashing out and refusing to adopt her husband's surname come what may. This backlash has sent families from one extreme to another as there are wives that do not want to be associated with the husband's family which perpetuates or even exacerbates the divide.

Another cause of such a mentality could possibly be the romantic idea that you are only marrying the other person for that person and the family does not matter. While I am a sentimental sod myself, we have to realise that this is certainly not the case. What we are essentially asking of our partners is to disregard their family. And this would seem rather ironic should we decide to have children as we would hope that our partners are family orientated and would spend quality time with us and the children. In this light, should we enter into a marriage with such a mentality, we would implicitly start our married lives with a divide in the family that would be the root of many problems to come. As much as we hate to admit it, when we marry someone, we marry the family too. 

But if we are to resign ourselves to marrying the family, are we to subject ourselves to a lifetime of misery when we think about the weird distant relatives that our partners may have? Well, what I am advocating here is to take into consideration of how well one can get along with the immediate in laws. In the unfortunate event that one might run into problems, then one has to reflect on whether both parties are willing to work it out. I am in no way encouraging people to turn down proposals just because the parents of the prospective partner are difficult. As for the weird uncles and aunts, I guess we should be gracious enough to bear their presence since by the virtue of them being distant, it would mean that we will only meet them a couple of times a year. 

So what should we make of the issue of surnames? We should call a spade a spade. We should recognise that surnames are just identity markers and since identity is about how people see themselves and how they want others to see them, let them choose which surname they would want to adopt. But we should not be so hung up about whatever implications there may be about surnames which are largely imposed by societies and mindsets that we may have.

"Hello nice to meet you. My name is Isaac, what's yours?.. Oh, I'm Isaac Tan. What's your surname?"

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Sent With Insincerity

I have an irrational pet peeve. I dislike receiving emails that ends with "Sent from my iPad/iPhone." I'm not against people using whatever mobile devices that they may own. How could I? The majority of my emails are sent using an iPad. In fact, I'm composing this post with an iPad as well. I'm just against the notion that people left the default line in.

The notion of someone just glancing through my email and thumping a flat screen while being on their way to do something more important irks me. It is as if I'm really not important at all. And leaving that cursed line in is akin to publicly declaring the recipient's insignificance.

Sent from my iPad = you've given me something relatively unimportant to handle but I've to do it anyway to avoid further inconvenience. I'm typing this thing while doing a million other things; I'm so busy even to get rid of the default line.

So why is the default line so inappropriate? Many would feel that a business email is excusable as one needs to be quick in replying to clinch business deals. However, did you ever stop and think how the line may be informal? It's like putting in brackets in the body of the message and adding your own asides. It's as good as saying: by the way, I'm writing to you via my iPad just so you know. So in the grand scheme of things, how does that line fit into anything?

What about personal correspondence? It's already bad enough that we are sending hurried lines to each other rather than a thoughtful handwritten letter. But those few words are even more affronting. One can't even be bothered to change the default email signature because he has no time for anything, not even for you. As mentioned earlier, that line emphasises the mobility and hurried manner one is writing.

That line is merely a cheap advertising tool for product manufacturers to somehow remind us what their products can do. Since it serves no other purpose, let us change the default email signature shall we? If not for preserving relationships we have, then do it for my sanity. (if you're frowning at this post, I've told you my grouses are irrational)

Dear Apple/Nokia and mobile phones or tablets makers of the world,

We already know what your products can do. And you guys are famous enough. So save us the trouble and remove that wretched line please?

Yours insincerely,
Isaac Tan

Sent from my iPad (because you guys are too insignificant for me to even sit down and email you this letter)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

So You Are A Philosophy Student

Q: What are you doing now?

A: I'm a philosophy undergrad.

Q: Who is your favourite philosopher? What are your views on the death penalty, abortion, stem cell research, gay rights etc etc etc?

I can speak for no one except myself. However, I often find myself in such a situation and I do have mixed feelings about it. But one question often lingers in my mind: what is the purpose of all these questions?

On one hand, I am somewhat flattered that well meaning people assume that I may have unique perspectives since my major involves exploring the world of ideas.

On the other, I cannot help but feel a sense of trepidation. It is as if I am navigating a minefield and it will all blow up in my face if I wasn't careful. It is not that I am afraid I may not know the answer or lose a debate to a non-philosophy graduate. Why should I? I have only taken three modules so far. This sense of apprehension is the kind one feels that one should avoid the other person because he is just looking for a brawl. Yes, I've said it, some people who ask such questions are looking for an intellectual tavern brawl.

These brawlers come in many forms and intensity. There are those that just take pleasure in questioning you in the hopes that you will falter and there are others who just want to beat you in an argument. Do not get me wrong, as a philosophy student, I do appreciate the rigours of questioning one's own beliefs or the process one has constructed in order to adopt these beliefs. What I am against is the intent and perhaps the manner in which one poses the questions. There is certainly a difference between sincere questions and ones that are cloaked daggers used in the form of an interrogation. At this juncture, it is important to think about what is meant by, as I put it, 'sincere questions.'

To my mind, there are two forms of questioning that one employs without malice in daily life. One questions either to consult (as in a student asking a teacher) or to explore possibilities. The former is straightforward enough, one is not in the know and would like to find out new information. The latter happens in two ways: Firstly, you may want to ensure that the other party's point of view is founded on strong reasons (similar to what Socrates does). Secondly, questioning the other party helps to explore all possibilities of a particular matter which will hopefully help strengthen your own views or cause you to reformulate them.

But how is the second form of questioning any different from what the brawlers do? The main difference as mentioned before, lies in the intent. These intellectual brutes are merely looking to win an argument and are not concerned with the furtherance of knowledge or even taking what others say as an opportunity to reflect on the validity of their own views. These people often engage in foot stomping when it comes to difficult issues and how you define the boundaries matter. They will just declare the definitions of the other party invalid and will not accept that there are some issues that cannot be solved for the time being.

Having established all that, how do we proceed from here? I guess the most important thing for the brawlers to do is to sober up from their illusions of grandeur and note that the person you are talking to is a human being and not your punching bag. Basic civilities apply. Also, while we philosophy students adore its rigours, we do need to tune out once in a while. So if you just met us at a social gathering and would like to discuss philosophical issues, do not put us in the witness stand but ease us into it. A couple of drinks (non-alcoholic for me please) would certainly help.