PC036: Ancestor Money

by Maureen McHugh
read by Diane Severson

Rachel put off opening it, turning the envelope over a couple of times. The red paper had a watermark in it of twisting Chinese dragons, barely visible. It was an altogether beautiful object.

She opened it with reluctance.

Inside it read:

Honorable Ancestress of Amelia Shaugnessy: an offering of death money and goods has been made to you at Tin Hau Temple in Yau Ma Tei, in Hong Kong. If you would like to claim it, please contact us either by letter or phone. HK8-555-4444.

There were more Chinese letters, probably saying the same thing.

“What is it?” Speed asked.

She showed it to him.

“Ah,” he said.

“You know about this?” she asked.

“No,” he said, “except that the Chinese do that ancestor worship. Are you going to call?”

Rated PG. Contains versions of the afterlife.

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16 Responses so far

  1. 1

    WriterDan said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 4:42 pm

    Pretty, but boring and ended pretty pointlessly.

  2. 2

    scatterbrain said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 4:57 pm

    What a lovely Bangsian fantasy, a well rounded and irreligious–in a cultural sense, rather than in a religio-philosophical sense that involves the concepts of God and sin–look at the afterlife.

    But I bone to pick with Pod Castle- while you have managed to fulfill my request for more zombies, intentionally or not, you have not yet podcasted any kind of Leiber-esque sword-‘n’-sorcery, which I requested much earlier; why not? I know you are subject to your slush pile, and I’m just sticking my oar into your editorial practices, but surely there is something out there that satisfy this craving?

  3. 3

    Rachel said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 6:17 pm

    Alas, it was unintentional, though I’m glad to fulfill.

    Leiberesque sword & sorcery tends to be a long form, so that’s one problem. In addition, it’s not a popular form right now, so most of what’s out there in the genre is either A) old enough that it sound stilted to modern readers, or B) not written up to our standards. I know it’s what a lot of readers think of when they consider what Fantasy means, but unfortunately, it’s not really a sub-genre that’s survived, particularly in the short form.

  4. 4

    Librarian X said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 6:59 pm

    What a lovely story, marred by an unfortunate reading. The reader sounded awkward and monotone, and the L-for-R substitutions made the Chinese characters sound like racist caricatures.

  5. 5

    Hyperion said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 7:07 pm

    I felt like there was some sort of hidden point here that I missed….for reasons I’m not entirely sure of.

    It seems like there was much more going on than I caught. Or perhaps much less. It was such a neat idea, and well conceived and set up, but ultimately didn’t go anywhere. Maybe that was the point.

  6. 6

    George said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

    You would love “A Houseboat on the Styx”. An excellent audio is available at: http://www.archive.org/details/houseboatonthestyx_0810_librivox

  7. 7

    Rachel Udin said,

    December 13, 2008 @ 5:15 am

    The substitutions of r for l’s is Japanese, not Cantonese. So I take issue with it, especially since they are different language groups! Cantonese accents have inflection in them which is why it tends to have some of that in fluent speakers, however, the problem is that this supposed to be set in Hong Kong. Hong Kong was dominated by British rule for about 156 years.

    This means contemporary Hong Kong has the majority of the population speaking *English* and with British English to boot. This, to me, causes some internal problems with the story. It doesn’t deal with this contemporary part of Hong Kong, the almost split personality that Hong Kong has, and it doesn’t think about the districtization that’s been happening in the last 156 years.

    OK, granted, it could be she’s trying to go for an older flavor and go into historical China, but this transition doesn’t feel well established between Dr. Phil, the cabbie and the airport and the slanting of “fish” at the Hong Kong airport–which isn’t true–since I visited it this May 2008. With the bus it throws things off… What time period is the author going for? Hong Kong was in rapid expansion and recent government turn over…

    Plus the whole, “Speaking Chinese” is a misnomer. There are dialects of Chinese some of them categorized into their own languages. Cantonese, Mandarin, Qing, etc, etc.

    I appreciate that the author put in the effort to globalize, but I feel that it feels a tad flat in places like the research doesn’t add up or she can’t quite decide *when* to set this afterlife. With a large population of Christians in China now, how does she plan to compromise this? Instead, she puts it as “Hong Kong” afterlife which I find a bit more disturbing, especially with the range of religions in Hong Kong…

    So, for me, who loves culture, loves religion, and language, I find this story a bit flat on cultural flavor and knowledge. It’s a bit half-baked around the edges as if the author didn’t put thought into really researching Hong Kong or at the very least couldn’t settle into what kind of flavor she wanted for Hong Kong’s afterlife.

    For the record, to give my words validity, I’ve taken Cultural Anthropology and plan to eventually major in it. I’m Korean (adopted to the US though, thus the Jewish Russian name…), but have been studying China, Korea, Japan since I was little in an effort to separate them and understand the prejudice against those countries so I could understand the prejudice against “Asia” and which gross generalization about Asians come from which gross generalizations of culture of which countries. I have very weak Mandarin, a little Cantonese (for the record, I can separate them if I hear them and can just barely distinguish regional accents.), Korean (1.5-2 years worth… depending on how the stars align), and about 2 years of Japanese… 2.5 on good days. I’ve been studying the languages, religions, histories and cultures for a long, long time. Which is why I find this story flawed…

    I also have been studying up on Hong Kong and have a friend I met up there this Spring (May 2008) and went to Korea and Japan in that same trip. I can categorically say that people from HK have no problems with their r’s. They just inflect their words in a Cantonese manner sometimes, with a British accent.

    Outside of the HK airport I didn’t see anyone who was selling fish… and because of the communism influence on the city, as was said in guide books and from the people I met there, the city is set out in districts. So there is a clothing district, there are dried fish-selling districts, cut by modern highways… The markets are far from the airport, which would be the place that would sell fish, and fresh fish doesn’t smell like fish at all. It smells like salt and the sea. It’s only when it’s dried that it smells like fish. Today’s Hong Kong smells a bit industrial with a sea smell. When I was there it also was hot and dank too… so smells carried so I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a fishy smell at the airport.

    So I am taking strong issue with the facts in the story because it doesn’t seem to add up. If it’s set in the present time, then the majority should speak English. If it’s set in the past around the 1920’s then they should be taking issue with Japanese occupation. But this floating back and forth and stating things like, “You can’t speak English.” is disconcerting…. even if it’s the afterlife. Doesn’t the afterlife also have basic guide books in the airport? All the airports I was in during the trip had them.

    I will give the reader a break on this story, just a little on the inflections, though palanquin is a word that’s been already imported, and the misunderstanding of the r/l issue… since I find that a bit typical of people who don’t know about East Asian languages. I would prefer future stories set in Asia be read without made up accents though or read by people who know how to do one properly and are sensitive to those issues. It aggravates me a little to hear standardization of East Asian Languages as an amalgam. Especially since “Chinese” is not related to Japanese or Korean linguistically except through heavy word borrowing, (especially through the Qing which is not Cantonese… though Cantonese did trade and have an influence on Korean in particular, mainly noun-wise, not grammatically).

    I did find the reading a bit flat, as was mentioned by Librarian X.

    Beyond that, solid idea overall.

  8. 8

    Rachel said,

    December 13, 2008 @ 2:49 pm

    Hi Rachel Udin,

    I’m not sure that you’re correct about asserting that /r/ /l/ confusion is a primarily Japanese phenomenon, to the exclusion of most Chinese dialects. A quick google search turns up papers discussing the phenomenon in Cantonese and Mandarin dialects, including this one by Anna Marie Schmidt with an abstract that reads:

    peakers of some southern dialects of Chinese do not make a distinction between /n/ and /l/ in Chinese. Previous pilot research indicated that they also have difficulty with this distinction both perceptually and productively in English. As a basis for an experiment in training this distinction, a closer exploration of these speakers’ perception of English was performed. This study examined these speakers’ perception of English /r,l,n,d/. Five native Chinese speakers heard English words from minimally different sets produced by three native English speakers and labeled the first consonant of each word. Native English speakers labeled the same sets with high accuracy. Results and implications for training will be presented.

    And to deal with Cantonese specifically, an article from the Accoustical Society of American Journal by Donald Derrick:

    Perceptual interference theories suggest L2 language learners produce phonemes based on their native language phonology (Iverson et al., 2004, Cognition). This present study investigated the impact of differing native language segmental inventories on the acquisition of the English r/l contrast. Northern Mandarin dialects exhibit coda /r/ similar to the English bunched /r/, while Cantonese exhibits no r-like liquids (Gick et al., 2003, under review). The Mandarin segmental inventory provides more of a basis for acquiring the English r/l contrast than the Cantonese inventory. It is therefore predicted that Mandarin speakers will acquire the r/l contrast with a lower level of experience with English than the Cantonese speakers. One Cantonese and two Mandarin ESL learners produced r/l sounds in minimally contrastive English words in simple and complex onset, coda, and intervocalic positions. The data were analyzed in two ways. Four native English listeners were asked to judge for each word whether the target consonant was /r/ or /l/. Also, ultrasound tongue images were analyzed for component /r/ and /l/ gestures. Results provided partial support for the hypothesis. Implications for theories of second language acquisition will be discussed.

    I think the idea of the story’s timeline was that it was supposed to reflect an afterlife that was occuring in all timelines simultaneously, much in the same way that the main character’s America contains both a house that would have been appropriate to the time that she died, and simultaneously an airport full of flip-flops.

    For the record, I hold a degree in cultural anthropology. I, also, would generally prefer that narrators forego the use of most accents, but as long as we’re using volunteers, I will probably leave that up to individual discretion.

  9. 9

    mithrilwombat said,

    December 15, 2008 @ 7:03 pm

    I loved this story when I read it in an anthology, but this reading sort of destroys it for me. This is one of those times I’m going back to print format, although I normally love podcastle.

  10. 10

    Gary said,

    December 18, 2008 @ 4:49 pm

    Maybe it was the reading, but I kept waiting for something to happen, and nothing did. I was bored, but the expectation of some future action kept me listening. I thought the premise was interesting, but beyond that the story did nothing for me.

  11. 11

    Rachel Udin said,

    December 25, 2008 @ 2:18 pm

    Rachel, I can respect that you have volunteers and can take what you can get. Thank you for your reply and thoughtful answer about accents in your podcast.

    The papers you cited doesn’t take into account that there is any mixing, which is a fault of the linguistic view rather than the cultural linguistic view. i.e. that language should have idealized forms in the linguistic view. But I can categorically say that for this point and time, there is a distinction between r/l for those who speak Cantonese and Mandarin in the current time in Hong Kong (Most people speak both and pick up English later).

    When I picked on the r/l sound, I picked on it because it sounded like a poor imitation of the Japanese r/l sound, rather than anything I’ve heard from my friend, the vast array of Hong Kong Movies I’ve watched, or the vast array of Mandarin (tawainese) language dramas I’ve watched. (Taiwan has fairly good English). If there is one thing I’m really good at with language is that I can hear differences in sound very well. I’d have settled even for a Taiwanese Mandarin r/l sounds. Or even a Shanghai Mandarin r/l sounds. Or a general Cantonese r/l sounds. I don’t think the linguistic chart, IPA, picks up on all these nuances in sound for r’s and l’s. But I sure can hear them.

    I still find the r/l sound used in the episode to be not Chinese (of any dialect) at all. Hong Kong still can distinguish r’s and l’s. The people I met there had no problem saying “Rachel” the l’s and r’s were thickened but distinguished (with a SBE sound, known colloquially as Queen’s English), but not placed where the r/l was in Japanese…. Most Japanese have more trouble with the r/l in “Rachel.” where I can hear the tongue being placed just behind the major part of the gums.

    But that’s semantics… I still found the use of “Chinese” accent a bit disturbing, as a critique for the reader. I feel that accents should be an know it all and use it or nothing.

    I can respect that the author would want a timeless feel to the story, however, I don’t think this was established very well… so the fact this has to be explained means that the world building was still weak. The rule is, if it has to be explained then it wasn’t written well enough.

    Mur Lafferty managed to float a timelessness to her own Heaven series with some serious world building. I could buy her regionalisms (of both language and religion) and differences in language because she did it well (Even her Japanese accent and use of Japanese language was well done, but she studied it and her Japanese r/ls are really good from the reading side). But this story didn’t have enough world building for me to buy the timelessness… so instead of getting the timelessness, I just got lost trying to figure out what the world was like.

    My Hong Kong friend is Christian… not Buddhist which also plays with a fault in the timelessness idea of the story and thus the world building too. The timelessness problem is basically story mechanical errors that can be fixed with a little thought and research.

  12. 12

    yicheng said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 4:56 pm

    As a native chinese speaker, let me just say that I thought the reading was decent. The accent wasn’t *exactly* spot on, but I found nothing offense or caricature-like about it at all. I personally would find it more jarring if the chinese demons spoke with a midwest american accent. In response to Rachin Udin, although there are a lot of english-speakers in Hong Kong, the *majority* of cantonese do *not* speak the queen’s english. Unlike India which had a plethora of different tribes and languages, Hong Kong had no need for a lingua franca other than chinese or mandarin. As for open air fish markets, yes they are still there, although you’d probably have to travel down to the harbor for that. As for chinese christians, I would invite Ms Udin to look further, especially as she is considering a future studying anthropology. Most asian cultures do not share the religious “mutual-exclusiveness” that predominate western judeo-christian beliefs. A chinese person would not see any problems with praying to Jesus one day, and then making buddhist offering another day. In fact, my parents converted to Catholicism when they immigrated to the states (I’ve since reconverted back to Buddhism), and they still burn hell-money every Chinese New Year.

  13. 13

    gordsellar said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 11:15 pm

    I can’t speak for the accuracy for the accent, especially given the murkiness of what era (and region) the Chinese ghosts who are speaking English come from, though I did find its use in the reading a bit distracting, personally (because it’s a bit inconsistent, actually; at one moment it sounded vaguely Hindi to my ear). But accents are just hard to get right, I think.

    I will say that I find it odd that anyone would think giving a character an accent is racist caricature: visiting Asia (or any foreign land?) might drive home the point that most people outside the English-speaking world speak English and other foreign tongues with accents and (somehow!) maintain their human dignity in doing so. (Just as I [usually] maintain my dignity when hacking my way through a conversation in Korean, even with my own crazy bloody foreign accent.)

    And as for this comment by Ms. Udin:

    “The substitutions of r for l’s is Japanese, not Cantonese.”

    Uh, no.

    A little searching suggests L/R confusion to be characteristic of Cantonese speakers learning English as a foreign language, at least historically:

    The most frequently noted Cantonese difficulty in pronouncing English is the confusion among /l-r/ and /l-n/. The sound /l/ occurs only initially in Cantonese, as in ling (zero) and laáhn (lazy), but never finally. Moreover, it is never accompanied by any other consonant – there are no consonant clusters at all in Cantonese. The dark /l/ is made nearly identically with untrilled /r/ :the tongue-tip touches the hard palate for /l/ but only points toward the palate for /r/. The /r/ itself is usually learned early by the student, and at once joins with /l/ in fantastic instances of mistaken identity. In school we hear Engrish for English; in business, bland for brand; in music, pray for play; and in church, play for pray…

    That was written by what we’d now call a TEFL specialist (PhD, no less) back in 1963, and a TEFL instructor I know teaching English at a college in Hong Kong right now confirms (on seeing this thread) that this is still the case:

    HK people do not speak the Queen’s English. That’s BS. English here is much better than in Korea, but there are a lot of people whose English is basic at best. It’s true that there’s a Cantonese L/R thing, similar to what Korean speakers do, but there’s also an L/N thing. This results in ‘lame’ for ‘name’, for example.

    (Again, that’s not to defend this Diane Severson’s performance of the text: I wasn’t crazy about the accent(s) as used. But attacking the story on political grounds, seeing monolithic caricature, or alleging that it didn’t take into account the vast postcolonial complexity of Hong Kong as you, an aspiring anthropologist, personally experienced it last summer with a Local Friend, is just a bit much to stomach.)

    As for Ms. Udin’s other criticisms of the story’s worldbuilding, or how it’s not like Real Life Hong Kong, I’m simply amused. I guess the author missed the memo that all depictions of Asian locales (even supernatural afterlife versions of same) must literally match Rachel Udin’s limited and passing experience of a given place, the author’s personal experience living in China for a year nonwithstanding. Perhaps if you were being equally picky about Kentucky, you’d note that a woman in a clapboard shack in what seems like the 1890s or maybe the 1920s probably wouldn’t have a phone or know how to catch a Greyhound bus. In fact, that crazy mixture of ultracontemporary and almost-too-old-to-remember fits, to me, with the very same postcolonial, postmodern, and polyglot complexity of the real world, especially in the way Asian nations have consciously modernized and at the same time founded identity in the “traditional.”

    But I don’t see any point in explaining further because I think the story explores this well enough on its own. When a given reader doesn’t get a story, it doesn’t always mean it’s because it “wasn’t written well enough.” Rachel, try giving it a read without the accent distraction and see if you feel the same way. McHugh’s debut novel, which also deals with another imagined, future China quite intensively (and award-winningly), is also well worth the read…

  14. 14

    The Fix | From the Podosphere: December 2008 said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

    […] “Ancestor Money,” Maureen McHugh’s protagonist, Rachel, is contented in an afterlife remarkably similar […]

  15. 15

    Ancestor Money « Writing Every Day said,

    June 4, 2009 @ 11:35 pm

    […] read of Maureen McHugh I really like. Take “Ancestor Money,” which was read on Podcastle a few months ago. Rachel is spending her afterlife in Swan Pond Kentucky, when she receives notice […]

  16. 16

    Oyce said,

    July 21, 2009 @ 9:44 pm

    I’d like to second (third?) the critique of the reading. I was extremely bothered by the rendition of the Chinese speakers in the piece, which sounded like a completely fake accent to me (my mother’s side of the family is Cantonese and many of them live in HK) that had very little in common with the HK Cantonese-accented English I’ve heard. It sounded to me like an amalgamation of assorted “Asian” accents, which was extremely troubling, and gave me the impression of “all Asians sound the same.”

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