On Cuban and Chinese Idioms

Jorge Milanes

Havana Chinatown.  Photo: Juan Suarez
Havana Chinatown. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — Recently, I was finally able to meet with my Internet pen-pal Lo Lai Hing in person. He travelled to Cuba from Hong Kong with his mother, Yue Wing. They were very happy.

It was their first time in Cuba and they told me they wanted to visit the coastal town of Cojimar, because of its link to famous American writer Ernest Hemingway. They also wanted to tour Havana’s Chinatown, because of its history and community of Chinese descendants.

Seeing their eagerness to explore the past, I decided to share a popular Cuban idiom with them, “to have a Chinaman on one’s back,” used to describe a difficult stretch of time one may be going through.

For instance, when one is going through rough financial times or finds it impossible to make headway in a life project or when all doors close on us, we Cubans say: “Jeez, it’s like I have a Chinaman on my back.”

I saw Lai Hing’s face change, and I concluded: things have changed quite a bit of late. Having a Chinese man follow you is quite a different story today.

The idiom comes from the slave-like exploitation that Asians were subjected to when, forced by Spain, they came to try their luck on the island, particularly Cantonese immigrants (previously concentrated in Manila, Philippines).

I explained to them that the spirit of resistance before overwhelming poverty, in a society subjugated by Spain, stems from the practices that then surrounded the need to survive in Cuba.

Agreeable and intelligent, the two didn’t miss a single opportunity to get me to explain things or ask about anything that raised questions in their mind following my replies, all the while comparing Chinese cultural norms with ours in search of similarities.

Though I’ve never been outside Cuba, I know Cuban and Chinese cultures have some similarities. That said, I dare claim we are not like any other country in the world. “Cuba is unique,” I told them.

Hing’s mother, after listening attentively to me, replied: “We have a new, popular phrase in China for situations in which one runs into an obstacle everywhere.”

“What is it?” I asked

“To have a Cuban one step ahead of you,” she answered.

4 thoughts on “On Cuban and Chinese Idioms

  • “Great island country in the Caribbean”? Clearly, you have neither been to Cuba nor do you understand its pathetic reality and projected self-delusion.

  • “Great island country in the Caribbean”? Really? Why do you write that? What have you heard?

  • I sounds that Lo Lai Hing and her mother is great fan of Cuba like me. This is true somehow, Cuba is great island country in the Caribbean. I have heard much other great things about Cuba, hope to be there one day in real.

    Lilly, UK,

    Lo Lai Hing
    Lo Lai Hing
    Lo Lai Hing

  • Jorge, as well-meaning as he may be, belied in his post, a belief shared by many Cubans. He writes, “Cuba is unique,”. What he means is Cuba is smarter, works harder, and better-looking. The problem with this belief, like my own “American exceptionalism” is that it usually leads to disappointment and self-delusion. The truth is that most nationalities consider themselves unique and in some respects, they probably are. Still, in the extremes, these beliefs can lead to Nazism or jihad. We have to be careful to keep these beliefs in healthy perspective.

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