This is part of a series of posts on Revisiting Firefly.
The world of Firefly is a future culture that is a fusion of American and Chinese influences. We see bits of this promise in aesthetics, written language, and most of all the frequency with which the characters curse in Mandarin.
Truthfully though: what we get is a weird mishmash of faux-asian cultural elements (often swapping in faux-Japanese cultural tropes, like the entirety of the Companion’s Guild). There’s also the weird approach to language: it is a strange message to have one of the Verse’s two dialects dedicated, for the most part, to cursing!
Then there’s one of the most obvious critiques of the supposedly Chinese-influenced Verse: a real lack of characters of Chinese descent, in either the main crew or the supporting cast. (Obligatory mention of obvious XKCD comic.)
Let’s double-down on the premise: a future culture produced by the fusion of two 21st-century superpowers.
Solution 1: Introduce Chinese NPCs, And Put Them In The Right Places
We can do better with the casting of the characters in your world! It’s the GM’s job to better represent what the Verse is “really” like. It may be appropriate to mention a character’s apparent background along with their physical attributes, when you’re introducing them for the first time (taking into account the multiethnic nature of most societies).
This might seem out of the ordinary, but in fact: you’re probably working with a group of players mostly acculturated in Western sci-fi/spec-fic, and their notions of what a “default” (i.e. unmarked) character looks like will default to something else. Instead, take command with describing what the makeup of the world is like. (One workaround is to seek out your own “casting” from various celebrities online, if you’d prefer visual prep.)
A variety of folks should appear in every corner of your universe, but moreover: think about what it means to have stronger ties to the dominant megaculture. It means that being of notable Chinese or American descent was probably powerful for you at some point . When your crew encounters a rich baron, a key member of parliament or local bureaucrat, a good portion of them would naturally be of Chinese descent.
Example: You’re finally face to face with Barrow and Fairfield, after many hours of waiting. Barrow is a man of Chinese descent, with a scruffy but attractive face. He looks at you appraisingly from his desk, while Fairfield stands in a corner, his arms crossed and a pipe lazily dangling from his hand. Fairfield looks a bit more Pacific Islander, and makes every effort to not acknowledge your presence as he adjusts his shades. “So,” begins Barrow, “you’re seeking the so-callled ‘ghost ship’ as well?”
Solution 2: Apply Chinese Cultural Markers Sparingly, And Make Them Count
I say sparingly, because I don’t expect the GM to model a novel world in the course of the game. Instead, make meaningful connections, involving a little bit of prep. Consider the following questions:
- What is one institution or tradition that will be visible (in the forefront or background) of an upcoming episode?
- Would this tradition be closer to the traditions of Chinese culture (or another exodus culture)?
- What would that look like, if we are drawing from 21st-century norms, mixed with some allowances for cultural drift or futuristic accommodations?
Example: An upcoming scenario involves making an important business contact while a wedding is happening in the background, with appropriate drama resulting. Maybe this planet’s wedding norms borrow more heavily from modern Chinese traditions (with a bit of Western influence mixed in).
Adjust a few norms to accomodate: maybe for weddings between prominent space-trader families, the red envelope tradition isn’t an exchange of money, especially since it’s awkward to treat Alliance currency as a “gift”. Instead, the envelopes contain comm coordinates for powerful allies who owe favors to your family. (So now a wedding produces an arbitrary number of easily acquirable plot hooks. You’re welcome.)
Solution 3: Speak More Chinese, And Give It Meaning
Putting aside the practical issues of speaking Chinese at the table (when, in likelihood, you have very few speakers of Mandarin present), what do you want it to mean when people use one language over the other? Rather than being interchangeable, it’s more likely that each contains nuance. (In a parallel example, both Hindi and English are standardized languages in modern India, but which one you use will have implications based on your audience.)
The lore from Firefly gives us some hints here. Some Chinese phrases are used frequently in colloquial language among a closeknit crew or actual family members. It is also occasionally used in formal writing and some formal address. (It’s also used to curse, but we may want to loosen this up; without actual TV censors, there’s no reason you wouldn’t curse in every language you have available.)
So let’s go with that rule: Chinese dialect tends to be used for formal and official communication, or for familiar and commonplace affectation. (Or, if used outside of those contexts, to still give it that inflection.) We can make a parallel with the marked use of English: perhaps it is more commonly used by programmers and within technological institutions, or is used politely among people you don’t yet know.
Example: I’m trying to negotiate with Barrow. “You know quite well that a refugee ship is of no consequence too us. We’re just trying to track the cargo. A collaboration should be no skin off your bottom line.” I switch to some casual Mandarin. “So let’s do this, brother. Folks like us have to stick together, right?” But Barrow’s face stiffens a bit. “I am no ‘little brother’ to you, outlaw” he says, stretching out each syllable. “You know nothing of the bottom line in my family’s line of work.”
Aside: Drop Some Words, Make New Worlds
For the record, here’s two words that you don’t need: “exotic” and “oriental”. Both have off-putting connotations and implications. They aren’t needed to describe things, and definitely shouldn’t be used to describe people.
Moreover, neither make sense from within the world of Firefly! These words are used to indicate that something that came form some “other” place, and is unique in comparison to what’s “normal”. Instead, you’re describing stuff that is “normal” to the characters within this world, so bring that world to life.
Bonus Solution: Even More Cultures
You could apply to add a bit of other Earth cultures of the Verse you depict. There’s no way that there isn’t a single churrascaria in the Verse, or that some theater in the Core won’t be putting on their 9-hour rendition of the Mahabharata. It’s all still there, because those cultures didn’t go away, even as they changed with time. Remind your players of that.
P. S. How about some music?
You walk into a techbar on the wrong side of Persephone. The holojuke plays an old classic, as if it were helping to muffle the sound of your footsteps as your slip to the back.
MC Solaar – Nouveau Western.
Kid Koala – 3 bit Blues