To Be And Not (Just) To Be Chinese

Botanical garden, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Mi...

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BACK HOME in the Philippines a few years ago, whenever my kids and I encountered figurines of the Three Gods of Prosperity, a smiling Buddha with all his children, or a ceramic Confucius bust, my children would tease me by saying the figurines were relatives of mine, in reference to my Chinese ancestry.  Good naturedly I would play along, uttering a Chinese phrase or making kung fu style gestures, but I have never denied or played down my Chineseness.


My recent and current experience as a migrant in the First World seems to recall my personal belief : Looking at the various small takeaways oriented towards Chinese and people of Chinese ancestry (but likewise enjoyed by the locals) here in Wellington, the “Chinese pride” exhibited during Lunar New Year parade, Mooncake Festival and other events held by the Chinese community, and many families’ insistence on the young generation learning motherland dialects, one would think that migrants from China have never left home.  But the so-called mainland is not the only origin of various aspects of Chinese culture and all things Chinese.


Let me explain. The Vietnamese cafe that shows off its muffins, cream pies, eclairs and fruit tarts are, based on common sense, run by skillful bakers from Saigon, but when you listen to their chatter and exchange pleasantries, you realize that their Vietnamese is peppered with “ah-ya” and familiar sounding expressions.  Yes, they are as much Chinese as they are Vietnamese, and the accent, banners of Chinese calligraphy displayed and the fact that you make yourself understood with a few rudimentary Cantonese phrases are proof enough.


The Malaysian / Singaporean family of accountants whose modest house I help clean on Fridays stores in their kitchen sesame oil, oyster sauce, Hoisin sauce and other unmistakeable elements of Chinese cuisine, and use in their medicine cabinets white flower ointment, traditional “peipakwa” cough syrup that I couldn’t avoid smiling after seeing.  When I happened to ask while making small talk with them, I had to ask you’re not Chinese are you?  They proudly explain that the peculiarities of their culture allow them to distinctly retain both the Malaysian and Chinese aspects of their identity, and true enough, I was impressed see English and Chinese sections of their mini-libraries, complete with children’s versions of the Analects, the Eight Immortals and the Monkey King, all thousand-year old relics as old as the Great Wall but still read by schoolchildren today.


Further down Main Avenue, the Thai eatery run by a former exchange student and his young wife fold their hands, smile “sawasdee kra” and proudly serve spicy Thai noodles and spring rolls (which look suspiciously like Chinese noodles and Shanghai rolls) but the magazines to read while waiting for your takeaway order and the piped-in music all come from Taiwan, which as you know is that part of China that embraced democracy half a century earlier than Big Brother PROC. Shouldn’t you have Thai mags and CDs instead, I joke?


The proprietress pointed out to me that although they are Thais by birth and allegiance, their ethnicity, tastes and affinities are slanted towards the Chinese community in Bangkok, which has retained a strong Chinese flavor despite being loyal Thai subjects for countless generations.  One can be both Thai and Chinese at the same time, odd as it seems and contradictory as it may sound.


Not at all I said, telling her about Chinoys back home, the Malaysians and Singaporeans I met, and many other multicultural families I have encountered in my short but eventful stay in Auckland and Wellington.  More than that, it’s almost like the initial experience of living with more than one culture in Southeast Asia prepares one for speedy adjustment to another culture in a country like New Zealand.  Oftentimes there are built-in advantages.  Multicultural schools are by nature very competitive and stress academic excellence; bilingualism or triligualism is encouraged; English is the preferred medium of instruction, and children are brought up learning that a better life in other countries awaits.


For sure there are other cultures proud of their identities and nationalism will always be desirable to migrants and non-migrants alike, but a strong thread runs in many Asian migrant families to  the First World, and to varying degrees it is never losing sight of being part of the great yellow race that gave us the compass, silk and gunpowder.

One thought on “To Be And Not (Just) To Be Chinese

  1. Pingback: Running & Malling With A Magic Multi-Colored Manny-P Jacket in Suburban Welly « YLBnoel's Blog

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