Not Chinese

Most people of Chinese ethnicity react negatively when they find out that …

I don’t speak Chinese;

I don’t want to speak Chinese (and dislike the way Mandarin sounds);

I don’t identify as Chinese.

When I was growing up in a couple of small Malaysian towns, my lack of Chinese dialects/Mandarin would inevitably become apparent and be greeted by loud exclamations of disbelief and disdain. As a result of hearing it said to me so ofen, I can say the sentence: ‘A Chinese who can’t speak Chinese!’ in perfect Hokkien.

To avoid getting scolded, I used to say I was Baba, the shortform of Baba-Nyonya or Straits-born/Peranakan Chinese, which was no excuse as most of those who are descended from Chinese who came to the Penang, Melaka and Singapore between the 14th and 17th centuries are fluent in Hokkien. Still, it seemed to placate shopkeepers, and it wasn’t a total lie: my maternal grandfather was indeed Peranakan.

I’m now fifty years old and I still can’t have a conversation in any Chinese dialect or Mandarin. I’ve been able to get by in Malay and, in KL where I’ve lived for the last twenty-one years, basic English is widely spoken, even by hawkers and provision shopkeepers. Anyway, these people aren’t likely to criticise my inability to speak Chinese. For all they know I might be Thai or Cambodian and, really, especially in these times of economic hardship, they’re just interested in getting me to part with my money.

It’s people whom I meet on a personal level who view me as some sort of oddity at best, an insult to the Chinese race at worst.

Being Chinese is so important to them and speaking Chinese (either a dialect or Mandarin) is a huge part of being Chinese.

Well, I agree. Language plays a significant role in one’s identity. I don’t speak Chinese, I don’t think or dream in Chinese: I don’t feel Chinese (nevermind that I look Chinese and have Chinese genes).

It doesn’t follow that speaking, thinking and dreaming in English makes me feel English. It’s more complicated than that, but I did, when I was a child, claim to be English, much to the amusement of my parents (both English teachers and Anglophiles).

True story: I did not know about tang yuan until about seven years ago. My family did not celebrate the winter solstice festival and it’s more of a private affair, unlike the Chinese New Year, so although my close friends during my schooldays were Chinese, I wasn’t aware of them celebrating the festival. I still have never tried the dessert.

Tang yuan, a dessert eaten during the winter solstice festival (pic from the Roti&Rice blog.

When I tell my Chinese friends and acquaintances that I’d never heard of the winter solstice festival until I was in my forties, and that I have yet to eat tang yuan, they are very surprised. Perhaps it’s an example of how un-Chinese my upbringing was. We did celebrate the Chinese New Year, but I remember my mother snorting about the superstition of not sweeping the house for fear of sweeping out the good luck. We also never decorated the family home in red and gold/yellow to attract good fortune. What we did do was eat lots of good food. And kids would get money in red envelopes.

Basically, I wasn’t raised steeped in Chinese culture and cultural practices. My parents weren’t churchgoers, but, officially, we were Roman Catholic. My sisters and I were baptised and went to Catechism classes and mass. Although I’m now atheist, I feel I am still culturally Roman Catholic. I still love the rituals of the Roman Catholic mass, but I can’t bear the liturgy that is used now, nor the melodies used in the sung liturgy. But I love the bells and smells.

My Roman Catholicism definitely went some way in helping shape my identity. I can’t say being Chinese played any part at all, but if race has to be a portion of one’s subjectivity, well, I identify more as Malaysian than Chinese. At least I speak Malay.

But, in my opinion, there is no formula for making up identity, and no rules. Why is it so important that I identify as Chinese? Why does it seem so important to other Chinese that I do so? I guess only they can answer that question.






One thought on “Not Chinese

  1. Identity is such a complex thing, I feel, especially when it comes to groups or subsets based on genes, language, culture, politics, gender or creed.

    It often matters most to those who feel comfortable about the group they belong to but also very uncomfortable with any disparity when it comes to expectations about the identity of others. It’s a threat to their sense of you belonging to an in-group when you appear to declare your allegiance to what they see as an out-group.

    It’s a natural instinct born of anxieties for the survival of a social grouping in the face of perceived threat from outsiders. The key phrase is, I think, ‘perceived threat’ — because that perception can often be false and ill-founded.

    Here endeth the cod psychological sermon. It can’t be easy when you don’t conform to expectations, Daphne; but I understand how threatened people feel about difference — it’s how I feel about friends and acquaintances who turn out to be Trump apologists, Brexit supporters or Teresa May fans.


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