Old China Meets New China.

I’ve been told, nay reminded, by many Malaysian Chinese friends that we, Malaysian Chinese, are different from China Chinese. We’re different too from Singapore Chinese, the majority in Singapore, and Indonesian Chinese, who make up less than 3% of the Indonesian population, who, unlike us Malaysian Chinese, had Chinese language and culture suppressed under Suharto. As if those are not enough distinctions between various members of what is essentially the same race, give or take the influences of our adopted countries, being a master race, the majority, a minority or in the case of Malaysian Chinese, a majority minority, I’m reminded every time I go back to Malaysia that there are another 2 categories into which we are divided: Chinese-educated and non-Chinese-educated.

Meanwhile Amanda, who was born here, announces, “I’m not really a Chinese person. I was just born into a Chinese body,” which would be blasphemy to many Malaysian Chinese, but ironically, it’s a sentiment my China Chinese friends seem to relate to.

Few seem to give as much thought to their racial identity as we, known collectively as Overseas Chinese, do. With us Overseas Chinese, being our version of Chinese is a full-time vocation, an uninterrupted show of filial-piety to long-dead ancestors, a badge by which we distinguish ourselves from the other races we’re born amongst and raised to adulthood with. China Chinese don’t need prove their Chinese-ness. They just are, regardless of purity of bloodlines, cultural-adherence or linguistic-proficiency, Chinese.

Maybe it’s because they don’t expect me to be able to speak Mandarin, much less insist on doing so all the time, that they are effusive of what my fellow Malaysian Chinese consider to be rather atrocious Mandarin. Then again, I suppose it’s where you set the bar. HRH, himself a fluent Mandarin speaker thanks to 12 years of Chinese school, says I sound like a Westerner speaking Mandarin.

“Would you rather I not speak Mandarin then?” I ask him. “If Mandarin is all you speak, I’m sure you’d rather I sound bizarre than not make an attempt to communicate with you at all.”

Perhaps, one can only improve through practise, and practise is nigh impossible if you are overly self-concsious. Furthermore, it should be noted that those who point out your inadequacies, have inadequacies of their own. All those Malaysian Chinese who moan about my Mandarin for instance, only speak mangled English or market Malay at best. But as I said, what I’ve found among China Chinese is a complete lack of justification for who they are. They simply are Chinese. For instance, due to Mao, they cannot understand why anyone would follow the orders of an Emperor.

“The Emperor used to be God incarnate. You did whatever he asked or else you and your kin would be put to death,” I say, explaining why 500 nobles of the Ming court would agree to accompany the legendary princess Hang Li Po to Malacca, in what was, one would assume, a one-way journey to an alien land.

How do I know this? Because it’s what Malaysian history books I grew up reading told me; it’s what learned elders say when expounding the Confucian principles underpinning our practise of filial-piety: children obey parents, parents obey rulers, rulers obey Emperor. Even without an Emperor, children still have to obey parents and parents still have to obey the law for there to be a well-run state.

Have you ever heard of the Er Ya?” I ask them.

Most shake their head; one or two have heard of it but can’t say for sure they know what it is about. If you must know, these China Mamas are all university-educated, some with multiple degrees.

“Have you ever wondered why we Chinese do the things we do? Why our relatives have the individual titles they do? What defines our relationship with them?”

Few may have heard of Er Ya, but it is the oldest surviving Chinese encyclopaedia known, from which we – especially Overseas Chinese – unknowingly draw guidance for our personal conduct from. So yes, I may be a bastardised non-Chinese-educated Chinese, whose Mandarin sounds decidedly phelgm-free, whose Cantonese is only slightly better, but there’s a core of me that’s undeniably Chinese.

But why should I have to justify any of this? Am I any less Chinese if, like my China Chinese mates, I don’t? Must I have a PHD in Mandarin and be able to recite all the classics from memory to be deserving of the race identified on my birth certificate? Or am I not just what it says I am?

Recently I’ve taken to identifying myself not as Chinese, not as Peranakan, but as a dinosaur. “Yes, you better believe it. I’m a jurassic creature,” I joke, before sharing with them the news that China’s top brass has visited Malacca to observe ancient Chinese culture in practise, conserved ironically by the Peranakan, descendants of the first Chinese settlers to the Malayan Peninsula.

I often feel that we modern-day Malaysian Chinese are the result of an unintended social experiment into cultural transplantation. The reason our forefathers’ culture has survived the competing foreign influences of our adopted homeland is because we cleave to it with a ferocity not shown by the Chinese communities in neighbouring lands. It is this that often puts us at odds with the Malays, because in order for us to defend our culture, we’ve had to reject all others. This of course precludes any meaningful integration. Having said that, we already know this. If not, why the on-going debate about what it means to be Chinese?

 

Where is home?

After several years abroad, an old university mate of mine is moving back to Malaysia. She’s very much a deep thinker, whose view of life mirrors my own, so I hope she won’t mind me sharing with you her insight on perpetual homelessness.

No, she doesn’t live on the streets and neither do I – in fact, she’s done very well for herself professionally – it’s just that we are part of that generation of Malaysian-born  Chinese whose parents strongly encouraged us to leave Malaysia. Fed up with the crime, the corruption, the bigoted rhetoric permeating politics, along with the persecutory policies resulting from them, our parents wanted us to leave for somewhere where we would be accepted, appreciated, given equal opportunity to succeed, equal say, equal rights.

And leave in droves we have; many to Singapore, Australia, the UK and the US. In the last fifteen years, some of us Malaysian-born Chinese, have even returned to the motherland, where, as my old university mate says, “It’s not home for us either. Our forefathers severed their ties when they left China. Perhaps Malaysia, for all its flaws, is as close as we’ll ever get to having a home.”

For all those who can’t tell one Chinese from another Chinese, let me explain: Chinese migration happened in waves. My forefathers came to Malaysia over 400 years ago. They married local women to spawn a Sino-subset known as the Peranakan who, until my grandparents’ generation, only married within their own community because the races from which they descended, Chinese far more often than Malays, rejected them. Until independence, Malays accorded Peranakan the kind of respect it did not accord other Chinese. Subsequent Chinese migrants to the Malayan Peninsula found that although the mainlanders were more than happy to received monies from them to fight the Japanese, the Kuomintang, what-have-you, they were forever sundered from mainlanders psychologically by the very act of having moved abroad.

As another friend points out, “It doesn’t matter whether we came at the beginning or towards the end. We are all considered betrayers of the great cause.

Since Mao all but eradicated Chinese culture, the very essence of what distinguishes us from other races, I have no idea what this great cause is, but suffice to say, I don’t think it involves helping us traitors find a permanent home. Ironically, mainlanders have been arriving in increasing numbers to Malacca, to learn from Peranakan the ways of old.

But this is not a post about us versus them; mainlanders versus overseas Chinese. It’s about finding a place we can call home. Although I’ve lived in Australia for the past 14 years and have no trace of my Malaysian accent left, I still refer to visiting Malaysia as “going home.” I especially feel a gush of national pride when, flying Malaysian Airlines, the pilot announces, “Selamat kembali.” As in, welcome home.

“But we’re already home,” insists Amanda, whose only memory of Malaysia is the mosquito-bites she sustained on her last visit there.

For her, Australia is home. She was born on Australia Day, in Australia, and has an Australian name, Amanda. The way she thinks and acts is completely Australian.

“You can’t get more Aussie than that,” I say, joking with locals.

Occasionally, like Jhumpa Lahiri’s Ashima Ganguli in her novel The Namesake, it feels like I have a stranger in my house, eating my food, sleeping in my bed. Each time I finish packing to move, I look around the cavernous house which has been my shelter for however long, and can’t shake that feeling that it wasn’t home, merely an illusion of one.

But we’ll always have this feeling,” says my old university mate. “Being the children of Chinese migrants, it’ll never completely go away.

“Yes, I know what you mean,” say I. “I thought in time it would, but it hasn’t.” I proceed to tell her about my sister-in-law’s psychological analysis of me. My SIL was a psychologist back in Indonesia, now studying to have her qualifications recognised in Australia.

She made me draw a tree, which I did, with all the joyful abandon of a child. When I had finished, she said, “You’ve a type A personality, prefer the big picture to the details, and you are homeless.”

Point 1 and 2, I was expecting, but point 3, caught me totally unaware. “Is this what that feeling is?” I asked myself at the time.

I looked down at my paper rendition of a tree. I had no idea it said so much.

“How do you feel about going back? I ask my old university mate.

“It is time. I was worried at first but am now excited since I’ve made up my mind to go.”

“Aren’t you afraid to return to a country you can scarcely recognise?”

It’s not just the flyovers or the shopping malls which have sprouted every which way you  look, it’s the people. I reckon Malaysians, as a people, are starting to question the bigoted policies and the politicians who enact these bigoted policies. They’re becoming more civic-minded and if community reports of theft and burglaries on facebook are any indication, more willing to look out for one another. Malays are beginning to see that we Chinese are not the enemy, that meritocracy is not just good for us, but them too.

Be that as it may, it’ll be years before I decide to return, if at all I do return. The thing about nostalgia is that it causes you to see what you want to see; it’s a hankering after the past that manifests itself as you being more of what you left behind than those left  behind.

“You go first,” I tell my university mate. “You go first. If it is any good, I’ll come after you. If not, you can always move to stay near me in Australia.”

I love Australia. The country and its people have given me everything my country of birth could not, except the feeling of belonging. Perhaps one day, that will come too.