Many years ago, before I ever dreamt of becoming a full-time writer, I met the father of a friend, who was and still is a published expert on the underbelly of Chinese society: Chinese triads. Never having met a writer up till then, I asked, rather innocently, “And how many books have you written?”
He looked at me as though I’d said something insulting, then returned with a whole stack.
“Here,” he said, handing them to me, “Twenty one at last count.”
I turned them over one by one and marvelled at how this white man could have such in-depth insight into Chineseness when many Chinese, lack the cognisance of what sets them apart from everyone else. Offering me tea, he and I went on to have a very animated chat about my home town of Ipoh, entirely in Cantonese. I was embarrassed to admit it at the time, but this white man’s understanding of Chineseness and his grasp of Cantonese was better than mine! It made me question whether race is a matter of genes or mental orientation; whether it is predetermined or can be changed later in life?
It isn’t just that he was utterly fluent in a Chinese dialect. Kevin Rudd, Australia’s former Prime Minister can be said to be utterly fluent in Mandarin, but he displays NONE of the insight this writer did into the Chinese psyche. If he does, the former wouldn’t have advised Hillary Clinton to use aggression on China should the giant refuse to come to the table, for that, to China, where he was an Australian diplomat for several years, and to Chinese people in general, is tantamount to you eating at my house, then asking someone to rob me!
Years after that meeting with the writer, I met another white man as enthusiastic as he about all things Chinese. This other white man was His Royal Highness’ former lecturer at university, married to a woman from His Royal Highness’ hometown. She, a Chinese, rolled her eyes as he waxed lyrically about how wonderful Chinese people and Chinese culture are.
“You know, he enjoys nothing better than going to my mother’s house to stay,” she told me.
“What do you do there?” I asked him.
“Oh, I like to wake up and go to the stalls in my singlet and shorts, order a char kuay teow and a kopi O’. Then I will have a walk around the lake and read the papers at my mother-in-law’s.”
To me he sounded just like a regular Chinese Ah Pek – an old Chinese gentleman. For those of you who’ve never happened across one, they all congregate at coffee shops in Malaysia, usually after their morning walks, some bringing their prized birds in cages.
“Yes, and he looks like an old Ah Pek too,” said one of my friends who knows him. “In his singlet and shorts, he’s the white version of an Ah Pek.”
More recently I came across the work of Lisa See, an American author who, until I saw her picture, had thought she was Chinese. Her bio says she comes from a Chinese-American family but looking at her, all light haired and aquiline-featured, I could not see any Chinese.
Yet Lisa See’s work is unmistakably Chinese; as Chinese as that of Amy Tan or any other western-based Chinese writer, featuring nothing but Chinese culture and Chinese characters. Even the covers of her books, aimed at a western audience, features Chinese faces totally at odds with her own Caucasian one.
Hence, I absolutely disagree with those who claim that race is determined by DNA. Judging from my own experience, it’s not determined by acculturation either.
I was brought up eating regular Chinese food – stir fried greens, steamed meats and clear broth-like soups – yet always hankered after the taste of chilli heat and spice. I liked the ornateness of Indian jewellery long before I discovered my Peranakan roots, or laid eyes on the elaborate Chinois-baroque designs of Peranakan jewellery. In recent years, I have been eating sambal belacan, far hotter than what either of my parents can stand, with almost every meal. I’ve even started learning the patois, which I practise with Peranakan friends on-line, when I manage to have a conversation with them. Most tellingly, I have an above average interest in preserving the culture of my ancestors, the one they left China with 400 years ago, instead of today’s Mao-desecrated, time-poor, heavily-watered down version – a thoroughly Peranakan trait.
Because, what is racial identity, if not the ability to differentiate oneself from others based on unique cultural traits? Who are we, in an increasingly homogenous world, without these traits?