Lost Cells 1: the Cultural Challenge of being Overseas Chinese

I was born on a starless night in Singapore, one among fifty seven million people of Chinese descent to have been born outside of mainland China.

According to my Mandarin teacher, some overseas Chinese were at one time referred to as ‘same cells’ by our fellow-Chinese on the mainland. This sobriquet applied to those in Hong Kong and Macao, the idea being that they were all part of one body, one organism. As for the rest of us, we presumably floated too far away to qualify for ‘sameness’. Like lost cells, we’ve become disentangled from the mother organism and are now drifting aimlessly through space.

I rather like this idea. The term ‘lost cells’ conjures up amoeba-like objects from biology lessons. I imagine blobs with malleable membranes, expanding and contracting as they skim across a vast ocean.

It has sometimes been lonely being a lost cell. China always loomed, but I couldn’t have told you what it signified. When I eventually spoke to other overseas Chinese, I discovered I was far from alone. No matter where our homes were – be they in Jamaica or Australia – we all grappled with what being overseas Chinese meant.

How did this vast ancestral land of ours, with its millennia of culture, fit into our lives?

—————

Of course, we Chinese are a practical people. Nothing as nebulous as existential angst could ever stop us in the day-to-day business of simply getting on. To quote the legendary investor Jim Rogers: “By one count, the overseas Chinese together make up the third largest economy in the world.”

I found this statistic truly staggering. Imagine placing all fifty seven million of us – you if you’re an overseas Chinese, me, my family, friends and acquaintances – onto the same land. Our collective effort, according to Jim Rogers – from the businesses we owned, the work we did, the things we made – would create a powerhouse third only to America and Japan (the top two at the time) in terms of output.

(If you haven’t heard of Jim Rogers, he once worked with George Soros, retired early and then rode around the globe on his motorcycle. The above quote is taken from his book Hot Commodities, a terrific read for anyone interested in investing in commodities.)

Rogers’ statistic surprised me, but it also made me strangely proud. It spoke to me about core Chinese values: hard work, family, education. Because he was talking about far-flung Chinese, it said other things too. I thought of the way many of our ancestors had arrived in unknown places from an impoverished China, with nothing other than the clothes on their backs and the few dollars in their pockets. That they had built new lives out of so very little told me they must have had courage, a gift for adapting, and gritty determination.

Against such odds, overseas Chinese have been conspicuously successful. This is especially true in South-East Asia where most of us live.  

Alas, our success has not made for an easy relationship with the other peoples of the region. It certainly didn’t make my quest for identity any easier.

—————

The search for identity permeates my novel. Its main character is a Nyonya woman who claims a meaningful role for herself within her own culture. With the arrival of the British in Malaya, great change comes, and my heroine struggles as her culture is eroded by new Chinese immigrants and relentless Westernisation. She eventually understands there are things she cannot change; what she can change requires courage, and the confronting of bruising reality.

—————

When I was growing up, I never felt especially Chinese. Thrust into the three cultures of Malaysia – Chinese, Malay and Indian – all heavily spiced by Western influence, I became accustomed to what is now called a ‘multicultural’ society early on.

Unlike friends who can remember astonishing details, I have few childhood memories. The big events I recall were the colourful weddings, of which there were many, all involving copious amounts of food and drink; also Chinese New Year celebrations, which I looked forward to because children received red packets (ang bao) with money inside. I was always excited by a red packet. Before peeling the envelope open, I would caress its sleeves to feel what coins it contained. Envelopes with no coins were the best, because those contained bank notes.

None of what we celebrated made me feel any allegiance to China though. I didn’t even like fireworks, that staple of Chinese New Year celebrations. Whenever my family gathered to light long thin sticks or bunches of red crackers which popped like machine-guns, I cowered inside the house.

“You know we Chinese invented fireworks,” my father once told me, as if this indicated a genetic predisposition to enjoying thunderous explosions.

As I became older, it was clear there were other ways in which I wasn’t typically Chinese; in my bluntness for example, and my tendency to call a spade a spade, which even straight-talking Dutch friends find difficult. Also, while I don’t deliberately seek conflict, I don’t go out of my way to avoid them. If things need to be said, I will say them, regardless of the consequences and even at the risk of conflict. This is quite un-Chinese. It’s un-Asian too; where I come from, talking without mentioning indelicate truths has been elevated to an art form.

Such etiquette works, but only if everyone is equally attuned to fine nuances. My mother once thought she had told me something when in reality she had not – her reference to a gay relative was so oblique, I had no clue what she meant.

Such restraint has passed me by. Who knows why? Perhaps it’s my Nyonya heritage coming alive, or simply the result of decadent Western influence. I can’t help thinking though, what a pity so much is left unsaid by us all. So much holding back of words, thoughts, feeling…while every passing moment masks our and life’s fragility.

—————

In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, I felt truly Chinese for the first time.

It was the virulent criticism of China beforehand which spurred this ‘quasi-patriotism’ in me. Not a day passed in the spring of 2008 when we in the UK didn’t hear about the air quality in Beijing (poor), Chinese policies in Tibet (oppressive), and other tit-bits such as scenes of the Chinese countryside (full of tanned peasants with crooked teeth, decaying houses and filth). In other words, the usual Western media fare when reporting on a developing country.

When British troublemakers unfurled the Tibetan flag at one of Beijing’s iconic towers, I became indignant. Not because I support Communism or think China blameless or disagree with the right to protest, but because the manner of this protest smacked of Western neo-colonialism. It showed no sensitivity to ‘face’, an important part of life in Asia. It took no account of how far China has come in the last thirty years, or how it became what it is today. China had to work damned hard for its moment of glory and no Westerner has any right to take it away. I felt personally affronted, as if I had been slapped on both cheeks.

Fortunately, we were avenged. Watching the opening ceremony live on television with colleagues, I remember very clearly my burning pride at the jaw-dropping spectacle. The grandeur, feats of coordination, and the unfurling of blocks of our history, made my heart full. It made me think of visiting the land my ancestors had come from.

—————

My first trip to China took place in 2011. It was actually instigated by my Russian partner, who had already been three times. I on the other hand, remained nervous. It seemed such a large undertaking, so fraught with meaning.

At the time, my Mandarin teacher, an overseas Chinese woman from Singapore, had just lost her job in London and was reluctantly considering two employment offers from China. “I don’t want to go,” she said. Her statement made my ears prick up. “Why?” I asked. “I don’t understand the mainlanders,” she confided. “And the toilets are terrible. Make sure you have loo roll with you.”

As if that weren’t enough, she added, “Oh, be careful when you go shopping. They’ll fleece you.”

From her description, I expected the worst, and was pleasantly surprised when I loved Shanghai. I was struck by how clean the city was; the floors of every metro station gleamed. Though my Mandarin teacher was right about taking loo roll, toilets were generally fine where we went, better than their Malaysian equivalent (see my blog-post Truly Malaysia: The Wetness of Toilets).

More importantly, I blended in. No one towered over me. I looked like everyone else, which made me feel strangely at home. According to my partner, twenty four hours was all it took for my ‘veneer’ of British politeness to rub off. By the second day, I behaved like a local and happily jumped queues. 

Despite this, I was also aware of being different. For a start, I hardly speak Mandarin. Yet even if I did, I don’t think it would have changed anything. The mainlanders eyed me cautiously and I did the same, as if we knew we shared a heritage but our experiences had diverged too long ago for collective memory to matter. China may be my ancestral land, but it is definitely not my homeland. Like a lost cell which had thrived elsewhere, I knew then that China wouldn’t be my destiny.

To be continued

14 Comments

Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity, Novel

14 responses to “Lost Cells 1: the Cultural Challenge of being Overseas Chinese

  1. Oksana

    Very interesting, made me think about where I fit in the world myself.
    I am surprised it took you so long to go to China for the first time.

    • Hi Oksana,

      Thank you very much your comment. Yes, I am surprised too! I think I had a psychological block. Now I look forward to visiting again.

  2. I loved this entry, Chin Yoke. You described that “lost cell” feeling so vividly, the balance and the disorienting aspects of being in a country that is yours, and yet not. I am not a “lost cell” but have had a feeling of being a “changeling” all my life, emotionally, so I could identify with your experience in my own way.

    Very moving, beautifully written.

    • Thank you for sharing your feelings with me, Barbara. I hope your experience of being a ‘changeling’ helps you creatively in your own writing.

    • Thank you for sharing your feelings with me, Barbara. I know you write too, and I hope your experience of being a ‘changeling’ helps you creatively in your writing.

  3. chinvinsen

    After having been in China on several trips, I can’t help but feel even more distant from what I’ve been taught China is suppose to be to me. The “same cell” concept was likely a call of belonging based on appearance and ancestry than anything cultural or unifying. In fact, remnants of its practice today could be the basis of many sub-groups’ racist and exclusionary views.

    I was taught the “we Chinese…” line for countless things while growing up, often to ‘distinguish’ the ‘us’ and the ‘less worthy’, in a way which retrospectively seems more like how we tell fictional stories to kids who we are trying to teach something else indirectly, or motivating a team against a phantom adversary in a demonising way.

    Although I married someone of mandarin speaking background who has much higher personal association to being “Chinese” within her family, home and heart is not in China. Mandarin speaking China has lost most of what our forefathers considered ancestral. For me, the hills around Kampar mean more as an ancestral location than anywhere in China. Not only did most of our ancestors live in a “Middle kingdom” where they almost entirely spoke their respective dialects while reading unified Chinese text, almost all have never hear or used a single word of Mandarin, as Mandarin had only been forced as the ‘generic verbalisation’ (“Pu Tung Hua” as China Chinese call it).

    Perhaps in a land where they are ALL Chinese, they don’t grow up with any distinction of “We Chinese…” against any other local populace, and when “We Chinese…” is used, it’s to denote territorial nationality. This is where the mindset of China Chinese and ‘all other’ Chinese already differ. What we have harped on for generations outside of China is “Chinese” race, while in China, it’s nationality and allegiance.

    To me, China is a foreign land, as foreign, strange, and exotic as say Egypt or Roman Europe are, but in its own different way. All with centuries of continuous cultural history, and contributing to many elements adopted by other cultures and communities around the world from decor, to artwork, to thematics, architecture, cultural elements and more. If I happen to speak some of their languages, it’s because I was taught it. If I happen to share some of my appearance with any of them, it’s because I do have related ancestry, and will not hide it nor re-brand it. I am Chinese, but by ancestry and not by nationality nor allegiance.

    “Overseas Chinese” beyond that first generation of emigrants from China technically becomes redundant. I’m an overseas Malaysian. Born to Malaysian parents while they were out of Malaysia, and maintained Malaysian nationality. I’m an ‘overseas Malaysian’ because I’m a Malaysian national born overseas. All people of Chinese ancestry born to non China nationals are automatically Chinese by ancestry. “Overseas” doesn’t apply to ancestry, but may apply to nationality.

    • Hello VinSen,

      Thank you very much for your comments. Like you, my primary allegiance is to Malaysia. I feel some connection to China though – it’s definitely closer to my heart than Egypt or Roman Europe! What that connection will turn out to be in the end, I’m still trying to work out. As for the definition of ‘overseas Chinese’, different forms are in use. For me, it means anyone of Chinese descent born outside of China. Using this definition, overseas Chinese are often reminded of our ancestry by other people. This is especially true in a country like Malaysia!

  4. June Chin Olson

    Hi Selina……..I would love to read your book…..is it out yet? We are related although you may not have heard of me…..I am the daughter of Stephen Chin Kee Onn and a cousin of your mother. I live in Jacksonville, Florida.
    June Chin Olson

    • Hi Aunt June, Good to meet you online! No, I don’t remember you but my cousin Lisa explained our relationship to me. At present, my novel remains unpublished. Alas, publication will be a long road! I will be looking for an agent in the next few months. Meanwhile I hope you enjoy my blogs.

  5. Foo Khong Yee

    Very well written, honest and frank. The 2008 Olympics certainly made the whole world sit up and watch. Like you, I share a strange sense of pride.

  6. dennis

    while anglophile or americophile to the max, i’m very sinocentric and view chinese are the real masters of the universe.

    however, i see myself standing up for the austronesians including malays, when china truly replaces the USA and Europe as the rightful master of the world.

    don’t wanna fall for the propaganda in shanghai that roti canai and capati were invented by china.

    or singapore’s naughty rumour mill saying that orang asli heroes as hang tuah and his brother hang jebat were kung fu knights from china.

  7. Feelan C. Siak

    What do I think? I am a Chinese through and through, it is in my blood, and I am a Hakka. I am proud to be a Chinese.

  8. Hi Selina, I’ve just been through this part – thank you for this, so honestly written! I was especially touched by the part of the Olympic Games. I happen to be in Beijing for the firt (and my only) time just before the Games. What I saw there at this point of time helped me understood my western friends sharing their feeling of Moscow coming from the West. I simply could not get them before: Beijing was a eye opener as it was completely Moscow overpowering… in the same direction… Lots of energy that you feel on the streets straightly physically, the live power in action being so real when you see the new great buildings growing up in front of you, a few floors a day… lots of people and lack of smiling faces, huge contact berrier with the foreigners, the whole mystery of truly sophisticated culture which does not pretend for being understood by stranger… Moscow was indeed a little “village” replica of Beijing… Beijing was fascinating, inspiring… and scary… And I can still feel it when I watch the opening ceremony again… I think reaction of the West to China Olympic triumph was just defensive: instinctively and also politically consciously I beleieve, you face THE BIG UNKNOWN, which always feels like something being dangerous. This is all sad. I also feel very similar to your “Olympic thoughts” when Moscow is “loosing face”: every day here in the West… the only difference is that the Russian culture does not have the “face” concept, in fact a bit the opposite 🙂

    • Hi Katya,

      Thank you for sharing your feelings so honestly, especially your admission of fear when you were in Beijing during the Olympics. I believe that mixture of fascination and fear towards China is something all of us will have to deal with.

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