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Friday, March 13, 2015

"Chinese must speak Chinese" / The Centrality of China to Chineseness

"Mother always felt exceedingly guilty about our language deficiency and tried to make us study Chinese, that is Mandarin, the national dialect... [But] I suppose that when I was young there was no motivation to study Chinese...

‘But China was once the greatest and most cultured nation in the world! Weren’t you proud to be Chinese? Wasn’t that reason enough to study Chinese?’ Many people felt this way but unfortunately we just didn’t feel very Chinese! Today we are described by one English writer as belonging to ‘the sad band of English-educated who cannot speak their own language’. This seems rather unfair to me. Must we know the language of our forefathers when we have lived in another country (Malaysia) for many years? Are the descendants of German, Norwegian and Swedish emigrants to the USA, for instance, expected to know German or Norwegian or Swedish? Are the descendants of Italian and Greek emigrants to Australia expected to study Italian and Greek? Of course not, and yet overseas Chinese are always expected to know Chinese or else they are despised not only by their fellow Chinese but also by non- Chinese! Perhaps this is due to the great esteem with which Chinese history, language and culture are universally regarded. But the European emigrants to the USA and Australia also have a not insignificant history, language and culture, and they are not criticized when they become English speaking."

--- On learning Chinese in Rainbow Round My Shoulder / Ruth Ho

"If the ‘Indonesian Chinese’ can be described as a distinctive ‘people’ - one which, as I have sketched above, has its historical birth in colonial Dutch East Indies —- then they in turn have become diasporized, especially after the military coup in 1965. While my parents, among many thousands, chose the relative wealth and comfort of a life in the Netherlands (‘for the sake of the education of the children’), I was recently informed by an aunt that I have some distant relatives in Brazil, where some two hundred Indonesian Chinese Families live in Sao Paulo. There is also a large Indonesian Chinese community in Hong Kong, many of whom ended up there after a brief ‘return’ to ‘the homeland‘, Mao’s China, where they found, just like my grandfather earlier in the century, that their very ‘Chineseness’ was cast in doubt: the mainlanders did not consider them Chinese at all (Godley and Coppel 1990). Nevertheless, this Chineseness has never ceased to be a major identity preoccupation in this unlikely diaspora...

But this symbolic orientation toward the ‘homeland’ tends to complicate the problem of identity, as ‘China’ is presented as the cultural / geographical core in relation to which the westernized overseas Chinese is forced to take up a humble position, even a position of shame and inadequacy over her own ‘impurity’. In this situation the overseas Chinese is in a no-win situation: she is either ‘too Chinese’ or ‘not Chinese enough’. As Chow (1991: 28/9) has observed, ‘Chinese from the mainland are [often felt to be] more “authentic” than those who are from, say, Taiwan or Hong Kong, because the latter have been “Westernized".’ But the problem is exacerbated for more remote members of the Chinese diaspora, say, for the Indonesian peranakan Chinese or for second-generation Chinese Americans, whose ‘Chineseness’ is even more diluted and impure.

OF course, this double-bind problem is not unique to migrants of Chinese descent. In a sense, it enters into the experience of all diasporie peoples living in the West. What is particular to the Chinese diaspora, however, is the extraordinarily strong originary pull of the ‘homeland’ as a result of the prominent place of ‘China’ in the Western imagination. The West’s fascination with China as a great, ‘other’ civilization began with Marco Polo and remains to this day (see e.g. MacKerras 1991). In the Western imagination China cannot be an ordinary country, as a consequence, everything happening in that country is invested with more than ‘normal’ significance, as testified by the intense and extreme dramatization of events such as the ‘Tiananmen massacre’ and the ‘Hong Kong handover’ in the Western media (Chow 1993; 1998a). There is, in other words, an excess of meaningfulness accorded to ‘China’; ‘China’ has often been useful for Westem thinkers as a symbol, negative or positive, for that which the West was not. As Zhang Longxi (1988: 127) has noted, even Jacques Derrida, the great debunker of binary oppositions, was seduced into treating the non—phonetic character of the Chinese language as ‘testimony of a powerful movement of civilization developing outside of all logocentrism‘, that is, as the sign of a culture totally different from what he conceives as Western culture. Worse still, this powerful othering is mirrored by an equally strong and persistent tendency within Chinese culture itself to consider itselfas central to the world, what Song Xianlin and Gary Sigley (2000) call China's ‘Middle Kingdom mentality’, exemplified by the age-old Chinese habit to designate all non-Chinese as ‘barbarians’, ‘foreign devils’ or ‘ghosts’. This is a form of self-Orientalization expressed in the famous inward-looking aloofness of Chinese culture criticized, within China itself, in the controversial television series River Elegy, and which I also sensed in Lan-lan’s ultimate insistence, through a paradoxical, assertive defensiveness in relation to the West, on China’s pure otherness.

In the interlocking of this mutual discursive exclusionism overseas Chinese people often find themselves inevitably entangled in China's elevated status as privileged Other to the West, depriving them of an autonomous space to determine their own trajectories for constructing cultural identity. I recognize Rey Chow’s (1991) observation that there is, among many Chinese people, an ‘obsession with China’. What connects the diaspora with the ‘homeland’ is ultimately an emotional, almost visceral attachment. The relationship is, to use Amitav Ghosh’s (1989) term, an epic one. it is precisely this epic relationship which invests the homeland myth with its power: it is this epic relationship to ‘China’, for example, which made millions of overseas Chinese all over the world feel so inescapably and ‘irrationally’ sick and nauseous when the tanks crushed the students’ movement at Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989, as if they felt the humiliation on their own bodies, despite the fact that many, if not most of them would never think of actually ‘returning’ to this distant ‘motherland’. The desires, fantasies and sentimentalities that go into this ‘obsession with China’, says Chow (1991: 25), should be seen at least in part as ‘a response to the solicitous calls, dispersed internationally in multiple ways, to such a [collective, “Chinese”] identity’. In other words, the subjective processes of diasporic ethnic identification are often externally instigated, articulating and confirming a position of subordination in relation to Western hegemony...

It is by recognizing the irreducible productivity of the syncretic practices of diaspora cultures that ‘not speaking Chinese‘ will stop being a problem for overseas Chinese people. ‘China; the mythic homeland, will then stop being the absolute norm for ‘Chineseness’ against which all other Chinese cultures of the diaspora are measured. Instead, Chineseness becomes an open signifier, which acquires its peculiar form and content in dialectical junction with the diverse local conditions in which ethnic Chinese people, wherever they are, construct new, hybrid identities and communities. Nowhere is this more vigorously evident than in everyday popular culture. Thus, we have the fortune cookie, a uniquely Chinese-American invention quite unknown elsewhere in the Chinese diaspora, or, for that matter, in China itself. In Malaysia one of the culinary attractions is nonya food, a cuisine developed by the peranakan Chinese out of their encounter with local, Malay spices and ingredients. Some time ago I was at a Caribbean parry in Amsterdam full of immigrants from the Dutch West Indies; to my surprise the best salsa dancer of the party was a young man of Chinese descent who grew up in Surinam. There I was, facing up to my previiously held prejudice that a Chinese can never become a Latino!"

--- On Not Speaking Chinese: Diasporic identifications and postmodern ethnicity / Ien Ang

Language And Identity

""Linking identity and language so tightly has its problems. One can feel proud of being Chinese, while not having full mastery of the language. If I may cite a personal example, I studied in Malaysia until my O levels and came to Singapore for A levels. In Malaysia, the language of instruction was Malay. Of course, the easiest subject for me was Malay. I got a distinction for my A levels. But it does not follow that because I got a distinction, I am more Malay than say, a Malay who got a credit or who got an F in Malay."
MISS IRENE NG (Tampines GRC), speaking in English.
Straits Times...

It says alot about the level of Chinese proficency in Singapore when nine out of ten people in your office didn't recognize the difference between the characters 论 ("debate") and 轮 ("wheel") until the client (from Indonesia) pointed it out to us. (The tenth person, by the way, was a Malay.) Dennis Bloodworth had commented in his book rather scathingly about "the sad band of English-educated who cannot speak their own language and who, in terminal cases, not only know nothing of their own history, but would rather eat bangers and mash and raspberry jelly than a curry or Cantonese rice." (Ouch. And by an ang moh too. Double ouch.)...

As a kid, I never learnt the dialect generations had spoken before me. On the other side, my grandparents never learnt to be comfortable with Mandarin, the common tongue lauded by the government to unite the segmented Chinese all babbling Cantonese, Hakka and Teochew at each other. It worked, but it also caused a great divide between one generation and the next. At family gatherings, I blinked blankly at any conversation attempt by my grandparents in Teochew even if it is something as simple as a query on my studies. It can't even be said that we drifted apart, my grandparents and I. We never connected in the first place."
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