On Not Really Being Chinese

Grandma and meWhile I am ethnically Chinese, I was born in Singapore. My father was born in a small town called Muar, in Malaysia, and my mother was born in Singapore. My father’s parents were both Hakka, from Guangdong in China, they travelled south independently before the age of 20, and met, married, started and raised a family in Malaysia. My mother’s father was from Fujian, Anxi, having journeyed to Singapore at the age of 7 with his family in the belly of a junk; my mother’s mother had been born in Singapore to a Hokkien father and a Peranakan mother. The Peranakans, or Straits Chinese, are a distinct cultural group in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, with a mix of Chinese and Malay cultures due to intermarriage, dating as far back as the 15th century.

I grew up and went to school in Singapore, my first job was in Singapore. I left Singapore to come to Sydney, Australia, as an adult migrant with my then-partner (who is Australian). Before I met him, I would never have thought of moving to Australia. I hadn’t even thought of leaving Singapore for good. I did think of possibly working for a few years in a place that was larger and more connected with the rest of the world — the cities of London, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong or Beijing.

The primary language of education, commerce, and law in Singapore is English. I sat the Cambridge Ordinary Levels at 16, and the Cambridge Advanced Levels at 18, before attending university in Singapore, studying Linguistics and Literature. In Singapore, all subjects, except that of other languages, are taught in English. I did have to study Chinese language in school up till the age of 17, but we rarely studied Chinese literature. I certainly didn’t study the classics, because my Chinese reading ability was never proficient enough. I visited China in 1993, as a child, for two weeks. I have never been back. I don’t know where my families’ villages and ancestral homes are in China, or if they even still exist. By that measure, I am not really Chinese.

When I came to Australia to live, I didn’t realise I would never be going back to Singapore to set up home again. I didn’t realise it would be nearly impossible to have your heart in two places. A few years after I arrived in Australia, I became an Australian citizen, which meant giving up my Singapore citizenship. I wanted to participate in the democracy of the country I live in. I don’t regret doing this, but it is hard to not process this as both as a loss and a gain.

Over the past few months, I have thought a lot about what it means to be Asian, or Asian-Australian. I am not an academic or an activist, and have never consciously thought about identity politics, though of course it affects me and my work. I’ve always maintained that I would like to viewed as an Australian writer first and foremost, who, as a migrant from Singapore, has Chinese roots. Singapore, China and their related themes arise in my work, because these are themes that arise in my life, too. Yet these themes do not limit or define me, or my work. How does one become Australian, without losing one’s Asianness? How does one embrace universality and globalism without having to shed one’s cultural specificities and regionalisms?

Some time ago, my third book, Painting Red Orchids, was reviewed on Cordite by a Melbourne writer, Ling Toong. I thought it was a good review — most of the time, writers are pleased to have their books reviewed at all. The author’s reading of several of my food poems — that they were ‘clumsy and superficial treatment of multiculturalism’, in my ‘depiction of exoticised cuisine and food rituals as sensual cross-cultural exchanges’, was surprising to me. Anna Kerdjik Nicholson, in her launch speech for my book, understood the reflexive function of one of my poems, ‘Xiao Long Bao’ (full text in previous link), and said that ‘[t]he exactness of the method of making the dumplings is a nice metaphor for the making of the poem.’.

I would go further to say that as a cultural statement, the poem insists that the reader traverse the precise processes of dumpling-making before being allowed to achieve the ‘[s]udden understanding’ of all the hype about dumplings, which, of course, isn’t sudden at all, (or just about dumplings), but can seem sudden, in the way abrupt clarity can happen. Extrapolate this to cultural understandings: you need to walk a mile in someone’s shoes before you can even begin to understand what it might mean to be that person.

Cultural identity is very rarely straightforward, especially with diasporic peoples such as myself. There is no one Asian-Australian identity. No two Asian-Australian experiences are completely alike. We are as diverse as all peoples in Australia — be they First Nations people from different parts of Australian country, be they white migrants of Anglo-Celtic heritage, or of Greek, Turkish, Lebanese, South American, be they refugees who were forced to leave their homes behind.

I can’t speak for anyone other than myself. But it is my hope that in telling my stories, in sharing my experiences, other people feel empowered to speak their own stories. It is important in art, literature, and in life that people see others who look like them, who sound like them, who come from places and experiences like theirs, who are telling stories they know to be true. No one wants to be the outsider who is unheard, who feels like their culture and their concerns are unimportant. That the only way to fit in to be like all the others. There are many ways to be Australian, most of them valid and hard-earned. For some, there never needed to be a search, it has always been a given. Others, like myself, are still trying to find what it means to be Australian, to be Asian, and what being Asian-Australian really means.

If you’d like to read more of my thoughts on this, I have written around this, in various forms, previously in my blog posts for Southerly in June 2016. The photographs in this post are of myself and my maternal grandmother, Yeap Ah Choo, who is my only surviving grandparent.