jolantru: (sing to the dawn)
[personal profile] jolantru
My paternal grandmother - my Ah-Ma - came from Hui An province, Fujian. I did not know this fact until I was a teenager. But even then, I always thought Hui An was a clan association (because my father is a member and he gets the mail from the clan regularly). When I was a young woman, I found out more about Hui An and its unique traditions.

You see, the Chinese are not a monolithic race/culture. The dominant culture is the Han. But there are also other ethnic groups under this wide umbrella term. Half of my heritage comes from Southern China which is closer to regions like Vietnam and Yunnan. The languages that come out from these regions are rich, textured and unique. Mandarin Chinese is supposed to be the unifying language, the pu-tong-hua (common tongue/language); it is what I grew up with, because there was (and is) a government policy to eradicate all the "dialects". Therefore, many adults from my generations grew up speaking only English and Mandarin Chinese. Our knowledge of the "dialects", the languages from the specific provinces in China, is dismal, a smattering of words or two.

My Ah-Ma saw it in her grandchildren. Only a couple of my cousins are able to converse with her in Hokkien. The rest of us flounder and have to look for interpreters (namely my father). Once, after returning from Australia for summer vacation, I visited her and she called me an "ang moh", a white person. The comment, though spoken in jest, stuck with me for a long time. Was I an "ang moh", a white person? Or - worse - was I a banana? Yellow outside, white within. I cannot speak Hokkien to save my life, but I try to understand my Ah-Ma. These days, I have taken to speaking to her in Mandarin. Even then, I feel as if I am a failure, a hack pretending to be what she is not.

Except that I know who I am. Studying in Australia has reinforced it. Visiting other countries like Britain and France has reinforced it. I am Chinese, a person whose heritage comes from various parts of China. I am also Singaporean, a member of a majority race in a multi-racial country. Yet, the strong codification that I am Chinese comes in when I am perceived as a minority in places like Perth, Western Australia or Scotland. No matter how excellent my command of English is, I am still deemed as a second-language speaker, because of how I appear to others.

I want to reiterate that the Chinese are not a monolithic race, that we have rich cultural traditions specific to the regions we hail from. I cannot speak as a person from those specific provinces, because I am a child of immigrant grandparents and that I was born in Singapore, a country made up of immigrants. The culture I grew up in is part of the Chinese diaspora. We have been brought up in a common Chinese culture with the same festivals and traditions.

Yet, looking at my Ah-Ma, I wonder what has been lost. The Hui An women are known to wear bright and colorful kerchiefs around their heads, a practice that might have transmitted from the Yue. She herself has shown me the silver metal chain around her waist. I have read that Hui An people can be considered an ethnic minority, something that I think many people in Singapore do not realize (or even know about).

What am I going to tell my daughters who themselves have a rich Peranakan heritage? That they are Chinese? That they have a textured culture? And I think I should. It is their heritage.

Date: 2009-06-03 04:38 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] watchingwolf
That was a lovely entry. :) So thoughtful and, Joyce, you are gently deep.

Date: 2009-06-08 05:05 am (UTC)
ext_6167: (dinocorn badass)
From: [identity profile] delux-vivens.livejournal.com
This is so beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

Date: 2009-06-09 09:56 am (UTC)
sami: (Default)
From: [personal profile] sami
... I read this, and it was thought-provoking and beautifully written, and yet, all was over-ridden with the thought: "PERTH!"

We are the biggest small town in the world.

Date: 2009-06-09 02:14 pm (UTC)
sheafrotherdon: (Default)
From: [personal profile] sheafrotherdon
Here via the Asian Women's Blog Carnival. This is a beautiful post - thank you for it!

Date: 2009-06-09 03:02 pm (UTC)
glass_icarus: (Default)
From: [personal profile] glass_icarus
here via the Carnival! this is gorgeous; thank you for sharing it! &hearts

(also, ouch, ouch, ouch for grandparental disconnects. :\ it sucks to not be able to communicate the way you want to.)

Date: 2009-06-09 10:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jhameia.blogspot.com
My grandmother also spoke Hokkien. I didn't even have the benefit of Mandarin to help me out. She died before I ever got the gumption to think about learning the dialect.

Strange, but I also feel that being away from home has helped me a great deal in identifying who I am, heritage-wise. I won't say I've gotten a firm hold on my cultural heritage, but I'm trying. It feels... sad and odd that one should feel more strongly about one's culture when one is not immersed in it anymore.

Great post.

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