Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Vertigo of Foreign-born Chinese

Note: Yesterday I received a letter from a Singapore reader, who raised an important question about the sense of cultural identity for foreign-born Chinese. Her description of Singapore also surprised me a bit. I'm posting the letter below with permission. Whether you've had similar experiences (as a foreign-born member of some culture) or not, please feel free to chip in for a discussion. We'd love to hear your take on the issue. Xujun


Hello, Ms. Eberlein,

I read the post about “China’s image abroad, a preschooler’s perspective” and was shocked by it. However, I am not sure if I should be concerned by China’s image abroad or not. I have very mixed and contradictory feelings about the country.

When I am overseas I am sometimes mistaken for a Chinese national but I am actually Singaporean Chinese. My family migrated to Singapore sometime in the earlier half of the 20th century during one of the most turbulent periods of China’s history. I believe that my grandparents probably thought of themselves as Chinese, not Singaporeans but later developments in the mainland made it impossible to return. My parents and I are born in Singapore. Unlike the rest of my family, I have never been to China.

Reading your entries, I feel that you still care very much about your homeland though you are an American citizen. May I know how you see yourself? For overseas Chinese whose family did not undergo the Communist period and is unfamiliar with life under the CCP, mainland China is quite incomprehensible. Singapore is not a Chinese country but it does have a 华人社会 of its own because over 75% of the population is of Chinese descent. However, with the influence of British colonialism and other local cultures, the local Chinese culture has evolved quite differently from say, Hong Kong which is 90+% Chinese. We use English in our daily lives, are very westernized and are quite weak in our command of Chinese. Most of us are from Southern China and speak southern dialects at home (my parents cannot understand each other because they speak different dialects so they speak mostly putonghua).

The government has banned all Chinese regional languages in the mass media in the hope of encouraging us to speak putonghua for business purposes. Since there was a lot of regional rivalry between different groups of Chinese in the past, this does have an effect of uniting the local Chinese community but I feel we are slowly losing our identities.

When I was growing up in 80s Singapore, the country was becoming a first world country and there was a sense of optimism and hope in the air. I literally witnessed tall buildings going up and I feel that there was a real sense of togetherness in those days amongst all Singaporeans. Since we were a brand new nation with a heterogeneous population composed of immigrants, the government tried very hard in schools to instill a sense of national identity. I believe that a Singaporean identity would have coalesced naturally but as I grew older, I realize that government policies have consistently led to its erosion.

I feel totally alienated from Singapore nowadays and so do many Singaporeans. As you may know, Singapore has a one-party rule system. As an ordinary Singaporean, I have no say in the way Singapore is run. The wealth gap is growing, we have no labor laws that protect employees and no social safety net. The people who run this country are paid high salaries but the economy is going down the drain. As a result stress levels are ever-increasing and growing numbers of Singaporeans are migrating. Singapore society is becoming increasingly more fragmented and true Singaporean culture is allowed no room to grow.

As such, I’m considering migrating overseas.

If I do succeed in becoming say, a New Zealand citizen, what should I call myself? A Singaporean New Zealander, Chinese New Zealander or just plain New Zealander??? Although I have never been to China, I’m quite attached to Chinese culture/customs (I can read/write Mandarin though not very well) but China itself will be quite alien to me if I go there. I can see myself going there to visit my ancestral hometowns or for travel but not actually working/living there. So my links to my ancestral land are quite problematic yet I am unwilling to let go of my Chinese identity totally for nostalgic reasons because I was brought up celebrating Chinese festivals and customs and they are a part of me. When I see old CCTV/HK/Taiwan TV programs, it brings me back to my childhood. I’m not sure how far I should identify with or support China though. I love classical Chinese culture but the present China/government has quite a negative image.

So what am I? Someone totally adrift without any homeland, roots or culture? If I do go to a new country as an adult, I think I am too old to ever assimilate totally. Especially since I am a visible minority who looks Chinese.

Sorry for such a long letter but I liked your blog entries and can see that you are a thoughtful and intelligent person and wanted to hear your opinion about foreign-born Chinese. I am too embarrassed to discuss this with my best friend though she is aware that I hope to migrate. I have talked to many foreign-born Chinese from all over the world and a lot of us are quite confused about our identities. When we watched the 2008 Olympics, we were uncertain whether we should feel proud of China or not because we are foreign citizens and am not sure if we can lay claim to Chineseness. I believe you still love China despite all its political problems.

Drifting leaf


Postscript: After reading the letter, I asked about Singapore's political censorship. Drifting Leaf answered:

"In Singapore, there are 3 big taboos: race, religion and politics that no one dares to talk about.

"The internet in Singapore is also censored somewhat but not as comprehensively and severely as in China.

"Local political humor site. The website is run by a Singaporean couple who migrated to New York.

"Singapore has gotten into rows with China a couple of times by the way. Once, it was over our unofficial diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Plus, we are too close to the US. "


alfaeco said...

Home is where your heart is, whatever the nationality ;-)

... or local political conditions.

Thomas said...

Why do you find her description of Singapore surprising? It sounds pretty accurate to me.

Xujun Eberlein said...

I guess I have not kept close track of Singapore. I read Zaobao from time to time, but only about China news. (They even have repoters stationed in Chongqing.) I thought Singapore was supposed to be a much more democratic country than China. Chinese readers generally regard Zaobao's reporting on China as more factual than Chinese media. Now I guess that might not be the case when it comes to reporting on their own country.

Thomas said...

The Singaporean Press either ignores local opposition parties, or conducts smear campaigns against them.

I don't read Lianhe Zaobao (my Mandarin isn't good enough), but I'm sure it doesn't differ from The Straits Times in that regard (as the whole press is state-owned).

The way the PAP treats opposition politicians is a disgrace. Singapore has all the institutions that make up a democracy, but it certainly isn't one. Not by a long shot. At least China is more honest and doesn't pretend to be something it is not.

kid.wh(y) said...

In the US, the government doesn't need to own the press to control it, they fall all over themselves just to get in line.

I'm a Taiwanese-ABC with no love of China, but I think many, many, many, many people don't realize the American/Western exceptionalism (the belief that the West is fundamentally "better" or more just than the backwards brown/non-white people of the world) and colonialist Orientalism that still pervades our thinking.

So we have our glorious US democracy. One where we vote every 2-4 years, but cannot stop (two) wars of aggression, based upon lies, or torture, or environmental destruction. All the other "just" democracies of Europe rooted in the "enlightenment" just sits by in the United Nations and lets the US rampage anywhere it wants. If we aren't bombing some "primitive" people back to "their caves" in countries we undermined in the first place (Afghanistan), we're letting millions get slaughtered without lifting a finger (Rwanda, Darfur, the Congo).

The light of democracy is simply blinding.

aliaeb said...

By now, this is an old discussion, but I've only just gotten to it. American politics and post-colonial orientalism set aside (these are topics I might not be very good at discussing), I find the issue of cultural/national identity an utterly confounding, endlessly engaging one. As the inconclusive questions posed at the end of Drifting Leaf's letter imply, there is no answer to the "who am I" of a migrating world citizen born of immigrants. Consider, for one, the excellent and inconclusive novels written by so many Chinese authors who now live abroad or in exile in Paris, Berlin, London and the United States (高行健,趙振開,馬建,哈金). These authors all explore issues of cultural identity, memory and loss, but none say anything affirmative with regard to these issues. I myself am an American with a very mixed European background (which is very typical, right?). I think I've failed, however, at fully identifying with any one cultural heritage, including that of American nationalism. I have studied Chinese language, history and culture for a quarter of my life now, and live abroad in Taiwan with no definite plans to return home. Additionally, my partner is from Hong Kong, and I feel very strongly inclined to start speaking Cantonese in addition to Mandarin. I worry, though, about who I will become. My partner doesn't celebrate any holidays, and I worry about my future children being bereft of either a Christmas or a Chinese New Year. If they are born in Hong Kong, will they be Chinese? Will I be called an expatriate or an immigrant? Are our Children destined to be even more confused than we are with regard to their identities? These are important questions to ask, as world citizens are growing ever more mobile, and our understandings of ourselves ever more complex. I apologize for leaving such a long comment so late in the game, but these are questions I ask myself every single day, and it was a relief and a strange satisfaction to read such a thoughtful letter by someone dealing with the same confusion.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Hi Aliaeb, thanks for the very interesting and thought-provoking comment - it deserves more readers. I will make it a separate post and hope to hear more from others.

MatthewTan said...

As a Singaporean, I need to correct Drifting Leaf.

You can talk about race and religion, and of course politics. But you cannot attack a race and religion without fear of consequences. This is pretty fair, fair to all races and religions.

And attacking the ruling PAP party or its politics and policies are something that occur daily, and reading stuff like this is my daily bread.

There are only 100 internet websites that are banned. And 100 is chosen for symbolism only. It includes pornographic websites, terrorist websites, religious fanatics websites, etc. I just came to know that is banned here. It is a fanatical evangelical website that attacks Islam and Catholicism. Apart from these 100 websites, you can read everything under the sun.

Foreign magazines of all kinds are available here. When they write something the Singapore government deems untruthful, the government will demand "the right of reply". And that's all we asked of them, if they want to sell their magazines here. If the right of reply is not granted, we will restrict BUT NOT BAN the magazine. Photocopies of the restricted magazines (without the advertisments) will then be mass produced and circulated. This is how we deal with untruthful press reports. And I am proud of this.

MatthewTan said...

For people with Chinese heritage who are interested in Singapore, its governance, its human rights policies (which is contrary to Western ideals), etc. you may want to google:

"Lee Kuan Yew lashes out at critical human rights group"

You will see a discussion thread at foolsmoutain;