And then in December, RP and I went on what we’re calling our “Overseas Chinese Tour”: We met my Dad in Hong Kong a few weeks ago, and basically ate our way through the city (including the seafood of Lamma Island), dousing ourselves in champagne. Dad, you can come back to Asia any time!..
From there we flew to Penang, took a train to Kuala Lumpur, a bus to Melaka (or Malacca, if you prefer), and then a bus over the border to Singapore, my hometown!
I realized a stupidly obvious thing on the Overseas Chinese Tour: my impression of Chinese culture growing up was, like most people living outside the mainland, based on experiences with Chinese immigrants. Most of these immigrants came from a very small number of places in southern China (like Fujian and Guangzhou); they were mostly speakers of Cantonese or Hakka, they served food particular to those regions in restaurants, built neighborhoods using regional architectural styles, took feng shui really seriously and practiced regional versions of Buddhism and Daoism.
Fastforward to my college years: I become interested in studying “Chinese” and “Chinese culture” – and, because this is 2001, what I study is Mandarin. The geographic focus of my classes is mainland China. Being taught by professors who, given their ages, were often studying at a time when foreigners were not allowed into the mainland, forcing them instead to study in Taiwan, I am given the impression that the mainland is where “real” Chinese culture is happening, where the “real” Chinese language is being spoken. No one told me that this might not be the Chinese culture I was interested in – no one told me that there was the option to study anything else.
Now, I get why it’s important to study the culture and history of mainland China, and why Mandarin is a critically important language in the modern world. But it honestly never occurred to me, during my college years and after, that my real cultural interest might lie with the Chinese diaspora. That Cantonese is a more fun and fiery language than Mandarin. That the food from the regions where immigrants tend to originate is, to me, tastier. That the religions practiced are wild and lively and full of ritual and superstition. That what’s going on, culturally, on the mainland might just be a paler version of what’s going on in the diaspora – not the other way around.
RP compared this aptly to Jews in the world (by the way, I swear we talk about stuff other than Jewishness): if you wanted to learn what Jews are about, you could go to Israel. You could learn Hebrew, could become wrapped up in Arab-Israeli conflict, could…I don’t know. Eat hummus. Or you could go to Brooklyn, learn Yiddish, and eat pastrami. In both cases you would be learning about Jews, but the cultural experiences couldn’t be more different. (And for the record, I love me some hummus. And some Brooklyn.)
I need some healing with China. I’m in a frustrated period. I should maybe stop traveling to southeast Asian countries and start traveling within the mainland, to remind myself that there’s a big Chinese world out there – but I should maybe also remember that China itself doesn’t have to be the Chinese world that I inhabit or relate to. I could learn some Cantonese, I could get involved with public health in Chinese-American communities in the US and elsewhere.
I’m convinced that the ability of diaspora cultures to thrive and be vibrant isn’t just related to their often being representative of a small group of determined, gutsy people from a “home country” – it’s also because those cultures can be allowed to develop without the constraints of things like domestic government manipulation, coercive majority languages and destructive calls for nationalism. As long as a cultural group can keep from total assimilation in their new adopted country, it makes sense to me that they could thrive to an even greater extent than possible in their home country.
Why didn’t anybody teach me that in college?