The Un-Chinese: A Banana Speaks

Dinner will only be a 90 cent bun because today you didn’t study hard enough, Yi Wen. You’re only having dinner when you get back at 11.30 pm because you couldn’t finish even one essay. What a failure.

I’m a self-punishing psychotic.

Even after the strenous eight months, I painted for four days straight, stopping only for toilet breaks and meals. I learnt knitting and knit till my hands hurt, camped in a bag for five days, maximised my trip to Singapore by walking as much as possible, and took up a waitressing job under a fussy boss who won’t let her workers rest. And then, there’s a whole lot of Brigade work to do for the upcoming state-level training school.

Mom says, “Poor girl”, regarding the physical labour, as I’m the sole waitress – setting up the restaurant, cleaning, serving, preparing. But really, I don’t mind. My bosses, upon finding out that I come from an academically-driven family, have a perception that such people cannot do hard labour. I am always inclined to prove people who think that I severely lack physical strength and endurance, wrong.

The only thing that really tires me is what I call ‘double processing’. I’m what the Chinese call a banana. The inability to comprehend and communicate effectively in Chinese renders working in a very Chinese environment an extremely uphill task.

There are several questions and thoughts that I’ve been pondering about myself, them (people who claim to be true blue ethnics because of language.), language and ethnic identity. Maybe this is a socio-linguistic sort of topic. Regardless, here’s to all the bananas or whatever they call us.

I’ve been told that I have the Chinese-speaking face. That’s puzzling; I didn’t know there was a kind of face. It is evident that there is a general dislike for the other. They dislike us for going Western; we them for being so Chinese. I have to admit that it is a shame and a handicap not knowing my own mother tongue and dialects. My dad once said that language defines whether you’re in or out of a circle. It’s true. It’s difficult to mingle and merge with social groups of a language you are less proficient. I can’t even communicate with my own grandmother in Hokkien properly, one of my greatest regrets.

One of the best amalgamation of cultures would be the Chinese Peranakan community. They spoke Baba Malay, but they differentiated themselves from pure Chinese and were known as the ‘King’s Chinese’ because they embraced the West and attended English schools. That’s precisely what my Baba and Nyonya ancestors did. Maybe to the detriment of our culture, because we’ve never heard lest speak Baba Malay anymore, do embroidery, cook elaborate dishes, play cherki or sing pantun.

Then I ask: WHAT IS CULTURE? I read some big shot said debate is not our (Malaysia’s) culture. What is our culture?

The totality of socially transmitted behaviour patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.

If culture is such, then it is susceptible to changes through evolving times. In this age, when there is so much exposure to other cultures, the adoption of other cultures is inevitable. We take what we see as good, throw out the superstitions or inconvenience.

Language, however, is usually perceived as definitive of one’s ethnicity or culture. Being less proficient throws you several rungs down the ladder of True Ethnicity – like I’m less of a Chinese. But is it all there is to ethnicity and culture? I was brought up according to so-called Chinese values. We appreciate hard work, discipline and training, filial piety, knowledge and respect. I love the opera, the sad sounds of the erhu, the history, and the food, of course.

I wonder then, what does being Chinese mean to them? Is it literacy? Does it mean listening to S.H.E. or Cantopop, or dressing up like them? Maybe that’s the ‘evolving culture’. I don’t dig these stuff, so that means that I do not submerge completely in that totality.

A teacher who is a staunch Buddhist once criticised me for forsaking my ethnicity and culture. She said that by being Christian, I had no appreciation and was turning my back on the good Chinese values like honouring my ancestors, among others – somewhat a betrayal. Chinese Christians are de-Chinesed Chinese. We kill the culture.

That’s where the distinction to me is – between ethnicity and religion. Admittedly, it is difficult to separate these into two individual entities because over time, ethnic practices and religious practices are fused together. The difficulty lies here. But what comes first to me is God. I would practise Chinese culture willingly, unless it goes against God’s Word. The Bible says “Honour your father and mother” – that’s filial piety and respect.

“The mind of the prudent acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.” -Proverbs 18:15. That’s knowledge.

“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” -Hebrews 12:11. That’s discipline.

What puzzles me about them, in general, is the lack of interest to explore beyond the Chinese community. I was taken by surprise when several of my friends said they’d had never eaten Indian banana leaf rice before till I brought them. I’m not saying I’m better or that I’m more global. Many that I’ve encountered, even those not advanced in age, cannot speak decent Malay or English despite going through the works of education. It’s either the failure of the education system or the general close-mindedness. It really puzzles me.

As an un-Chinese, I’m the minority, the subject of bewilderment. I try extremely hard to understand them. Don’t take offense; these are just my encounters. But again, to me, language is a just a very useful tool. Ethnicity is just the origin of one’s ancestry. I’m not confused about my ethnic identity. Do I feel a need to belong? No, just a desire to understand. I’d ponder the same if I was thrown into the Malay, Indian, Burmese or any community. It’s a matter of understanding; accomodation will come then. Maybe then ethnic and language won’t be barriers.

I could just be dreaming of utopia.


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