It was Chinese New Year yesterday (Feb. 3, 2011). At 6 am, I skyped my siblings in Singapore (13 hours ahead) who were finishing off the traditional family reunion dinner. My sister teased me by showing me and quizzing me if I could still recognize the Chinese dishes my mom cooked. I identified them all – from bamboo shoots to sea cucumbers (it’s NOT a vegetable)! It is times like this that I feel nostalgic and homesick. I miss my mom and her cooking, and I miss my siblings. It’s the price I pay for choosing to live half way round the world from them. But I don’t regret my choice. Nevertheless, at times like this, I miss them.
At times like this, I also inevitably reflect on my identity. Identity is such a complex issue. “Who am I?” is a question that I have wrestled with for a long time. Last month, I told that to a classroom of primarily Diaspora ethnic immigrant church leaders when I guest lectured at a Seminary in Toronto, Canada for a cross-cultural communication course. I was asked to speak on the complexities of identity and culture especially in relation to the Christian faith. I approached the subject from a biographical perspective, telling my own story of identity struggles in relation to my culture(s) and how my Westernized Christian faith actually complicated matters.
Life used to be simpler. I used to take it for granted that I was Chinese and I thought I knew what that meant. As a youth, I would merrily go play soccer with my Malay and Indian friends for such is the multi-cultural reality of Malaysia, where I was born and raised. The multi-cultural friendships I formed with my classmates helped me learn to be a good “guest”. I learned how to be a good guest when visiting my Malay and Indian friends’ homes, especially during festive days like the breaking of Ramadan (Muslim) and the celebration of Diwali (Hindu). And they, likewise, were good guests when they visited me for Chinese New Year. In essence, we learned how to navigate the cross-cultural relationships, adept at being guests and hosts to each other’s cultures, being hospitable to each other.
Only when I came to Canada as an international student did I start to question my Chinese identity. You see, I have never learnt how to read or write Chinese. Besides my own name and a few words here and there, I am illiterate in Chinese. I wasn’t even fluent in spoken Chinese. First of all, there are various Chinese dialects and the two most dominant – Mandarin and Cantonese – were not my mother dialect. I spoke Hakka, which literally meant “guest people”. My Hakka ancestors somehow were a Diaspora within the Chinese empire, without a home province. Cantonese was the dialect of Guangdong and Hong Kong and Mandarin was the Imperial dialect (and hence official dialect). But the Hakkas were guest people found in various villages spread across different Chinese provinces.
Hakka was my mother tongue. I learnt broken Mandarin and Cantonese growing up from my parents who learnt it as part of economic survival – part of the package of living as a Diaspora Chinese. My parents were fluent in both Mandarin and Cantonese but somehow I never picked it up that well. Probably because I didn’t need to use them much. My schoolmates were all fluent in the national language of Malaysia – Bahasa Malaysia or Malay – the lingua franca of our state education. And in a multi-cultural setting, we resorted mostly to speaking Malay.
But I was also enamoured with another language – English. I was the youngest of six, and my older siblings all had an English-based education, especially in high school, thanks to the vestiges of British colonialism in Malaysia’s past. By the time I entered Grade 1, however, the national curriculum changed drastically from English to Malay as the medium of instruction. But I enjoyed the privilege of English immersion with my older siblings, encouraged by my father who dutifully bought us the English daily news for us to read.
So, I am fluent in English, Malay (obviously incredibly rusty now), and my mother tongue of Hakka, but illiterate and stammering in Mandarin and Cantonese, the two dominant Chinese dialects. This means that I am at a great disadvantage when it comes to navigating the Chinese communities here in Canada.
I cannot blend in. In fact, I stick out like the proverbial sore thumb. In my early years as an international student, I was already going to English-speaking worship services in the Chinese churches. I would be totally lost in a Chinese-speaking service. I was a stranger to my own culture. As a Diaspora Chinese from Malaysia, I also do not culturally blend with either the mainland Chinese immigrants or the Hong Kong Chinese, regardless of language. And I couldn’t find a “Malaysian” community or church anywhere. Like the true Hakka that I am, I am still a “guest” in mainstream Chinese culture.
What is Chinese?
But when you think deeply about it, what does it actually mean to be “Chinese”? Does being fluent in the Chinese language mean you are Chinese? Would, say, an African-Canadian who grew up in China and being totally fluent with Mandarin and all the Chinese customs be regarded as Chinese? I suspect most Chinese would probably say, “No”. Then, being identified as Chinese certainly cannot be reduced to language mastery or with cultural mastery.
Is it purely biological then? I was born with Chinese genes, so to speak, and that makes me Chinese? Well, physical appearances do not make up for lack of cultural embodiment in the wider Chinese community. I am, what they say, a “banana” – yellow on the outside but white on the inside! My internal thought patterns, lifestyle, values and ethos are more Western than Chinese. Many second-generation born North American East Asians feel the same way. Except in my case, I am technically a 1st generation immigrant (as I immigrated in my 20s) but I feel like a 1.5 generation.
How did Western culture shape me so? That’s where my Christian tradition comes into the picture.
Christian = Western?
My first exposure to Christianity in Malaysia was when my third brother, Thomas, took me to Sunday School as a 10 year-old (approximately). It was a conservative Plymouth Brethren church. In my hometown back then, this was the only Protestant church in town. Thomas became a Christian in his late teens there and with my parents’ blessing took me to church. And I stayed. Even after Thomas left for university, I kept going to church myself, and eventually committed myself to following Jesus and got baptized around the age of 14.
Church was pretty much a sub-culture of its own. Everything was in English. We sang English hymns from the 18th and 19th centuries. We read from English bibles. The Pastor preached in English. We always spoke in English, even during fellowship reception time. And not only that, the theology was Western Christian theology. We read the 17th century Puritan Christians. Any Christian theologian or thinker worth reading beyond the 17th century was a Caucasian male who wrote in English. If I weren’t fluent in English already through my siblings at home, I certainly was by now thanks to church.
My Christian faith was entirely packaged in Western culture. To the point that I almost felt that to be a “genuine Christian” I had to leave my Chinese culture behind. Subconsciously, that was what I did. So I immersed myself into my Christian faith, and hence, into Western culture that it became my dominant identity. I took it for granted that Christianity was a Western religion and my faith conversion necessitates a cultural conversion.
Then I came to Canada. I became an English Literature major (again immersing myself into Western culture). I left my Chinese Christian Fellowship group on campus and drifted into the community that surrounds the Christian Reformed Chaplaincy. I felt more at home there, despite the fact that I was the only Chinese, and often, the only visible minority. My Christian faith and my thought patterns and values meshed better with this “Western” community. So I stayed. And I eventually fell in love and married a wonderful woman who was white/Caucasian.
In the midst of my university education, I learnt about cultural contextualization. I read about how globally, the Christian faith is contextualized, and hence practiced differently, in various different cultures. I read about how there actually is such a thing as, “Asian Christian Theology”! I realized now that I had been a victim of Western cultural imperialism and the little Plymouth Brethren church in my hometown was its unwitting agent.
Now, I want to rediscover parts of my Chinese culture and find ways where it might integrate with my Christian faith and Western culture. But I am not sure how to go about with this. Yet, it seems that parts of my Chinese culture had never left me and sometimes emerge from some hidden depths within me to assert its values over against Western sensibilities. For instance, once when I was looking for a mentor, someone suggested a name to me. I dismissed the suggestion immediately because he was too young! “He’s the same age or probably even younger than me!” I protested. But my friend asked, “Why do you think a mentor has to be older than you? Isn’t it about ability, experience and talent, rather than age?” I caught myself. The Chinese ethos of revering old age shaped me without me realizing it.
Even though I am now an ordained pastor in a primarily white/Caucasian denomination, and I have gained much respect and probably love from many “white” folks, there are still occasions where I don’t feel entirely at home. There is still a part of me that feel I am still a “guest” in Western culture. And encountering racism doesn’t help either. I had been called “Chink” and told where to go. I even encounter subtle racism in some Christian circles. I may be white on the inside but my yellow skin still makes me stick out like the proverbial thumb.
In the Middle
So, here I am, a Hakka Chinese, a “guest” in mainstream Chinese culture and, in some ways, still a “guest” in mainstream North American Christian church culture. When will I be given the privilege of being a “host”? Or, perhaps, when do I claim the authority of being a “host”? How do I do that? Am I caught in the middle forever?
I still have more questions than answers. But I think the step in the right direction requires that I re-envision my existential position. I am not caught in the middle. I am called to the middle! This vision is recently laying hold of me in more ways than one.
I believe God led me to this juncture for a reason. I believe I am who I am and what I am for a purpose. Maybe being the perfect “guest”, moving in and out of various circles, is of strategic importance in a multi-cultural world. Maybe I need to become a “guest-host” who not only receives hospitality but returns hospitality as well (metaphorically speaking). Maybe I am called to the middle as a peacemaker and a bridge builder.
- What are your struggles with identity issues?
- Do you have a similar clash of cultures or identities within your self?
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