This is the year of the dragon. This is the year I discovered China as a destination. In 2011, I traveled to Japan three times. In 2012, it was China’s turn – the first with that godawful Groupon tour, the second on a media trip for journalists to Jiangsu province and the third, on my own with my family to northern China. If you count Taiwan as part of my overall Chinese experience, then I guess that makes four visits in just one year.
I was actually pretty stoked about going to China. This has surprised everyone who knows me, including me. This is because I really have a love-hate relationship with China and all things Chinese.
Although I am an ethnic Chinese, my family’s background is Peranakan or Straits-born which meant I was more familiar with the Malay patois (that quirky combination of Malay, Hokkien and pidgin English). While I can trace my maternal beginnings all the way to the 17th century to a small village in Fujian province, I do not identify much with my roots in China. With my grandfather a mechanic for the British and my parents educated in the English medium, we naturally spoke English at home. Mandarin did not exist for me until I started school at the age of 7.
It was a struggle from the beginning. I went through tutor after tutor. I barely scraped through my entrance exams for Chinese. It was a painful process fraught with angst and resentment. By the time I turned 18, I had very gratefully taken my very last Chinese exam and never wanted to have anything to do with anything Chinese. That was the last place I would ever visit. Back then, you couldn’t pay me to travel to China.
I didn’t realise it at the time but Chinese culture was actually not so foreign to me in my childhood. No matter how much I resented learning the language and failing miserably at it, Chinese culture seeped into my childhood. We observed the festivals – the Lunar New Year, the mid-Autumn festival etc. My father was an avid reader of Chinese novels by Gu Long, Louis Cha and so there were always stacks of these books in the house. He was a fan of wuxia (Chinese sword-fighting and martial arts) movies so we watched them all – the best of burgeoning Taiwanese and Hong Kong cinema. I read and liked the entire illustrated volume of the Journey to the West – in English of course! But even then if you asked me if I was ever interested in China, I would have said no.
But over time, when I took a step back for some perspective, I realised it was not all that bad and in fact I surprised myself with how much knowledge of Mandarin I still retained from my school days. All that memorising of Chinese idioms and phrases to score in composition exams must have stuck somehow.
I also started reading translations of modern Chinese literature and Chinese travelogues, speaking more, reading more in Chinese. Plus I got married, and my children take Chinese lessons and somehow, somewhere between ordering food in halting Chinese and flipping through Chinese-English dictionaries to help my children with Chinese homework, my own Mandarin skills slowly improved. I can’t say it’s great but it is passable.
And then in 2012, Chinese-phobic me gets sent to China, not once but several times!
Travelling through China (in terms of my language skills) was both a source of humiliation and angst as well as pride. When I was with Chinese officials and journalists who were fluent, I fell silent, unwilling to open my mouth for fear of looking like an idiot with lousy pronunciation. The few times that I did, I was agonisingly aware of how much I mangled the language. I know how bad it looked in their eyes to be Chinese but not to be able to speak the language fluently. More than once I felt the unspoken questions and that bit of scorn mixed with pity for my pathetic grasp of the language.
But on my own, with my family, traveling through northern China, it was left to me to fill the language gap and I surprised myself and my family as I acted as translator on several occasions. Like Helen Keller’s joy of discovering language and speech, I was thrilled to realise that I could say something that people could understand and that they could understand me!
In China, I think I have a strange vantage point of observation. I look Chinese, I speak some Chinese but my perspectives and point of view are those of an outsider. I don’t stick out so much and I can blend in with the crowd. But all the time I am seeing them from the outside.
Each time I visit China, I come away charmed and appalled, fascinated and still curious. In many ways, there is a sense of cultural shock. It is a strange mix of emotions that pull me towards the country. But it is clear that I would like to go back hopefully in the near future. There is already a mental checklist of places I’d like to cover in China.
China fascinates me. As an Asian of ethnic Chinese descent, I feel a vicarious pride in the strides they have taken economically. But living outside the system, I can also see issues that are controversial, provocative, disturbing and sometimes distasteful. But for the most part, I’m just deeply curious.
There’s so much to write and I am very far behind but for now, I will be blogging about my family trip to Beijing, Pingyao and Datong first before I cover Taiwan, Nanjing, Yangzhou and Datong since those articles have to be published first before I feel at liberty to blog about them.