Monday 27 August 2012

A banana in Beijing

How being bilingual, bicultural helps or doesn't help working, living in China
By Sim Chi Yin, Published The Straits Times, 26 Aug 2012

When I got the posting to Beijing in 2007, one of my friends said: "Wah, SCGS girl becomes Straits Times' China correspondent - make history lor."

I guess you could substitute Raffles Institution, Raffles Girls' School, Methodist Girls' School or a fair number of other Singapore schools for my alma mater, Singapore Chinese Girls' School.

It was like "chiak kantang girl goes to China". The Hokkien phrase for "eat potato" is used to refer to a westernised Chinese.

That is what probably struck former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew too when I met him briefly on assignment. It was enough for him to cite me (unnamed) as an example of the success of Singapore's bilingual education policy in the book Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, noting how my English was polished from four years at the London School of Economics but how my Mandarin was also, to some ears, "native".

By that time, I had lived in China for a couple of years.

Actually, that is not entirely accurate or the whole picture.

There is another key piece of the bilingual puzzle that we did not get to talk about when I met Mr Lee.

I am probably saved by the fact that I was born to a pair of Chinese-educated parents, both of whom had migrated from Malaysia, determined to give their children a life without being discriminated against as ethnic Chinese.

They were Nantah graduates - having attended Singapore's former Chinese-medium Nanyang University - and they would send my sister and me to very "ang moh" schools to ensure that we would not speak "helicopter English" like them.

But they would go on to lament that we were "bananas" - yellow on the outside and white on the inside - who refused to read even the Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao that they religiously subscribed to. It is true, when I was in school, I would be embarrassed when my parents answered the phone when my friends called and yelled out for me in Chinese.

It is no one's fault. We were all products of the Singapore of our time - theirs and mine.

But I did do Chinese as a first language up to junior college, and Chinese was the language we used at home and one I could just about hold an argument in.

In JC, I took a strong interest in modern Chinese history, and made that my focus at university in London. I travelled to China with just my backpack and camera in my second year at university, and spent most of the rest of my time there poring over the original and classified writings of Chinese Communist leaders like Mao Zedong.

Eventually, when I got posted to Beijing as China correspondent, I think my father, especially, was quietly proud. The banana had gone back to her ethnic roots.

But my sister and some friends, on the other hand, said: "Why do you want to go China?"

How many people still think of China as a country where toilets have no doors? Though that is true in some rural areas, it often seems to me the China in our minds urgently needs updating, and many Singaporeans have a less-than-rosy or simply outdated picture of the country.

For many, it seems to be the home of their uncouth country cousins. I am not sure the influx of mainlanders into Singapore in recent years has helped.

Or some of us may just take them - and a part of our ethnic roots and culture - for granted; we look like them, can sound like them, but we are not really interested in them. When in fact, we know quite little about them, or the country.

We may have the advantage of being culturally closer by virtue of being Asian, so the gulf isn't as large as with Westerners. But perhaps sometimes we assume we know them just because we seem similar, close. That can be a stumbling block.

For all the Government's urging for Singaporeans to be bicultural and ride on China's rise, Singapore lags far behind other countries like the United States, South Korea and Japan in sending students to China to study. There is still only a trickle of Singaporeans doing part of their degree studies at China's top universities - Peking, Tsinghua, Fudan.

In Singapore, we debate over whether to teach Chinese using English or hanyu pinyin instead of Chinese characters because many parents say their children have a hard time coping.

Yet in so many other parts of Asia and the West, parents are enrolling their children in Mandarin classes, hiring mainland Chinese nannies just so their children would be exposed to Mandarin, or sending their children to China for summer language school.

Among the foreign press corps in Beijing, I have colleagues - some blond and blue-eyed - whose Mandarin puts me to shame, who read classical Chinese and can explain the plot of Dream Of The Red Chamber or Romance Of The Three Kingdoms to me.

Some can explain the origins of Chinese characters and infer ancient meanings from Chinese inscriptions on temples, tombs or tablets. Some take notes in Chinese.

They did not start out learning Chinese in hanyu pinyin. They struggled through years of Chinese lessons and continue to study it while using it daily. It is really about making a commitment and living with it.

Those individuals may indeed be a self-selecting group of Sinophiles. But their all-embracing passion for Chinese language, culture and history often gives me reason to feel somewhat ashamed and offers much food for thought on how it could be different.

It seems to me that generating a genuine interest in Chinese language, culture and history - and not only for utilitarian purposes - is the way to ensure that we get closer to being bicultural. I am afraid I am not, in part from a lopsided education, but for those still in school now, it is fully possible.

I would count only a handful of Singaporean friends as truly bicultural, fully conversant in both Western and Chinese cultures.

As I have grown older, I have sometimes felt more South-east Asian than Chinese. Earlier this year, I spent a month in Myanmar on assignment and although I do not speak the language, just seeing a fork and spoon on the dining table made me somehow feel immediately at home. That is a distinctively South-east Asian thing. It is how I ate growing up.

Biculturalism is not necessarily just Chinese plus Western culture. It could be your culture and any other you are immersed in, in a pairing. But whatever the permutation, it comes down to having an open mind and curiosity about other cultures, peoples, and that comes from travelling and reading widely, having a grounding in the humanities. That, I think is key.

In terms of China and all things Chinese, it may not be that all of us need know the classics inside-out. It is perfectly possible to be "into" China by slicing in through an issue, topic or aspect you are interested in - sports, social issues, music.

And then there is much that knowing your Mengzi from Laozi cannot really prepare you for.

I think any Singaporean who moves to China has to grapple with a few key things: first, size. Tuas to Changi is not even as large as one district in Beijing; second, China is also a society which functions by relying heavily on guanxi (relationships, networks); and third, the uber-competitiveness that permeates life in big cities in China.

Being in the world's fastest growing economy and a rapidly changing society is exciting, but like most long-term foreign residents, I have something of a love-hate/question/ doubt relationship with China.

Beijing, as lived, is a place where buses squeeze cars on the roads, cars squeeze bikes onto the pavement and bikes squeeze pedestrians off the curb.

China is still going through a lot of churning.

Its society's psyche and culture have been shaped by the politics of the last 50 years or so, and there is something to be said for the damage wrought by the Cultural Revolution. There is much truth in the perception that in everyday life in China, it is very often every man for himself.

But there are also many different Chinas.

There is the ultra modern sky-scraping one in Shanghai and Beijing, where toilets have doors, and the rural, mountainous one where I photographed skinny children eating boiled potatoes two meals a day, every day of the week.

Among the growing middle class, organic food and low-carb diets are catching on. In the Shaanxi village where I spent a week recently, the farmers I stayed with were convinced that having every dish dripping in oil and supersized bowls of noodles and rice were the new, prosperous way to good health.

There are young, English-speaking university graduates lining up to go to the United States to study or live. And there are young, spunky rural migrants hoping to make it big in Beijing, living in tiny boxes in basements to save money.

The bottom line is that nobody can purport to know China, really.

It is important not to assume to know China or think that being culturally attuned means you will be able to coast along there.

China is vast and varied, exciting, daring, experimental, open to possibilities, in turn conservative and in some ways more liberal than Singapore.

It is a place that will force you to be street-smart. It throws life at you, sometimes in an intense way, and makes you engage with life's full range of challenges.

So, jump in and adapt - to a point.

The writer, a Singaporean photographer based in Beijing, is a former Straits Times China correspondent. This is an excerpt of a speech she made at a Business China youth forum last month.

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