Do You Speak Chinese?

There are many different Chinese languages with up to 200 dialects, and most of them are mutually intelligible. Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

With Beijing’s growing influence, its dialect, Mandarin, also known as Putonghua (the common language), has become the most dominant Chinese language. But this wasn’t always the case, not according to the speakers of other Chinese languages.

In the late 80’s, my family moved from Japan to Taiwan. This was just a few years after the Taiwanese government finally lifted the martial law. I was six years old.

Let’s quickly revisit Taiwanese history and its languages: Historically, at least up to the 1940s, most people in Taiwan spoke Hokkien, which is a version of a southern Chinese language from Fujian province, where many Taiwanese people came from during the 1700’s. During the Japanese occupation, some Japanese words and expressions were integrated into the Taiwanese Hokkien language. I remember clearly my grandparents speaking this Japanese-fied version of Hokkien.

When the Kuomintang (KMT) took control of Taiwan, they made Mandarin the official language and forced everyone to learn it.

I spoke neither Hokkien or Mandarin.

This is me as a Kindergartener in Japan.

Regardless, my parents threw me into a local school.

During class one day, I needed to use the toilet. Unable to communicate with the teacher verbally, I stood up and made my way towards the washroom. I only made it halfway down the hall when my teacher caught up with me, led me back to the classroom and sat me back down in my little wooden chair at my desk. A few moments later, I got up again and made another attempt. The teacher got me again and scolded me as she led me back to my seat.

I didn’t know exactly what she said, but I understood that she was displeased with me. I didn’t dare to get up again. Instead, I sat in my chair and concentrated on holding it in.

Eventually, a warm stream trickled down my legs and created a large, dark stain on my pleated navy blue skirt and a yellow pool around the legs of my little wooden chair. I burst into tears—I was powerless without speaking the language.

This sad little story is a segway to discuss the power of language, and specifically, the Chinese language. Spoken Chinese is organized into five main groups, Mandarin, Yue, Min, Wu, and Hakka. These languages are mutually intelligible.  Within those groups, there are hundreds of dialects, limited to small geographical areas.

Mandarin is only one of the hundreds of spoken Chinese languages. The Beijing dialect is the most common, spoken by approximately two-thirds of the Chinese population. At 55 million speakers, Cantonese, which is part of the Yue family, is the second most common Chinese language.  Hokkien, a language that is common in Taiwan and other countries where Fujan ancestry is common, is part of the Min language family.

How did Mandarin become “Putonghua,” the common language of China?

When Sun Yat-Sen overthrew the Qing Dynasty in 1911, Beijing became the capital of the new China. After some debating, the leadership decided that Mandarin is the official language of the new republic (This is strange because Dr. Sun and many of the leaders of the new republic are from Guangdong Province, and their mother tongue would have been Cantonese).

In Taiwan, Mandarin is known as “Guóyǔ”, literally translates to “the national language.”

During the occupation, the Japanese didn’t force the Taiwanese people to learn the language of their colonizers.** However, when the KMT arrived, they did. Baba told me a story of how his classmates were punished for speaking Hokkien at school. They had to wear a humiliating sign that said, “I spoke Hokkien” for the whole day for speaking the “uncivilized” tongue.

Here in Hong Kong, 97% of the population speaks Cantonese. If Beijing had their way, they would eliminate Cantonese completely. However, that would create an outcry that Beijing is not prepared to deal with. Instead, they slowly influence the educational curriculum in Hong Kong, to teach the next generation their version of the history.

The truth is, Mandarin is already common in Hong Kong. When my parents passed through Hong Kong in the early 90s, they said people didn’t speak Mandarin and yelled when spoken to in Mandarin. Thirty years later, the majority of people still speak Cantonese, but I can now get by speaking Mandarin if English fails.

Hmm. I wonder what the common language will in Hong Kong in another thirty years.

**As it turns out, The Japanese implemented an imperialist movement during their occupation. It was an assimilation initiative that forced Taiwanese people to adopt Japanese names and learn to speak Japanese.

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Where Are You From?

It’s complicated. Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

When I lived in Dubai, taxi drivers often asked, “Where are you from?”

“Canada,” I would say.

Studying me through their rearview mirror, they always looked doubtful. “But where are you really from?”

Ugh. Taxi drivers in Dubai aren’t that interested in me, personally. They wanted to put me in a box and be done with it.

Here in Asia, I face a different set of boxes. When Derek was in China for business, a woman asked him where I was from.

“She is a Taiwanese Canadian,”

The woman scoffed. “No, she’s a Chinese Canadian,” she said indignantly.

Ugh. Clearly, this woman and I have a different definition of Chinese-ness. I hate it when people deny me of my cultural and political identity without my presence.

I used to think it was easy for Derek when people asked him where he’s from. Most often, he would say, “The U.S.”

People are generally satisfied with this answer.

However, when we are traveling, he sometimes tells people that he’s from Hong Kong. People would look at him like he has lost his mind. The look on their faces basically says: a white person can’t be from Hong Kong!

Derek was born in Louisville, Kentucky and grew up in Madison, Indiana. Madison is a historic port city on the edge of the Ohio River. Back in its heydays, with over 100,000 residents, it was one of the busiest river ports in the country.

However, steamboats lost their place as the king of transportation with the advent of the railroad. These days, Madison has become a relic of its past, with only 3,000 people living in the downtown area.

In many ways, Derek is very American. My friend Kuba’s description of Derek as a “Gentleman Redneck” is perfect.  Derek has a polished, educated exterior, but underneath it all, he can skin a deer like nobody’s business. He’s a good boy from rural  Midwest.

He is also a product of American popular culture— he listens to Cat Stevens and Biggie Smalls.  His favorite movies are Spaceballs and The Princess Bride. He also loves the food of his land— when I came back from Savannah earlier this year, I basically brought back half of Krogers— my suitcase was filled with peppercinis, Texas Pete hot sauce, and Old Bay seasoning. Culturally, he is American through and through.

Derek and I did one of the most American things during our last trip— a bourbon tour!

However, Derek doesn’t identify as an American because he has such a disdain for the governmentHe thinks the two-party system serves the interests of corporations, instead of the people. Also, he believes that the function of the American federal government and state governments have skewed from their original intention— the federal government has far too much power, often overriding state decisions. This imbalance of power is one of the causes of the many problems in American society, such as gun violence, the gutting of public schools, and police brutality.

“The United States today doesn’t align with the values I was raised with,” he said. “The country needs to steer back to these ideals, but it won’t happen without great peril to the average citizen.

Another reason Derek chooses Hong Kong to be his home is that he wants to witness the next shift in power. At the turn of the 20th century, his great-grandfather witnessed the transfer of power from Great Britain to the United States. Derek wants to experience the next shift when China takes over as the superpower of the world. By staying in Asia, he is in a better position to navigate in this new world order.

Ugh. I don’t want China to rule the world.

Derek, on the other hand, is excited about the transfer of power. This is going to sound crazy, but he said at least with Chinese rule, he would know who is in charge, whereas American politicians hide behind the ruse of democracy and do horrible things.

Anyway, to answer the original question of this post, “where are you from?”

“I am from earth.”

If you had asked me, “Where do you call home?”

Now, that’s a question that leads to many stories, as long as you have the patience to hear them.

Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

 

 

 

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You are Chinese

 

What does it mean to be Chinese these days? Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

Several posts ago, I made an argument that many Taiwanese people are ethnically Chinese. Since then, more than a few of you, my dear readers, pointed out that I need to clarify what I meant by “Chinese”.

I have spent days agonizing over this post. Then I realized that the whole idea of “Chinese-ness” is loaded because it covers so many different aspects—ethnically, politically, and culturally.

In this post, I will make an attempt to address the ethnicity and political aspects of being Chinese. In the future, I will discuss the cultural aspect and show that all aspects of Chinese-ness are connected— this why the idea is so contested and messy.

Let’s define “Chinese-ness”. There are two-folds of Chinese-ness. First, you are Chinese if you can trace your ancestry back to the Middle Kingdom.

Second, the word “Chinese” also describes something or someone that have an association with the Chinese state— in the mind of the current Chinese government, the CPC, this association is trans-historical, linking the PRC with every previous Chinese state all the way back to the Qing dynasty.

For the sake of clarification, in the context of this blog, I will use the term “Chinese” to refer to the ethnic group. For those who are politically or culturally associated with the Chinese state, they are “Zhongguo ren”, or “Middle Kingdom people.” Middle Kingdom people are subjects to the Chinese state, and they may or may not be ethnically Han Chinese.

In other words, not every Chinese person is a Middle Kingdom person. (a second-generation Chinese Canadian may be ethnically Chinese but not a Chinese subject), and not every Middle Kingdom person is ethnically Chinese— I will elaborate below.  

Contrary to popular belief, the PRC isn’t a monoethnic state. The Middle Kingdom is a country of diverse ethnic groups— there may be as many as 400 ethnic groups, though the CPC only officially recognizes 56 of them. At 92% of the population, the Han Chinese are the dominant ethnic group in PRC. 

The CPC see themselves as the leader of the Chinese and the Middle Kingdom people. They also see themselves as the custodians of the Chinese culture. Anyone who poses a threat to the dominant and national narrative of Chinese-ness and Middle Kingdom-ness, like the  Uighurs, are punished relentlessly. The Uighurs are a minority ethnic group from Xinjiang Province, located in the northwest region of the country. They are distant cousins of the Turks, speak a Turkic language, and are predominately Muslims.

Uighur is an ethnic group in China genetically related to the Turks. Photo from Wikipedia.

When Mao took power in 1949, Xinjiang province became a part of PRC. The CPC encouraged the Han Chinese people to settle in Xinjiang. They took vital roles in government, often discriminating the Uighurs, leading to numerous protests and uprisings that challenge the authority of the party.

Needless to say, the Uighurs in Xinjiang is a thorn in the party’s back. In an effort to control them, they banned the Uighurs to express their culture by outlawing long beards and wearing veils. Furthermore, even as recently as January 2018, the party is still trying to assimilate the Uighurs by forcing them into re-educational camps. The plight of the Uighurs people is appalling and terrifying.

The Uighurs, are Middle Kingdom people, as they are holders of People’s Republic of China citizenship. However, they are certainly not Chinese.

As for me, I am Chinese— my ancestry can be traced back to Fujian Province. However, I was born in Japan to Taiwanese parents and grew up in Canada; I do not identify as a Middle Kingdom person. In other words, I am not a Chinese subject, though PRC would beg to defer. I am of Han Chinese ancestry, my family is from Taiwan, a contested territory  —both of which makes me “Chinese” (ethnically, politically and culturally) in their eyes. All Taiwanese are Chinese and Middle Kingdom people, they believe— we will realize that soon enough.

I shudder at that thought. Taiwanese people use a special “return to motherland” permit to go to China (including Hong Kong) since the PRC doesn’t recognize our passport. I am in Hong Kong as a Canadian citizen. I hope that the PRC wouldn’t be able to tell that I was Taiwanese since I was born in Japan.  If I get into trouble somehow (through this blog, for instance),  I might be able to access Canadian consular services instead of the alternative— disappearing into a black hole where no one can ever find me.

Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

 

 

 

 

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China’s New Silk Road

The effects of the Belt and Road Initiative on my family. Illustrated by Ahmara Smith.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a development strategy proposed by the Chinese government to promote economic co-operation between People’s Republic of China (PRC) and countries in Central Asia, West Asia, the Middle East, and Europe—essentially, countries situated on the original silk road. When Xi Jinping proposed the initiative in 2013, he envisioned the integration of the region into a cohesive economic area through investing in local infrastructure, enhancing cultural exchange, and broadening trade.

Does all of this sound too abstract for you? Let me put it in a context that you can relate to.

In 2016, my husband Derek and I went to Sri Lanka for a vacation with my parents and younger brother, Davis. While planning the trip, I asked Mama for her and Baba’s passport details so I could apply for their tourist visas. She sent me scans of their Taiwanese passports.

I called her up. “Why are you using your Taiwanese passports?”

“Oh, our Canadian passports have expired,” She said nonchalantly.

“Whaaaaaaa!” I yelled, “How did you allow that to happen?”

“Calm down. The Taiwanese passports are handy now. We can go to the U.S. without a visa, and we even went to the Czech Republic for your cousin Yoshi’s wedding…”

Since there was no time to renew their passports before our trip, I stopped fussing and used their Taiwanese passports to apply for their visas.

My parents had a rude awakening when we landed in Colombo in November of 2016. Derek used his American passport and Davis and I used our Canadian passports—we entered the country without a hitch. We stood around talking while waiting for our parents, who were right behind us. Ten minutes went by, they still hadn’t joined us. They weren’t even in the queue to see a customs agent.

We waited for another 15 minutes or so. Finally, Davis and I decided to look for them while Derek fetched our luggage. I spoke to an airport staff who told us to trace our steps back to the immigration area and see if we can find our parents there. (I find this bizarre—most countries would never allow this to happen.)

Through the window of an office in the immigration area, we saw our parents.  Facing away from us, Baba was filling out a form while Mama looked on. Twenty minutes later, they came out looking visibly impatient and annoyed.

“We had to apply for a visa,” Baba said, “we had to fill out a long form and pay.”

I am not sure why the visa I applied for them wasn’t good enough. However, this minor ordeal was completely forgotten once we left the airport.  We toured around Sri Lanka, a country steeped in history, culture, and beauty. We visited the mountains, the historical sites, a baby elephant orphanage and the beach. For the last day of our trip, we returned to Colombo for a city tour.

We visited with baby elephants in Sri Lanka!

During the tour, we saw many construction projects for new skyscrapers. We also noticed simplified Chinese characters on the hoardings and around the construction sites— these projects belong to Chinese corporations.

And this, my friends, is why my parents had such an ordeal at the customs. Sri Lanka didn’t officially join the Belt and Road Initiative until December 2017, but Chinese investments obviously affected their visa requirements. To appease China, they had unofficially kowtowed to the One China Policy—this is why their visa process was so fuzzy and confusing when we were there. By now, it’s pretty clear that Taiwanese citizens need a visa prior to landing in Sri Lanka.

The Belt and Road Initiative is China’s new Silk Road. It more than an economic initiative; it is changing diplomatic relationships and more. It has already affected my family.

In some ways, the Belt and Road Initiative can be seen as Chinese colonialism. Stay tuned.

Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

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Is Taiwan Part of China?

A crash course on modern Taiwanese history. Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

In my last post, I pondered whether Taiwanese people are ethnically Chinese. The answer to that is complicated and requires a crash course on Taiwanese history.

Taiwan is an island off the east coast of mainland China. Historically, it was part of the Middle Kingdom territory up until the Qing dynasty. My ancestors and many other people immigrated to Taiwan in the 1700’s, mostly from the provinces of Fujian and Guangdong.  Most likely, they intermarried with the aboriginal peoples of Taiwan, who are a part of the Austronesian ethnic family, which are related to the peoples of the Philippines, Malaysia, and other South East Asian countries.

In 1895, the Middle Kingdom lost the First Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese Empire demanded control of Taiwan as a part of the peace negotiation. As a result, the Japanese occupied Taiwan for the next 50 years, under the Treaty of Shimonoseki.

The Japanese made huge impacts on the Taiwanese psyche during their occupation. They modernized Taiwan by developing its infrastructure,  building roads, government buildings, hospitals, and schools. Furthermore, their language and culture also permeated Taiwanese culture–many Japanese words were absorbed into Hokkien, which was one of the main languages of Taiwan.

Meanwhile, in China, Sun Yat-Sen overthrew the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and established the Republic of China (ROC). His political party, Kuomintang (KMT) became the official ruler of the new Republic.

The world turned up-side-down for many nations in East Asia in 1945. The Japanese Empire fell when they lost World War II. They lost all their colonies and returned the control of Taiwan to the Republic of China. At the time, Chiang Kai-Shek was in charge of the KMT in mainland China. He set up a provisional government in Taipei, in order to gain control of the island and its populace.

The KMT eventually set up the official government of the ROC in 1949, when they were defeated by the People’s Communist Party (CPC), led by Mao Zedong. The Taiwanese suffered greatly during the transitional period between the end of Japanese occupation in 1945 and when the KMT officially took control of the island.

The transition between Japanese colonialism and KMT rule was bloody. The KMT government enforced martial law in 1947 after Taiwanese people rebelled against inflation. This is the start of what is known as the White Terror– the KMT government arrested, imprisoned and executed dissents who opposed them.

Many Taiwanese people who opposed the KMT government were arrested. This image is from Hou Hsiao-hsien’s film A City of Sadness, in which Tony Leung’s character was imprisoned due to his friends’ political activities. .

The martial law was finally lifted in 1987. A couple of years later, my parents moved back to Taiwan from Japan. I was six, and my brother Davis was four.

My family history is intertwined with Taiwan’s.  My ancestors moved from Fujian Province in the 1700’s. Also, we are a product of Japanese colonialism: Both sets of my grandparents spoke Japanese fluently; my parents and many of their siblings were educated in Japan; I was born in Japan.

Taiwan’s history is complicated and this is why there are so many debates about whether Taiwan is part of the PRC. Depending on who you ask, you will get a different answer.

To answer my own question, I suppose I am mostly ethnically Chinese (my ancestors may have intermarried with the aboriginal people of Taiwan), but I am Taiwanese through and through.

However, the more interesting question is whether or not the Chinese ethnicity is one ethnicity. That’s one more complicated question for another time.

Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

 

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Why now? Why me?

On March 20th, Xi Jinping made a speech at the closing of the 2018 National People’s Congress. It was a nationalistic speech in which “he warned against challenges to China over Taiwan, Hong Kong or other regions where Beijing’s claims to sovereignty are contested”.

Xi Jinping

“All maneuvers and tricks to split the motherland are sure to fail,” Mr. Xi said. “Not one inch of the territory of the great motherland can be carved off from China.”

Some might say this is nothing new. China has always been sensitive about Taiwan and considers it one of its wayward provinces. Taiwan’s reunification with its “motherland” is integral to the “One China” policy. However, many people in Taiwan, my family included, have been in Taiwan for many generations and consider ourselves Taiwanese. This is a problem for China.

The dear leader claims that we are all Chinese.  Well sure, there are overlaps between Taiwanese and Chinese cultures; my ancestors came from a town near Xiamen, Fujian province in the 1700’s. Having said that, Taiwan had since been colonized by Japan and it’s populace absorbed some aspects of its language and customs into their culture. Also, our resentment towards “the motherland”, also make us uniquely Taiwanese. My point is, many people in Taiwan don’t consider themselves Chinese.  But… do we consider ourselves ethnically Chinese? That’s the tricky part. I don’t know what to think about that.

Mr. Xi’s speech spurred some anxiety with me, not only because I am Taiwanese, but also because I live in Hong Kong. In the same speech, Mr. Xi  “vowed to strengthen the national identity and patriotism of the people of Hong Kong and Macau.”

Map of South China, including Taiwan, Xiamen, and Hong Kong. Courtesy of http://www.johomaps.com/as/china/chinasouth.html

Hong Kong had been a British colony until 1997. Upon its return to China, Beijing guaranteed that the city, as a special administrative region, will have a high degree of autonomy, and China’s socialist systems will not be implemented until 2047. However, incidents such as the disappearances of Hong Kong booksellers, and the imprisonment Joshua Wong, a young activist who was one of the leaders of the umbrella revolution in 2014, are indications that civil liberties are going away fast in Hong Kong.

So yeah. Mr. Xi’s speech posed a double whammy for me. He made me uncomfortable about who I and where I am.

 

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About “In the Shadow of the Middle Kingdom”

In the recent years, China has become more economically and politically powerful. Taiwan and Hong Kong are both feeling the pressure as China, also known as the Middle Kingdom, forces the world to kowtow to the One China Policy. My blog, In the Shadow of the Middle Kingdom, explores Chinese culture in this volatile climate—there is a real possibility that Taiwan and Hong Kong as we know may not exist in the next decade, if not sooner. This uncertainty has prompted me to explore my heritage. As a third culture kid—individuals raised in cultures that are different than their parents’—I grew up in Canada and returned to Asia as an adult. Through this blog, I will share my experiences in “re-learning” Taiwanese customs and rituals in the context of current events and my personal experience as a Taiwanese Canadian living in Hong Kong.

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