Lesson on Love, Part III

Dear Reader, this post is part of a three-part series. Please read Part I and Part II before proceeding.

At an impressionable age, Mama and Ama, my parental grandmother, taught me what I know about love. Ama chose to be with a married man in exchange for a financially secure life. Mama broke down when she found out that Baba was cheating, but eventually decided to swallow her pride because she didn’t have economic means of her own (and she also loved him desperately). I would never want to be in a situation where I have to make the choices they made.

As soon as I got my graduate degree in library studies, I took a job in Dubai to start my career as an academic librarian (the alternative was to stay in Vancouver to write invoices for a plumbing company.) Since then, I moved to Bahrain, and then to Hong Kong for work, to ensure that I am always financially independent. That’s all I learned about love from the women in my life—I must never rely on a man.  

In 2012, I arrived in Hong Kong for a new job, a few months before my 30th birthday. With a failed marriage behind me, I still didn’t know what a healthy, lasting relationship looked like. Regardless, I plunged myself into the world of online dating. It was something I dabbled with in the past, but I always disabled my account the minute I found a new boyfriend.

At first, it was fun. Hong Kong is a transient place, and I met men from all over the world. After dating a string of men that didn’t materialize into a steady boyfriend, I was disappointed that it wasn’t as easy as when I was younger. Was it the curse of turning 30?

After venturing into the dating circuit for a while, I begin to feel that I wasn’t good enough. I was in my 30’s; I couldn’t compete with all the skinny 23-year-old Hong Kong girls. Having been in relationships my whole adult life, I didn’t know how to date. For example, a guy I was casually dating didn’t text me back, and that was supposed to be normal. Some of my guy friends suggested I shouldn’t expect so much; I was too needy, too emotional and maybe a little too weird. I didn’t know what to do. I drank, I danced up a storm, and I flirted shamelessly. I did everything to hide that confused and hurt little girl behind a carefree facade. I gave men what I thought they wanted, in the hopes that one of them would love me. Instead, they walked all over me, and I hated myself for it.

I was miserable. How do we end up living in a society where people take sex for granted, and fear intimacy? Why can’t a woman expect the man who she hooked up with to return her text and have an adult conversation after a night of fun?

For years, I put up with a lot of bad behaviors from men. One day, after ending an on-again, off-again relationship I decided enough was enough. I vowed that I would never allow a man to make me feel like I wasn’t good enough ever again. If he thought I was “too” something, then he wasn’t the right person for me. I vowed that I wasn’t going to be apologetic for wanting a serious relationship and that I wasn’t going to settle. I vowed that I would rather be alone than to be with someone who wasn’t going to accept and love me for who I am. I resolved to my fate: I would rather be single for the rest of my life than to be with the wrong person.

It’s not that I stopped dating—I just had zero tolerance for men who mistreated me. I had expectations and boundaries, and I commanded respect. Men called me demanding, bitchy, crazy. I didn’t care. I stopped putting up with shit.

Then it happened one day.

I had known Derek for almost a year at this time. I met him at SCAD Hong Kong, where I was the head librarian, and he was one of the graphic designer professors. He borrowed a bunch of books on typography. I told him about my fifth-grade teacher who made us practice calligraphy. We became friendly and eventually, our paths started to cross.

One night in the fall of 2014, he and I went out for a drink with a bunch of our friends from work. At the end of the night, Derek texted me. “It was great seeing you tonight. You looked cute, even though you were wearing a cat dress.”

He hates cats.

I was wearing the cat dress the day before my wedding, while my best friend Sarah and I were buying flowers for my big day.

“Is Derek flirting with me?” I showed the text to my friend Kuba, who was visiting me at the time.

Kuba confirmed my suspicion.

The rest is history. After a whirlwind engagement, Derek and I married a year later. We will celebrate our third anniversary on Halloween this year.

It’s very ironic that Derek, who hates cats, ends up marrying a cat lady. 

Last summer I resigned from my position at SCAD to work towards my M.F.A. degree in writing. I plunged myself into the world of freelance writing. I no longer have a regular paycheck, which taps into my primal fear —to be dependent on a man, like Ama and Mama. Sometimes I freak-out, doubting my abilities and decision. Derek has spent hours comforting and encouraging me. He won’t let me quit and go back to the library.

Sometimes I still can’t believe my luck: my husband not only loves and accepts me, but he also supports me in my writing career. By choosing not to put up with shitty men, I in return found the best man ever. I couldn’t dream of having a better husband.

So, this is what I learned about love. From my Ama and my Mama, I learned to be financially independent. From my dating experience, I learned to stop taking shit from men, and that I had to love and accept myself before I can find anyone who would do the same for me. From Derek, I learned to let go of my fear (though I still have moments of doubt). I couldn’t have got to where I am today without these lessons. Finding love was hard, but I was lucky. For those of you out there who are still looking, don’t despair: You have someone that has been through it all rooting for you.

 

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The War Between Traditional and Simplified Chinese

In early June, Harrow International School sent a letter to parents announcing that the school will adopt simplified Chinese characters for their kindergarten and primary school curriculum  to better prepare their pupils for “the context Hong Kong will be in by 2047.”

Why is this controversial?

Language, spoken or written, has a significant impact. In a previous post, “Do You Speak Chinese,” I wrote about the transition between Hokkien and Mandarin in Taiwan and how Baba’s teacher punished his classmate for speaking Hokkien in school. This story demonstrates that language is not only the soul of a society, it is also a powerful weapon that can be used to control the populace.

It’s starting to happen in Hong Kong too.

Simplified Chinese characters were introduced in China in the early 20th century to increase literacy rate. During the latter part of the 20th century, the PRC government made it the official writing system of China. Other Chinese speaking countries, such as Singapore and Malaysia have also adopted simplified Chinese, but Taiwan and Hong Kong are still using the traditional script. The use of traditional characters sets Hong Kong (and Taiwan) apart from the PRC. It is a not-so-silent protest: “We are not part of the People’s Republic of China!”

The pro-independence camp in Hong Kong, those who were involved in the umbrella movement, are against integration with Mainland China. They see Harrow International School ‘s decision to adopt simplified characters as kowtowing to the PRC.

The Umbrella Movement, a series of pro-independence protests, kicked off in Hong Kong in September 2014. It lasted 79 days but did not succeed in creating permanent changes in governance.

To the dismay of many Hong Kongers, Hong Kong will unlikely be independent of China. It has been geo-politically part of the PRC since the United Kingdom handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 after a 150-year rule.  The stipulation is that the PRC would have sovereignty of Hong Kong, but they would rule Hong Kong under “one country, two systems” model, meaning that the PRC’s would not enforce their socialist system in Hong Kong for fifty years.  However, PRC is already exerting their control over Hong Kong in many ways, like in education. Recently, the Education Bureau mandated a new Chinese History lesson in all secondary schools in Hong Kong.

The PRC’s effort to influence education in Hong Kong made more progress when Harrow International School decided to adopt simplified Chinese characters in their curriculum. They are the first international school to do so—how many more will soon follow?

Reading the article about Harrow International School is just another reminder that the clock is ticking for Hong Kong, and possibly Taiwan too. Taiwan has a slightly different situation than Hong Hong—its status in the international stage is ambiguous. However, living in Hong Kong, I can’t help but feel what’s happening here will eventually occur in Taiwan too—the PRC is patient, they are taking their time and making substantial progress in changing Hong Kong. First, they modify the school curriculum, then they take away the language.  Slowly but surely they are taking over Hong Kong, one step at a time. Most recently, the PRC plans to enforce Chinese law on a new train station on Hong Kong soil. 

Before we know it, Hong Kong will have centralized media and censored speech.  Residents will be living in constant fear as there will be more people like Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel laureate, and democracy activist who died in Chinese custody. He had spent his life protesting against the one-party rule in China and was serving an 11-year sentence when he was diagnosed with liver cancer. I don’t want to live in a society where people are imprisoned and denied access to medical care because they criticize the government.

Sadly, that’s the way the world seems to be going right now—and it is frightening.

 

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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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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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