The Secrets of Nikah, the Islamic Wedding Ceremony, Part I

I participated in Nikah, the Islamic wedding ceremony, without knowing what I signed up for. Illustrated by Ahmara Smith.

“If you want to be with me, and be accepted by my family, you will need to convert,” Gökhan, my boyfriend of four months said.

“No,” I stared at him as if his face had warped into the head of a goat. Converting to Islam was unthinkable. Being secular was my religion, and I wasn’t willing to change it.

He explained that all I had to do was to pretend, to do it for a show, which was what he had done his whole life. I still refused. I wasn’t going to fake it and be someone I wasn’t. He called me spoiled, stubborn and selfish. I cried but persisted. It was a battle of wills that lasted the whole day.

“If you love me, you will accept me for who I am,” I argued, my eyes blazing, “you wouldn’t ask me to compromise my integrity.”

Eventually, I broke him down with a combination of persistence and tears. “You won’t need to convert,” he said, hugging me, “I will talk to my mother.”

Less than a year later, I arrived in Denmark to meet Gökhan’s family for the first time. The room we stayed in at his parents’ house was bright and airy. It had a large window facing the yard filled with an assortment of flowers, as well as a garden of tomatoes, cucumbers, and various herbs. There were twin beds on each side of the room, one for each of his younger sisters. We each occupied an individual bed throughout our visit. His mother made this arrangement because she thought it’d be improper for us to share a bed until the nikah, the Islamic wedding ceremony.

I went to Denmark one summer to meet Gokhan’s family for the first time.

I told Gökhan that I was willing to take part in the nikah, as long as I didn’t have to convert to Islam. He talked to his mother who agreed that I wouldn’t have to. Overjoyed that her son would no longer live in sin, she invited the whole extended family, prepared an elaborate spread, and summoned the prestigious imam, the religious leader who would officiate the ceremony.

On the day of the nikah, I found myself in the center of the room wearing an ivory, ankle-length, cotton maxi dress with grey embroidered flowers at the hem. I bought the dress a few days before because it was long and covered my legs. The top portion was too revealing for Islamic taste, but I bought it anyway because it was a comfortable and sexy summer dress that I could wear again. I wore a white cardigan, buttoned-up all the way, to cover my tattooed arm and immodest cleavage.

Gökhan’s three aunts were fussing around me, trying to pin a lavender pashmina over my head as a temporary headscarf. His little sisters, aged 11 and 13, whose room had turned into a bridal dressing room, stole curious glances at me. When I returned their gawks with grins, they gasped, turned their heads and pretended it was normal to have this stranger in their bedroom, about to marry their big brother.

His boisterous aunts laughed and chatted in a combination of Turkish and Danish— languages alien to me. They clamored and made animated gestures with their hands and clapped as they giggled over some anecdote I couldn’t comprehend. I stood amid this commotion with a dumb smile on my face and nodded my head as Gökhan’s only English-speaking aunt asked me if I was doing okay.

Despite the chaotic confusion in the room, a part of me was having fun, soaking up his aunts’ contagious excitement. I felt euphoric and found myself smiling more as time passed. I was putting the finishing touches on my makeup when Gökhan poked his head in the room, “Hey, can I talk to you for a minute in the next room?” he asked in a quiet voice, avoiding my eyes, his thick, dark brows furrowed.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

He sat me down on his parents’ bed. Averting my quizzical eyes, Gökhan said, “I told the imam that you were a Buddhist when he asked me what your religion was. He said since you are not neither Christian or Jewish, you would need to convert.”

His words took a few moments to sink in. Once I understood the gravity of the situation, I started to panic. Did he know this was going to happen before talking me into the nikah?

*** To find out what happens next, stay tuned for the next post, “The Secrets of Nikah, the Islamic Wedding Ceremony, Part II.”

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Roman, My Teacher, My Mentor, My Friend

Roman is the current-day Aristotle. He is also my mentor and champion. Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

Growing up is hard. Growing up when your parents are thousands of miles away is even harder. Lucky for me, I had a champion.  His name is Dr. Roman Onufrijchuk.

I met Roman in the spring of 2001. He was my professor in a class called “Sociology of Leisure.” We became close when I told him that I couldn’t do my presentation in class because I was hungover from doing cocaine the night before and hadn’t done my reading.  Since that class, I followed him around like a shadow.

At any given time, Roman was parked at a table on the spacious and shaded patio of Tree’s Café on Granville Street in the business district of downtown Vancouver, a mere two blocks away from campus. In front of him on the table was a worn black plastic case filled with Gauloises cigarettes, an ashtray half full of orange filter tips with yellow flecks, a full cup of foamy café macchiato and an empty porcelain cup stained with coffee sediments.

Roman was a distinguished looking gentleman with a neatly trimmed grey beard. His usual attire is a black fisherman’s hat, a khaki button-up shirt, cargo shorts and sporty sandals. Though he looked like he might be going fishing, he was not the type to do so. His blue eyes were deep, indicating many lifetimes worth of stories. The way he sat in his chair slightly slouching with a cigarette between his nicotine-stained fingers, he looked wiser than his 51 years.

A current day Aristotle,  Roman is a sage-like character who enjoyed retelling the Greek mythologies to any student who would listen. Like Aristotle’s Lyceum, Roman had his Tree’s Café where he counseled students, the members of his so-called “tribe.”  Gregarious in nature, he was fond of adopting “strays,” those troubled students on whatever brinks they were on. He took these directionless souls under his wings and nurtured them with his infinite wisdom and generous attention. I was an active member of this tribe and saw him about everything, from research papers to unfortunate romantic encounters.

Thanks to Roman, I graduated with honors in 2005.

Roman put out his cigarette and waved me over as I approached the patio. He had a bad habit of smoking only two-thirds of his cigarettes. He wrapped up the conversation with the student in front of him. “Thank you so much, Roman.” The student said as he stood up to leave.

Roman lit another cigarette as I took the seat across from him. “You okay?” he asked in his gruff but modulated radio voice, one that had been soaking up tobacco and whiskey for years.

“Ugh.” I moaned as I dug through my massive, bottomless purse for a lighter. Roman leaned over the table and lit my cigarette. “Thanks.” I exhaled.

“That bad eh?” Roman chuckled, “So, what now?” Roman asked, his blue eyes twinkled with a hint of laughter.

I began to narrate the most recent episode of my boy drama. Roman smoked and listened patiently as I told my woeful tale.

When I finished, he took a puff from his cigarette, “Well my dear,” he exhaled, “You should never go to bed with someone who’s got more problems than you.”

“But how do I know he’s got more problems than me?” I whined. 

“You learn, kiddo, by paying attention.” He winked and took another puff from his cigarette, “In the meantime, this guy sounds like a bozo. Lose him.”

His attention drifted to something behind me, “My next date is here.” He announced as he stubbed out his cigarette, “You’ll be okay. Don’t go around breaking too many hearts.”

“But I still need to talk to you about my paper!” I wailed in a panic.

“Fine, come back in about an hour.”

All day long, when Roman was not in class, he sat on this patio smoking his cigarettes, sipping on his café macchiato and advising students on all aspects of their lives.

Everybody needs a champion. With Roman’s guidance and constant encouragement, I eventually graduated with honors. I went to graduate school, and after graduation started my career as an academic librarian. In my career in Dubai, Bahrain and Hong Kong, I met plenty of students who needed that extra push and a pat on the back. Everywhere I worked, I tried to channel Roman— it’s only fair that I give back what was so generously given to me.

Roman was my teacher, my mentor, my friend. In June 2015, I was devastated to learn that Roman passed away. I never had a chance to say good-bye.  I was heartbroken that Roman never met Derek, my now husband, after hearing so much about my boy drama over the years.

Derek held me tight.  “I understand what Roman means to you.” He whispered, “And I get to meet him every day through you.”

 

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A Story of an Immigrant Kid: They Called Me a Banana

Banana: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Illustration by Ahmara Smith.

My family moved to Canada when I was ten. We settled in Surrey, which is a sprawling suburbia about an hour from Vancouver. I didn’t speak a lick of English, but luckily, I didn’t pee myself when moving to a foreign country this time.

When we arrived, Baba had to come up with new names for my younger brother and me.

He gave my younger brother the option of “David” or “Davis”. The little eight-year-old boy chose “Davis,” so Davis he became.

With me, Baba said that I should be “Kayo,” the Japanese pronunciation of my Chinese name. I wanted a fancy English name like Davis, but Baba was persuasive.  So, Kayo I remained.

However, when I got to school, the other kids butchered my name. They called me “Kay-yo” when it was supposed to be “Ka-yo”. I tried to correct them with my limited English but to no avail.   So, “Kay-yo” I became. Now, everybody calls me Kayo, even my parents.

Remember that Day-O Banana Boat song? My classmates used to sing their adapted version: “Kayyyy-yo! Kayyyy-yo! Daylight comes and me wanna go home!”  My face would go beet red and they would howl with laughter. I hated that song.

Despite that, I learned English and became a typical teenager. I met my friend Chelsea in a math and science split class in grade eight. On Sundays, we went to the flea market to look for Sailor Moon Cards. In grade nine, I bought my first CDs: No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom and Smashing Pumpkin’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. I saw Gwen Stefani when No Doubt was touring with Weezer—I was a very excited fourteen-year-kid.

Back when pagers were cool.

In grade ten I smoked my first cigarette. By grade eleven, in addition to my smoking, I also had (still have) a book addiction. Remember those Scholastic catalogs we used to get from school? Mama bought me anything I ever wanted from it, unknowingly created a book-devouring monster. To pay for my smoking and book habits, I got a part-time job at the cinema that opened the same day as Star Wars: Phantom Menace. I made friends outside of school. I met my first boyfriend.

I have known Chelsea since we were 13. This picture was taken shortly after our graduation, on my 18th birthday.

Luckily, the kids in secondary school didn’t sing the stupid Day-O song. Instead, Chelsea gave me a cool nickname: Knock Out, aka KO.

Everything was trucking along in my teenage life. I almost felt cool—  until a new Taiwanese kid moved to my school. His name was Rodney.

Every time Rodney saw me walking down the hallway with my friends, he greeted me in Mandarin.  I was mortified each time. I always replied to him in English and kept the conversations as short as possible.

He reminded me of my foreign-ness, my otherness— and all I wanted was to blend in, be like everyone else.

I avoided him at all cost.

Back then, I didn’t want to be Taiwanese or Asian. I tried to minimize any perceived differences between my friends and me. For instance, I refused to bring Taiwanese food to school for lunch. Instead, I ate the mush and Jell-O at the cafeteria or munched on chips from the vending machines. Also, I wouldn’t associate with Rodney or the other Taiwanese kids.  They thought I was a snob and called me a “banana”—yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

I realize now that I’ve carried that label around for most of my life. The first time my husband Derek went to Taiwan with me for Chinese New Year’s, he asked me why I wasn’t in the kitchen learning to cook all the amazing Taiwanese dishes Mama was making. I shrugged. Now I understand that underneath the exterior of the worldly 30-something Kayo, there is a teenaged Kayo who felt humiliated by her otherness. Buried even deeper is the ten-year-old Kayo who was taunted because of her weird name.

Perhaps this why I get upset when people only see my Asian face and not my Canadian-ness.

Derek suggested that my Canadian-ness is keeping me from my Taiwanese-ness. He is absolutely right.

I will not subject myself to this “banana” label anymore. Next year, I will be in the kitchen with Mama during Chinese New Year.

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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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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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