I wrote this for the Watson Conference in August of 2016, but I didn’t do the best job posting that year. Hopefully that will change overall. Here it goes!
As the Watson Fellowship has wound down to an end, I have spent weeks, days, hours wondering how on earth I can convey my year in 10 minutes at the end of year conference.
It’s hard to believe that this is it. In my quarterly reports, I had written time and again about the anxieties I had faced about whether or not I was doing my Watson year the “right way,” wondering if there were other Watson Fellows out there who were equally apprehensive. And now that I have 10 minutes to tell people about a moment, feeling, thought, or memory that encapsulates my year, I’ve found myself at a loss for words. I’m not sure why I’m at such a loss, because I’ve thought about this, sometimes obsessed over, how I’ll remember this year in its richness.
My anxieties ebbed away as I began to rephrase my concerns. It was no longer about how I would present my project and year in 10 minutes. It became more about how I would remember and honor the people who let me be a part of their lives.
In the past few days that I’ve resettled back home, I’ve questioned: How will I remember everyone? How will we stay in touch? How will I apologize? How will I be present?
Today, I share something I wrote for someone.
When I was a little girl, I found it so hard to express my feelings–whether in the form of apologies, disagreements, protests, vindications, or longing. It so often seemed that I was at a loss for words in person, and so I learned to hesitate at the sound of my voice. But in those moments when I felt so frustrated, so angry, so remorseful, or so hopeful that I could no longer contain it, I wrote letters. Over the years, I’ve written letters to cousins, to exes, to mentees, to people I’ve admired from a distance. This time, I write to you.
Ahmoy, I keep thinking about the time your family took us to Grand Port. It was still summer, but it was cool there on the southeast coast, where the gold-tipped grass swayed inland and the earth was rocky and moist beneath our sandals. I had come here before, but it was you and your family’s first time. I ran toward Le Bouchon, where it looked as though someone had taken a tremendous spoon and taken a clean scoop out of the cliffs, leaving behind a great mouth.
Here it was, the sea, no lagoon to neatly lay down borders for us. Le Bouchon gaped at us, as if being inundated with water poured down its throat, and it gurgled, gurgled, gurgled.
We stood 10 feet from the edge, but your father told you not to stand so close, for fear that you’d fall. While everyone backed from the edge, your sister-in-law turned to me and asked me in Mandarin, “Ni yao qu na bian? Do you want to go there?” She pointed at the sinew of rock, strung from one end of the mouth to the other, creating a natural bridge. I had crossed it before.
The two of us went for it, leaving you following far behind. There they were, your aunts uncles and cousins watching us on the other side, waving their hands frantically, begging us to come back, not to venture too far, dare not cross the bridge. Your sister-in-law strode to the middle of the bridge in her plastic flip flops, pausing only to turn and extend her hand toward me. “Lai. Come.” Taking a few steps forward, I saw you still frozen at the beginning.
Your family called out to your sister-in-law telling her to come back. Everyone yelled at me in Hakka, “Mau hsee!”–don’t go! Your mother cried out your name, already envisioning you falling down, down, down into Le Bouchon. Your sister-in-law held my hand, and I reached to hold yours, because if there’s anything I’ve learned about myself this year, it’s that I can communicate neither belonging nor loneliness in words alone.
Ahmoy: my father and many men have asked me what I would present about my year, about their community, about our folks. “Won’t you tell them that arranged couples were happy? It’s not so bad,” one person suggested.
Ahmoy, you and I both know that it wouldn’t be enough, and that bridge says a lot about how we live.
Some of us find a way to easily traverse from one end to the other. Some of us make it to the other end, but seemingly at the cost of no return.
None of us made it across the bridge that day. We went back the way we came, getting scolded all the while. Your sister-in-law said we could have quickly made it across if you hadn’t been so afraid to go with us.
Ahmoy, take your time crossing every bridge to come, and in times when you want to go back the way you came, know that you will try again when you are ready.
Do you remember when you sewed leather patches in the shape of hearts onto my burgundy corduroys?
I was in second grade and it was my first pair of pants and they were precious to me. But I came home each day with the holes in the knees growing bigger and my shame deeper. Mom would have thrown them away though, and that would have been the worst fate of all.
“There are holes in your pants,” you said into your cup of tea, balancing one leg on the rung of a stool and the other grounded on the scratched linoleum.
“Yeah, I know.”
“Why do you go to school that way? They’ll think we can’t afford to take care of you,” Mom said more to herself than to me, without looking up from the dishes. She made me change into five-dollar leggings from Wal-Mart.
I went to bed that night resigning myself to knowing that my corduroys were lying in the dumpster.
I woke up the next morning to my corduroys folded on the chest of drawers that Michelle and I shared. There were small leather patches hand-sewn into the knees, pleats pressed into the fabric. Running into the kitchen, I expected to see Mom. I found you instead.
I didn’t know many fathers who knew how to sew, or who had the foresight to know that I would need those hearts to fall on in gym class, land on while roughhousing with my cousins and stare at while in timeout for daydreaming.
That was a childhood ago. I’m twenty-five years old now, and in between then and now, you joked that I ought to marry someone who can sew because it’s the most familiar measure of one’s love. As a child, I had no clue what that meant. I only knew that I had a father who knew how to sew, and what an oddity it was for a man–especially a Hakka one, because God love ’em, they make good fathers but absent husbands–to have such patience.
It took me a few years to notice that it was always, always leather.
“Daddy, why always leather?” I had ventured, running my palms over the mossy side and inhaling the cured piece.
This time you were sewing a small pouch for Ken. He had left his retainer on his lunch tray, again, and had waded through the trash bin to find it, for fear of upsetting you.
“We were shoemakers, remember?” you replied.
I remembered your ability to walk into a shoe store and correctly guess the country in which each pair had been manufactured. Never once did we come across a pair made in India.
You retold me geographies of soles and tea plantations, of train tracks and barbed wire, of walled-in cities and long lines of bent heads whipped into submission by desert winds. When I was sixteen, you determined that I was old enough to meet Calcutta. Or rather, I met Tangra.
I remember climbing the rusted ladder up the side of Suk-poh’s house at the end of the day. I wanted to imagine aunties squatting in their kitchens, heels flat on the cool ground, butcher knives steadily moving in pendulum motions across necks of cabbage heads.
You showed me the school you bothered going to for about five years, before deciding that seventeen was too old to discipline. This school hadn’t seen children in at least a decade. A squatter’s charpai was centered in the room, letting us know that we had intruded on someone’s now home. Before leaving, we had taken a flashlight to the framed photos on the walls, using our fingertips to wipe away the dust over all the children’s faces. Yours was not among them.
You cared about documenting my childhood more than I did. Every test, every paper, every sticky note with a note scrawled, my first Chinese characters, every photo, every card and drawing. You saved my sneakers, worn down from dusty paths and gym floors and tiptoeing across the restaurant floor after a fresh mop.
Tangra was the aftermath of a panic attack–still paralyzed in shock, frozen in a time warp, caught between the shame of how this could have possibly happened and the fear of when it would begin again. Fifty years was an eerie wink in time.
You watched yourself become farther and farther estranged from a place that was home, each room closed off and boarded up until you found yourself in Tangra.
But was it a home, really? Darjeeling, perhaps, had been. Or maybe it was Darjeeling’s place in time and memory that had created belonging. When I was sixteen, we visited homes of old friends and neighbors, smiling with their eyes that said I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry–even after all these years. “Shame on you for not teaching her Nepali. Why not?” women chided. You laughed it off, but I knew the answer. This language is not ours.
Maybe it all made sense that we couldn’t find you in that line, and we now both know what it is to not be seen.
You told me the camp was the place you learned to speak Hakka, a language so strange and demanding of the tongue, nose and throat, and one that reminded a person how foreign they could be in their own clan. It was a language that required so much of you, asked you to pick an identity. It didn’t become difficult though amid showing up as internee number [you’ve willed yourself to fill your memory with better things] during roll call and while picking stones from watery kichri on the veranda of the barracks.
You told me Tangra was the first place you saw so many Chinese people, and your first encounter with enduring shame. When I was sixteen, you walked me to a corner with a trash can overflowing into the street. “This is where the lorry left us,” you explained. You told me of knocking on the doors of the Catholic schools, and being turned away. You told me of settling on Chinese school, getting bullied for knowing Nepali, Hakka, Bengali, the English songs you heard on the radio at the camp–but no Mandarin. You told me you were about my age when you decided that no amount of further schooling was going to create a citizen, within or beyond, the walls and boundaries of Chinatown.
You told me of people, of the shoe shop, of pranks, of fights. Of sleeping on ironing boards. Of Ahpo feeding eleven people in the household. Of rainy days when the vegetable vendors refused to haggle down prices, and the rain merged with her tears. Of cutting the cables of the street trolleys, creating small chaos in a city so hasty, so fractured, of so much wonderful attitude. Of returning to Darjeeling to find nearly everything gone.
We stood next to the trash can, and you pointed up. A shuttered window faced the street and I imagined the light of the street lamp filtering through the slats. School didn’t stop you from an education. Every night, after everyone had fallen asleep. Your father didn’t think much of reading, and it was never worthwhile to keep the lights on too late because it was time for the family to sleep to start another day of sewing, selling, delivering. The light came in vertically–perfect to make out the lines of even characters. You told me the stories you read that you wanted to become a part of your own. You told me of train rides and seeing an India outside of the barbed wire, outside of the train car, outside of the camp, outside of Tangra. The sky was still above your head and the ground beneath your feet, and where there wasn’t certainty, there was another day to be had.
People ask me if I always knew, and I tell them that your childhood had been a retelling over the years, that there was no start or end to my awareness or where my childhood had been mended with the sinews of your own overcoming.
Dad, I live in a country that breaks my heart over and over again. I know you knew it would happen, over and over again. But in the telling of these stories, I learned half the battle of belonging is allowing myself to become. I do this in the retelling of Deoli, in remembering the placement of every detail in your stories. There are many days to go, and many disappointments ahead, and many buildings and rooms and crowds that will make me feel so out of place that I will want to cry and leave. But I remember that the sky is still above my head, and the ground beneath my feet, and I recount the numbers of our people who are still left behind us. Those things alone, have reminded me why I stand to become.
I met Charles Ng Cheng Hin after giving a talk at the Heen Foh Association in Port Louis. The audience had taken the discussion into their own hands as they took turns with the microphone, sharing their own views, wondering where the Hakka diaspora goes from here, how to keep the Hakka language alive. Interspersed among these were people who stood up simply to tell me their stories, introduce themselves, show off their Hakka language skills and even perform songs.
Among these folks was Mr. Ng who later emailed me, eager to meet up and share all of his reflections about his mother and her contributions to the family. Mr. Ng and I met up in a small “snack” nestled in Port Louis’ Chinatown. It led to a series of meetings and a broad array of conversation topics, ranging from his grandfather’s establishment of the Chinese Middle School to experiencing joblessness to voting for Mauritius’ independence in 1968.
But besides our love for sharing stories and queries about identity and culture, there was another interesting factor that seemed to unite us. Mr. Ng’s grandfather was from Calcutta, India. Just like my grandmother of the same surname ‘Ng.’
Fun fact: I do have family in Mauritius. When people ask me how I knew about Mauritius in the first place, I can thank my Ahpo (definitely NOT US schools’ geography education). Ahpo and my mom explained to me that they had a relative from India who went onward to a small island near Africa. They lost contact though after so many years, not really sure of what was happening across the Indian Ocean.
Ahpo doesn’t remember her relative’s full name, which is why I never tried to find their descendants. Perhaps I am related to Mr. Ng. Perhaps I’m not. In any case, his friendship is one that transcends our different nationalities and age gap. And so we found ourselves meeting up many times at Ollier Plaza with a spread of dishes and orange Fantas.
This video was my last meeting with Mr. Ng before he left for some traveling. Having showed me his poem, he asked if I could find a way to share it somewhere. “Mother Never Dies” was written in 1995, and it took Mr. Ng a total of five years to write, revise and edit it. I hope this is a good start to bringing it to light. What I love most about this poem though is the gesture itself. Mr. Ng is among the Hakka men I’ve met and interviewed who seek to better recognize the efforts of Hakka women.
Life for a Hakka woman in Mauritius was not easy (was it ever though?). The first and second generations of Hakka women spent their lives shop-keeping and doing domestic work–neither of which sound too terrible, right? However, the shop-keeper lifestyle was laborious.
At its economically most vulnerable, the Mauritian government enforced fixed prices on products. A product that cost 5 rupees was therefore only sold for 6 rupees in the shop, leaving the profit margin at one single rupee for the shop-keeper families. The only way for families to prosper from this was to buy everything in wholesale, meaning they had to understand their local market and remain dependent on their family network.
Regardless of location, shops were kept open at long and, often times, odd hours to accommodate the schedules of their clientele–but even closed doors didn’t keep a few customers from pounding at shopkeepers’ doors in the middle of the night during emergencies or for a late-night alcohol run.
Women performed a lot of tasks that nonetheless kept shops operating. They produced hundreds of cornets (cones made of paper and glue), assisted customers, cooked vindaye and achards to sell for lunch, managed books and more. That was in addition to their household work, which had no neat division from their shop work. Families tended to be larger two generations ago; it is no longer a surprise for me to run into people who grew up with 12 siblings. Feeding, clothing and educating that many children was endless work for Hakka mothers. As one woman laughed, “It was like a factory.” She remembers her mother lining her and her siblings up to search their hair for lice, wipe them down and inspect their health.
But aside from the daily tasks that women performed, there were extraordinary measures, too. In another story, a woman recounted her grandmother saving their home. A cyclone had nearly torn the tin roof from their house. In the eye of the cyclone, her grandmother quickly climbed a ladder to secure the roof on her own, after her husband had refused to take the risk of falling.
But as Mr. Ng and others have testified, perhaps the most valued work that Hakka mothers performed were assuaging relationships in the family, especially for their sons. The relationship between father and son wasn’t always an easy one during financially difficult times, demanding work and troublesome customers. And it was often during these stressful situations that masculinity and saving face could drive a wedge between a father, the head of the business, and his son, eager but still trivialized as an unwitting child.
In spite of what Hakka mothers do though, how often is their work fully appreciated within their lifetime though? Moreover, how often is the work of sisters, wives, aunties and pohpohs acknowledged in the present instead of in retrospect or nostalgia? A common theme I’ve noticed among people’s description of Hakka womanhood is “sacrifice.” A woman is not considered a real Hakka woman unless she has toiled, worked hard and selflessly given all she had for the success of her family. While sacrifice is noble, is it fair to always expect that from the women in our lives? Moreover, is that a realistic expectation to have for young Hakka women today who certainly have their own challenges, but are often trivialized because they are anachronistically and nostalgically compared to women of a bygone past?
Regardless of where that conversation is headed, for now, here’s to remembering and recognizing Hakka mothers of the past.
Near the corner of where I live, there is a shop. I wandered into Chez Youvoon my first week in Mauritius as I was looking for a phone card. I ended up befriending Michel, the owner of the store. Nearly all Sino-Mauritians started out running or working in shops when they migrated to the island. Today, one could say shopkeeping is a dying art among the Chinese community–which is why it was such a treat to record Michel reflecting upon his experience as a shopkeeper.
Enjoy an interactive interview with Michel! Interlude can be a bit confusing for first-time users. But basically, it’s a platform that allows you to choose where the story goes. The video presents you with menus and you can click on the text to choose what parts of the interview you hear.
It wasn’t until last week that I finally put something together after the video shots I took at Kwan Tee.
Among the Hakka community in India, it is normal to see home altars with Ganesh, the Virgin Mary and Tudigong altogether on one platform. There is no singular religion, and there aren’t any qualms about that. Which is why it struck me when I met the Christian community in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. “You cannot choose God one day, and then something else the next day,” someone had told me with finality. However, it’s no surprise that Sabahan Hakkas are adamant about their religious beliefs, especially considering a) some were descendants of Taipingers and b) they were specifically brought by the Basel Mission to help settle the territory.
My family and I are Catholic. My grandparents were Buddhists though, and my Ahpo, dad and I don’t eat beef as part of Buddhist practice. Coming from countries in which religion was omnipresent and plural, it never struck us as odd or wrong. Religion could loosely be defined as whatever got a person through the day. So when I first came to Mauritius, I was first struck by how similar the attitude was towards religion; even though most Chinese identify as Catholics, there is no ill will towards those who take on their own interpretations of how dogmatic or pragmatic they are with their practices. Indeed, it was a tremendous privilege to go pagoda-hopping with Roland Tsang and see how the Chinese community has managed to give rise to their own religious identity, balancing their past with their present and future.
It was sometime in May that I spent the day over at a Mauritian couple’s home. Mrs. Yip had excitedly offered to teach me how to make ngiouk yan–a dish that I never liked that much before coming to Mauritius.
Ngiouk yan is a traditional Hakka dish, usually made of minced meat and shredded white turnips, held together by cornstarch and steamed to form opaque bite-sized lumps. But in Mauritius, families tend to cook them instead with shredded chou chou–a sweeter, delicious substitute to turnips.
As Mrs. Yip taught me how to roll the mixture into small balls with the palms of my hands, she asked me about my family. Did they speak Hakka at home? Not really, mostly English. Did we eat ngiouk yan often at home? Nope, my mom didn’t have a lot of time to spend on cooking each day. Did my mom cook Hakka food at home? Sometimes, but we like Indian and Pakistani food, too. Did my mother work, or was she a homemaker? Yes, Mom worked. So who looked after you when you were growing up?
A lot of people took care of me. And Mom was superwoman; our customers would always joke that she was the real boss, teasing my father for never being around to watch over his own restaurant. Looking back, it did create tension in our family. Undoubtedly, my mom worked hard. She worked 10 hours a day, nearly 7 days a week, with only half of a day off on Saturday when we closed for lunch. That didn’t include all of the housework and family obligation she had to take care of.
When I was very young and didn’t understand, I used to feel angry that Mom was working so hard every day in the restaurant. I heard people say about my dad, “How can he let his wife work so hard?”
But as Mrs. Yip asked me more about my family, I told her more and more about my dad and remembered all the things he did to take care of me.
The Little Things
In first grade, I owned a pair of maroon corduroy pants. It was the first time I had a pair of pants that weren’t leggings. I wore them until the knees had holes in them, and yet, I didn’t want to give up wearing them. My classmates made fun of me for wearing clothes with holes in them, one girl even telling me I must have been really poor. I told my dad about it–I was afraid that if I told Mom, she’d make me throw them away–or even worse, cut them up into rags to wipe the table; and then I wouldn’t have any pants to wear to school anymore.
The next morning, I found my corduroy pants. But instead of finding two holes at the knees, there were two heart-shaped leather patches. The leather was neatly cut and smoothed at the edges, and the stitches were so even and straight. I turned to my dad and told him excitedly that Mom must have fixed the holes for me. He smiled. “No, I did.”
Years later, in middle school, my friends’ mothers always packed their children’s lunch boxes. My friends’ moms typically packed fruit, a sandwich, yogurt, some juice. When I unpacked mine, my classmates would always watch eagerly. Some days, I had pork fried rice kept hot in a thermos, other days I had a fresh salad with tandoori salmon filet. My friends asked me incredulously, “Did your mom get up and make that this morning?” I smiled. “No, my dad did.”
When I went away to study when I was 16, my dad would sometimes drive a total of 8 hours in one day, even if it meant only seeing me for a mere 3 hours. Each time, he would bring all the things he thought I needed. Herbal soups, jackets and sweaters, fresh milk, containers of fresh homemade dumplings, chocolates that my mom had packed, my favorite brand of instant noodles. One weekend, my dad drove to take me home since we had an extended weekend–a total of three whole days. I didn’t realize it until my friend commented as I was preparing to leave, “Your dad must really love you if you he is driving a total of 16 hours just to take you home this weekend.”
When I went to Davidson, my dad looked forward to any chance to visit campus. Fortunately, it was only an hour away from home this time. He drank coffee and enjoyed bluegrass music with me in Summit, went to evening lectures that ranged from fascinating to snore-inducing, entertained simultaneously ridiculous and thoughtful discussions with my friends, and brought trays of fresh food from Chen’s. My friends, classmates and professors, whether they liked it or not, became accustomed to “Yeeva’s dad.”
Not so little
These were the “little things” that made a world of difference to me.
I have sometimes questioned if these acts seemed so much bigger, more meaningful in my mind simply because it was my dad who did them instead of my mom. If it had been my mom, would I have been less grateful because these acts of care are so often expected of mothers instead of fathers?
I think back though to how much my mother’s work was valued for so visibly supporting our family when it came to finances. And how that also came with the occasional emasculation of my father when family or friends talked about him for not being at the restaurant as much. It’s true, my mother was exhausted at the restaurant. Though it didn’t negate the ease that comes with male privilege, my dad wasn’t exactly taking it easy either. He was experiencing the same work load and ridicule that women often receive for their role in raising a family.
I can’t say that my father made the conscious decision to subvert gender expectations, but regardless, he certainly did. Perhaps his unconsciousness about those decisions though was what made it all the more beautiful–he wasn’t trying to be bold or political; he just wanted to do the things he hoped would make his family happy and healthy, out of love.
There are a number of ways that I want to direct this post toward third wave feminism, gender equality paradoxes, glass ceilings and gender role swapping. But in honor of Father’s Day, I’m going to instead end with a part of the email I wrote to my dad:
HAPPY FATHER‘S DAY, DADDY!!!!!!
I consider myself a very blessed daughter. Thank you for always encouraging me to dream big.
It made all the difference in my life because even though I didn’t have a parent who could always tell me the answers or guide me in school, I knew I had parents who did everything and anything in their capability to show that they supported me and wanted me to succeed and wanted me to feel valued. Too many people say “I love you” so easily, but I have parents who always showed it.
“Ahn-doh woo-kwee,” I had commented as I searched among a sea of red synthetic gowns. It was 2010 and in typical Hakka family formation, my parents, brother, cousins, aunts and grandparents and I were attending my sister’s graduation from university. My father paused briefly before responding, “Heh...”
There were a number of things that were wrong with that moment. For one, what I had said had translated into, “There are a lot of Indians.” As a teenager, I problematically didn’t see the issue with making assumptions about a person’s identity based on their appearances. And though I had made the comment to somehow ground familiarity in the setting (as a teenager, I had yet to understand the nuance in being Hakka from India, and that having history in India did not privilege me membership into shared experiences), it didn’t lessen the fact that I was showing my own internalized colorism and racism. While we can aspire to recognizing that empathy should be our pre-choice and not a reflection, my awareness of race, ethnicity and language changed drastically after experiencing those labeling frustrations from people who similarly tried to tell me who I was before I could tell them.
The real reason for why my father paused was probably the same reason my cousin immediately snapped her head in my direction and stared at me. That word. Kwee. In Mandarin, it would be gui, or 鬼. The term is meant to be a derogatory one, and it can mean ‘devil’ or ‘ghost.’ And ‘woo-kwee’ translates into ‘dark-colored ghost.’ While this doesn’t sound so malignant when translated into English, the word is a curse and deeply ingrained in a sense of superiority and colorism.
I did not know what it meant to call someone a kwee at the time. Hakka people often joke that we the only people we acknowledge in this world are Chinese. According to our language, it’s true. We call ourselves ‘tong-ngin,’ or tangren (唐人) in Mandarin. Everyone else is a kwee. If you’re White? Pak-kwee. If you’re Black? Heh-kwee. Foreigners? Fan-kwee. Those annoying customers at your store and/or restaurant? Hak-kwee. The word is so commonly used, that some people don’t really acknowledge the nuanced difference in calling someone a kwee and calling them a ngin.
Whenever I bring up the problem with saying kwee to other Hakkas, some push back and ask, “But what’s so wrong about being called a ‘kwee’ anyway? It just means calling them a ‘ghost.’” When we were kids, my siblings and I often heard these words, but we never thought too much about what kwee meant. It was simply part of that foreign language that our parents used whenever they wanted to talk badly about other people behind their backs. I had heard the word kwee thrown around so much and had never really reflected upon what it meant.
Ghosts in American culture are often times simply scary characters in films. Some people believe in them, some don’t. For those who believe in them, ghosts are lost souls of people who left the world unsettled. These people could have been troubled, angry, frustrated or sad. They became lost souls not because of their own fault, but because of the people around them. In movies and TV shows, they are portrayed in a more empowered light, taking their revenge on people, invisible only to appear invincible.
In Chinese culture though, ghosts are interpreted a bit differently. In Chinese culture, the individual is inextricably linked to others; parents, friends, children, siblings. Ghosts, however, don’t have these people. They are wretched because they committed grave sins, failed to fulfill their social duties to their family and community, and did something so dire that even their own family wouldn’t honor them in the Afterlife. In Chinese culture and language, ghosts don’t have friends, family, community or culture. They are incomplete and the living go on without them, not wanting to remember them. Without all of these things, a ghost really has no soul, and there really can’t be anything worse than to be a ‘kwee.’
Stuck in Time: Understanding my Father
Ahpak, Ahyee, Koo-koo, Ahkiu, Kiu-me, Pak-me, Ah-ko and Ah-ji. These were the kinship terms we learned as Hakka children.
We were celebrating Chinese New Year at my grandparents’ house. While helping my father unload something from our car, my cousin called out, “Hey, Michael…” My father squared his shoulders and pointed his index finger at my cousin. “Look, it’s Uncle Michael. Don’t just call me by my first name. That’s what Americans do, but you ought to have some respect for me. Do you understand?” My cousin stood silent while the rest of us looked away, not necessarily disagreeing with what my father had said, but how he had said it.
There are dozens of memories like this, where I remember the exact expression on my father’s face. It was not mere anger, but it was also defiance, determination and fear. Immigrants who hold on to their traditions are often labeled as anti-American, too uneducated to fit into American society. But the real problem is perhaps that Americans are anti-multiculturalism. As I’ve traveled around the world, I’m disturbed by how many people truly believe that the United States is a good example of an immigrant nation. Yes, we are a melting pot, in a sense. A melting pot into which all ingredients must blend into one another, no longer maintaining their own individual flavor.
As immigrants’ children, my siblings and I look back. Unfortunately, we also looked down. We looked down when my mother ignored us every time we corrected her for saying “I’m not interesting” when she really meant to say “I’m not interested.” We looked away when my father demanded our friends remove their shoes when they walked in our house. We walked away when our extended family filled the ICU with their bodies and reused containers of homemade food to visit my mother after her heart attack. There were a lot of things we would never understand about our parents—maybe because we lacked empathy. Maybe because we didn’t know their fear.
Fear of what? At one time, I would have answered that my parents were afraid of losing their culture. But that response is a cliché expected from most immigrants. Their fear was so much more political, so much more aware of the social processes and dynamics going on around them. My parents weren’t fighting for the survival of the entire Hakka culture. They were fighting for their autonomy to decide what it meant to be American on their own terms, in their own house, in their own family, in their own skin.
My parents didn’t fear losing their culture. I think most immigrants in the US have the wisdom to understand that change is inevitable. But what my parents, like so many other immigrants, feared was being looked down upon for being so visibly in the process of change and growth. Their circle of friends and family was already small, and they feared it would get even smaller and smaller, shrinking until no one would be left, except themselves. But like so many other immigrants, sometimes the harder they fought, the more they were condemned.
Insult or Endearment?
Pan-hsien. Pan-now-sit. Fan soo. Fan-kwee. Fan-see-oh. See-say-kwee-eh. Woo-kwee. These were the type of words I commonly heard from other Hakkas I knew. As a child who couldn’t understand or speak Hakka fluently, I didn’t realize at first that these weren’t the nicest things to say. Similarly, I don’t think my parents thought much about how these words translated into English until we asked them later on.
Need some context? A pan-hsien is a half-blood; someone who is of mixed heritage. A pan-now-sit is a half-brain; someone whose head is mixed with Chinese and non-Chinese thought. A fan soo is a stupid idiot. A fan-kwee is a foreign ghost. Fan-see-oh! is ‘annoyed to death.’ See-say-kwee-eh means ‘little ghosts’ and is what some people call their own children, sort of like calling one’s children ‘my brats.’ And woo-kwee was what we called dark-skinned people. For Hakkas from India, that’s how they refer to Indians. For Hakkas in Mauritius, that seems to be how some refer to Creoles.
My parents outgrew this vocabulary, but it’s still a part of my community. Not everyone saw the value in this though. It came as a shock to me when I realized how much other Hakka parents continued to speak the language without thinking twice about the vocabulary they were using. In particular, it bothered me that some people still referred to girls as “little slaves” or even “cunts.” In one case in Europe, a friend had joked that his mother more or less called me a cunt. I was livid. He replied,
“Relax, it’s just a term of endearment.”
I couldn’t see it as a term of endearment. In the US, people have studied the reclamation of words like ‘bitch’ and ‘nigga.’ The name ‘Hakka’ itself is the reclamation of a Cantonese insult. Not all people of mixed Hakka heritage see the term ‘pan-nao-sit’ as inherently hateful or mean-spirited. Yet no matter how hard I tried to keep an open mind about my social position, education and language differences in relation to my friend’s mother, I couldn’t accept or brush it off.
I didn’t blame his mother. Rather, I blamed him for telling me to see it as a term of endearment. I was angry that someone told me to calm down and frustrated that there wasn’t a chance to discuss why I was opposed to the term. An entire section of not only the Hakka language, but almost every language in the world, is dedicated to degrading women, their bodies and their value. Most of all, I was frustrated that I didn’t have the full language capacity to stand up for myself. No, I blamed him for being too afraid to speak up when he had the power to do so.
So much of that vocabulary revealed how little the language has changed, mainly because so many native Hakka speakers have not critically confronted or challenged the language. That’s not to say that there aren’t Hakkas who never challenge or advance their language. Some would reduce youth’s inability to speak their mother tongue to generation gaps, disinterest in their roots, or personal weakness. The problem though? In Anthro jargon, I’d phrase it as “lacking cultural capital.” In short, those who would like to confront casually calling people soulless ghosts or female genitalia don’t feel that they have the authority to do so. Part of it has to do with not speaking the language fluently. A larger part of it has to do with knowing that it’s an uphill battle against a society that struggles, and often fails, to look inward.
“The problem with Hakkas is that they don’t want other people to know the problems they have within their own society.”
Nothing but Nostalgia
When I first came to Mauritius, the Hakka people I met proudly told me of how their folks from Moi-yen would praise how they spoke the language whenever they went to visit or reconnect with their roots in mainland China. Mauritian Hakkas could still speak the language just as it was spoken in Moi-yen. This is the same thing that I hear Hakkas from India say about themselves.
Pure Hakka. I consider the language, the way it contradicts some of the very concepts and tenets to which Hakkas hold claim, yet fall short internally. Things like feminism or tolerance or adaptability. If that’s what it means to be “pure Hakka,” is that really a good thing?
In nearly every country I’ve visited, I’ve met people who have asked me what is the future of the Hakka people. In some online Facebook groups and forums, I’ve seen an array of fatalist responses and some extreme calls to action to return to China, even. Most relevant my research, I’ve met some extreme cases of people who insist that their sons marry Hakka women for the sake of ensuring “family success” because they believe Hakka women know how to bear the burdens of a difficult life.
Over the year, I’ve come closer and closer yet simultaneously farther and farther from understanding what it means to be Hakka in a rapidly globalizing world. If there was one way to sum it up though, I’d say that Hakka culture is by now a collection of glocalized cultures. Others interpret change as threat though as it becomes harder and harder to recognize our counterparts across borders and oceans.
I often find myself falling into the trap of looking for “authentic” Hakka culture, though I ought to know better. I find myself looking for people who still make fong mee mien that melts on my tongue, or Hakka grannies puttering around their homes because they can’t sit still for more than 5 minutes. I look for people who speak the same Moi-yen dialect as my family, and I look for people who can sing the same folk songs as my grandparents. It seems that I find myself looking for nostalgia. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I grew fond of Mauritius because it has been one of the few places that reminds me of where my family came from.
But to reduce our culture to these nostalgic markers would be incredibly unjust and selfish. Nostalgia can motivate people to look inward, but seldom critically when we get caught up clinging to the familiar. Our culture, if it is to survive, needs to make space for change. That starts with ensuring that young people feel that they have the authority to not only participate in it, but lead in their society.
Leading goes beyond asking young people to execute orders, recruit volunteers or figure out tech-related tasks. It entails taking young people seriously enough so that they may confront aspects of their culture when they see that it no longer reflects a world in which they feel proud, affirmed and accountable. Perhaps elders fear that change brings an end to the world they remember. Far from it though–for a culture unchanged and untouched is not much different from a specter of something that once existed.
 Hakka families are traditionally huge. It’s common to run into grandparents or even parents who had between 10 and 12 siblings. As a result, we tend to have a ton of cousins, who are our playmates and the primary Chinese “community” we know. Hakkas have often been described by other Chinese as being “clannish” for keeping to themselves. It’s a bit true; we tend to travel in large packs and prioritize our own clan. Make way for us and all the snacks we’re bringing with us.
 Ironically, this is what Hakkas call the locals of the country they just immigrated to.
 ‘Fan soo’ is also a type of yam commonly found in Moi-yan. They are so common that it became an insult to call someone a fan soo as a way of telling someone that they are so plain and ordinary. English equivalent: “You are basic.” Oh, they’re also purple in color.
I was eight years old when I had my First Holy Communion, a rite and sacrament of the Catholic Church in which we accept God’s body, blood and spirit. At the time, when I considered myself a committed and eager member of the Church, I remember it was a big day for me. Finally, I would be able to walk down the Church aisle with my brother and sister and accept the Body and Blood of Christ. And of course, in my 8-year-old mind, I was excited about wearing my cousin’s hand-me-down white dress, that white crown of flowers, and the new shiny white shoes my mother had bought for this special occasion.
As my mother curled my hair in the bathroom, I noticed her frowning a bit. After finishing the last curl, she took out her compact and began generously dusting blush on my cheeks. She dabbed a bit of lipstick on my lips. Inspecting me in the mirror, she told me what I had been hearing all summer long, “You shouldn’t have played outside so much. You look kali.”
Kali is a Hindu goddess. I had heard Chinese-Indians call each other ‘Kali’ a few times. Kali is perhaps not what is considered a conventional beauty. She has multiple hands, sticks out her tongue and stands on her consort Shiva. It is believed that Kali had been drunk on the blood of her victims and was about to destroy the universe before Shiva calmly prostrated himself beneath her foot. Sticking her tongue out in shame, she was brought back to a calm state upon seeing Shiva’s gesture. She thus represents energy as well as feminine power. In a Christian household, Kali might be viewed with fear, disgust, terror. But there was another reason why I was taught to believe that Kali was not beautiful. Kali translates into ‘she who is dark.’
My mother’s concern about my skin was not something I held against her, though we’ve had conversations about not using Kali as a descriptor. I thought her concerns had more to do with her awareness of the social politics of skin color in the United States than her actual belief that her own daughter was ugly. But my mother’s respectability politics weren’t just for skin color in the United States. Rather, I’ve come to recognize a colorism that pervades the Hakka community, in spite of our belief that we’ve remained exempt from it.
“Hakkas truly come in all colors. There are Hakkas who look just like other Chinese. But did you know there are Black Hakkas, too? That’s the beauty of our culture.”
When I was very young and just able to comprehend that being Hakka was something a bit different from being Chinese, I remember asking my dad what Hakka people looked like. He gave me an answer that comforted and inspired me, and at the expense of reality. In my ten-year-old mind, I came to think that Hakkas were an exceptionally open-minded, progressive and accepting people, and I tried to hold myself to that standard.
Growing from girl to woman complicated that belief as I became increasingly exposed to the pol
itics of being “Hakka enough.” Traveling from community to community has shown me that the greatest struggle we face as Hakka people is fighting for our traditions while also subscribing to certain conventions of our “host” countries. When I first started my journey, I had some assumptions that Hakka women around the world felt particularly pressured to balance tradition and modernity.
My own upbringing definitely influenced that assumption. My mother followed certain conventions for the sake of getting by, though she held strong to her ultimate convictions. My mother was and still remains a model Hakka woman to me. My mother did not need a college education to navigate feminism, and she was the example by which I set a lot of standards for myself and for how other people treat me in my day-to-day life.
I recall a memory from a few years ago. My sister and I had been working in the restaurant together, and one of our regular customers came up to us. Pausing to put his hands on his hips, he asked us, “So which of you is the pretty one and which is the smart one?” My sister and I looked at each other in a loss of words. My mother overheard and stepped in. “They’re both.” The man asked for clarification, “They’re both pretty, or they’re both smart?” She paused long enough from sorting her invoices to peer at him from above the rim of her glasses. “Both of them are both pretty and smart.”
My sister and I had many moments like this one with customers, acquaintances and even friends. Our appearances were sometimes dissected, evaluated and devalued in such swift motions. A high school friend once told me in half-jest that his biggest fear about coming over to our house was that he wouldn’t be able to tell my sister and I apart. “But I think one of you is darker than the other, so I think I’ll be able to tell you apart,” he reassured me cheerfully. He had asked me to prom later that year, and I said no, telling him my parents wouldn’t allow me to go. The truth was that I couldn’t get moments like those out of my head, no matter how much I reminded myself that he was one of the few friendly faces I knew at school.
Looking back at my teenage years, I wish I had developed just half the moxy and sass that my mother had. My mother was first in a number of ways. She was the first born in her family, the first to get a job to help earn money, and the first to leave school. She was of the first generation to come to the United States, all the way from Pakistan, which at that time had been led by Benazir Bhutto, a woman prime minister.
But when people (and especially men) looked at us, they saw fragile and vulnerable women, unwilling to fight. My mother did not exhaust herself directly subverting those expectations—she just created new ones. If men expected the small Asian woman behind the cash register to smile, she was friendly—but that didn’t exclude her from being firm, steadfast and sharp-tongued, too.
Was it enough though?
While I may be empowered internally by knowing my family’s history and my mother’s agency, that won’t change how others see and treat me. Moreover, it won’t change how we approach colorism in the Hakka, Chinese and larger Asian communities.
“Far from the common advertising image of women used to sell cars and other products, these women are not meant to be seductive and alluring. Nor do they fit the western or orientalist stereotype of the delicate, submissive, and sexy Asian woman. Instead they are strong, tanned, and hardworking, exotic in a different sense: the stereotypical image of a Hakka woman.”
–Nicole Constable, Christian Souls and Chinese Spirits
Nicole Constable’s research suggests that Hakkas traditionally have seen themselves as exempt from mainstream standards of beauty. And as Constable notes, that’s not to say that Hakka women have never been considered beautiful–they’ve been appreciated for how they are in their own right.
But what do diaspora Hakkas actually believe outside of academic research? Like most things I know about the “lived” Hakka experience (which isn’t a lot), it was limited to what I had read in books, articles, websites and online forums—meaning, I didn’t really know what people had to say about themselves. And when it came to skin color, I had only come to know two things. First, most Chinese from the mainland thought I was dark. As a result, whenever I mentioned I was Hakka, people began to associate ask me if I was an ethnic minority. I stopped interjecting with, “Well, actually, Hakkas are considered Hans as well” because it felt so arbitrary and defensive. Why did it matter in the first place whether or not I identified with the majority?
Second, my American college education and upbringing privileged me with the consciousness that my skin color served as one shade on a spectrum of colorism. I knew I shouldn’t worry about my skin color—to the point of believing that anyone who did care about having white skin simply lived in false consciousness.
For a long time, I assumed that other Hakka parents taught their children the way mine had taught me. But I’ve come to realize that Hakka parenting differs far and wide in the midst of globalization and westernization. Among Hakkas themselves, I often heard comments about their light-skinned relatives with single eyelids and high nose bridges—perhaps in an effort to remind others of their northern origins and potentially “pure Han” blood.
A Year of Tanning
My skin has gotten darker and darker as I’ve traveled among island nations, and I’ve been surprised at how the change in my skin color has changed my experience. In Vienna, I was considered dark among Hakka Indians. And indeed, other Hakkas who have encountered those from India have commented that many of them seem exceptionally fair-skinned–partially in wonder and partially in admiration.
In Indonesia, I befriended a student who tutored me in Bahasa Indonesia. Though the university campus was a 10-minute walk away from my boarding house, he often insisted on picking me up each morning and driving me there. “You’ll get burnt,” he explained. But when I pushed for further explanation, it was less about UV rays and more about me no longer looking pretty enough–something that I ungracefully confronted with fruitless hostility.
Between Hakkas and Hokkiens, I heard claims to who was the fairer-skinned people–insinuating the links they had drawn between fair skin and cultural authenticity and civility. “You can always pick out the Hakkas in a group of tionghua. They are very fair-skinned,” one young woman explained to me.
It was baffling to me. This desire for light skin was nothing like what I had been taught by my parents and my grandparents. Where did it come from? In college, my classmates and I had done a project on the globalization of beauty standards, focusing on the white colonization of dark skin. But where the West has begun exoticizing tan skin (emphasis on ‘tan’ as opposed to ‘dark’), I still see overseas Chinese communities valuing those tofu complexions.
Perhaps this is where Han Chinese beauty standards continue to reach overseas Chinese communities (we can argue back and forth over the organic or inorganic Whiteness of these standards). And when overseas Chinese seek to find beauty in themselves in faraway countries where they form a minority of appearances, perhaps they turn to China for a nod. Following those beauty trends isn’t just about looking good. In transnational and diaspora communities, it may mean maintaining connected-ness.
So where does that leave overseas Hakka women? And furthermore, is that where we should remain? In Meizhou, Hakka girls seemed to care a bit less about skin color, though desires to look like big-city Chinese girls are certainly present. Perhaps today’s generation is excited to have the time and luxury of being able to care about their looks. We could argue that she is exerting her agency to beautify herself and perhaps gain more social mobility.
“You look like us. Your skin is dark, like mine. Hakka girls aren’t afraid of the sun because they had to work.”
My first week in Mauritius, someone commented that I could be mistaken for a Chinese-Mauritian. When I asked how one could tell by looking, it came down to my complexion. I am tan enough to pass as a local girl, unafraid of walking in the sun.
Mauritius has made me feel nostalgic. 90% of the Chinese here are of Hakka descent, and most are Moi-yaners. We speak the same Moi-yan dialect, we eat our ya-mien the same way (on the dry side), and I hear a familiar philosophy toward dark skin. In the past, a Hakka woman had always been valued based on the work she produced, and while this system was not perfect, it still made her the agent of her evaluation. When I ask older generations of Hakka women about their youth and following beauty trends, they scoff–usually because they had bigger problems to worry about.
But there was something more to be admired. Go back to unbound feet. Hakka women, even those brought up in well-off households, refused to bind their feet. Unbound feet meant mobility, and mobility meant venturing beyond the house. Beauty standards existed, but Hakka women were willing to break them.
My tan lines intensify day by day, but I am reminded that I have a legacy of women before me who were unafraid of venturing into the sun. I am reminded that to be dark is to be unafraid. I am reminded that if there was something we could learn from tradition, it would be to be unafraid.
Unafraid of what, exactly? The Hakka community these days often talk about their fear of losing their Chinese-ness. But a lot of what we know now as Chinese does not always align with what we knew as Hakkas.
This post isn’t just about combating contemporary beauty standards. It is inextricably linked to the common fear of where we find ourselves on a spectrum of color-driven hierarchies in and out of the Chinese world; and as a result, we impose beauty standards on women to reflect where we hope to stand. Through embracing darkness, we defy colonial narratives about whiteness and its alleged link to civility. Through embracing darkness, we remember that Hakkas have traveled far and wide–to Mauritius, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago. We remember that Hakka girls women were ahead of their time in women’s rights. We remember that culture stands resilient in values, songs and stories rather than our looks or the people we marry. Through embracing darkness, we stop limiting Hakka girls from becoming the women they want to be.
Lunar New Year is almost here, and I couldn’t be more excited to be celebrating here in Kota Kinabalu (KK). My travels have brought me to Sabah, a state in East Malaysia where the Hakka community here is famous for being one of (if not the) largest Hakka-speaking communities in the world outside of China. Researchers from around the world have been brought to KK to conduct research on the culture, ecology and biodiversity here.
In particular, cultural anthropologists have been fascinated by the way in which Chinese culture has maintained its resilience in this area. There’s no better time like Chinese New Year to observe the richness of Chinese identity in Sabah.
Before the new year officially starts, Gaya Street hosts a night market for three nights in a row the week before the festivities begin. Among the blue tents, lanterns and performers were Sabahans of all ages eagerly anticipating the lion dance.
Lion dance teams are no joke. Besides the physical duress of training, the brutal heat and long hours call for high praise of the young men who volunteer to perform.
But who are these performers? These days, the young men beneath those costumes are not Chinese, as one might suspect. According to today’s Sabahans, young Kadazan men are more commonly the ones who have put in the labor to keep up this beloved Chinese tradition. When I asked how this came about, some Chinese men shrugged and candidly replied, “Sometimes we’re just lazy or scared of the heat. The parents tell them not to tire themselves. So other boys do it.”
Many Chinese here see it as a positive thing that other peoples participate in their own customs–a characteristic that is a trademark of Sabahan cultural plurality. This isn’t always the case for other overseas Chinese who have been more protective over who can and cannot participate in cultural traditions, especially those that are male-dominant. In one case, a friend told me that he had heard people react in disappointment. “‘That’s our dance. Chinese only.'”
Considering that there are arguably fewer customs that men feel responsible for, I am not surprised that other overseas Chinese might react protectively toward Sabahans’ lion dance companies. And if not protective, other attitudes loan themselves to a sense of responsibility and duty to “preserve” tradition. Indeed, during this time of year, my Facebook feed has been filled with Hakka-Indian cousins and relatives proudly posting photos of boys back home, muscles flexed and shoulders straight.
And indeed, these dances are fierce. While they may delight older audiences, it’s not uncommon to find children who recoil in fear or hide at the sound of the drums. Lion dance performances play an important role in masculinity for overseas Chinese communities. Particularly associated with southern Chinese (though there are northern styles as well), these dance forms take on their own regional flairs. Here in Kota Kinabalu, well seasoned lion dancers know the differences between Hokkien, Cantonese and Hakka styles and costumes.
The lion dance could say a lot about the Chinese community–though to be honest, I can’t always interpret the things I see. Growing up as one of the only Chinese families in my hometown, I realize during this time of year in KK that I know so little about distinguishing Hakka and Chinese cultures. Most days, I am in awe of the sounds, events and people. But when it comes to the lion dance, I feel like a spectator of my own heritage in so many ways. In one sense, I’m watching young men of a different ethnicity getting paid very little to keep aspects of my own culture alive. But on the other hand, I’m seeing young men who influence our culture in their own ways: introducing different drum rhythms, mixing Hokkien and Hakka styles, pulling stunts that make the crowds gasp in shock and anticipation.
And I see how masculinity is so inextricably intertwined with these dance troupes as well. Behind the viewfinder, young boys gaze from a truck bed in awe and wonder if they’ll do the dance someday. A teenage boy takes a cigarette break with his friends, making eyes at the pretty girl that just walked by but not daring to yell out “Liang moy!” at her because he’s not that type of man. Another young man puts on the headdress and refuses to be distracted by the young children trying to pet at the bright red synthetic fur. Another one balances on a pedestal with the monkey his girl just gave him, perhaps in giddy and fearful wonder.
Will he fall? What if he misses a beat? Will he remember what to do?
The new year is filled with uncertainties, and so he drinks another beer and waits for the drums to sound.