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.
“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.
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.
It had been nearly two months since I left Vienna and found myself in Surabaya, Indonesia. I had originally planned to go to Singkawang, but due to forest fires and resultant haze in West Kalimantan, I had been warned to avoid this area for a while. After a trip in Singapore (the blessing and curse of the 30-day visa-on-arrival), I had some time to reflect upon my time in Indonesia. I returned to Indonesia, though this time in Jakarta for about 3 weeks. Nearly that time of the month once again, I decided to take a trip to Kuala Lumpur.
There have indeed been a few personal realizations and developments in the past two (okay, few) months since I’ve written. For one, I’ve decided to stop worrying about producing observation-driven or research-like “content” on Hakka culture and have (finally) shifted my focus toward experiencing my year perhaps as the Watson Foundation had intended. That is, I’ve been more occupied with actually experiencing cultures instead of writing about them. Taking a hiatus from writing has forced me to stop distilling each day within a narrow lens—something that was repeatedly frustrating and limiting while living in Vienna.
Living in Indonesia has been a vastly different experience. I have not really had any exposure to Indonesian language or culture prior to this trip, so I suppose there was a lot of culture shock at first. The Hakka community, which has unsurprisingly taken on its own local influences, was also initially very foreign to me. Though two months of living in Surabaya and Jakarta don’t feel nearly long enough to understand Indonesia, I’ve gotten a lot closer to understanding the lives of Chinese in Indonesia, the Hakka community, and Hakka women’s roles in the community.
3.5 Pounds of Pork: Surprise Stories
If there’s anything I’ve discovered so far, it’s harder finding countries where I don’t have family than finding countries where I have I did not know this until my uncle visited from Hong Kong this summer. As it turned out, my grandma had been born to a Chinese-Indonesian family. Shortly after she was born, her mother died. With a single father and six children (all girls), her family wasn’t sure how a baby girl would fair in a land without a mother. Her father ended up giving her over to another family in the mainland. The trade-off? 3.5 pounds of pork.
As I’ve come to find, that has been a fairly common practice among families I’ve stumbled upon throughout Southeast Asia. While this might be initially written off as inhumane, it’s worth taking a longer look at adoption across cultures. Adoption was a common practice among Hakkas, based on what I’ve heard from the accounts and stories I’ve been collecting so far. And in times of persecution among Hakka who went overseas, it was through expanding kinship networks and arranging adoptions that families were able to ensure their children’s safety to the best of their abilities by sending them to a family that had better economic footing or living in a safer country. Though there was certainly a preference for males, Hakka have been noted for finding ways to circumvent female genocide or abandonment.
This is perhaps where arranged marriage becomes significant to Hakka culture in diaspora. Families that could not afford to keep their daughters would rather arrange for her to live with a relative or prematurely arrange her marriage to another family. Hakka girls thus became “little daughter-in-laws” or tong-yam-sip. In these arrangements, it was considered fair for all parties. In ideal situations, the girl’s in-laws would have a role in raising someone who would play an important role in the family.
There are inevitably adoption stories that went horribly wrong. Given what contemporary families have recounted, most adoptees seemed well integrated into their adoptive families. Of course, there was a difference in how adopted children and biological children were treated when resources were scarce. My grandmother explained that she was treated well in her household. She was attending school until she was about twelve years old. When her adoptive mother passed away though, she knew she needed to quit school to take care of her younger brothers, as this was an expectation driven by her status as an adopted child and as a girl.
My grandmother grew up in a weilongwu in rural Meixian. When I visited in 2013, I remember finding the lamps in their home so peculiar. The designs were not at all traditionally Chinese, and they were ornately decorated with curlicues and dramatic whorls. No other house in the area had these lamps. When I found these same antique lamps in Surabaya, it really hit me that I was in a country that was at some point, a part of my family’s story as well.
To give a little context about Surabaya: It’s the second largest city, next to Jakarta, on the island of Java. While Lonely Planet warns tourists that they’ll be sorely disappointed in the business-driven city, Surabaya was a fairly ideal place to settle down for my project. Home to one of the largest Chinatowns in Indonesia, Surabaya has a tremendous ethnic Chinese population. Indonesians of Chinese descent prefer to be referred to as ‘tionghua,’ and with good reason. The Chinese community here began in the 15th century when Zheng He first arrived in West Kalimantan for new trade opportunities. Since then, there have been three major waves of migration who migrated either for business or to escape from the mainland. The first group arrived shortly after Zheng He’s voyage, the second group came during China’s Opium War, and the third group came in the mid-1900s.
Though tionghua have been in Indonesia for over 600 years, there is a huge divide between local or indigenous Indonesians and Indonesians of Chinese descent. A lot of these tensions are linked to the hierarchy established during Dutch colonial rule, which lasted from the 1500s to the 1800s. Chinese laborers received preferential treatment from the Dutch, and they were more readily privileged Dutch education and participation in western institutions.
Dutch were conscientious of the differences among Chinese society in Indonesia. Many were aware of the Hakka as a distinct group. In the colonial eye, Hakkas were ideal laborers because they were hard workers. Perhaps recognizing these ethnic rivalries, the Dutch used this to their advantage. Hakkas who were not satisfied working with Hokkiens took on jobs working for the Dutch, especially among tin mining islands such as Bangka-Belitung.
Their work ethic was a conditional observation though, as most Hakka initially arrived after the Hokkien, and initially as laborers instead of business owners. To this day, there is still a noticeable divide between Hokkiens and Hakkas. Today’s Hakka people often cite one major difference that separates them from Hokkien. Where Hokkien are known for their willingness to adapt and adept business skills, Hakka are most known for their determination to hold onto their culture and language—which has made them outwardly appear exclusive according to other Chinese groups and native Indonesians.
Love in the time of Suharto
“At first, my husband’s mother did not like me. She said, ‘Don’t marry a Hakka girl. They eat so much meat!” ‘But what is that supposed to mean to them?’ “I don’t know! But I don’t think it’s true anyway.”
Something that struck me as odd in Vienna was the low numbers in inter-ethnic marriage. I had seen a significant amount of interracial marriages that had worked out between Hakka Indians and other Austrian nationals. But I had probably only seen a handful of Hakka people who had married with other Chinese dialect or ethnic groups.
When I first came to Surabaya and Jakarta, I was struck by the prevalence of inter-ethnic marriages. As I came to find out though, families were once a lot stricter about whom their children could and could not marry. In the past, Hakkas were expected to marry other Hakkas. That’s not the case nowadays, and Hokkien-Hakka marriages are perhaps more common to find than Hakka-Hakka ones.
I’ve asked myself and others why this happened. The most common conjecture has been in reference to Suharto’s regime from 1965 to 1997. Within this 32-year period, Chinese schools and printed materials were banned, and the erasure of language subsequently meant a weakened sense of dialect group identities. Celebrating or attending religious institutions was prohibited, perhaps prompting so many to convert to Christianity. Some families managed to keep up their Chinese dialects in the household, but most families took precautions.
“Parents would slap their own children if they heard them speaking Chinese,” one woman explained to me. “So that’s why they can’t speak Chinese nowadays.”
The years following 1965 were perhaps what brought the tionghua community together. No one has given a clear answer as to how Hakkas and Hokkiens began to inter-marry, but some have ventured to guess that differences mattered less when Suharto loomed large. In the next 32 years, dialects and regional customs eroded in the household. Many young people today may be able to claim Hakka or Hokkien heritage, but they often don’t know what the differences are between the two cultures—a condition that brings other Chinese from the mainland and around the world to scratch their heads in confusion, or in even less empathetic circles, frown with disdain.
Taking back identity…but which one?
Today’s generation of tionghua seem to be under pressure to reclaim those lost 32 years. Wealthy families often opt to send their children to the mainland or Taiwan for their higher education. It has become obligatory for tionghua, grandparents and teens alike, to throw in a few Chinese pop songs among their Linkin Park, Bon Jovi and P!nk. Teens are fast to pick up on the latest fashion and beauty trends, ranging from skin lightening products to false double eyelids.
Adapting these cultural trends can be observed in many overseas Chinese communities, I’m sure. But I see Indonesia’s Chinese community going extra lengths to maintain Chinese-ness in a time and place where the rest of the world questions their legitimacy as overseas Chinese. Most noticeably (or at least to me), it seems that tionghua rarely attend public schools, even for higher education, and in spite of the better funding that such institutions may receive.
For about six weeks, I lived near a local university and would hang out as an English language partner. It didn’t take long for me to notice that the majority of the staff and faculty were overwhelmingly of Chinese descent. When asked why they opted for private religiously affiliated institutions, many explained that they feared facing ethnic discrimination at public institutions.
“So let’s say there was a war between China and India. Which side would you choose?” I asked, ‘Why do I have to choose?’
I often found myself questioning the extent to which this discrimination continued to persist. Immersing myself in the university community, I quickly noticed that an overwhelming majority of the faculty and staff were of tionghua descent.I later came to find that tionghua often opt for private institutions as opposed to state institutions, maintaining a community in which they feel comfortable and safe. And it became a running joke that many young people end up finding their partners this way.
It was amazing how long I could go without having to talk to native Indonesians. I could choose to live in separate areas, shop in separate grocery stores, and eat in separate restaurants if I really, really wanted to. I thought about how my college classmates questioned why students of marginalized backgrounds chose to “self-segregate.” In the US, self-segregation usually meant a trade-off between social security and social status. I could feel more comfortable hanging out with friends who looked like me and lived like me, but it was at the expense of being seen as insular and resentful of mainstream America. But in this case, it was often wealthy ethnic Chinese who were setting the standards for how to enjoy the finer things in life.
On the other hand, there were plenty of tionghua who were acutely aware and conscious of ways in which some tionghua wielded their economic power in privilege. It is common for middle-class families to hire maids, meaning a common power dynamic between ethnic Chinese employers and native laborers. While tionghua may see themselves as assimilated and loyal members of Indonesian culture, there are nonetheless those who maintain a class hierarchy.
I also caught myself relating to the struggle of finding a middle ground when trying to prove belongingness to both the Chinese and local contexts. My attempts at understanding nationalism and ethnic belongingness in Indonesia often brought me to reflect on what it must have been like to be Chinese in India for my parents’ generation. My father’s generation had difficulty convincing others that both Indian and Chinese cultures could reside in one person. While traveling, I’ve been asked time and again about “where I’m from.” The United States was never a satisfactory response, and it was equally unsatisfactory whenever I told them that my parents are from India and Pakistan. Time and again, people have cocked their heads, looked at me thoughtfully and said, “I don’t see it.”
And yet, there were many times when I found myself lacking empathy and instead passing judgment on tionghua cultural authenticity as well. Many students were not sure of where their families had originated or to which dialect group they belonged. Almost everyone I met either at or outside of the university had adapted Indonesian names. In most cases, the students I encountered were the first generation to begin learning Mandarin, and almost no one spoke their actual family dialect. Quite a few students had been born into families that had converted to Christianity generations ago. Foods like 包子 (baozi) or 拉面 (lamien) became “pau” and “mie” and, as far as anyone else knew, originated in Indonesia.
I struggled to find the Chinese-Indonesian consciousness among the tionghua community. Perhaps the struggle stemmed from my own inability to pick apart what was uniquely part of “Chinese” identity. After all, I had grown up in a hybrid culture as well. And of course, I found myself asking, my next question was this: How do we define Hakka-ness in the Indonesian context?
As many probably know by now, I’ve found myself in Vienna. I had actually bought a ticket to Vienna (because it was a bit cheaper to fly in here than in to Germany), and I planned on only staying a week. It’s been three weeks since I landed, and it looks like I’ll be here for just a bit longer.
Watson Fellows aren’t allowed to return to countries that they have stayed in for a significant amount of time–meaning India is off limits. Next to Canada and Sweden though, Austria has one of the largest communities of Hakka Indian migrants. Some question how I am exactly challenging myself by focusing on a group that is so close to home and to my own identity. But if anything, I’m facing one of my biggest fears in staying here.
Long time, no see
I spent my last semester of college finishing up my thesis on children who grew up in family-owned Chinese restaurants. In the process of writing, it was impossible to not talk about the challenge of being an anthropologist who is both an insider and outsider to the community that she is studying. But where I was always able to lay down my claim to my identity as a restaurant kid, it’s not so easy convincing Hakka Indians (and myself) that I’m not a complete stranger.
Since my first time visiting family in India, I’ve always known that I would be seen as an outsider though. As I mentioned in “Almost There,” language has always been my personal weakness–and it’s a major factor that determines belongingness for many Hakka. I still believe that it’s possible to express sincerity across language barriers, but my time in Vienna now has made it clear that it sure makes it a lot harder when I don’t completely grasp the language.
Language is of course not the only thing that makes me an outsider. In the Hakka Indian community, the most common form of ID that people ask for is your last name, followed by a list of people to whom you are related. This is a bit beyond my control, but the surname “Cheng” (郑） is pretty uncommon. In addition to an uncommon surname, my parents didn’t grow up in Calcutta’s Tangra. My dad lived there for a few years after his family was released from Deoli Internment Camp. My mom was born in Calcutta but grew up on the move toward Pakistan. I don’t think my parents would ever consider Tangra their own, and I wouldn’t be surprised to think that they also felt like outsiders next to Chinese-Indians. My parents disappeared from the radar for 30+ years after settling down in the depths of North Carolina.
When people ask me who my parents are, most people do not recognize who my father is because he chose to leave the Hakka Indian community. Some recognize my uncles, who are quite unforgettable and eccentric characters. In some ways, it’s a small consolation and relief that my parents aren’t as connected to the Hakka Indian community in moments when I desperately wish I could become a part of the community. And then there are moments that make me so starkly aware that I am inextricably becoming a character in new stories. While that may seem exciting and wonderful, it comes with its consequences as well.
Gossip as Storytelling
Over the past few weeks, I’ve tried to understand Hakka women’s empowerment through speaking with them about generational attitudes toward arranged marriage. A common observation that many young people have made is that Hakka women tend to garner a lot of power after they hit a certain age (usually by the time they are grandmothers). I’ve asked myself what exactly it is that women do to keep the community in check.
Some might call it idle gossip. But from an anthropological perspective, I’d give it more credit than that. Gossip is a form of storytelling among older generations here, and in particular, for women. How does gossip-telling work as a power mechanism? We all use the telephone game analogy, but it’s more intentional than that when we look closely at how it interacts with its agents.
First, I’ve considered community context. While they don’t make a point of seeing each other every day Hakka-Indian communities tend to cluster when they settle down. That close proximity makes it difficult to really avoid running into family members and relatives’ friends, sometimes at one’s most vulnerable moments. For the most part, Hakka Indian people here don’t interact a lot with other Hakka communities. Other than churches, there aren’t any organizations or community figures that facilitate gatherings among Hakka. The Hakka Indian community occasionally may organize a dinner or picnic together, but families still remain fragmented or keep to their own inner circles.
But this is where I’ve questioned: Who uses gossip agentively? I ask others what exactly older people enjoy doing in their free time. In Austria, the elderly can retire at age 65. Living in Vienna makes it possible for families to stay in touch with their elders. In particular, older Hakka women maintain a lot of power in the family. I’ve asked how this happens. Some women have responded that a woman’s slow rise to becoming a matriarch starts when she becomes a mother-in-law, a process that deserves its own attention in another post. When women gossip though, they are storytelling and reporting in the community. Those who are good at gossip know which details are bendable, how much retelling they can do, and the right occasion to bring up the right stories.
The intentionality behind spreading gossip makes it clear that it’s a form of functional storytelling. I’ve considered to whom elders direct their gossip and storytelling: usually, young people. This includes anyone younger than the gossip-teller, ranging from middle-aged individuals to teenagers to children. One might think that social outliers are the only ones who garner attention. But every young person gets some form of attention, whether it’s hearing a retelling of who was caught hand-holding or a harsh critique of an unruly five-year-old’s last tantrum. Gossip acts as a local panopticon, by which community members monitor their own actions. Sure, young people still have their share of fun and mistakes–but most desire to keep these secrets hidden. Even those who believe that they can escape their communities by challenging traditions find that they are still characters in their elders’ stories.
Governesses and the Governed
In the absence of formal organizations, gossip acts as a mechanism for governance. In particular, it seems that women are more harnessed by gossip than men are. I’ve heard quite a few stories about Hakka Indian men from around many countries, but these stories are usually shrugged off with “boys will be boys.” Hakka Indian girls, on the other hand, have to grow up quickly.
Marriage marked the beginning of decades of training between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law. Mother-in-laws were, and still are, often the ones to teach women how to cook, clean and keep their households–meaning married women find themselves under a continually watchful eye.
The scrutiny that women face starts long before the wedding though. My mother’s generation constantly worried that a spoiled reputation would mean ruined chances at finding a husband. Unsurprisingly, women found themselves more vulnerable and governed by the gossip that they heard from all corners of the Hakka Indian community. And for women who did get marriage offers, it sometimes felt impossible to refuse for fear of offending another family and causing a feud. A few women I’ve met so far, some younger than my parents, married when they were just teenagers. In other cases, it felt like ‘yes’ was the only answer. One woman explained, “I was so scared. I didn’t know what else to say. But my father told me that no matter what, every woman has to get married someday.”
For better or worse, this way of storytelling is what keeps the Hakka Indian community alive. As much as Hakka Indians fear becoming pieces of gossip, I think it’s safe to say that being talked about is a sign of belonging to the community. And for older women, it’s their way making their voices heard as they slowly alter and pass on what was seen, observed or experienced.
Seeing how close Hakka Indian families in Vienna remain to each other has made me more aware of how isolated I grew up from them. I’m not so naive to think that this is a ‘coming home’ story for me though. At the same time, I know I can’t hide behind the anthropologist get-up anymore. I’m aware of the suspicions that have arisen around my intentions of coming to Vienna, hanging out with Hakka Indian families, the questions ask, and why I can’t speak Hakka very well.
Stories and questions have gotten back to me about women’s thoughts on my looks, whether or not I’m looking for a marriage partner (I’m not), or my mannerisms. I don’t know that I’m considered a Hakka Indian, or if I ever will be. But I do know that I’ve somehow become a new and odd character in a few more lives.
Since last Sunday, I’ve been hanging out with a Chinese church group that my distant relatives have been involved with for over 30 years. This has been my third time that the group has invited me to an event, but this was a particularly special occasion: a baptism. Growing up in the South, I was always surrounded by religious or spiritual people, but I never exactly participated in it or got close to it.
There is nothing new about Hakka Christians. While many still practice ancestral veneration, Taoism and Buddhism, Hakka have a long and unique history with Catholicism. Some people believe Hakka were perfect ‘targets’ for conversion, considering that they were historically impoverished and oppressed by local populations. Nonetheless, the transnational nature of the Hakka community, even in rural areas, has given rise to a local Catholicism with Chinese characteristics. Evangelical Protestantism is not exactly new to the Hakka community either; the Basel Mission Society seemed to mark Protestantism’s initial presence in Meixian, Guangdong since the 19th century. Christianity, therefore, is very much a part of many Hakkas’ lived experiences.
I personally grew up Catholic, like many Hakka Indians. So I was a bit surprised to find that this church has 6 or 7 Hakka families, some of whom were baptized or helped with the ceremony. I was really blown away when I realized that we were actually doing a baptism in a river. Specifically, the Danube.
A while back when I first found out about the Watson, the davidson.edu article found its way to a Hakka Facebook group. I began contacting a few folks, most of them being fa kiao like me. Almost everyone I’ve met so far can speak Hakka pretty well, which is no easy task for a language that has many dialects and almost no systematic learning resources.
When I talk to other Hakka people, one of the first things I always mention is that I am from a small town with almost no other tong ngin. And then I dread the next words to follow: “…and that’s why I don’t really speak Hakka. At least not well.”
In this essay, I seek to describe esome of the social forces for why my family chose not to speak Hakka with their children. Some would call these excuses–which is exactly why my parents and I don’t bother explaining when we are harshly criticized for not using Hakka with each other. On the other hand, are we absolutely devoid of agency when confronted with these social forces? No. We do feel guilty and ashamed for not having tried harder, for not having foresight–and we pay back in regrets. But regrets don’t build understanding, and they don’t move us forward.
It’s Rude to Point Fingers
When I was about ten years old, my dad gave me an old box of maps. Inside, there was a National Geographic map that displayed the world’s dying languages. I found Hakka on the list. Over the years, I’ve read articles upon articles of people who have been trying to revive the Hakka language, of researchers and linguists who have questioned why the language is disappearing.
According to a recent article about the linguist Liu Zhenfa, linguists credit exogamy as a major reason for why we increasingly hear less Hakka among children. Marriage to non-Hakka often means that children are raised by parents who speak two different languages. And when one parent speaks Hakka and the other speaks the more commonly used Mandarin or Cantonese, well, you can guess which language becomes more dominant. Both of my parents speak Hakka quite well though. And they speak the exact same dialect of it (Moi-yan Hakka). So what’s the excuse?
When Hakka children don’t speak Hakka-fa, it seems as if 30% of the blame goes to children. 70% goes toward the parents. I’ve encountered families that point fingers at each other whenever they are asked why they don’t speak their native language. Parents often say, “Well, we speak to them in our native language…but then they respond in English.” Children tell me, “I try to speak to them…but then they get impatient with me.”
Who’s to blame? I don’t think the answer lies in a person.
Hard Decisions: Factoring in Status, History and Occupation
” On the other hand, less than half of immigrants in the country for 25 to 26 years report that they speak only English or speak it very well. And more than one-fourth who have been in the country that long report that they do not speak English, or if they do speak it, they don’t speak it well. Common sense and a large body of research indicate that knowing English is a key to improving one’s life prospects.”
–Center for Immigration Studies
It was reports like these that alarmed my parents into believing that English was the most important language in the world. Unlike other immigrant families, we used English outside and inside the home. My parents can each speak about six different languages, and while we marveled at this as a tremendous talent, my father called it a curse–it was like being a jack of all trades but a master of none. My parents wanted my siblings and me to master a language.
Identity and history also factored into my parents’ decision to always use English with us. Negative associations with one’s cultural identity can extend into negative associations with one’s native language–which can lead to an individual choosing to distance themselves from an identity. My parents experienced being Hakka pretty differently. And as a result, I can tell that they each had different attitudes toward passing on their language to my siblings and me.
My mother loves her language. When I was young, I remember her singing yet guang-guang, a popular children’s san-go (mountain songs are unique to Hakka culture), and teaching me a few words whenever she saw me at home. There are home videos of my mom cuddling with my siblings and speaking to them in Hakka.
Hakka is really the only Chinese dialect that my mom knows. Though her life was by no means simple, my mother’s family was always united by an honest and hopeful narrative—a story that I’m still figuring out how to tell. (Perhaps in a later post.) If my mother had not been preoccupied with the restaurant, I imagine we would all speak Hakka.
My father is proud to be Hakka, but the political environment he grew up in made it difficult to show that pride. Being interned at Deoli had already left the Chinese in India hanging their heads in shame. And it’s worth noting here that most of the Chinese who decided to stay in India after the internment were Hakka—meaning many Hakka were left in poverty. In Calcutta, my dad was sent to “Chinese” school—where everyone spoke Mandarin and most of the children had not been taken to the camp. The kids teased him for things like wearing the same set of clothes every day. But with a special pugnacity, many children jeered, “You don’t speak Chinese. What’s wrong with you? You must not be Chinese.”
So what’s the difference between my parents’ upbringings? My dad realized from a young age that being Hakka was not always the same as being Chinese—or at least the sort of Chinese that was defined in political terms or rhetoric. My mother grew up seeing Hakka as the only way to be Chinese.
And finally, our socioeconomic and occupational status played a role in my parents’ decision. By the time my parents had my siblings and me, they seemed to have differing views about what it meant to be Chinese and what it meant to be American. But I don’t think figuring out identity was a priority when they were trying to make a living. About two months ago, I turned in my thesis on class politics among restaurant children. My interest in writing about restaurant children was sparked by none other than my own life. The restaurant was always at the center of our lives, and the restaurant was the embodiment of a desire to make a living. Without formal schooling, my parents didn’t have any other professional skills. The business always came first, and things like Hakka culture and language were seen as unimportant.
During my research in Seattle, I found that this was pretty common among quite a few Chinese-American children who grew up in restaurants. They often spoke of being unable to speak their family language, mainly because their parents saw it as unnecessary, or they privileged speaking English as a mark of “becoming American.” More interestingly though, some children reported that they didn’t think bilingualism would make them feel more Chinese anyway; much of their communication (whether in English or Chinese) was limited to “restaurant jargon” only.
Putonghua and Prestige
My dad’s attitude toward language proficiency changed when I was in fourth grade. By this time, my family’s business was doing well. My dad had time to refocus his priorities on our education…and our culture. My siblings were much older than me, so they didn’t get sent to Chinese school. Every Saturday morning, my dad and I woke up at 6:30AM to drive to Charlotte to learn Chinese.
But it wasn’t just about learning Chinese (Mandarin). It was about receiving some schooling on how to be Chinese. The organizers, patrons and parents of the language academy were predominantly new wave immigrants from the mainland, meaning most were very well-educated and middle- to upper-class professionals. These families were able to devote their time and money into extracurricular activities and education for their children. Kids who spoke Mandarin were the ones who would do well in school,
It didn’t take long for me to realize that there was a huge social class difference between my classmates and me. Studying Mandarin made me more aware of the way in which we assign more value to some languages and cultures–and how we deny value from others.
After two years of Chinese school, I refused to go back. I started to pick up Mandarin again in college though. I did well in class and made an effort to practice, but unlike my other Chinese-American friends (all non-Hakka), I wasn’t motivated by the same sense of connection to the language. I attended a study abroad program at Fudan University in Shanghai. Going there made me feel even more disconnected from the language. Living in the city at a fast pace, grappling with a language I didn’t grow up hearing, and struggling to blend in obscured all that I knew about Chinese identity.
I wouldn’t say that the trip was a loss in any way though. I became really close to the professor who led the trip; Fuji later became my adviser, on all things academic and otherwise. The best part of the whole trip came at the end though. Fuji arranged for me to present at a Hakka Studies conference at Jiaying University, which is located in Meixian. Meixian is a county in Guangdong province, and it is considered the world capital for Hakka people. Since Jiaying was not too far from my ancestral village, I had a chance to reconnect with some family as well. For the first time in my life, I was completely surrounded by people who looked and talked like me and my family.
At the end of the trip, I was determined to make it back to Meixian somehow. I spent the semester working on my Mandarin and writing grant applications to do research there that summer.
Meanwhile, my grandfather’s health wasn’t doing so well. I don’t know if I was conscious of it at the time, but I think I found work and looking toward the future as ways to avoid what was happening at home. Every month, I got an email from an uncle or aunt reporting that Ah-kong was in the hospital. Each time, I would read it, suppose that everything would be fine, and return to my studies. There were a few weekends that I tried to visit my grandparents. And each time, I had to confront how distant we had grown. My grandparents knew some Mandarin, but we were strangers when we spoke it.
The same disgust I felt toward speaking Mandarin when I was young started to resurface. And yet it felt like it was too late to learn Hakka for my grandfather at this point. Our only medium was Mandarin now, and even that was a project only halfway complete. I was almost there. I just needed to keep trying.
It was about 12 A.M. when I knocked on my best friend’s door. We carried on a pretty normal conversation until he finally asked, “So what’s up? Has something been wrong?”
“My grandfather died.” It came out as a gasp, as if I had just heard the news. I recounted the phone call I received from my brother that evening, urging me to come to the hospital. A few minutes later, I had put my coat on and was reaching for the doorknob when he called back to tell me that it was too late. I repeated over and over again how I should have tried harder, that I ran out of time, that I didn’t do enough, that I should have gone home more often.
My best friend and I became close during our first year of college. He had also grown up primarily speaking English, and it wasn’t until after high school that he learned Korean. We had both talked to each other about our grandparents and the disconnect we felt when we couldn’t speak their native languages. And similarly, he also felt that he had run out of time with her when she passed away.
He responded, “Yeeva, they understand. They understand.”
The summer after Ah-kong passed away, I returned to Meixian. I had almost backed out of my grant application because I was, yet again, letting my fear of my language abilities get the best of me. But as Fuji and my dad had urged, the only way to learn was to go for it–not aggressively, but from a place of humility and curiosity.
And it wasn’t easy. It still isn’t. It was (still is) difficult and humiliating and lonely at times when I make progress, but then realize how much more I work I have to do. There are some days when I worry that I’ll run out of time. But in the meantime, I’ve come to find that there are ways to connect with people beyond language, and those are the most incredible relationships. When words fail, people find ways to understand.