Dear Dad

15 January 2018

Dear Dad,

Do you remember when you sewed leather patches in the shape of hearts onto my burgundy corduroys?

I do.

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.




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.


The Terms of Endearment


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[1], 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[2].  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.’

From “American Born Chinese” by Gene Yang PC:

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[1]  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.

[1] 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.

[2] Ironically, this is what Hakkas call the locals of the country they just immigrated to.

[3]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.

Qilin, lions and boys, oh my!

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.


Surabaya: A long way from Vienna

Until Next Time

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.IMG_3206

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.

Chinese publications were reintroduced in Indonesia after 1997.
Chinese publications were reintroduced in Indonesia after 1997.

“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?


“I didn’t have the papers to go to Austria with him, so we were separated for three years after our marriage. We wrote letters to each other at first. Then we switched to email. He would write to me on the post office computers to save money.”

On a Sunday, I visited a man who is affectionately called “La-La Ja-Ja” among the Hakka Indian community.  In Hindi, “Ja-Ja” means “uncle.”

La-La Ja-Ja came to Austria to join his brother in 1991.  Like most bachelors, he started out working in a Chinese restaurant doing side work and small jobs.  Back in Calcutta, his family worked in a tannery.  When the tanneries began to close down, La-La’s family knew that it was time to look for a new place to live.

Knowing that he wanted to settle down in Vienna, La-La worked for seven years on establishing himself before he considered marriage.  Going along with tradition, he decided to return to Calcutta to find a wife, who I will call ‘Auntie Sun.’

For Auntie Sun, La-La was her first match–though she jokes that there’s always “someone next in line” in case a match goes awry or doesn’t work out.  The two of them met through a mutual friend who set them up.  By that time, Auntie Sun had completed college and had her own job at a travel agency.  Most girls, including her sisters, got married at earlier ages.  Even those who had the opportunity to attend college were married off soon after they graduated.

Working at a travel agency was considered quite an achievement for Hakka women.  It meant being multi-lingual and college-educated.  Auntie Sun had attended Loreto and mastered her English skills; before her generation, women were sent to the local Chinese schools at best.  And knowing full well how difficult this achievement was, she was certain that she wanted to further her career.

But she also wanted to be married.  Marriage required compromises.

Having It All

First, it meant deciding on a new place to live.  Though it may have seemed like an easy decision to choose between living in India or Austria, it still meant making other decisions about how they would transition between lifestyles.  Auntie Sun knew that moving to Austria would mean learning a new language and starting over in terms of her career.  Where she may have once been praised for being high-achieving and intelligent, she was now leaving for a place that would see her as another immigrant.

There was also one other complication.  La-La Ja-Ja was not yet an Austrian citizen, and Auntie Sun didn’t have a visa.  They remained separated for three years, but studiously kept in contact through writing letters to each other.  They wrote in English, because Auntie Sun didn’t learn how to write Chinese characters.  The later switched to writing emails to each other, which was a money-saver.  La-La Ja-Ja would often use the public computers at the post office to write to his wife.

When Auntie Sun was finally able to join her husband in Vienna, she started out working in a restaurant with her husband.  She spent the next six months attending German classes.  By the end of that time, she landed a job at a travel agency–just as she had hoped for.

La-La Ja-Ja has pursued his dreams as well.  After gaining experience working in a restaurant, he decided to open his own place last year after entering a business partnership.

When Policy Influences Culture

In Anthropology seminars and courses, I would often find myself arguing that culture trumps policy, and that policies gave way to the will of what people wanted for themselves.  That view has slightly altered as I’ve encountered migrant communities now.  Among new migrant communities, it seems safe to say that policy has reshaped how Hakka Indians view women’s rights, and by extension, human rights.

“Here in Vienna, women can extend maternity leave for 3 years.  Even father’s can get leave from work as well,” Auntie Sun laughs as she watches my jaw drop.  For many Hakka Indians, the extent of government care is a drastic change from the business-driven Chinese communities in India.  Many Hakka Indians would argue that the United States and Canada are no longer the move.  And it’s hard to disagree.  But most importantly, I’ve marveled at the impact that these social policies have had on changing people’s minds.

Auntie Sun tells me about a Chinese-American friend who worked and lived in New York working in finance.  But after visiting Europe, she decided to move to Amsterdam, believing that a change of place would allow her a change in life.  A European lifestyle made it possible to truly work a nine-to-five job, without the extra attachments, social obligations, and over-time hours required for an American to simply keep their job.

Bell Jars

Austria has been described as a traditional socialist state–for the most part, it’s driven by traditional Western concepts of the nuclear family.   A lot of the social aid that individuals receive are always in relation to one’s family situation.  As a result though, many would argue that while this develops social stability, radically progressive policies come in small steps.

As many immigrants here would suggest, not all that is Western is without flaw.  Some Hakka point out the cultural effects of the Austrian system.  One man emphatically expressed that he found it disappointing that the Austrian state advocates women’s rights yet still pays working women 30% less than men, regardless of the fact that they often have the same qualifications and workload as men.  In another conversation, Auntie Sun explained that support for women sometimes backfired when mothers chose to give birth every three years so that they could collect the maternity social welfare.

On the one hand, one could celebrate the feminism in a state that values its mothers.  But on the other hand, there is still an implicit expectation of what being a woman entails.  Without the family, is the woman as her own single entity appreciated?

This has brought me to question Hakka womanhood and its attachment to the family.  In some ways, Hakka women have taken advantage of the benefits that the Austrian state has had to offer to further their own educations or careers.  That doesn’t mean that moving to a new country has provided a “fix.”  Rather, it seems that Hakka women’s identities are still in a state of attachment to motherhood, and there are still compromises to be made as women move onward and outward.

Where have all the restaurants gone?

Vienna, Austria 2015: A City without a Chinatown

When I first arrived in Vienna so bright-eyed and naïve, I imagined finding footing in the community through helping out in a Hakka family’s Chinese restaurant somewhere in a Chinatown. According to my original Watson proposal, I saw myself connecting with restaurant daughters (in Hamburg, Germany, actually) and having pleasant storytelling activities about food and identity.

As usual, plans did not go accordingly. But I’m still quite happy with where it’s led me anyway.

What baffled me the most when I first came to Vienna was the lack of a Chinatown. Perhaps there haven’t been enough Chinese in Vienna for a concentrated community to form. But Chinatowns across the world have largely depended upon their economic life, namely restaurants, for their economic life. Hakka-Indians have been around since the 1970s, and before that there were already other Chinese living here. The lack of a visible Chinese community has brought me to wonder: Where have all the restaurants gone? And what are Hakka doing now for a living?

Perhaps I am still accustomed to how Chinese-Americans live in the United States, where we still largely have to perform our ethnicity to be somewhat visible. Likewise, Hakka-Indians depended upon their businesses. Before independence, the British favored Chinese laborers for being “obedient.” The favoritism directed toward the Chinese inevitably sowed tensions between ethnic Chinese and Indians, and these tensions seemed to exacerbate after India gained independence.

From then on, Chinese truly depended upon their family businesses for economic survival in India. Some kept restaurants, though Hakka in India were especially known for opening leather tanneries and shoe shops. Their ethnic occupations maintained tremendous cultural divides between the Chinese and Indian communities. I’ve heard stories of Hakka who were not allowed into some Indian homes because they were considered unclean for working with leather goods. Other Chinese were distinguishable based on their professions. Hubei people were great dentists. The Cantonese were skilled carpenters. Shandong people were hawkers. Ethnic business kept the Chinese-Indian community halted in one place.

That’s not the same story I hear in Vienna though. Over time, I’ve asked myself why restaurants are on the decline. To put it simply, there’s really not much of an economic incentive to own a restaurant anymore. If anything, families figure that it’s more of a burden. With a socialist system come strong financial security nets. Many Hakka-Indians have commented that they would prefer to get a job with a large company that can offer a pension or other benefits. Restaurant work just can’t compete when strict labor laws and property taxes slim down the profit margin.  Moreover, Hakka Indians explain that they have developed new values.  Many compare the advantages of living in Austria versus Canada and America.  The best explanation that migrants have provided for me is this:  “Americans live to work.  Austrians work to live.”  The Austrian system makes it possible for families to productively work while also setting aside time for leisure and family.

Unless you own a restaurant.  If you do, it’s back to living to work.

On the one hand, the lack of an ethnic enclave makes it possible for Chinese in Vienna to exist beyond stereotypes and performance. Hakka have been venturing into occupations outside of their traditional niches. On the other hand, I’ve questioned if there is a loss, and how this affects the Hakka Indian community.

I reflect upon what the restaurant meant to me while growing up. I’ve talked to a few individuals here who also grew up as restaurant children, though there are actually very few. And while the restaurant was by no means a happy childhood, it was nonetheless a space where they developed self-awareness and experienced ethnicity, integration, discrimination—but perhaps most importantly, dreams.

Some Hakka Indians from abroad worry that their community is “too comfortable” living in Vienna, especially when families opt out of business ownership in favor of part-time or government jobs. In response, Hakka Indians in Vienna comment that the “business class” left already for the United States and Canada for a more competitive lifestyle; they believe that the trade-off between running one’s own business and integrating into an Austrian lifestyle has been a worthwhile one.

Restaurant Wives: A Woman’s Ticket Out

“My mother was quite beautiful and had potential. But it’s like the restaurant wore her down.”

So what exactly is the connection between this restaurant-talk and arranged marriage and gender? The link struck me during an interview with a woman, I’ll call her Lina, who found herself on an arranged date when she was 18 years old. Though she had a boyfriend at the time, her parents arranged for her to meet a Hakka Indian man who was visiting Vienna. He seemed like a perfect bachelor—he had migrated to Canada, had a stable job and was relatively wealthy. He was also 26, and while many young people recoil at this age gap, older generations of Hakka Indians found it ideal for women to marry older, more mature men.

When Lina recounts this story, she does so while laughing. The evening ended in the heel of her shoe getting caught under the table and falling on her face as her date sprung up to fruitlessly catch her. But I’m more intrigued by Lina’s interpretation of why this all happened.

Lina explains that her parents took the challenging route when they bought a restaurant. The business became a family effort that was a constant source of frustration for Lina’s mother. After all, opening a restaurant was a return to the lifestyle that she thought she had left behind in India.

Austria was usually meant to be a pit stop for Hakka Indians working their way toward their final destinations. Geographically speaking, it was the closest country to India, and it could be reached by land—meaning it was the most affordable country to travel to. The first group of Hakka Indian migrants arrived in Austria through a combination of train and bus routes. Some of these routes took them through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and the Balkans. And on the way, buses were pulled over, travel documents were denied, migrants were detained in local jails. And yet, they still kept pushing on to the next border.

But these long journeys were pioneered by men. Women rarely traveled abroad without knowing that they had someone on the other side to meet them at the train station or airport.

Perhaps it was just their generation’s way of dealing with women. Education played a large role as well. To this day, even after meeting women in Vienna, I know very few Hakka Indian women who went on to finish school and find a job outside of the Hakka Indian community. Most women who did not finish school ended up working in someone’s family business—in India or abroad.

Families hoped to send their daughters away. In particular, low-income families saw daughters as a ticket out; through arranging her marriage, the entire family could slowly migrate out of India. The best way to do this was to arrange her marriage with a bachelor who had already established himself abroad. Usually, these men had developed their work experience in Chinese restaurants in Austria, Canada, Sweden, Germany, Australia, and the United States. While families desired to eventually leave India, there were preferred destinations. The United States and Canada were coveted as dream destinations where a young couple could get rich with some hard work and family support. Sweden was ideal for those with European tastes, yet did not want to work with learning new languages (most Hakka Indians can speak English).

I’ve asked myself how women’s migration is connected to class. It turns out that families of all class backgrounds sought to send away their daughters. Even women whose families could afford for their daughters to finish their studies and go on to college had their hearts set on taking their education to another country. And again, there was a hierarchy of preferred destinations, with the United States and Canada being at the top. For these women, their education would be a wasted investment if they were to start over in another country.

Lina tells me that her mother used to be considered a beautiful and bright person. It was as though her dreams eroded with the years that she spent in the restaurant. She didn’t want Lina to find herself in the same position someday. Though Lina decided to take a different route, she can understand that marriage seemed like a well-tested solution for her mother’s and past generations.

Meanwhile, Lina did get married, though through a different route. Coincidentally, she had also been studying Anthropology just before she and her boyfriend decided to get married. In retrospect, she does think that her marriage was rushed, partially due to family pressures. But that doesn’t stop Lina from being proactive about her relationship with her growing son. She emphasizes that communication was something that seemed to be lacking in her relationship with her parents—though she can understand how the restaurant had a role in that. And in the meantime, raising a family hasn’t stopped Lina from thinking about returning to school. “I really enjoyed my Anthropology classes. Maybe in a few years, I’ll go back.”

Becoming Native

Facing It
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.”

New Characters

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.