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.

down to the Danube

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.


Why some Hakkas don’t speak Hakka

The Disclaimer

A while back when I first found out about the Watson, the 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.

Halfway There

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.

“They Understand”

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.”

Second Chances

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.


With Father’s Day around the corner, I was rooting around some old photos of my dad and came across these.


While watching me look for some places to stay in Germany and the Netherlands, my dad said, “Twenty-two.  I was exactly your age when I first left India.” I’ve mentioned some snippets here and there about my parents in The Deoli Diaries and past projects, but a lot of people have been questioning my parents’ pasts.  Outwardly, their combined story is paradigmatic of the American immigrant story: two folks who met, settled down, worked hard, played by the rules and slowly made their way toward the American Dream (home ownership, a small business, education for the next generation).

But that sketch doesn’t come close to representing where and what most immigrants come from.

My dad in India during his early twenties
My dad in India during his early twenties

I often mention Deoli Internment Camp, where my father was interned for nearly three years.  That being said, my dad didn’t have a very typical childhood.  He grew up in Calcutta’s Tangra, which is sort of like our Chinatown.  That’s not to say that he fit right in.  My dad’s family (and most internee survivors) stuck out in the community.  They talked differently, carried themselves warily and worked ceaselessly.

The local Chinese school was perhaps one of the few means of acculturating internee children back into society.  Funded by the KMT in Taiwan, everything was taught in Mandarin–a language distant and strange to the Hakka my dad learned at home.  He didn’t last in school very long.  He quit in the middle of seventh grade, which didn’t seem unusual for a boy of that time, place and socioeconomic class.

But where my dad lacked formal education, he made up with raw curiosity–which is how he ended up in Europe. My dad was probably in his early twenties and back in Darjeeling when he met a trekker from Copenhagen.  This trekker had a rip in his backpack.  Having worked in my grandfather’s shoe business, my dad knew how to sew it back up.  My dad’s English was good enough that he could chat with the trekker.  My dad wanted to know how he could get to the United States.  The trekker replied, “Go to Europe first.”

My dad in Amsterdam.
My dad in Amsterdam.

Dad didn’t have the same language skills and certainly not the same education that I had.  But again, my dad has always acted on his curiosity.  By that time, quite a few Hakka from India were migrating over to Europe and had established businesses.  It was pretty normal for bachelors to work in the restaurants, get some experience and then open up their own places and have their own families.  For the next year, he traveled from city to city, restaurant to restaurant.


As long as I can remember, boots were always my favorite type of shoe.  I hated teetering pumps, strappy heels, lacerating flats, anything that made it difficult or painful to move.

During the Song Dynasty, the majority of Han Chinese women began to practice foot binding. However, not all Han Chinese women bound their feet.  Scholars of Hakka culture, ranging from Luo Xianglin to Clyde Kiang to Ellen Oxfeld to Eriberto Lozada, all recall the legendary Hakka women who turned back Mongol invaders during the Song Dynasty.  According to the legend, the Song emperor was preparing for a defense against the Mongol army when he suddenly heard that their soldiers were retreating. After some investigation, it was reported that the Mongols had come across some sturdy-looking women with unbound feet; they looked extremely organized, carried weapons, and traveled in large units. (Turns out they were just Hakka women picking firewood.) The Mongol soldiers figured that if Han women were so intimidating, the men must be even more so–and so they fled. Appreciative, the emperor addressed the Hakka women as “ruren” (孺人), or “scholar’s wife”–an honorific title usually reserved for the royal court. Hakka ancestral tablets often incorporated “ruren” into women’s names.

Most notably, Hakka women came to be identified as women who kept their feet unbound.  In some sense, it wasn’t really a choice for them.  The Hakka have historically been impoverished, and foot binding was often reserved for elite women who were not required to do manual labor.  Regardless of whether or not women chose to keep their feet unbound, it changed Hakka women’s culture and allowed them both physical and social mobility.

To an extent.  Anthropology has taught me that reading culture and living culture are two very different things.  And as an anthropologist who studies facets of her own culture, I’ve wondered how much of what is written represents what Hakka women experience now–across geography, class, religion, language and more.  A summer researching local feminism among Hakka women in China gave me some insights to how these feminist myths have turned attention away from the deep-rooted challenges and issues that Hakka women have faced.  Moreover, I found it problematic that all of these histories about Hakka women have been written by men or from a non-Hakka lens.

This prompted me to question how I could answer some of my own questions about the changing landscape of Hakka culture.  Of course, I can’t answer my own questions, and so I look to other Hakka women.  Last summer, I began thinking about how I would go about this, and I began the six-month process of applying for the Watson Fellowship.

In the year that I am gone, I will be challenged to resist returning home–a challenge that I know will be extremely difficult.  I’ll attempt to keep everyone posted about my travels here.  In particular, I’ll be studying attitudes and approaches toward Hakka marital practices, something that I’ll elaborate upon in later posts!