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What does it mean to be Chinese?


July 16, 2013

I am, by most definitions, a banana. With this implies a number of things: that I do not know Mandarin, and that I am not very Chinese. My ignorance of Mandarin is not something I wear proudly on my sleeve. But unlike calls for me to learn the language for the sake of being more acquainted with my heritage, I will learn the language for communication purposes.

Additionally, there are those who accuse me of being very Westernised, having gone abroad and all, and as such my cultural identity as a Chinese is diluted. Despite having the reverse happen to me, that is I feel my Chinese heritage even more profoundly, is dilution necessarily a bad thing? The Chinese culture that we inherited came from ancestors from generations before. If we compare to what we in Malaysia adopt now and compare it to the culture inherited from China is totally different. Not that this is wrong or bad, but when those who so fiercely defend it do it out of the fear of this culture being diluted fail to see that some things that are being held onto may not be relevant to our present-day context.

Culture is not static; it is ever-changing. Usually, whatever culture brought in from foreign lands gets assimilated to fit into the local context. And in the context of Malaysia it is strange that even after many generations, there is still so much division within the society due to the stark preservation of racial identities. Most of this racial assertion is done on two fronts: directly by the preservation of racial parties and indirectly by insisting on the preservation of vernacular schools.

To what extent are we trying to preserve these racial identities? While I am all for being proud of our own heritage, the cost of this active assertion is that we lose a national identity because within our society race seems to divide us into stark groups. Worse still in Malaysia, these divisions are institutionalised.

Why are we insisting on having these institutions as a way to mark our identity? If we do away with these institutions, and work towards being a more cohesive society, we should not fear losing our identity. After all, can you truly, truly stop being Chinese? Are people like me less Chinese than the next person who attended a vernacular school?

These accusations of not being very Chinese are very perplexing. It is almost as if the assumption is that the Chinese in Malaysia consist of a single monolithic culture, which it is not. Besides the fact that my ancestors came from Fujian, and thus my lineage has very little to do with this "northerner’s language", there is more to being Chinese and to appreciate being Chinese than just speaking Mandarin. The essence of being Chinese extends to living by values that have Confucian roots, being accustomed to a particular lifestyle that includes eating certain foods and practicing certain habits, even being attuned to certain superstitions. I have all these things, and cannot associate myself with any other cultural group. So how am I any less Chinese than other Chinese?

At the end of the day, what does it mean to be Chinese? It only really means that an ancestor of yours decided to leave China but ultimately landed in Malaysia. Hence, should it not be time that as Chinese we really rethink what it means to be in this country?

<em>* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.</em> – The Malaysian Insider