The shame of having a Chinese face

This is one of those overdue blog posts, which you know you want to write but you only keep thinking about it to the point that you actually delude yourself into thinking you’ve actually written it.

But a brilliant article by the incisive Bilahari Kausikan on What China’s Rise Means for Southeast Asia and Overseas Chinese finally jolted me into action.

I travel quite a bit and each time I fly, I wished I was wearing a burka (or a paper bag over my head). No matter how un-Chinese I try to look (being a honey brown instead of a pasty white), I’d still invariably be accosted by lost Chinese tourists at the Hong Kong airport who can’t seem to understand that they need to take a train to their boarding gate.

Or I will get hapless non-Mandarin speaking air stewardesses asking me to help explain to the clueless Chinese passengers how to use the in-flight entertainment system. And the Chinese passengers would in turn scold the air stewardess for not being able to speak Mandarin. Hello, the last I checked, this is Thai Airways, not China Eastern, so why should they have to speak Mandarin?

On a side note, I’d like to commend the professionalism of the air stewardesses on Turkish Airlines. I was seated across the aisle from a Chinese man in business class (work travel rocks!) and he was watching a movie on his iPad very loudly WITHOUT earphones. The stewardess tried to get him to lower the volume but wasn’t getting anywhere because he had zero English. She asked if we were travelling together and when I said no, she never bugged me again. Not even when he couldn’t understand “chicken” or “fish” during meal times. I was half-expecting her to ask me to translate. But she didn’t. Instead she found pictorial cards to get the message across. Props to her.

I feel very conscious about my Chinese face whenever I travel. The sad fact is that many people can’t tell who’s Chinese and who’s not. As long as you’re yellow with slitty eyes, you must be Chinese. Who cares if you’re from Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Korea, Japan or Singapore.

And when I’m in a situation where the Chinese are behaving badly (think queue cutting, being obnoxiously loud, exposing their smelly feet to everyone on the plane), I feel tainted by (facial) association. This is exacerbated if we were in a context where the Chinese are the minority, say a Western country. I’ve seriously considered wearing a sign that says “I am not Chinese” to dissociate myself from them.

Kausikan writes: “China seems to have great difficulty in accepting Singapore as a multiracial meritocracy. It seems that this is, to the Chinese, an alien mode of conceptualising an ethnic Chinese majority country. At any rate, Chinese officials, sometimes at very senior levels, constantly refer to Singapore as “a Chinese country” and ask for our “understanding” — by which I suspect they mean “agreement” — of their policies on that basis. Of course, we politely, but clearly and firmly, point out that we are not a Chinese country and that we have our own national interests that we cannot compromise without grievous and probably irreversible internal and international damage.”

During my time in Hong Kong, this was something that I regularly encountered. The Chinese can’t fathom why I don’t feel kinship with them even though my grandma came from China. Or my former boss would present me as the “China expert” to the clients, which I found rather offensive. It’s like calling an Australian an expert on all things British, or expecting Beyonce to know everything about Mother Africa.

It’s taken a while but I can now embrace the Chinese heritage and culture, since that’s part of my genetic make-up. I continue to painstakingly correct everyone who ask if I’m Chinese. No I’m not Chinese, I’m Singaporean. And proceed to educate them on the differences between the two.

I may look like you, but I’m nothing like you.

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