Sunday, November 22, 2009

In Search of Chinese-Chinese

One day last week I went to a private clinic in Beijing. As usual the clinic was quiet and only a few clients—half of them foreign expats—sat around waiting. A tall Scandinavian-looking guy came and sat in the couch next to me. We stroke up a conversation about the newspaper story I was reading. Then he asked,

“Are you Chinese Chinese?”

Reflexively I explained that I had lived and worked in the US for many years. The Scandinavian guy then nodded, seemingly satisfied. “You don’t look very Chinese to me,” he said.

It was not the first time that I was asked that question, which made me wonder – what makes me looking not very Chinese Chinese? Surely there are other Chinese who gel their hair, wear Zara and work out in the gym.

My Chinese staff at work said it is not my appearance, but some je-ne-sais-quoi “-ness” that gives me away. I laugh and speak my mind at will at work. I tell them not to call me “boss” but address me by my first name. In return, they make fun of my poor memory of Chinese idioms. And every so often, they would patiently counsel me the “right” way to do business in China.

Then what is this “Chinese Chinese”-ness that I am so obviously poor at grasping?

The question did not used to bug me. In fact, it fanned my ego that my high-school friends called me “half-American,” for raising my hands and asking questions in class, for directing plays and organizing dance parties, and for not shying away from any opportunity to be different. I used to be flattered by other Americans’ questions if I had grown up in the US, back in the days when I desired very much to be something other than the stale, conservative and order-following Chinese stereotype in my mind.

Then after spending 12 years in the US, I knew I would never be a full-blown American. So I moved back, partly to understand whether there is such a thing as Chinese Chinese?

The longer I have lived in Beijing, however, the less certain I am of what a true Chinese Chinese would be. For every (3?) money-chasing Chinese, I could find a Chinese content with his routine life. For every (5?) Chinese who give up their dreams for desk jobs, I could find an entrepreneur risking it all to strike it rich. And for every (10?) Chinese who go ga-ga over Gucci and Prada, I could find a young kid dead serious about art or environment causes.

Of course, statistically, most Han Chinese in prosperous regions of China are very focused on making their lives better off, their kids better educated, and their families and friends proud of their achievements. But any statistical definition of the “Chinese Chinese”-ness sounds a bit too vulgar. Isn’t there any big word(s) that could be claimed shared by all true Chinese, like Confucianism, materialism, individualism, conformism, or entrepreneurialism?

I remembered my trip along the ancient Silk Road, from Xi’an to Kashgar, a few years ago. I saw the ruins of Tang Dynasty grandeur and Han Dynasty border expansion. I met many ethnicities of languages and customs different from us Han. I found, at the many Buddhist grottoes along the Silk Road, how Buddhism had migrated to and been modified by China. I remember realizing then that what we considered to be “Chineseness” now must have been different from that in Tang Dynasty, in Han Dynasty, and in the tribal periods of our legendary forefathers.

So any romantic concept of deep-rooted “Chinese Chinese”-ness appears to be a myth – we as a people now are very different from those living in the 1960s, the Republic era, the end of Qing Dynasty, or any period prior. Of course there exists a continuation from generation to generation, but this continuation itself has always been changing, via interaction with the outside, fighting among the internal factions and competition of different schools of thoughts for domination.

Or so I hope – that the true “Chinese Chinese”-ness is our ability to absorb, to learn and to grow, which would make me feel more “Chinese Chinese” despite what others might say.