Finding China, in Far-Flung Lands

Wall Street Journal Asia, March 13, 2009

Singapore

The nationalist frenzy arrived quickly. As soon as Chinese art collector Cai Mingchao refused to pay for two bronze sculptures for which he had successfully bid $40 million at a Christie’s auction, China’s newspapers, Internet chat rooms and blogs rushed to crown him the country’s new national hero. In the view of numerous Chinese citizens, including Mr. Cai, the artworks were looted from China by European powers in the 19th century and should be returned to China, for free. The Chinese government agrees.

Far away from the nationalist hoopla created by Mr. Cai’s act of patriotism, I try to go about my business of being the Chinese woman I am by eating as much Chinese food as possible on my vacation in Southeast Asia. In the region’s warm climate and easy smiles, I banter in Cantonese with the men and women who serve up fish head dishes, congee and roast pig.

My story and theirs are different in too many ways. I am a product of the superpower of the West and they are the locals of far smaller countries of the East. But we are bound by our shared identity of being Chinese outside of China and by the circumstances of our—or our ancestors’—migration from the Chinese homeland. From the descendants of those who left for the California Gold Rush or those who became laborers in Southeast Asia in the 19th century, to the more recent 20th century Chinese emigrants, our journeys took place—and continue to take place—away from the raw display of China’s newfound global economic might and political power. Many of our stories were crafted before the days of China’s double-digit annual economic growth, before the extravaganza of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, before the accumulation of some $2 trillion in Chinese foreign reserves and before Chinese art collectors like Mr. Cai shook up the elite world of Christie’s.

Our experiences speak of the nastiness and indignities of leaving home and trying to build a new one somewhere else. The journeys are packed with middle-aged men and women trying to learn foreign tongues, intellectuals becoming manual laborers, teenagers being denied university admissions based on their ethnicity—often lawfully under the host country’s affirmative action policies—and everyone feeling like a second-class citizen upon arrival in his or her new land.

There is the straight-A student getting into fights in junior high school over being tagged with racial slurs. That was me. Then there is the 14-year-old who left poverty and political instability in China during the early 20th century for Indonesia and founded his own small taxi enterprise in Balikpapan. He would leave Indonesia with his family and children in the late 1950s, escaping a country that allowed the massacre of numerous Chinese Indonesians to occur in 1965, but returning to a China that was as capable of killing Chinese people as anyone else. That was my grandfather. The details of Chinese immigration experiences throughout the world may differ, but unpleasant experiences are often ever present.

Of course, times have changed. China’s economic miracle for the past 30 years has lifted millions of Chinese citizens out of poverty. Yet this success, along with the government’s propaganda, has helped fan the flames of a nationalism that demands only images of a China that is strong and powerful. Thus these nationalist flames gave the world an adorable Chinese girl who lip-synched at the 2008 summer Olympics to the singing of another Chinese girl whom the Chinese authorities found far less adorable. These same nationalist flames also brought to Christie’s Mr. Cai’s unflinching willingness to sacrifice personal reputation in the art collection business for national pride. Now, the flames are burning even brighter in the ensuing frenzied cries of support throughout China in response to Mr. Cai’s political statement.

It is not that one should have any sympathy for imperial plunder. But in the narrative of Chinese nationalism, there is a China that was wronged by foreigners during its century of weakness and humiliation prior to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and on the flip side, a China that is emerging today to reclaim its past glory and avenge historical wrongs. In its uglier forms, this nationalism leads to violent riots, like the anti-American ones that occurred in 1999 after the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by NATO-led forces. In its milder forms, such nationalism rears its head like it does today, enthusiastically endorsing China’s ability to tell the West to shove it, leaving unsaid what responsibility China bears for the tragedies of its past and injustices of its present.

Here in Southeast Asia, far away from the high drama and frequent, high-pitched calls for national fervor, I am reminded that despite the jaw-dropping success of recent decades, many of China’s native sons and daughters continue to leave (or flee) the country due to poverty, lack of opportunity or political persecution. Perhaps frenzied nationalism could wait for the day when the government does not leave its citizens hungry in the cold, its political dissidents helpless before authoritarian repression and its citizens opting for new life in foreign lands. Until then, this daughter of the “motherland” will settle for finding solace in fish head dishes, congee, roast pig and banter with other Chinese whose mere existence provides a stark reminder of how much more China must still do for its citizens.

Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal Asia © 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  All rights reserved.

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