Thursday, 3 March 2011

debby ng

Debby Ng forayed into journalism following failed attempts at becoming a world-class equestrian. A wildlife crime investigator, underwater photographer, dive master and founder of a marine conservation organisation, she spends what remains of her time writing about the environment, its wildlife, and its people.


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"We" is Asian, Western, and everything in between
October 2, 2010
Special to asia!

"We" is me and the societies and communities I associate myself with.


"You can leave your shoes at the door. This is a Chinese house." I'm instructed as I enter my cousin's house in Northern California.

I suppose leaving footwear near the door and not bringing it into the house is sort of a Chinese culture, though I have been to some Chinese homes in China where this is not the practice. This surely is the practice in Japanese homes, and several homes I've visited in Nepal, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. Perhaps it isn't so much a Chinese culture, as it is an Asian one. I'm just being tenuous about details.

We eat out of Chinese rice bowls and use chopsticks. We say, "Jia!" before we eat, which in Hokkien, a Chinese dialect, is an invitation for those around you to come and join in the meal. Yet apart from the fact that we are Chinese, using Chinese utensils, eating Asian cuisine, and practice leaving footwear at the door, there is little else about this setting that seems particularly Asian. The convsersations we keep, the manner in which we speak, the ways in which we address each other, is anything but Asian.

People were extremely outspoken. The usual Asian hierachy that is inherited by seniority seemed not to exist. If someone did not agree, or even felt that a comment was ludicrious, such would be said, and the person told off. There were no hostilities, and no one took offense (at least, that was not apparent). Eyes would be rolled conspicuously and hands would swat in ridicule.

Seniors were addressed by first name. Not preceeded by the usual polite salutation you have in Asia, such as, "Uncle", "Aunty", or as we Chinese go, "Jiejie" for "sister".

Regardless, "this is an Asian house".

The language of the house is English. Though my four year old nephew is taught some Asian words, such as "pang sai", Hokkien for moving ones bowels. I must admit it is very endearing to hear the young boy run up to his mom and declare, "I need to pangsai!" or "I need to pangsisi!" The latter translates to, "I need to urinate!". This is all very cute and entertaining, and in the most part, it does sound better having him articulate, "I need to urinate!" It does sound more casual and with character.

When he's thirsty, he asks for "Jui" or "water". It is very possible that he knows more Hokkien than some Singaporean kids I know who speak English at home.

What's interesting is that his teachers in play school had to be taught what all these words mean, since he'd run up to inform them of his need to pangsai. Imagine if they didn't know what he meant. That would be unfortunate for the little guy.

So how is it that a kid thousands of kilometers away from Asia speaks more Asian words than a kid in the middle of Southeast Asia? Perhaps the further you are away from home, the more effort you make to hang on to certain identities you claim to be Asian. The use of an Asian language is one, the use of Asian cutlery is another, and of course the practice of leaving footwear at the door, is a big one. But is that enough to identify yourself as an Asian? If a Western person did all of the above (and I know some Westerners who are way more fluent than I am in Mandarin and Chinese dialects. Then again, I wouldn't make a strong competitor when it comes to mastering languages) would that allow him or her to identify him or herself as an Asian?

I know a handful of Westerners who have lived in Asia for most of their lives, speak more Asian languages than the Asians living around them, and who know more about the country they are living in in Asia than the people who were born into that country. Does that make them naturalised Asians?

On the same plane, if an Asian lived most of their life in the West, spoke more Western and European languages than those around them and did all the things that Westerners do, does that qualify them as Westerners?

Some of us might say yes, some might say no, some might say, it depends. Sure it does. It almost always seems to depend on something. If you're an Asian, you tend to like to guard your identity - afterall you were born here, lived your whole life as an Asian, you can't have someone coming around and mimicking your behaviour and lifestyle and claiming that they too are Asian.

So if you can't have one particular identity, why not have two? Asian when it is convenient, and Western when that's convenient. Does that sound too bizarre? Too adulterous?

Apparently not.

My aunt says, "we". Sometimes, she means, "we [Asians]", other times, she means. "we [Westerners]". It all depends on context. Or so I think. I often am confused. For one time, when she referred to a method of preparing rice, she used "we" as in, "we [Chinese] know how to eat rice." Yet another time, when I asked if she was going to stir fry the vegetables she was preparing with garlic, she said "We [Westerners] don't use garlic." Now, you might think I'm being presumptous, but there are several nuaces in our communication that are lost in this article, since there is also body language and intonation is that involved.

"We [Westerners] have done the science pertaining to this study." Hence, I, an Asian who has not done similar, exhaustive and robust research [as the West is well-known for] should not argue.

"You [Asians] are so scared of using the microwave. I can't figure out why. Over here, we [Westerners] use it all the time." I tried to expound that we [Asians] are not technophobic or "afraid" of microwaves, infact, I do know many Asians who do use microwaves, it's just that I have a preference not to, and that I, am not representative of the Asian people. I surely don't think I comprise a suitable sample size for 4 billion people.

But I [Asian] know better than to pick an argument with an elder aunt. So I defer from the discussion.

We may be Asian or Western, or whatever it is we want to be. We can have the thickest Southern American accent, and still be an Asian at heart, or in the core. We may prefer Asian cuisine and to leave our footwear at the door, but love baseball and hotdogs and going trick-or-treating. We can appreciate and marvel at the invention of the microwave, but still insist on eating with chopsticks (personally, I think chopsicks are a darn cool invention). Be what you will, but do me a favour -  recognise that you are you, and I am me, not we, and neither are you.



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