Welcome to the Eat, Shop, Play, Love blog. This is a writing experiment that aims to lend a voice to the millions of Asians around the world who have left their native countries to live their lives in a different place, for whatever the reasons may be. Read the authors' profiles here.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Una Ragazza on Play: Those Chinese Roots

As an ethnic Chinese who was born and raised in Singapore more than 30 years ago, I have a playful relationship with the Chinese language, culture and people. A bit of history may help put this in context.

Until the arrival of the British in the early 1800's, Singapore was a small village occupied by local Malay fisherman. As the island grew into a trading port, immigrants largely from China, and also India, started to flood in.

An image of Chinese immigrants in colonial Singapore. Many worked as coolies or hard laborers

With hardly any money, relatives or friends, my grandparents separately arrived in Singapore about a decade before the start of WWII. There was no courtship since they were match made. My ah ma used to tell me how she didn’t get a proper wedding either as she had married my ah gong during the Japanese occupation and any mass celebration would have attracted unwanted attention and risked their safety. Instead, she was quietly brought to his house through the back door in the middle of the night.

Theirs was a hard life, where money was hard earned and the desire for their children to do better in life reminded me of the many Latin American families who had similarly left their native countries to seek a better future for their children in the United States. I remember being both touched and proud of what ah gong and ah ma had risked and sacrificed for their children, and sometimes wondered what would have become of me had they never set foot on those overcrowded, disease-prone boats to make the journey to Southeast Asia.

Ah ma and ah gong enjoying the fruits of their labor: A son graduates from military school

Throughout their decades living in Singapore, ah gong and ah ma would be constantly contacted by relatives back in China, with requests for gifts or cash. I remember the first time I met one of our relatives living in China. I was barely 10 and came home to see my ah gong drinking tea with another elderly man dressed in similar fashion -- a simple white, short-sleeved shirt, black pants and black-rimmed plastic glasses. I did not remember their conversation, but I did remember that he stayed for nearly a month, with ah gong paying for his meals and other expenses. At the end of his visit, he was also given some boxed gifts containing electronics to bring home.

When my uncle visited our ancestral town in the south of China with my grandparents a few years later, I learnt that he too brought along many gifts and left behind money to build a local school.

For an adolescent who, at that time, was still searching for her cultural and national identity, I was confused by what appeared as excessive gestures of generosity. Are these acts of reciprocation? Why do our Chinese relatives have such expectations of my family? Should I be proud to be Chinese? Or, should I embrace my background as a second-generation Singaporean in a fast-growing, modern, English-speaking society?

With the strong societal value placed on the English language during my teenage years in the 1990’s, it would have been a shortcut for me to try to bury my Chinese roots and focus on living an English language-only world. After all, English is la langue principale in our multicultural island nation.

Thanks to the foresight of a mom who was a Chinese-language teacher in a primary school (local equivalent of an elementary school), that did not happen. Instead, the importance of mastering the Chinese language was inculcated in me from young. In addition to English, we spoke our fair share of Mandarin Chinese at home, watched Chinese TV programs, and listened to Chinese storytelling on Rediffusion, a local wired relay network. My sister and I even picked up some Cantonese by watching Hong Kong gongfu serials.

Una Ragazza and mom after a kindergarten performance of The Lonely Goatherd from The Sound of Music

Memories from years past: the ubiquitous yellow logo on the rediffusion van

Un Ragazzo takes a stab at learning Chinese at a New York university

I remember those grueling nights of memorizing the glossary section of my Chinese textbooks in preparation for mid-year and final examinations. Looking back, I have greatly benefited from those sessions, and credit my mom for being an anchor who believed in me and remained steadfast in her quest to help me master the language during my youth.

As for the seemingly curious behavior of my relatives from China, I have decided that circumstances played a key role and am at least grateful that we had been in a position to help.

Nowadays, I have plenty of fun with being an overseas Chinese Singaporean. Upon learning that I’m from Singapore, acquaintances often ask where in China that is. That would lead to my patient explanation of how Singapore is not a part of China, although we have an ethnic majority of Chinese, and that our roots are indeed from China.

Another curious remark is “You speak great English!” which would be followed by, “Where did you learn it?”

If I happen to like the individual posing the question, I’d answer with a polite “thanks” and go on to explain the bilingual educational system in Singapore. If he or she happen to rub me the wrong way, the more probable response would be a cheeky, “Thanks, and so do you.”

Some foreigners I’d met seem to find it surprising that one person can switch easily between two or more languages. They’d ask, “Can you speak Mandarin?... Wow, what else can you speak?” On more than one occasion, I find myself likening my situation to those of first-generation Latinos in the U.S., who speak fluent English to friends at school, but switch with ease to Spanish when they return home to immigrant parents who are most comfortable with the latter.

Perhaps the question to which I have an evolving response is, “Can you imagine yourself living in China?”

Until recently, my response would simply have been that I love living in Europe and New York.

Things changed this winter when a fascinating colleague from the China office spent two months with me at work. I realized how much I missed speaking in Mandarin and discussing news in Asia. Going for dim sum and szechuan was a matter of course, where I found myself both asking and answering questions as though I’d just emerged from a drought of information exchange.

A letter makes all the difference: A dim sum restaurant in China advertises its offering

A business trip to China this month only served to further wet those taste buds. There was something to be said about working with a full Asian team, where Chinese was freely used, lunch resembled what my ah ma would have prepared, and pork jerky was served during a breakfast meeting.

The poster series of Shanghai ladies that shapes the Western perception of oriental women

Chinese takeout in Shanghai. Yum!

Not as sure about Hong Kong fishball-flavored Pringles

After nearly 10 years abroad, during which I had gone west from Asia to Europe, and in turn from Europe to America, it appears I may be coming back full circle from America to Asia. At least in bite-sized portions of work stints combined with visits to see my precious family.

What would the future hold? Perhaps that's a question for my next fortune cookie.

A fortune cookie in an unexpected place

(Some pictures taken from the Internet)


  1. Glad you had a good business trip, though it was a complete shame that we couldn't meet up in NYC.

  2. JJ! now that you're on the same continent for a while, i'm trusting you'll be coming to new york a little more frequently. how about pa jun when you next come?

  3. Oh ya, I used to get a lot of the "Singapore in China" questions 10 years ago. Thankfully not anymore! I tend to get "You're Chinese but...you're not from China?" these days.