April 21, 2015, by Tony Hong
Three Generations of Chineseness
By Flair Shi,
Currently Studying Comparative Literature (MA) at University College London,
Graduate of the School of English University of Nottingham Ningbo,
BA in English Language and Literature.
I am not sure whether it is because of the trendy post-colonial obsession with cultural authenticity or simply due to the ascendance of personal narratives in the age of post-structuralist disintegration of representational discourses, but venturing into the world of Chinese diaspora writings in the West one tends to find that among the most popular books are the memoirs and family sagas, about living through revolutions or overcoming difficulties of migration. To give just the most famous examples, we have Jung Chang’s Wild Swans (1991), Lisa See’s On Gold Mountain (1995), and Helen Tse’s Sweet Mandarin (2007). If Lisa See’s mixed racial heritage makes her story particularly intriguing, we also have “foreigners” who write about their personal tangos with China: Tim Clissold’s Mr. China (2005), Peter Hessler’s River Town (2006), Rob Clifford’s China Road (2008) and the list goes on… Therefore, it almost seems that if the scramble for China was happening at the beginning of the last century, the literary scramble for China is happening right now at the beginning of this one, which is, of course, propelled by the economic ascendance of the sleeping tiger awakening. From a deconstructive point of view, this literary scramble for China is definitely a good thing: from the insider’s enlightening journey outside China to the outsider’s mind-blowing journey inside China, from the essentialist understanding of Chinese culture to the continued obsession with its inscrutability, what we have, I hope, is a shattering of the concept of China itself. Everybody, through their different interactions with the country and the culture, can write about China, can claim a certain ownership regarding Chineseness, can become Chinese in their different ways.
As a queer person, either in the political sense of that word or in its sexual sense, there has always been certain aspects of my Chineseness that is constantly at odds with, or surpasses the tolerance level of, the official version of Chineseness and mainstream Chinese society. So if my obsession with post-colonialism, whether against the Chinese mainstream or Western cultural imperialism, is primarily about “escaping China”, like the writer Ha Jin would say, I have come to realize that such “escaping” is inherently doomed to fail due to its ontological linkage with the very thing it want to escape from. Thus, after the struggle to escape China, one has to “come back to China” eventually. For me, that means no matter how much the Chinese society would accuse me of being too “Westernized”, I have to assert my Chineseness the same way Lisa See, or perhaps even Rob Clifford, does.
My Chineseness really struck me the hardest when I saw the gray hair of my grandma when she was fixing my bicycle after I came back home from middle school. I was brought up by my grandma, since in the economic boom of China my mother is the New Woman who does not know how to cook and always stays in her office to write documents. I had always hated my grandma till that moment, for all my life before that she had been this robotic monster in my eyes, always shouting loudly from the kitchen “time to eat!” and always holding a bowl of rice chasing after me in the district when I wouldn’t come back home to eat at the table. She was quite fat and formidable and would really scold me hard whenever she discovered me doing “stupid childish” things like picking up flowers in the field or playing with fire on the balcony. In my world, she was the Freudian superego, she was the Lacanian Symbolic Order, she was the Foucaultian disciplinary eye, and I never imagined she would be really old and weak one day. And her gray hair made me confront it head-on: two years after being diagnosed as diabetic she became this thin, slow, soft old woman with ever more wrinkles on her face, but ever more smiles too. Maybe it was because I finally grew up, because now she wouldn’t have to chase me around anymore. She now simply smiles, less loudly than before but still loudly, when I gave her a phone call from the UK, telling her things she would not understand. “It doesn’t matter,” she always says, “I can understand.”
My grandma’s diabetes was to do with her son, my father, or rather, my father’s becoming rich. Living in London for my studies and meeting many really wasteful, ignorant and spoiled Fu-Er-Dais I really refuse being labeled a Fu-Er-Dai myself even many in China would insist on doing so to any Chinese student who studies in the West. But I admit that in my small fourth-tier Chinese city where I am from, my father is a well-off man. And having lived with him from his wild years of being an irresponsible young man to a mature, sometimes a bit arrogant, successful patriarch, I share with him the hard-earned results of his upward mobility. My butt was on the backseat of his bicycle when I was in primary school, that of his motorcycle when I was in secondary school, and in his car just before I went to university. He is one of those lucky shrewd men who grabbed the opportunities brought by Deng and achieved upward mobility without much of an education. I remember even when he came out of the mountainous town and drove 5 hours to Ningbo to see me, he was still behaving like one of those uneducated upstarts traveling overseas, shouting rudely in the fancy restaurants while at the same time amazed by how expensive things in the city could be. But often times I felt powerless in my criticisms against him, because he is the one who brought food to our table – bountiful, delicious, all kinds of meat and Western desserts. He would always proudly tell my grandma to simply throw away the leftovers if we could not finish them but she would not listen. She always told me about the motherly misery that used to trouble her when she carefully divided the very limited amount of rice in the pot to her four hungry children. She always secretly took away the leftovers and ate them up after we left the meal table. Now after she got diabetes, she always warns me about sugary drinks and in his arrogant Chineseness, my father always scolds her in his own uniquely caring manner: “all that money you thought you had saved by eating up the leftovers wouldn’t even buy you one injection of insulin!”
His arrogant way of caring from time to time would hurt this or that member of our family, but many of us love to share this arrogance when we invite relatives from other families to meals. During these meals they would always obsequiously compliment my father’s economic achievements, and my grandma and my mother simply could not resist indulging themselves in the envy expressed. But on occasions like that, the only resistance I could put up is silence. I refuse to participate in such superficial family bonding, which, from my “biased Western point of view”, is increasingly washed away by materialism, cronyism and nepotism–how the poorer relatives of the big family were rarely invited, or if they were, how rarely did someone speak to them first and care about what they were doing. Yet what is perhaps the most incompatible between his Chineseness contaminated by materialism and my Chineseness contaminated by Western wishful thinking, is when he always lectures me how “the only purpose of education is to find a job”. I still remember how disappointed he looked when I failed to get into the International Business program at university and instead went to English Literature. He was happy when I proved to him how one is ought to study what one truly loves by obtaining the award of “Best Student of the Year” and a large sum of scholarship, but even now I, or my Chineseness, is not vindicated: he still lectures me about his wisdom– “you know why I send you to the UK for a Master degree? Cuz in China you need three years for that and the earlier you enter the government with a master degree the better. I am giving you a head-start compared to your peers. Look at how your cousins are struggling to pass the civil service exams. You should always remember whatever I do, it is for your good. Be grateful”.
Grateful indeed I am. My grandma certainly was not able to give my father even one tenth of the luxurious life my father has given me. Her Chineseness dwells on the ruins of history, her son’s Chineseness is dominating the current history, and her grandson’s Chineseness, is struggling to make new history. Sometimes I wonder maybe Chineseness is a thing of itself, a creature above history. It evolves on its own at the expense of all of us.<