Late to the boat

Over in Mexico and Guatemala, I was Japanese or otherwise mistaken for a being a local. In China, they ask me pointedly: “你看起来中国人但是你不是中国人” You’re not one of us, but you look like one of us… Likewise, the Germans: “If you’re Australian, then why do you look so asiatisch?”. Filipino, Thai, halfie – *sigh* – I’ve had it all. While I don’t always appreciate being asked to explain myself, I understand on some level the impulse to classify. My answer varies depending on the situation, but inevitably involves the word “Malaysia”. In truth, the question of my heritage is far from straightforward.

My paternal grandfather, my Yeh-Yeh 爺爺, is now the patriarch of his/my family. When he visits Sydney, it’s usually around the time of his birthday; all of his children and grandchildren, and his brother’s children and grandchildren come out of the traps to celebrate with him. On his most recent visit, I had a chat with him and my grandmother, my Ma-Ma 嫲嫲, about our family and where we come from. It was probably just like the family tree project you did back in Grade Two only, in my case, I’d never had the chance to interview my grandparents.

My Ma-Ma and Yeh-Yeh are third-generation Chinese immigrants in Malaysia. It interested me to find out that they identify as simply ‘Malaysian’ and not ‘Chinese-Malaysian’. I suppose this makes sense, though, as they come from a time before the Malay majority began asserting Islam as the bedrock of Malaysia’s national identity, before ethnic politics transformed it into a “disorganized, unmeritocratic country”. To illustrate this change, despite being brought up a nine-hour flight away, I’ve always been aware of the imaginary line that divides the the Chinese-Malaysians from the Malays – ‘us’ from ‘them’.

Linguistically, their affiliations are ambiguous. They both speak Cantonese (Yeh-Yeh also speaks Hakka), but never learned the common dialect (putonghua 普通话, Mandarin), nor how to read or write Chinese characters. However, they mainly speak English, the language in which they were educated, and my Dad only learned Cantonese when he lived with other international students while studying in Sydney. They also know Malay.

My grandparents are quick to distance themselves from the people of the People’s Republic of China, but openly acknowledge the Chinese traditions they uphold in their everyday lives. For example, the fact their rockstar-style tours of Sydney aren’t planned around Ma-Ma’s birthday. Second, my Yeh-Yeh isn’t shy to mention that he is a Hakka – a historically agricultural Chinese people who literally made their name from being the hardy, tenacious outsiders who thrived despite owning the least-favourable lands*. On top of this, they both swell with pride at their greatest achievements: providing their children and grandchildren with university educations, and building a family home they still own. Their strong, collectivist ideas about the family are right in line with Thomas Talhelm’s fascinating study on the impacts of rice vs. wheat cultivation on culture in China**.

* * *

I grew up learning about the ANZAC legend, and didn’t know about Kongzi or Mengzi until my late teens. I speak English with an Aussie drawl, and was never sent to Chinese school. I love cricket just as much as the next punter; I couldn’t tell you the first thing about Mahjong or Tai Chi or Kung Fu. However, regardless of the fact I call myself Australian, there’s always someone who can’t see me as ‘just’ Australian.

What perhaps complicates things further for me is that, in comparison with other in-betweeners like MyChonny and Eddie Huang, my ‘other side’ is fairly difficult to define. In fact, as my conversation with my Ma-Ma and Yeh-Yeh shows, it’s undergone profound change in the space of just a few generations. And I haven’t even mentioned my Mum’s side of the family, of which I know extremely little.

So, then, why is it that I enjoy learning Mandarin and studying (mainland) Chinese history and culture? This interest certainly didn’t result from pressure from my parents or grandparents; it’s something I’ve gravitated towards and explored on my own impulse. Counter-intuitively, learning about the ‘motherland‘ makes me feel both connected and alienated. In a way, I suppose, starting from even before the ‘beginning’ helps me fill in the blanks and better understand the present.

Thanks for reading! This was a more personal post than Tim Spricht’s usual fair and I had a lot of fun writing it. Don’t miss a post, hit “Follow” (near-top right) to get Tim Spricht delivered to your inbox. I’ll appreciate any form of love you’re willing to give: leave a comment below, tweet me @TimSpricht or send me an email at

*For an introduction to the history of the Hakka people, Episode #150 of the China History Podcast is the perfect place to go.

**If you don’t want to read the full academic paper, you should definitely check out Talhelm’s interview on the Sinica Podcast from June 2014.

One final recommendation: Natalie Tran’s insightful take on being Asian in a Western country with Western media (a ‘Western Asian’?):

Me with Ma-Ma & Yeh-Yeh.
Me with Ma-Ma & Yeh-Yeh.

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