Half Chinese, half Australian
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 36: What is Australia For?
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Frances Guo
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Frances Guo’s biography and other articles by this writer
IN 1990, while dark clouds still hung over Tiananmen, I packed up my life in Beijing and landed in Melbourne with my northern Chinese face and Chinese brain. Twenty years later my face is still Chinese but my Chinese brain has somehow shrunk. This new land, which greeted me with its warm blue sky, then tested me with the cold reality of survival and loneliness, has somehow crept inside me and taken over at least half my mind.
Although my passport has long shown that I am Australian, it has taken me much longer to get used to my new identity. Who am I? Why am I here? Where is home? For years these questions have haunted me, a ghostly echo in my head. It must be the curse for all adult migrants – a life torn between past and present, old homeland and new; between two lands, two cultures, two peoples. So much so that in 1999 I uprooted my life again, escaped Melbourne and returned to China, my ‘real' home, only to find myself facing the reality of yet another cultural shock, and an even more acute identity crisis.
Mixing among my colleagues at the Australian Embassy in Beijing I stood out as unmistakably Chinese, despite my improved English and my official Australian identity. Outside the embassy's black marble walls, among free-spirited Chinese pedestrians, humble bicycle riders and proud drivers of new cars, I blended in easily but still often felt like a stranger, a cultural mixed-blood under her Chinese skin, a woman who had turned herself into a self-exiled half-caste, a half-foreigner from both sides.
Torn by my dual identity, four years later I packed up my life in Beijing and left my first homeland a second time. Blessed with Sydney's beautiful scenery and regular business trips to China, my life finally became more settled. Having a Chinese face and a mind both Chinese and Australian became a blessing, rather than a curse. But just when I finally began to feel comfortable with my dual identity, a work training session in the heart of my adopted city upset the fragile balance again.
FEELING THE WARMTH of the morning sun through the plate-glass of the office tower, I look out to the glittering blue harbour, gazing at the white sails of the Sydney Opera House. This is the top end of town, where office towers and hotels define the city skyline.
‘China has a 200-year strategy – first Hong Kong, Taiwan, then Africa and South America; step by step, it will take over the world!' announces a white Australian woman to her audience.
My lips sneak a sarcastic smile. Sitting in front of me, a young man turns his blond head around to check the reaction of the only Asian face in the room.
I don't know why I am here for Asian skills training. Perhaps I am invited for the psychological experiment – to demonstrate how aggressive Asians can be, and how they should be led? And who is this woman? Where did she get her Asian ‘insights'? Glancing at her cold face, I can't help wondering: why does she sound so alarmed, and so...anti-China? Aren't we, Australia, part of Asia now? And isn't China our number-one export client?
I challenge her in my head. I wish I could stand up and speak up, but my face remains wooden, my body immobile. It must be my Chinese upbringing. I curse myself – I have been conditioned to respect those in power, to do all I can to avoid conflict.
To ease the tension, I fix my eyes on a small ferry moving past the Opera House and into open water. I suppose you can take the girl out of China but you can't take China out of the girl, I tell myself. Like it or not, no matter how much I feel like screaming, this Chineseness deep inside me stifles the scream in my throat, keeps my face calm, turns my mind philosophical, sometimes even indifferent, in order to maintain my politeness and keep out of trouble.
I cannot see the grand ambition that this woman claims China harbours. China still faces tremendous domestic challenges and its vast rural areas still struggle with poverty. I doubt China has ambition to conquer the world; historically, it has no track record of territorial ambitions anyway. As Bob Hawke once pointed out, back in the fifteenth century Admiral Zheng He's 300-ship fleet went as far as Mozambique, but unlike western explorers he did not conquer any of these lands. After all, China is an ancient civilisation growing out of inland rivers; as a result, we are more interested in our own land, families and Middle Kingdom than the outside world.
THE WOMAN'S MONOLOGUE drags on. So far, she has shown no intention to invite any comments from the floor and no one in the audience has dared to interrupt. What a bore! I turn my head to the blue water, annoyed with myself too. Why can't I just say something? Why can't the Australian half of my brain overpower the Chinese half? And what about these young Australian faces around me? Why haven't they uttered a word? Do they all subscribe to her message: ‘Watch out – the sleeping lion is waking'?
Finally, the monologue comes to an end. Thank heavens – this is worse than the propaganda speeches in China! I stand up, switching off her drone in my head.
‘Do you Chinese really eat dogs?' a soft voice asks. I turn and see a young woman with long curly hair and curious brown eyes standing behind me.
‘Sorry, bad joke.' Sensing my hesitation she quickly brushes off her own question before I have a chance to reply. As I watch her curly head disappear through the door, memories of dogs flash back.
IT WAS A chilly Melbourne winter morning, the first for me in this new land. Wrapped in my heavy Chinese jumper and overcoat, I rushed out of my flat for the tram stop. The sky had just woken up and the street was still sleeping. Worrying about my job interview at the embroidery factory, I kept my head down and charged forward – until I faltered. A dog sat firmly in the middle of the narrow footpath, blocking my way: his face half black and half white, eyes cold and fierce, body motionless and powerful.
A quick glance at the split face sent a shiver down my spine. I tried to walk around him, and he followed me; I started to run, and he ran after me; I ran and ran, as fast as I could; he followed, getting closer and closer to my feet. I could almost feel his jaws open above my ankle, ready to grab and drag me down. Reaching the tram just in time, I gathered all my strength and jumped on.
I spent the rest of the day in fear. Night had fallen by the time I jumped off the tram home, retracing the same footpath on my toes, worrying my steps might entice the split face to jump on me again. Heart thumping, I unlocked my flat.
As I ate my simple dinner, an angry crowd appeared on the television screen. Marching along the street, they and their placards shouted ‘Dog Killers Out!' Apparently some Vietnamese had killed a dog in Australia, but before they could taste their treat the police nabbed them in their backyard. Though the offenders were fined and jailed, the local community was outraged; their collective voice was loud and clear: they wanted these savage people out, sent back to where they came from.
‘Is it really that bad?' I wondered as I watched the angry crowd. Dog and dragon carry opposite images in Chinese and western minds. While no one wants to be a dragon woman in the West, for the Chinese the dragon represents their ancestors and traditional sprits – hence the elaborate dragons on the yellow robes of Chinese emperors, and the colourful dragon dances staged at Chinese New Year.
While a dog is almost part of a family in the West, in Chinese culture the dog often features in swearing – as in dog legs (hired thugs), dog bear (coward), a barking dog behind his master (a bully who attacks others for his master). In my memories of growing up in Mao's China, dogs were dangerous creatures, scary animals barking fiercely behind farmers' low fences, ready to jump over to attack the pale-skinned city kids passing by. The fear surfaced when I was chased by the split-face: only this time the dog was not barking behind a fence; instead, he was loose, itching to attack me.
But as time passed and my empty flat was gradually decorated with second-hand furniture, my view of dogs softened. I came to enjoy watching them chasing each other in the park, catching tennis balls, dropping them at the feet of their owners, tails wagging. Yet my feeling towards dogs only really changed when something unexpected happened.
It was a typical Melbourne winter's day: cold, damp and overcast. Driving my first car, I was eager to get home after a long day in the office. Vehicles clogged the street. Just as the red light finally turned green and my impatient foot pressed the accelerator, a small dark shadow dashed across the road and my left front wheel lifted with a bump. My heart stopped; I froze.
The car was at a standstill in the middle of the road. In the rear-view mirror, a line of headlights snaked behind me. I felt awful and wanted to investigate what had happened, but my body refused to move. Through the mirror I watched an Australian woman open her car door and walk towards me.
Leave me alone, please, I pleaded silently.
‘Are you okay?' she asked.
‘I...I killed it.' I broke down, my head buried in my arms on the steering wheel.
‘No, you didn't – it got away,' the woman reassured me.
‘No, it didn't,' I replied, my teary eyes avoiding hers. I wished I could tell her about the bump under my wheel, but somehow I couldn't – instead, I just sat there, stunned, in pieces.
A stream of cars overtook me, but no one blew their horns. Sitting still, eyes glued on the line of cars in the rear-view mirror, I was overwhelmed by the image in my head: a small dog lying in a pool of blood under my front wheel. You have taken a life, I told myself over and over again, tears flooding my cheeks.
I had no idea how long it took me to gather myself and start the car again. When I finally dragged myself home, I collapsed into bed, switching off from the painful world.
I opened my eyes, sun bursting through the plastic blinds. It was a bright morning, unusual for this time of year; outside my flat the street was wet, and the air was scented with sweet lemon gums. Taking a deep breath, I went down to check my car; to my relief, there was no sign of blood on any tyre. The woman was right, after all – the dog did get away; the bump under my wheel was something on the road, a brick, a rock, something still, something bloodless.
'DO YOU CHINESE eat dogs?' the girl's voice echoed in my head. Well, today, there is a new saying in China: if you are poor, you raise pigs; but if you are rich, you have dogs. There is certainly no shortage of dogs in Chinese cities nowadays. The little ones sit in the arms of their indulgent mummies, or sniff the ground in their cute jackets; the exotic-looking ones walk proudly beside their rich owners, or bark smugly out of the windows of their posh cars. The less fortunate ones end up in a small apartment, and each day they have to wait patiently for their owners to return from work. Only when it is dark outside can they follow their nervous owners to sneak down by the slow lifts or dusty stairs and venture into the dark for their secretive walks.
‘I call my dog Big Black, for its black fur and for being illegal,' says Annie, my former Chinese colleague, in her gentle voice. ‘It costs thousands to register a dog, and you have to do it every year. Imagine what'll happen if they catch my dog,' she continues, her big eyes terrified. ‘So every time Big Black barks, I beg him not to; he just looks at me as if he understands me,' she says fondly, as if talking about her baby. ‘You know what I want to do if I have lots of money?'
‘Buy a big house,' I reply.
‘No, I want to build a huge dog home in a village, and give dogs like Big Black plenty of space to roam around.'
'THE CHINESE ARE the most cunning negotiators.' Our trainer continues her China-bashing after the break. ‘Today, they still use their ancient war stratagems like "Beat the Grass to Startle the Snake" in business negotiations.' She pauses, then emphasises: ‘And you must never reveal your real intention.'
Soon the audience is divided into two groups: one to play the Chinese side, the other the Australian. Ten minutes later the two groups meet over a long table. I find myself mixing in the ‘Chinese' group, holding fake Chinese business cards, bowing heads, shaking hands with the ‘Australians'. When the mock negotiation starts, we look across the table with blank faces. A long silence – worried about revealing our intentions, no one on either side dares utter a word. All heads turn to me, the only actual Chinese face around the table.
‘May I introduce our team and the purpose of our visit?' To everyone's surprise, I break the silence with a smile, looking straight into the shocked eyes across the table.
After a short pause the eyes across the table respond, and the discussion starts to flow. I smile, remembering how we have broken the ice with our western-style frankness in China, imagining the startled look on the face of our coach behind me. What's the point of us playing mind games in her imagined Chinese ways?
Chinese people may appear cunning, but we are genuine people in our own way, and we value honesty, friendship and sincerity. While our indifferent faces may seem deceptive, the simple truth is that in Chinese culture this is deemed good manners, as our ancestors have long taught us that it is a virtue to restrain yourself from revealing raw emotions such as happiness or anger.
Instead of trying to imitate Chinese ‘cunning', it would be far more effective if we could learn some positive ways of dealing with China – such as building rapport with the Chinese people; having an open mind; being willing to learn about their culture, the way they form friendships and do business; appreciating Chinese hospitality, and the strong liquor that often comes with it. However trivial such things may seem, they are often critical in getting to know the real faces behind the masks, and in building trust between people, regardless of the colour of their skin.
'I THOUGHT YOU were going to be a real Chinese?' a young man asks me after our training.
‘People are people – it doesn't matter where they come from,' I reply, finally silencing the voice bursting in my head.
‘How long have you lived here?' he asks.
‘Nearly twenty years.'
‘Do you still miss home, families, friends, all that?'
‘I do, particularly after my visits. It often feels like my body has taken a direct flight back, but my heart has been put on a ship, floating on the sea.'
NOT LONG AFTER my China-bashing training, I receive another invitation for a seminar: ‘Overseas Chinese Serving Motherland's Development', the Chinese-script invitation reads. The person who passes on the invitation is not an enthusiastic promoter. ‘Feel free to go along if you happen to be free on the day, want to mingle with people, and don't mind a free meal,' his email says, in sharp contrast to the patriotic clichés on the invitation.
When the day comes I arrive at the hotel in central Sydney. To my surprise I find a packed Chinese audience facing a presenter and large screen. Unlike at a casual Chinese community gathering, many in this audience wear smart suits and scholarly glasses. Using PowerPoint slides the presenter explains China's ‘One Thousand Talents Plan', a strategic scheme to lure top overseas Chinese scientists, academics and senior managers back to the motherland with their expertise acquired in the West.
After the presentations the audience is divided into two groups for more intimate discussions. ‘Please feel free to tell us your ideas and suggestions – we will bring them back,' says the head of the delegation, a senior representative from a collective of Chinese democratic parties.
‘The Thousand Talent Plan is good, but one thousand is only a drop in the ocean compared to the large number of professional Chinese living overseas,' a well-dressed Chinese man stands to say. ‘Doesn't China want to build world-class universities? The government should have policies to attract more highly trained overseas Chinese.'
Some in the audience nod while another man stands to present more ideas.
After the seminar, I follow the crowd and step into a waiting coach; leaving the narrow city street the coach heads towards our next destination, a Chinese restaurant. Facing a small stage, we all settle around ten large round tables. As the clichéd official speeches proceed, Chinese dishes of familiar aroma begin to appear, and soon after, events move up a notch as Chinese singers and dancers step on and off the stage.
As the Chinese master of ceremonies announces the final performance, he asks everyone to stand to sing the last song. Curious, I follow the others, picking up the pink page from the table and joining in the singing: ‘We love peace, we love our homeland; whoever dares to invade us, we will make them perish.'
I lift my head, uneasiness creeping into my mind. It has been years since I last heard, let alone sang, such a song. It was a song of Mao's era, a time when we were told that communism was heaven and we were the happiest children on earth; a time when we spoke of the ‘American imperialists'; a time when no McDonalds, KFCs and Starbucks could be found in China.
Fast forward to post-Mao China in the 1980s, when our life had become full of curiosity, enthusiasm and idealism. What consumed our minds were no longer Mao's Little Red Book and the utopian communist ideals. Instead, our thoughts and conversations were peppered with western philosophies and literature, Chinese novels and films reflecting China's feudal traditions and the trauma of Mao's Cultural Revolution, and our first taste of ballroom dancing, disco and Hollywood movies. For university students there was the hope of studying overseas, particularly in America. In the meantime, we hoped all the good things we suddenly learned about the West, including free press and democracy, could be realised in China...until our burgeoning dreams were crushed by the tanks at Tiananmen.
In the early 1990s, soon after the Tiananmen crackdown, and facing international condemnation, the Chinese government introduced nationalism as the glue to hold the country together, under its own leadership. Using classrooms, film and television, nationwide patriotic campaigns were launched. And yet, despite its political convenience, even the party knows that nationalism can be a double-edged sword: it might help to legitimise the government politically, but extreme nationalism could jeopardise the agenda of peaceful development under the party's leadership.
How ironic, I muse, that while China is a bullet train on the tracks of capitalism, here we are singing Mao's anti-imperialism song in a western capital. I glance around: facing the stage, people stand solemnly around their large tables, singing in full voice. Among them are Chinese diplomats, overseas Chinese academics, those who may or may not qualify for the elite talent pool but still give genuine advice on how to develop their motherland, and those who set up small companies with grand names in Chinatown, receiving Chinese delegations and arranging their sightseeing for a handsome fee.
To my left is a young man who has just received his PhD, and is torn between going back to China and staying in Australia for his young family. To my right is a well-connected woman who travels frequently between the two countries, while the focus of the two garage owners next to her has been the steamed fish and stir-fried scallops.
But now everyone is standing still, holding that pink piece of paper, following the punchy lyrics: ‘The five-starred red flag waves in the wind; here we are singing, praising our dear motherland's march towards strength and prosperity.'
I join the flow of the song, smiling at the familiar words and tune as I sing. ‘Our Great Leader Mao Ze-Dong, pointing us in the direction forward.' I almost laugh. ‘No, he can't now' – the words slip off my tongue. I look around, and to my surprise, no one has lifted their eyes from the page; in fact, everyone looks deadly serious and no one is giving away any hint of their true feelings – not on their faces so wooden, not in their eyes, not even in their voices.
My cheeky grin fades, and a profound sense of loneliness hits me. Despite our similar Chinese faces, our common tongue, our shared memories of the Great Leader, and of his wife's red Peking opera that we have just hummed together, life has clearly drawn a line in our minds. Standing among my fellow Chinese, listening to the disturbing revolutionary song, I become acutely aware of my dual identity, of becoming both Chinese and Australian, and of the ticking of the Australian half of my brain.