Half Chinese, half Australian - Page 3
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 36: What is Australia For?
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Frances Guo
'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.