Monday, July 05, 2010

Chinese but does not know Chinese

Walking around the narrow treasure gallery in the Forbidden City, I was jostled by the Chinese tourist horde. I turned to a girl pushing behind me, and snapped "Don't push me" in English before I registered the uselessness of saying so in a language that she would probably not understand. She, in turn, said in sneering Mandarin to her father, "A Chinese but he does not know how to speak Chinese."

The grandmother of one of the home stay families complimented me on my grasp of Mandarin. When I protested, more out of honesty than modesty, that my Mandarin is actually very poor, not having taken my lessons seriously when growing up in Singapore, she would have none of it. She also would not hear of me calling myself Singaporean. For her, a Chinese anywhere in the world is still a Chinese.

Criticized or complimented for my Mandarin, I never felt at home in China during my 18-day sojourn. No reason why I should feel that way, for my personal history has little to do with the history of that country. I don't know where and when my family left to migrate to Singapore. My grandfather, who was the last person to know relatives in China, is dead. Not that I would resurrect him to question him, if I could. My interest in my family tie to China is still-born.

China fascinates me the way Egypt does, as a repository of ancient cultural forms. The Round Sacrifice Mound at the Temple of Heaven, for instance, moved me tremendously. Encased in a huge square courtyard, three circles, all white stone, rose on top of each other to the sky. Nine steps--nine being the Emperor's number--bring you from the circular world of Earth to the world of Humans. In another nine steps, you ascend to Heaven. In the center of the top circle lies a flagstone on which the Emperor stood and spoke to the gods, usually to beg them to give the country favorable harvests. Here was a primitive rite that seemed older than Buddhism, older even than Taoism. It was sky worship. The starkness of the Mound, in sharp contrast with the intricately decorated temples, was beautiful and noble in its simplicity. It was at both the beginning and the end of a long and complicated cultural development.

The Flying Acrobatic Show was another breathtaking occasion. The acts were all astonishing feats of human agility and daring. But what concentrated my attention was not the two boys running like hamsters on wheels suspended high in the air. Nor was it the twelve girls riding a single bike. It was three young men balancing their bodies against one another's with superb force and counter-force. Wheels and bikes were unnecessary appurtenances to the singular accomplishment of the human body. Clad only in loincloth, their bodies were not merely on conspicuous display but in necessary performance. I have seen more muscular bodies on the dance floor but they appeared in excess of what clubbing required. Nothing about the Chinese acrobats suggested superfluity: everything was directed at action and produced stillness. The same ideal for beauty is expressed in the tag for Bench Press: poetry that exerts pressure at every point, and so achieves a momentary rest. The figure behind the tag is the bench-pressing gym rat. The Chinese acrobats offer a better representation in so far as they show what one body can do when working with and against another.


Larry said...


"A Chinese but he does not know how to speak Chinese." - I could feel the sting of that. We never really do get to rest from the opposing urges both to adopt and to reject identities. What can one do but record confusion while filtering through the babble of genes, character, history, accident, choice?

Jee Leong Koh said...

Record, and perhaps also to enlarge? Oneself as well as narrowly defined identities. I enlarge myself to take in being Chinese, while the Chinese label has to grow to encompass someone different/same like me.