A fleeting return to my ancestral home

I’m neither here nor there, really. I look quite similar to them (with slit eyes to boot) but although I speak Mandarin, once I open my mouth they can tell I’m not from around these parts. Writes Jonathan Tan…

It’s been only six days into our two-week sojourn to Hangzhou and already I’ve experienced and learnt so much. It isn’t my first time in China, but every time I set foot in this country I never cease to be amazed by the ordered society, its 1.3-billion people and their glorious culture. Suffice to say, I’m having a great time and loving every single minute of it.

Ethnically I am Chinese. My ancestors migrated to Malaysia from Fujian Province almost 200 years ago. However, as I’m the seventh generation of Chinese to have lived in Malaysia, I am somewhat removed from its culture and traditions. I retain some of them, but it turns out popular culture isn’t one of them; upon finding out I’m the sole student among the Coventry group that speaks Mandarin, the Chinese students bombard me with a long list of their pop stars and singers, only to find out that I haven’t heard of any of them.

It’s something that befuddles both parties: the English students wonder how I can speak Mandarin, but the fact is I don’t do it too well and the Chinese students wonder how, if I am Chinese, can I possibly sometimes not get what they’re saying?

So I lie betwixt two extremes. On the one hand, although I identify with the food, chopsticks, the karaoke bars, the Buddhist temples and the almost excruciating politeness, I’ll never completely fit in. On the other I speak better English than I do Mandarin, but I’ll never be British.

But I guess that’s the way it is these days, in an increasingly international world.

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