|Pepe Choong - New Zealand Chinese Women: A Hyphenated Identity of East and West. Time Frame of late|
|Written by Lachlan|
|Sunday, 22 July 2007|
NZ CHINESE WOMEN - PEPE CHOONG
A large part of the information presented in this essay will be based on both oral and written interviews carried out between mid to late April 2002. For purposes of privacy and confidentiality, these women will be referred to by their fictitious names selected by them at the time of the interview. I interviewed six women in total, five of whom live in Auckland and one in Dunedin. Two of the women are sisters and chose to be interviewed simultaneously. All my subjects are New Zealand born Chinese who grew up in various parts of New Zealand within the time frame of the late 30s, 40s to 50s. The oral interviews lasted around an hour each although the length of time spent in the subject's home was much longer. Apart from two women, all the other four women were unknown to me before the interview and I traced them through the New Zealand Chinese Women's Group who meet once a month. These women were selected based merely on the criteria that they grew up in New Zealand within the time frame of late 1930s, 40s and 50s and no other set criteria such as educational or family economic background.
I feel tremendously humbled and honoured that these women have so graciously shared their personal stories with me and I hope this essay will shed some light as to how and what it was like growing up in the 40s and 50s in New Zealand. I am conscious that I have been privileged as an outsider to be allowed to glimpse into their childhood. It is also my hope that this essay in a small way will render these women a voice to speak for themselves about their generation. Personally, I think it is time to take note of their generation, their triumphs and courage in the face of cultural adversity. I do not profess that these six women are totally representative of the whole generation, but they are at the very least voices of their generation and their voices should and ought to be recorded . Hence, it is with great pleasure that I introduce my six respondents:
1 Gemma: Born in Eketahuna near Masterton in 1951
2 Dor Li: Born in Auckland in 1934
3 Li Shan: Born in Carterton in 1944
4 Christine: Born in Wellington in 1944.
5 Leigh: Born in Wellington in 1951
6 Frances: Born in Takapuna, Auckland in 1941.
There is an unassuming quality and humbleness about these women that is very touching for they do not view themselves as courageous or their lives as part of history. The first time I spoke to Frances on the phone to ask if I could interview her, her reaction took me by surprise: "I am not sure I am the right person for you to interview, my parents are from the peasantry class, poor folks. I haven't thought about myself as important. Are you sure you want to interview me?" To which I replied: "You are precisely who I want to interview, not the rich and famous but the ordinary New Zealand Chinese women." This essay is a dedication to women of this generation.
Indeed, Eva Wong Ng's candid sentiments echo that of many of her generation. Fundamentally, mainstream New Zealanders in this period were unapologetically racist and racism was rife then by today's standards. Legally, the Chinese lost the right to naturalization from 1908 and it was only in 1951 that the legislation was repealed. Even then it was under the most stringent conditions including "that they subscribe a declaration of renunciation of Chinese nationality" and "that they are closer to the New Zealand way of life than to the Chinese"(Murphy 272). These racist stipulations categorically force the Chinese of this generation to "live a double life of assimilated selves in the public arena and Chinese behind closed doors." (Wong, The Moulding of the Silent Immigrants 7)
In 1945 the New Zealand Census listed the total number of Chinese as 4,940 of whom only 1,526 were women. Ergo, Chinese women were a double minority, for they were not only a minority to mainstream New Zealanders but a minority among their own ethnicity. All my respondents resoundingly concur that their minority status was further accentuated by the fact that their Chinese physical features marked them apart from the other children in school. Hence their first awareness of being Chinese is through comparing themselves to the dominant group of blue eyes and blond hair. There is much truth in Gilbert Wong's candid reflection, a third generation Chinese New Zealander: "Our identity is shaped by how others see us…how we feel others see us. You always know you look different!" ( Ip, Dragons On The Long White Cloud 29) A parallel can be drawn in Dr C.C.Wu's findings in his thesis: Chinatowns, a study of symbiosis and assimilation. Wu posits that even second and third generation Chinese Americans will inevitably feel a sense of perpetual alienation and displacement because of their physical features:
The yellow skin, a distinction more apparent than real, is an obstacle which keeps the Chinese and other Orientals from feeling perfectly at ease in America. Because of his colour, the young Chinese is treated much the same as his immigrant father. This makes him conscious of the fact that he must be different.
This is precisely the case when the miniscule number of second and third generation New Zealand Chinese children attending New Zealand schools cruelly marked them as the visible and different other and many had to endure the racist taunting of "Ching Chong Chinamen" daily at school. Li Shan, who grew up in Carterton, a small town with the typical small town mentality shares her experience of growing up as the only Chinese family in a small town.
It was a small town about 2000 people so everybody knew us. Being in a place where
"Be careful when you walk in the streets," cautioned the men at the shop whenever we went out. "Some of those larrikins might push you off the pavement in front of the bus and say it's just an accident. You can't tell the truth when you're dead. Some of them hate us Chinese. They're jealous, say we have no right to be in their country, and why don't we go back to where we belong. So make sure you walk on the inside, close to the shops."
However, it would be misleading to stereotype all European New Zealanders of that era as racist. Eva stresses the kindness of her European neighbours and she was able to "slip in and out of their home as an extension of her own home." Frances, Christine and Leigh all vehemently testify to having kind neighbours, who minded them while their parents worked in their fruitshops. Frances has vivid memories of their neighbour, Auntie Dawn two doors from her parents' fruitshop, who helped her mother peel ginger even though she had her own shop to mind. The Gerbeck family who owned a fish shop also offered them free fish heads and fish bones and to this day their daughter and Frances have remained friends.
While all these women claimed to be aware of their ethnic identity at an early age simply because they could not help but notice their visible physical difference, there were other factors that caused these women to view their Chinese heritage as a disadvantage. Although I must emphasize that all these women while reminiscing about their childhood at no time verbalized any bitterness at the racism they experienced in the past. On the contrary, these women displayed an incredible sense of humour at their naïve childhood experiences that is devoid of self pity and victim mentality. It is obviously evident they harbour no residue of bitterness. Many of them preferred to dwell on the good memories and I felt embarrassed at having to ask them to specifically give me examples of their unpleasant memories.
Bickleen Fong acutely sums up the precarious position of this generation in terms of having to subsist between two worlds or dual cultures, where home is infinitely Chinese and the world outside is European.
Being Chinese for these women when they were growing up has the association of having to work after school, weekends and during the school holidays. Christine, Gemma, Leigh and Dor Li also spoke of having to attend Chinese school, after their primary school and Christine and Leigh could not rationalize the logic for the necessity for it then since their parents hardly spoke to them apart from giving basic commands about work. Leigh says the "rudimentary and formal Chinese" they learned in the classroom was "completely useless" in their daily routine.
The underlying truth of the situation was many of this generation came from poor families who were committed to labour intensive businesses such as fruiteering, laundering and market gardening; literally by working from "dawn to dusk" trying to eke out a living. All six women came from families who owned fruit shops and all spoke of having to work in the fruit shops at a very early age. Hence, in fact what these children learned was that to be a Chinese child meant "learning and being expected to work at home helping in the family business." While most children's earliest memory was getting a doll or swinging on the swing, Li Shan's earliest memory was bagging potatoes: "I remember and learned that when the needle reached a certain point, I was supposed to stop bagging." Gemma's following sentiments and experiences are also typical of most Chinese children of her era as she consciously speaks in the plural pronoun "we":
As most Chinese parents were committed to a business of some kind, we children did
My friends were all Chinese. The Europeans were so different. On the whole, looked down
For Frances, "the awareness of being Chinese was more in the food (they) we ate. How we cooked it and our preference for different foods." Bickleen Fong concurs in her observation of the Chinese community in New Zealand: "The preference for their own food is a trait that the Chinese seem to retain the longest, in spite of the many long years that they have spent in a new country" (Fong 113).
I had never learnt to play because I had only learnt to work. So I felt playing in the sandpit
Well I wasn't formally, officially taught about Chinese culture. Nothing. What I observed
Christine's honest sentiments were sad but generally true of her generation. Bickleen Fong has postulated that cultural assimilation should be "a two way process" and "if a more educated class of Chinese immigrants were permitted to come into New Zealand, they would offer to this country some of the best aspects of Chinese culture and ways of life" ( Fong 128-129). Unfortunately, Fong observes this is (was) not the case in New Zealand. "(F)or the New Zealand Chinese it has been mainly a one way process-that of the Chinese assimilating New Zealand culture-because the Chinese in New Zealand (were) not capable of offering something of their own culture in return"(Fong 129). One has to note that Fong's observations were made in 1959. Fortunately, New Zealand 2002 is moving towards a healthier mix of cultural diversity.
Have the attitudes changed? How do these women rationalize their ethnic identity at this moment in time? From my interviews, I would attest that their awareness and pride of their Chinese cultural heritage has had a positive renaissance. All six women commented on their positive experiences of not only visiting China but also making their way back to their ancestral villages as an indication of coming to terms with their heritage-an acknowledgement, pride and acceptance of their Chinese culture; as an integral part of their identity. Although it should also be noted that visiting their ancestral villages has also paradoxically affirmed their identity as New Zealand Chinese as well.
Many of these women are more proficient in English than in their own mother tongue; they have collectively echoed that learning one's own language is important and should be encouraged although it should not be a criteria for defining Chineseness. Henry Chan has concurred that while "language is the maintenance of culture" it should not be a criteria for defining Chineseness. (Chan 3-6) As to the question of the importance of speaking Chinese, Christine eloquently puts it in the contextual perspective of then and now:
Yes, yes, speaking Chinese is important to me now that I've grown up. Not when I was
Christine's visit to China brought home to her that as a New Zealand Chinese, her Cantonese language was archaic, locked in the time language of the Cantonese villages of the 1920s to 40s:
We were isolated like an island. The rest of the world moved on and learned new idioms and technical terms whereas we were stuck in the time language of the Cantonese villages of the 1920s to 1940s. No new blood telling us what these words were. Even if we can speak Cantonese, it would be the old village Cantonese. This was really brought home to me when I visited China in the 1980s. My sisters understood me but she had to translate for her children, the younger generation because they didn't understand me.
Leigh further adds that Chinese New Year was a non-event when they were growing up. "We had no idea what are Chinese festivals, we had no Chinese calendars and it was only in the past few years that I realize what is Chinese New Year. Our idea of Chinese festivals are weddings and funerals."
Chineseness for Frances is not just a superfluous idea but very practical and down to earth: "Being Chinese does not have to be that you can speak the language. I think it is more important that you have the feelings and thoughts of being Chinese. Respect of the family. Understanding the ways of the Chinese." Although the definition of what are the "ways of the Chinese" remains highly debatable and controversial among the NZBC and some of the recent Chinese immigrants.
Trinh Min Ha has postulated in When the Moon Waxes Red that identity is fluid and can never be fixed. Hence, Trinh advocates the crossing of boundaries and coins the term, "hyphen identity" be it female, ethnic or nation identity. The essence of identity for Trinh is the paradoxical notion that the only constant for identity is that it is forever transient: "one is born over and over again as hyphen rather than a fixed entity…"( 157). Likewise, Henry Chan posits in his discourse: Rethinking the Chinese Diasporic Identity: Citizenship, Cultural identity, and the Chinese in Australia, that the notion of Chineseness has to be "renegotiated from time to time" and "it has different significance for different individuals" in "different sociological structures." There is no doubt the ethnic identities of these women are evolving, as identity cannot remain static.
How then do these women define their ethnic identity today?
unique identity. Neither China-Chinese nor foreign-Westerner. Somewhere between- as fence sitter to some extent, observing and extracting what I consider the best from both cultures. Your term 'hyphenated identity' is probably as good a description as any, implying an equal imput of sources. I sometimes feel like a Chameleon. Which is the real
I am proud that I am Chinese. I am also proud of my parents. They were hard working
Christine, like Li Shan has been reflecting about her Chinese identity in the past few years and has even started writing about her family history. Her reflection like Dor Li similarly affirms to a hyphenated identity:
I have acknowledged for myself, I am not one or the other. I realize I am not going
Christine's thoughts of being referred to, as a "banana" is poignant for it reflects how her generation has been harshly misunderstood and unfairly judged. In her words:
To be called a banana by another Chinese person is doubly hurtful especially when
Christine also stresses that though many of her generation are more proficient in English than in Chinese, what matters is "what you feel inside" as she says: "Many of my generation are very Chinese inside. The Europeans totally have different values." Therefore as such she feels they are not "bananas."
Dor Li who has also been labeled a banana even though she "can speak Cantonese after a fashion" has this to say:
Being called a banana is meant as a denigrating term and can be hurtful if one allows it to
There is indeed some validity for Christine and Dor Li's sentiments. For Chinese raised in a homogeneous Chinese culture or society such as Taiwan, Hong Kong or China tend to view ethnicity from an ethnocentric perspective as they have the luxury of viewing it from the perspective of the dominant group. Culturally, they have never been in the disadvantaged position of the cultural other to the dominant group. For other diasporic Chinese, who have had to grow up as marginalized groups, have had to struggle with ethnicity and identity issues, tend to view themselves as cultural hybrids and adopt some cultural value of the dominant group. Evidently, this was the case for the marginalized New Zealand Chinese of the 40s and 50s, with their inevitable hyphenated identity of East and West.
Although my mother was quite liberal, she still favoured boys-my brothers because
Christine's candid reflection is very much an indication of her times. If the Chinese were second class citizens in the 40s and 50s then the Chinese females were third class citizens. Hence to be a Chinese female in the 40s and 50s was not an enviable position. The traditional patriarchal culture transported from China prevailed amongst the Chinese community in New Zealand.
This generation of Chinese women to a large extent carried a double yoke for being doubly marginalized. They faced discrimination not just from mainstream New Zealanders but within their own ethnicity and family. Frances' family was not a typical case and as she admits she was "the apple of her father's eye" but for all my other respondents, it was generally not an enviable position.
Admittedly, from the outset I understood intellectually that this generation who grew up in New Zealand were the pioneering settlers but it was not until I met these women that I understood the full significance of what it meant to be the pioneering settlers that my respect for these women grew. I think it would be fair to say it is much easier to be a Chinese woman today than it was in the 40s and 50s.
Generally, these women came from homes where their mothers were not highly educated even in Chinese. Many mothers hardly spoke English if any in some cases. The mothers were often over worked themselves working in the fruit shop, bearing children, cooking three meals not just for the family but the workers as well. Christine's mother was 14 when she married her father as his third concubine. The age difference between them was over forty years. Christine remembers her mother as "forever pregnant" and the age gap between her and her youngest brother was 21 years. The biography of Van Chu Ling, a contemporary of Christine's mother's generation, lists her as a mother of 18 children when she died at the age of 49 from probable sheer exhaustion of having to run a home, shop and constant child bearing. Her life would have closely mirrored the lives of the mothers of these women. Van Chu Ling's daughters never remember her sitting down, except to sew or darn, and she often fell asleep over her handiwork through sheer exhaustion" (Ip, The New Zealand Book of Women 704). All my six women's recollections of their mothers were that they all worked tremendously hard, both at home and at the shop.
As a result, Christine says she had to learn to fend and make decisions for herself. During the interview, Christine stressed that when I referred to the plural term "parents" for her it meant "mother" since she didn't consider her father as a parent other than as a biological parent. He was far too old to be bothered with her and her brothers and sisters. Her empathy is with her mother even though Christine admits her mother was by no means a role model for her:
Mum wasn't highly educated. She thought the teacher taught you everything so she didn't
There is a dominant feeling among the women that they had to make educational, career and marriage decisions on their own because as Gemma says, her parents' generation lacked the skills, experience and knowledge to advise:
I chose my own career, marriage partner and was free to make plans for my future without any guidance or advice from my parents. This was mainly because my parents were not able to advise me as they did not know about any careers. They acknowledged the fact that New Zealand is a western country where young people chose their own marriage partners.
Bickleen Fong who grew up in this era, shares her experiences from the same kind of pressure from her relatives:
I remember relatives talking to my parents in front of me, 'Make her work in the shop, then marry her off. Girls need not study so much.' I can't remember what father replied, Mother didn't say anything. Probably everyone was watching what a mess I would make of my life, as an example of how education ruins a woman!
There was in fact a more insidious reasoning for parents though perfectly logical, not to have their daughters too highly educated for they might end up as old maids, which would be against the grain of traditional Confucian thought of the trajectory of a women's life: first a daughter, then wife and finally mother. Li Shan was most frustrated when she could not enter university even though her results were good enough. When she asked for her father's permission to go to university, she was blatantly told: "No" because if you are too clever, you don't get married." In retrospect, Li Shan admits, "When I think of that statement I am somewhat horrified but I am more horrified by the fact that I actually believed him." In contrast, her brother would have been allowed to enter University had he not died from brain tumour at 15. Such double standards were common and typical among the Chinese community. In fact, Li Shan went against her father's wishes when she finally went to Teacher's College in Wellington.
One cannot help but applaud these accomplishments bearing in mind these women achieved out of sheer determination without any role models and did not receive any encouragement from their family. In fact, Dr. James Ng a contemporary of this generation points out, there were conflicts between this generation and their parents' generation for their parents who had suffered institutional discrimination, generally "believed New Zealand held an uncertain future at best for Chinese. In their eyes future European education was wasted time, a dead end because Europeans would not use us or promote us" (Ng, Windows on a Chinese Past 222). With foresight, this generation reasoned and believed that the only way out of their parents traditional businesses of fruiteering, laundering and market gardening was through education. Though marginalized this generation bred and educated in New Zealand considered New Zealand home.
Traditionally, the expected role of women was functional, which was primarily to bear children to carry the family lineage. Although all six women expressed the freedom allocated by their parents to choose their own marriage partners there was a strict unwritten and unspoken code that they were only free to choose from their own ethnicity or "to marry within race." Christine laughs and then sighs that during her time there were only about 100 men of marriageable age to choose from and that is taking into account the whole country not just in the city she grew up. Even then she adds, the government policy was "unfair" towards Chinese women in that Chinese women if they chose to marry in Hong Kong, were not permitted to take their husbands back to New Zealand. However, if Chinese men chose to marry women in Hong Kong they could apply to take their wives back to New Zealand. Hence, as Nigel Murphy remarks, "Chinese New Zealand women suffered not only racism at the hands of The New Zealand government, but had to put up with institutionalized sexism as well" (Murphy 85).
For those that did not toe the line of marrying within their own ethnicity, there were severe and dire consequences. There were a few cases where women were disowned by their families. Li Shan spoke of her painful experience when her parents disowned her when she chose to "marry out of race." Lynda Chanwai Earle's Ka Shue, which is highly biographical of three generations of her family, speaks of her mother's humiliation of being disowned when she chose to marry a European-"guilo". Chanwai's mother came to New Zealand as a war refugee baby when she was two and belongs to the same pioneering settlers' generation. One of my respondents somberly mentions a case where both parents committed suicide when they discovered that their child was intending to marry a "guilo." Marriage within race is viewed very seriously by the traditional Chinese parents of this generation.
On the topic of marriage, I was surprised that apart from one of my respondents, all five of them confessed that they would much prefer their own children to marry within their own ethnicity. Although all have said that ultimately, it would be their children's choice, yet there is a very strong undercurrent that they would strongly prefer it to be within race. One of my respondents has even offered to "kai siew" -broker a marriage for the children but they persistently declined; though all in the end chose to marry within their own ethnicity. Although this generation of women clearly transit between two cultures, the Chinese pride of race seems remarkably strong in spite of their western acculturation. Bickleen Fong also describes the signs of superficial assimilation which borders on clothes and language but as she points out it is the attitudes that takes the longest to assimilate. (Fong, Chinese New Zealanders: A study of Assimilation) On the point of marriage, it would seem my respondents have yet to embrace interracial marriages or biological assimilation.
The Chinese women in New Zealand were not accorded any more respect in New Zealand than they would have in China, which means there was in effect-no respect. Even though the number of Chinese women in New Zealand was incredibly low and they often helped in the shop as well as having to run the home, they were not viewed as an equal in the marriage or business partnership. Though many of my respondents admitted that they and their mothers were probably more appreciated here in New Zealand than they would have been in China. All five of the women thought of their mothers' relationship with their fathers as unequal in terms of respect. One senses an indignant underlying tone of resentment from these women that their mothers, who had to work so hard, yet received neither respect nor acknowledgment for their contribution.
Gemma had this to say about respect for women for her generation and her mother's generation:
It would be hard for them to gain respect as it was expected of them to spend their lives as caregivers and homemakers, not much better than servants. I don't think Chinese women were thought of as precious then. Some New Zealand Chinese men may appreciate their wives and daughters more now, as women have more educational opportunities now, so are more equal in job qualifications than in the 1940s and 50s.
I am a New Zealand born Chinese woman, 2nd generation born here, as my father was first generation born here. I feel like a New Zealander as this is my home country. My way of thinking is that of a New Zealander.
This generation has been endowed with the label: "Model Minority" by some observers. Although this label superficially appears complimentary it is as all labels, not without its downside upon closer scrutiny. It would be naïve and too simplistic to think that it is our traditional Chinese values of hard work, perseverance, filial piety, respect for law and order that have earned us the label "Model Minority." To a large extent, these traditional values have played a major role in our successes and this generation has earned their well-deserved admiration and respect through their educational achievements from mainstream New Zealanders. However, on another level, there is an intrinsic quality of the NZBC that has also highlighted them as the "model minority"-their low crime rate, self reliance, and their close-knit kinship that is known to look after themselves and close ranks. Admittedly, these are traits that any minority group should and would be proud of but on a closer inspection these traits come with limitations that stunt a minority group from developing-reaching newer and higher heights. The label of "Model minority" comes at a price-the price of "knowing of one's place."
The Model and Silent Minority
There is undoubtedly a paradoxical value of silence of this generation of women if one is attuned and cares enough to listen. The paradoxical silence of the 40s and 50s speak volumes and there are many factors that attribute to this multi layered silence.
First let us explore and establish the Eastern and Western essence of silence. There is a definite contrast between the Eastern and Western definition and value of silence. In Western culture, silence is generally not only merely the absence of speech but also denotes a negative value. As Saville-Troike elucidates, in the Western culture, "(w)ithin linguistics, silence has traditionally been ignored except for its boundary-making function-denoting the beginning and end of utterances. The tradition has been to define it negatively-as merely the absence of speech"(3). In contrast, Cheung King Kok postulates, in Eastern culture for instance in Chinese, "the most common ideogram for silence is synonymous with "serenity." Whereas in United States silence is generally looked upon as passive, (but) in China and Japan, it traditionally signals pensiveness, vigilance or grace." (127) In fact, Cheung enlightens that in the East "silence is a form of strength…"(145).
Saville- Troike reminds us that "just as one can utter words without saying anything…one can say something without uttering words"(6). Personally, I feel it is this essence of multi-layered silence of the pioneering settlers that paradoxically says something about them as a generation.
On another deeper level, part of the silence can be explained by what Wong Liu Sheung terms "her grandfather's story" that speaks of the poor nineteenth century Chinese immigrant's contentment to be allowed to live in someone's land-borrowed space by trying to be as invisible and quiet as possible for fear of drawing attention that might lead to further discrimination. Her "grandfather's story" is the Chinese heritage that is typically passed down to many of her NZBC generation as well as many diasporic Chinese around the world:
The NZBC has fulfilled their grandparents' wishes; they have earned respect through educational achievements through diligence and perseverance. They became the model minority. In parallel, other diasporic Chinese immigrants from China, who have settled around the world have also produced a generation of "model minority" communities for instance, in America, South East Asia and Canada. For invariably, whether we care to admit it or not, we are all sons and daughters of these poor Chinese peasants from China, who emigrated precisely because they were poor and had to learn to be silent while living in borrowed space.
Wong Liu Shueng in her recent public lecture: "The Moulding of the Silent Immigrants: New Zealand Born Chinese (NZBC)" admits that her generation worked hard to assimilate in order to be accepted by mainstream New Zealanders.
Sometimes even joining in racist behaviour to separate the self from the collective others, or behaving like a model minority, where self alienation becomes expressed as being better than the best, acting in known ways acceptable to the host nation or having to constantly manipulate one's own identity to ensure acceptance.
It goes some way to explain how the external environment moulded us into model minority status. It is a first step, for we in the Chinese community must continue to seek understanding of ourselves and educate not only ourselves but also the wider possible group. We need to explain why we have become 'the model minority' so we can all move on. I suggest that the present environment is time for us to update our thinking and break out of that mode.
On a deeper psychological level, the silence of this generation can perhaps be paralleled to other victim groups who have suffered from some psychological stress and would prefer to remain silent as one way of coping with a painful experience.
However, it remains debatable whether the greater number of recent Chinese immigrants have had a positive or negative effect or a combination of both on this generation of New Zealand Chinese. All my respondents seem to have mixed feelings. On the one hand, they do not like to be "tarred by the same tar brush" but on the other hand, the open celebration of Chineseness is a welcome change and they like the availability of Chinese grocery items where their mother would have had to make from scratch in time past. Christine recalls how her backyard used to stink for weeks when her grandmother and father tried to concoct their own version of Chinese sauces by trial and error.
Personally, I think it is a combination of factors that have caused the inquiry of identity, partly initiated by the greater number of Chinese Immigrants but also partly due to the fact that this generation has now reached a maturity and are at a better position to reflect. The political environment has changed and the sociological environment has improved although the recent appalling racist attitudes in the early 90s remind us that racial harmony in New Zealand is fragile and is at its infant stage.
Another fundamental issue is the attitude of the host nation towards its hyper-visible Chinese citizens. Although the repressive legislations have been lifted, a majority of the mainstream society still views the second and third generation Chinese settlers as foreigners just because of their visible ethnicity; they are still perceived as the social and political "other". The underlying salient issue is the minority's perception of identity is override by the dominant society's perception of the minority's place and value in the society. In a study of new Chinese migrants conducted in the 1990s, the study claims "the successful integration of immigrants into the host society depends, in part on the willingness of the dominant society to allow it." (Ho, Chen and Bedford) Gilbert Wong eloquently speaks about the constant harassment many visible New Zealanders experience with regards to their nation identity:
This year when I was driving through Whangerei, a petrol attendant asked where I was from. I replied: "Auckland but I was born in Whangarei." He refused to accept that and became surly when I told him I was in a hurry. He felt no need to explain himself. He would not. His skin and hair colour and the shape of his eyes automatically grant him legitimacy. He could say he was a New Zealander and nobody would require him to prove it or explain how that came to be. Nobody question who he is.
Li Shan speaks of the same patronizing behaviour and attitude she has to encounter every now and then:
People say the craziest things to me, "gosh you speak good English, don't you?" and I say, "yes, I was born here and I often have to say it 4 times in the course of the conversation as I am trying to get them to think who I am.
Unless the mindset of mainstream New Zealanders evolves to include hyper-visible Chinese New Zealanders as to who they really are, patronizing attitudes will persist. The disparaging painful truth about being a hyper-visible New Zealander is as Gilbert Wong reveals: "you risk being defined by your differences, rather than by your affinities with mainstream New Zealand, the big question is what these are." The significant point Wong raises is that many local born Chinese have never had positive Chinese role models either on screen or in literary writing and as a result the Chinese community have tended to "define itself by what it is not rather than what it aspires to be." (qtd in Hewitson). Citing Kirsten Wong in Dragons on the Long White Cloud, Gilbert Wong stresses: "We even define ourselves negatively. We're not criminals, we're not lazy, we're no longer market gardeners, we don't work in laundries now." Likewise, Bickleen Fong resonates:
It is particularly galling to these Chinese New Zealanders to meet with racial discrimination and to be treated like any other first generation 'Chinaman', when by birthright, they are New Zealanders. They speak English with no foreign accent, their thoughts, ideals and attitudes are those of New Zealand.
On an optimistic note, Gilbert Wong believes that in time New Zealand's mono-culturalism or bi-culturalism can be rectified to include cultural diversity but "artists and writers need to articulate cultural identity" and hopefully there will be "Chinese New Zealanders who, through their art and writing will do this. They need time and support"(qtd in Hewitson).
There has also been a learning curve for the Chinese community: both old and new settlers in the past decade. For both the pioneering settlers and their third generation children and new Chinese settlers have come to realize that in spite of their many differences they also share many similarities as Dr. James Ng observes:
Both Kiwi-Chinese and East Asian Chinese newcomers share a basic Chineseness-the same pride of race, shared values like a high regard for the elderly and education and similar problems of assimilation in a dominant European culture.
(Ng, Social differences between Kiwi Chinese and Chinese Newcomers)
David Wong, the deputy Chairperson of the New Zealand Chinese Association of the Auckland branch in the latest June 2002 newsletter succinctly reminded both groups that though "we are different, we are all one family, we are all Chinese." Besides, he adds "while the New Zealand Chinese are learning more about their Chinese heritage, the new settlers are also absorbing many New Zealand values" bridging a better understanding of each other. (Wong, New Zealand Chinese and the New Settler Chinese are part of the mosaic of life)
Steven Young, a contemporary of this generation has expressed that the lack of interest and awareness among the local born Chinese is due to cultural isolation and as a result many local born Chinese are politically and socially passive. On the other hand, the new immigrants, who have grown up in an environment in which their culture is dominant are more politically conscious, therefore more willing to participate in the political process, which is one way of gaining recognition and achieveing some political and social leverage in terms of multiculturalism. He has also rejected the ignorant notion posed by some that the Chinese are considered Tau iwi in New Zealand since some Chinese New Zealanders are fourth generation New Zealanders and some have even died in defense of the country. (Young, The Chinese in a Bicultural New Zealand: The way forward)
There is also a need to bridge better understanding between the two cultures of East and West. While they are differences between the two cultures, they are also intrinsically common values such as honesty, value of education, and aspirations shared by all civilizations. Bickleen Fong confirms in the study of the two cultures:
Conclusively, all my respondents have acknowledged that coming to terms with their ethnic identity has been a gradual process. All six women have resoundingly testified that their awareness and appreciation of their Chineseness have increased
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