A response to “21 Questions Asian People are Sick of Answering”

I read this a few days ago, and since then I have had time to give it some thought. The original list can be found (for example) here: http://www.buzzfeed.com/tanyachen/questions-asian-people-are-sick-of-answering

A few questions caught my interest. Specifically, the first 8. Here I record my thoughts on them.

1. “Are you Chinese?” Well statistically, China is the largest country by population in Asia, and so if you had to guess China would likely be the best choice. Moreover, the term “Asian” is specifically concentrated for Southeast Asia, namely China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, maybe Thailand. I have seldom heard Filipinos and Indonesians referred to as “Asians” even though they obviously are geographically. Further, Indians and anyone with a brown skin colour is never referred to as “Asian”, even though most of them are.

I think for those people at risk of being referred to as “Chinese”, it strikes a nerve, for different reasons. For those who are actually not Chinese (mostly Koreans and Japanese) they have at best a bitter-sweet history with the Chinese.

Korea has existed as an independent state for millennia, even though it is connected to a traditional superpower. Korea has had to pay tribute to the Chinese Empire for most of its existence. Indeed, the “Choson” (the ethnicity attached to most Korean people) is listed as an official ethnic minority group in China, because there is a sizeable population of them residing within China. To best illustrate recent national tensions, for decades China referred to Seoul, the capitol of Korea, as “Han City” (汉城). “Han” (汉) refers to the main ethnic group in China, comprising over 97% of the population. This name is not unfounded; since the city of Seoul is basically built on two sides of the “Han River” (in fact, the term Gangam literally means “South of the River”, the ‘river’ in this case refers to the Han River. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gangnam_District). However, in recent times (no more than the last 10 years) the name displayed in Chinese airports referring to Seoul has changed to 首耳 (Show-Er), which is just the best phonetic approximation in Chinese to Seoul. This obviously means Koreans, even at the highest levels of diplomacy, are uncomfortable of being viewed as ‘Chinese’. Further, a somewhat forgotten war in the 20th century, the Korean War, was mostly fought between the UN coalition forces and a Chinese army. Most Koreans blame the Chinese for the split of the two Koreas, and the permanent threat posed by North Korea. Historical and racial tensions are abound.

Now, as for the Japanese, it is clear that most “traditional” Japanese art and culture were heavily influenced by Chinese culture from the Tang and Song dynasties, Japan has also never been ruled directly by China. Indeed, one of the most prideful moments in Japanese history was that it successfully resisted conquest by the Mongols under Genghis Khan, a fate that ultimately China was unable to escape. Despite the influences on art and cultural, at a very fundamental level Japan has never seen eye to eye with China. For instance, China was almost always ruled by scholars. Even before China became a unified empire under Qin Shihuang in around 220 BCE, the Warring States mostly employed high-end scholars to fill positions in government. Many of the supreme chancellors in the time of the Warring States were also renowned philosophers and political scientists. This policy became official when the Tang Dynasty introduced the Imperial Exams in the 7th century, thereby requiring all prospective government officials to pass an exam proving their knowledge and mastery of the classics, mostly Confucian texts. In Japan, however, the ruling caste was not scholars but warriors. For instance, the highest office in Japan until the modern era was the Shogun. Shogun literally means “General”. The point is, the two peoples are very different and would prefer not to be mixed up.

Conversely, there has been for some time a widespread feeling of hatred and discontent with Japan in China. The same would apply to Korea, I would imagine. The reason of course is that some 22 million Chinese people (at most 2 million of which were soldiers) lost their lives in the Sino-Japanese War (which lasted even longer than World War 2) from 1937-1945. This feeling has persisted even to my generation.

2. “What ARE you?”

This question actually addresses a very crucial issue for people of Asian descent living in a western country. The demographics are split even more here. I will use myself as an example. I was born in China, and came to Canada at about 8 years old. People like me often face a difficult time growing up in Canada. First, we are a bit too young to have fully understood our traditional culture of our country of origin. Second, our families are often not able to provide us with an upbringing that teaches us the cultural norms of our new country. For example, since I never did kindergarten in Canada, I didn’t know what a ‘fawn’ was until I was 21. I am still perfectly fluent in Mandarin and partially fluent in Cantonese, and I can write Chinese as well. I consider myself lucky because I am very easily able to connect with the culture of my parents and grandparents. Indeed, I have a very large family in China, which I visit often.

However, there are many others who are not like me. For whatever reason, they do not feel connected to their traditional culture, the culture practised by people who look like them. In turn they have a greater need to fit into the culture here. But because they look different, they are never truly accepted. Questions like “what are you”, “what kind of Asian are you”, “where are you from” are painful reminders that no matter how hard they try, they will always be foreigners on their own land (assuming they have fully adopted their country of residence and citizenship as ‘their land’).

Unfortunately, I don’t think this ever goes away. One of the most painful illustrations of this happened in WW2, when millions of Jewish people were massacred for nothing except being Jewish. Most of them have lived in a country for generations, and by all reasonable accounts, have become citizens of that country… but nonetheless, they were still easily vilified as outsiders and evil-doers and were allowed to be killed by the millions.

On the other hand, the question “where are you from” is actually a very common greeting among Chinese people. This is considered as polite conversation and nobody is ‘tired’ of it. Indeed, most people are very happy that you asked and are more than happy to share what their home territory is like. I think this is because while there are very different regional cultures in China, there is a definite sense of unity as a whole nation and more importantly, if you describe your home territory and its perks, there is little fear of being judged because the other party is prejudiced or simply can’t understand.

 

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