Friday, February 23, 2007

Chinese New Year, and conversation between mainland and overseas Chinese

Chinese New Year fell on Sunday the 18th and I spent the new year with Pauline, who came to visit last week. I decided to follow her to Siem Reap, and find out more about the town while she went to the temples. I’d gone to the temples last July with mom and dad and had no desire to go again. I keep wondering about some guy I saw on TV who was filmed on his 11th visit to Angkor Wat. What does he see that I don’t?

We took the speedboat up the Tonle Sap. You can get tickets at USD25 one way at the ferry terminal along Sisowath Quay, just across from the Mekong Express bus company. The boat takes 6 hours, the same as the bus trip. At USD25, it’s pricey and the only reason we booked tickets for the boat was because the Mekong Express had run out of seats. I had forgotten it was peak season and did not book the bus seats in time.

It was quite an experience. The boat was packed to the brim. People filled the seats and the deck. Of course, all were tourists. Pauline and I had gone early enough to get seats at the back of the boat, but just as we were about to start the journey, a couple of Australian men came along and said we were in their seats. Like the typical trusting Singaporeans that we are, we dutifully gave up our seats, even though I checked the tickets again and failed to see any seat number.

I approached one of the crew and the guy told me “No seat number” before going into a room and shutting the door in my face. Left to our own devices, Pauline and I moved to front and found a couple of seats with a plastic bag filled with snacks on them. We were not sure what this meant. Actually, I would have removed the bag and just sat down. Earlier, I had wanted to move a sweater I saw occupying a couple of seats but Pauline thought it was better to just leave it. I really hate people like this, people who “book” seats by leaving their personal items on them. In Singapore, you’ll find idiots everywhere in the foodcourts, staking their claim on tables or chairs by leaving a packet of tissue paper, or umbrella, or whatever they can think of. It’s very selfish behaviour and so far, I have only observed Asians doing this. While we were hesitating, a Spanish woman told us, “Just take it, they cannot do like that.”

True enough, the seats “belonged” to a couple from Hong Kong, who came to reclaim them after a while. By that time, I had moved on to the deck to get away from the freezing aircon (for those planning to take the boat, sit at the back or bring a sweater). I ended up chatting to a woman from Shanghai (actually she was from Xi’an, but has lived in Shanghai for over 10 years). It was most interesting.

Shirley grew up during the time of the Cultural Revolution in China and was telling me how confusing it was for her generation when they found out everything they had been taught was “upside down”. If you didn’t have principles, or a worldview, I suppose was what she meant, it would have been difficult to adapt to the changes taking place at the time in China. “Life is the best teacher,” she said.

Shirley is a university grad and now a salesperson with Hewlett Packard. At 36, she is a year older than me—the day we met was exactly the last day of the year of the Dog, the year in which she was born, while the very next day—Chinese New Year—would have been the first day of the year of the Pig, the year in which I was born.

She told me about the many online discussions now about what it means to be Chinese. The Cultural Revolution put a dent (stopped its progress for a while) in Chinese culture and questioned the value of aspects of Chinese culture. Her generation is debating these issues and trying to understand what it means to be Chinese.

I told her it’s the same for me, trying to figure out what it means when I say I’m Chinese. In Singapore, I consider myself Chinese first and Singaporean second, but when I’m overseas, I think of myself as Singaporean first, and Chinese second. I suppose one way of identifying one’s self is to distinguish from others. But I also think my government’s emphasis on race has something to do with the fact that in Singapore, I consider myself Chinese first.

Anyway, it was just fascinating listening to her describe Vietnam in 1998 when she visited the country. She said it was so interesting (“youqu”). Being in Vietnam then was like stepping back ten years in China. She believes Vietnam is a decade behind China as Vietnam, too, opens up to capitalism.

She also told me about being lucky in that she managed to buy an apartment for under USD60k in 2001, just before prices skyrocketed. The place is now worth three times as much. She and her brother bought the house for their parents at the time when the Chinese government wanted to encourage home ownership. Prices were low and buyers would get back their income tax. I was impressed with her and her brother’s filial piety.

I think it’s a fascinating time to be Chinese in China—things are changing all the time (right now the people are protesting online about changes in income tax laws). And despite the government’s efforts to control, if not stop, debate, the Chinese seem to be a very politicised lot, which I think is great.

I remember visiting Beijing for the first time in 2001. I loved it so much, I applied for a job with the English language China Daily newspaper. They offered a sub-editor’s position for USD500 a month, with a flat thrown in. It would have meant a big pay cut at the time and I wasn’t ready for it. My main concern then was not having enough money for holidays outside China. I do think about Beijing now and again and would love to visit the Chinese capital if I have the chance again. My good friend from secondary school, Khim, now works there and it'd be nice to visit her in autumn.

3 comments:

qlong said...

Diana,

As someone who worked with you in Singapore I gotta say I reckon the reason that you are chinese first and singaporean second is because the govt in inheritenly bias towards the Chinese.

Indians and Malays KNOW they are disdvntaged etc.

Ask yourself, why does the goverment ask for your race on the arrival card at changi? Why? What difference does it make?

Isn't my passport enough? Is it to ensure racial 'nimbers' are maintained. I hated it. When I first arrived in Singapore it screamed to me that this was a racist country. Please do not get me started on Australia.

And then there are the expats in Singapore.....

Hope you are well.

Cheers
Q

Diana Saw said...

Hey Quentin!

Nice to hear from you! How is Australian Traveller going? I really do miss publishing.

Yes, you're absolutely right. I tried not to go into it but only hinted in the blog entry why I feel Chinese first ("my govt's emphasis on race"). Singapore *is* a racist country, for sure. Much easier for an ethnic Chinese to get PR status for instance. The thing is the rules are never published, and the govt always says PR is granted on a "case-by-case basis". So you can never dispute.

You should come to Cambodia. It's quite funny doing business here. The other day 8 uniformed policemen turned up at my doorstep, only 2 days after I opened the cafe doors. They were the Fire Police and I had to buy extinguishers from them. But the Khmers in general are lovely people.

I doubt I'll be able to go to Sydney anytime soon. Am hoping you and Alex will come to Cambodia instead!

Cheers
Diana

qlong said...

Hi Diana,

Yeah i read with interst a little abpout openign a restaurant/cafe - funny cause I served the first half decent coffee in Bathurst - my uni town.

There is soemthign kinda nice about woirking in a cafe - I liken it to my strange desire to work in a book store.

Alex has flown the coop and left for the UK with our two little dogs end of Jan. Very very sad, but hey she is happioer there than here and atr the end of the day thats what matters.

Good luck and hope you are well.

Cheers
Q

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