Thursday, 16 August 2012

你的中文很好 Ni De Zhongwen Hen Hao

It is common knowledge that in order to learn about a particular culture, then one of the best ways is to learn the language.  But when that language is Mandarin Chinese – probably one of the most difficult languages to master – then this becomes a challenge.  

While living in Beijing, I often get locals saying 你的中文很好 (ni de zhongwen hen hao: your Chinese is very good).  At the beginning, I was happy at such compliment.  Later on, I realized that saying these words actually meant the opposite.  Oh well, I figured, I don't think I was the only foreigner in town with such problems.

In 1997, having found a calling for the study of Chinese politics and diplomacy, I forced myself into taking Chinese lessons.  I figured that one day I’d have a chance to visit China.  And so, why not get a head start? 

At first, it was evening classes at the local community center in Victoria, Canada.  But I felt the pace of the lessons too slow, as I was surrounded by white-collar workers (forced by requirements from their employers), reluctant students, and pensioners.  So, I got a private tutor.  That worked out for a while, until I got bored of her teaching patterns. 

Cover of Dreaming in Chinese
In the end, I opted to register in a Chinese course for undergrads at the University of Victoria.  My Mandarin skills grew significantly during the two years I took that course.  I even became one of the best students in class.  More than that, I got to hang out with undergrad students, including a pretty Chinese-Venezuelan girl, whose name escapes me.  However, learning Chinese in Canada didn’t give me the context which surrounds the language.  Sure, I knew how to say things, but I barely heard any Chinese actually saying it, other than my professor, who was actually Taiwanese.

Therefore, I was excited when in 2005 I found out that I’d be moving to Beijing.  Nevertheless, having lived and traveled extensively in China for 3.5 years, and having made multiple trips there since being back in Jakarta, I can say that my grasp of the Chinese language remains rather… mediocre.  I know, I should’ve studied more during my stay there.  But somehow, the 3.5 years went by in a second.

Regardless, my stay in China remained an eye opening experience, and my daily interactions with the locals (albeit with poor Mandarin) made me understood the Chinese people more, even if it’s just “a little more”.  I got to know some of their habits (good ones, and many bad ones), learn some of their traditions, and identify  the nuances with which they lead their daily lives.

I got to know that whenever I proposed an idea, and  was responded by (xíng: okay), then things will be okay. But when the response was 没问题 (méi wénti: no problem), then problems would be just around the corner.  And that when the waiter shouts out 马上 (mă shàng: immediately), then you’d know that she’ll only be back at your table once everything’s already been finished.

Looking back at these experiences, I then sought guidance on what I believed to be discoveries of the Chinese culture through my day-to-day chit chat with the office’s drivers, the ayi (maid), the baoan (security guard), and at times, the lovely hostess with beautiful almond-shaped eyes – this last one never actually happened.  As always, in my times of uncertainty, I resort to my trustful books.  This time around, I read Deborah Fallows’ Dreaming in Chinese: Lessons in Life, Love and Language and Eveline Chao’s Niubi!: The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School. 

Needless to say, the two books tried to elaborate on Chinese culture using slightly different Chinese language expressions.  While Fallows looks into the culture and traditions underlining terms such as 我爱你 (wŏ ài nĭ: I love you) and 老百姓 (lăo bái xĭng: common people), Chao elaborated on what Chinese women really mean when saying 你很坏阿 (nĭ hĕn huài a: you’re so bad!) or what 断袖余桃 (duàn xiù yú táo: cut sleeve, leftover peach) actually implies – it’s a euphemism for homosexuality.

Fallows provides a nice introduction to deciphering the Chinese language, a language that’s complicated at many different levels.  She explained the many dialects in the country, the semantics of time and place, and even the reason why the Chinese hear tones when we foreigners can’t.  Indeed, the book is very informative; it’s an easy read.  I also enjoyed the personal anecdotes that she included in her narrative.  I too experienced some of the things that she went through.

Cover of Niubi!
However, I have to admit that I already know much of what Fallows describes.  For someone like me, who may still be a novice Mandarin speaker, but who has lived in China for some time, Fallows’ book merely provides a reconfirmation of the things I learned while living in China.  When describing the problem with tones, Fallows expressed that a waiter smiled when she said 我要打包 (wŏ yào dă bāo: I want some take away).  She later thought that she must’ve pronounced the word incorrectly as 打报 (dă bào: to embrace).  Reading this. I’m sure that the waiter was thinking of something else, something along the lines of 打炮 (dă pào: blasting cannons), which is a dirty northern Chinese slang for “having sex”.

Chao’s book talked about 打炮 and many other Chinese expressions that I never truly had a chance to learn while living there.  The swear words, mocking and derogatory terms, words of love, and everything else that I would need to roam the underworld of Beijing, Shanghai, or any other cities in China.  Chao not only provides the definition of each expression, but also their etymology, thus making the book a refreshing read; it didn’t feel like a list of expressions that one would find at the back of a travel guide.

In the end, if one was to ask me which of the two books served the purpose of my enquiry, then I’d say that both of them did.  Both demonstrated that the Chinese language contained many marvelous understandings of the people’s culture and traditions. 

But if one was to ask me which one would make my life in China easier the next time I’m there, then I would have to say that Chao’s Niubi! would better serve that purpose.  While informative, I feel Fallows’ book only scratches the surface.

Chao's book would help me get around China better, allowing me the power to hark back at cab drivers who would try to rip me off.  I’d also be able to make sure that the masseuse coming to my hotel room would be the right type of masseuse.  It may not get me a job as interpreter for the Embassy, but I’d surely feel like more like a local.  And this boost of confidence is exactly what I would need to explore further the Chinese way of life.   

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Warisan dan Impian

On November 7, 2010, one of Indonesia's top sinologist passed away.  Ignatius Wibowo, who was lovingly referred to as Romo Bowo, left behind many friends, students, proteges, and family members who had found in him a symbol of honesty, intelligence, hard work, and humility.  

I had been introduced to Romo Bowo by my good friend, Victor, who was a former student of Romo Bowo.  I, myself, never had the luxury of being his student. Even before meeting him, I had read so much academic literature written by this man of cloth, who had also dedicated his life to making China studies more accessible to all Indonesians.  Of course, I was nervous during that first encounter.  But all of that disappeared, as I quickly learned about Romo Bowo's kind and generous character.

I had had the chance to visit him during his bout with cancer.  And even during those times, he had acted as if nothing could prevent him from continuing on with his passion for the academics, especially for the study of China.  Such fighting spirit was what stayed in me after I last talked to him.  And, almost two years since his passing away, that spirit remains alive, not only in me, but most likely also in the hearts of his friends and colleagues.

A short while after Romo Bowo's passing away, Natalia Soebagjo and a few of Romo Bowo's colleagues decided to compile a Liber Amicorum, a tribute to this good man.  Victor and I were more than happy to be part of the project. Below is our contribution to that effort.

Monday, 13 August 2012

When the Ideal Seems Far from Real

I first met Aimee Dawis last month, in an elevator in Guiyang, China.  It was in the morning before the China-ASEAN Symposium organized by Guizhou University.  

Least to say, it was a brief encounter, probably uneventful.  I thought that Aimee was Chinese, like the other 1.3 billion people in that land.  Then again, it is possible that Aimee may have also thought that I was Chinese, from somewhere in Guangdong, where the people can sometimes be of darker skin.

Now, when looking back, having just finished Aimee’s book, I can say how appropriate that encounter was. 

The confusion of identity.  And thus, the struggle to resurrect, rediscover, redeem this identity.  This is the underlying theme of Aimee’s book, titled “Orang Indonesia Tionghoa Mencari Identitas” (Chinese Indonesians In Search of Identity). 

The book looks at the experience of Chinese Indonesians during the New Order era of Soeharto’s dictatorial regime (which ended in 1998).  An era when freedoms were limited, and more so, expressions of Chineseness, through written and spoken literature, performance arts, traditional ceremonies and the media, were simply not allowed.  They were all banned.

Forced into assimilation, the Chinese Indonesians were legally stripped off their cultural ties to Mainland China, the land of their forefathers.  However, Aimee argues that within such an environment, Chinese Indonesians managed to find semblances of their Chinese identity in the form of Chinese drama series, which were contraband items, whose possession could risk legal penalties.

Many who watched these drama series (most coming from Taiwan and Hongkong, two entities that were always careful to maintain a distance from Communist Mainland China) found some comfort in the values, ideas, and images projected in the series.  They gave the viewers a sense of what it (probably) means to be of Chinese background, in a surrounding devoid of any Chinese cultural symbols.

To those who felt prejudiced by the New Order’s dictatorial regime, the Chinese drama series gave their viewers a sense of a “desired other”, and imagined escape from their daily hardship.  To those searching for their cultural roots, the series gave them a sense of an “imagined homeland”.  And to those feeling disjointed from the Indonesian community at large, the Chinese drama series provided a feeling of “imagined community”, a feeling of belonging to something.

While appreciating her insights into the connection between media (as represented by the drama series) and identity, I also enjoyed Aimee’s discussion of the plurality of Chinese Indonesians.  Indonesians too often like to see the Chinese Indonesian community as a single, exclusive identity.  Many times, this has been to the detriment of these Chinese Indonesians.  Resentment towards affluent Chinese Indonesians often results in hardships for the poorer ones, just because they are of the same descent.  Therefore, recognition of plurality is a step towards breaking down exclusiveness, and the prejudices that come along with it.

What I like about this book is the honest tone with which it is written. Aimee doesn’t pretend to know it all, admitting that as a “native ethnographer” she is more susceptible to getting things wrong (in the guise of supposed truths) than right.  As a result, she allows the facts to speak, and the opinions to surface without major adulteration.  Aimee merely provides a framework of thought to guide the reader into understanding the underlying theme of her analysis.

Employing narrations obtained from focus group discussions involving Chinese Indonesians growing up during the New Order era, the book does not shy away from the stereotypes, prejudices, and feelings that color the uneasy relationship between Chinese and non-Chinese Indonesians.  It contained accounts of Chinese Indonesians from Sumatera to Papua, those who regard themselves as “totok” and “peranakan”, those who speak Chinese and didn’t.  In the end, the book says things the way they are, and not the way most Indonesians often prefer to.

So honest was Aimee that she wrote this at the beginning of the book: “Ini baru sebuah awal”.  This is just a beginning.  And if this is so, then I certainly am looking forward to what’s to follow.  Not only the views that Aimee would develop in the future, but as a whole, the body of literature on Chinese Indonesians, identity politics, the diaspora, Indonesian studies, China studies, and even diplomacy.  A body of literature born in a freer Indonesia, based and carried out by people relishing in these new freedoms. 

Aimee actually outlined some of the possible directions for such studies.  The possibilities are endless.  Maybe, just maybe, I can be part of this movement. 

I think that the notion of “a confusion of identity” will never wholly disappear.  Not with the Chinese Indonesians.  Not with every Indonesian in general, who live in a country so diverse and various.  For identities are never singular, and people are free to assume multiple identities in this globalized world.   

More studies on this theme, however, would raise greater awareness of the values, the prejudices, and the sentiments that we live with every day.  To make us feel more grounded, and assured of each and one of our identities. To make us recognize that what we deemed to be truths are sometimes actually far from it. 

At least, having read this book, the next time around I will know who Aimee Dawis is.  And that’ll be something, ‘cause that’s one identity I would not be confused of.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The China-ASEAN Symposium in Guizhou

Clipping from Indonesian Mandarin-language newspaper, Guoji Ribao,1 August 2012

On 27-28 July 2012, I was invited to participate in the China-ASEAN Symposium held at Guizhou University, Guiyang, PRC.

It was my first trip to Guiyang, a city in the southwest of China which has been left behind by the progress of today's China.  A city colored by the diverse traditions, languages, and customs of the Miao, Buoyi, and other ethnic minorities.  A city which often calls itself as the "reddest" (i.e. most Communist) in the country.  A city which is only now catching up to the economic miracle already savored by China's coastal cities.

The symposium itself was quite a productive occasion.  At the heart of the discussions was the progress of cooperation between ASEAN and China as well as the state of studies in China, ASEAN, and ASEAN-China relations. In addition to Southeast Asia and ASEAN experts from all over China, the symposium organizers also invited experts from all ASEAN member countries, except Vietnam (apparently the Vietnamese had been invited, but couldn't respond in time).

I found the discussions, including during coffee breaks and meals, very honest.  The Chinese academics spoke their minds, which often is a more flowery regurgitation of the government's position.  However, many times these academics also talked about the worries China live with, thus showing a more human face to the rising power that China is.

At a time when China-ASEAN relations seem to face a slight hiccup, following incidents in the South China Sea and the recent AMM debacle (in which the Cambodians have been accused of succumbing to Chinese pressure in its handling of the ASEAN Chairmanship), the symposium provided a means to once again recognize the benefits and value (as well as challenges) of the ASEAN-China partnership.

I had a good time there.  Both because of the conference, but also because of the chance to visit yet another part of China which I had never been too.  I've studied this country and lived in it for some time.  I'm no expert, but I'd like to think of myself as an avid observer.  And yet, there are always surprises around the corner; places, people, and things that make me marvel, raise my eyebrows, smile, and what-have-you.

I love this job...

Friday, 3 August 2012

Golden hair. Charming eyes. Superior breasts.

I got Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian a long time ago.  But somehow, I just never got to reading it.  And so, one day, while cleaning up my bookshelf in Kedaung, Tangerang, I stumbled upon it, and decided that it was "a sign".  

Many reviews claim that the book is funny.  It's even written on the cover of the version that I have: "Extremely funny! - The Times".  

Indeed, the book started off funny, stayed as such 'til the end. But please, the story is nothing like a comedy.  There are many funny moments; but there are also many moments of deeper feelings.  It talks about the history and the ties that bind together the Mayevskyj family.  Their stories of love, joy, dedication, heartache, sacrifice, and the German holocaust.

The story weaves from the personal accounts of the narrator, the history of the family, the history of the Ukraine, of the Second World War, and of course, tractors.  They all blend together to make a rich and colorful portrait of an Eastern European family often at odds with the new place they call home, small town Peterborough, England.  Add to that blend, the crazy-like character of the story's patriarch, Nikolai Mayevskyj.

The story also tells about the dreams of many Ukrainian people these days.  No longer shielded from the rest of the world as during the Soviet years, they dream of moving to the West, and achieving all the things that they have seen on TV, read in magazines, or drooled over on the internet.  While Valentina's character often appears awful, the novel in the end portrays her as someone just looking for that something better in life.

I enjoyed the play on words, like Valentina's description as "Golden hair. Charming eyes. Superior breasts."   I also enjoyed the constant bickering between Nadezhda (the narrator) and her sister, which reminds me of how I can often bicker with my brother.  In the end, the two sisters reconciled, having each understood where the other was coming from.  That happens with me and my brother as well.

I started the book slow, but on my 7-hour trip to Guiyang, China, I managed to finish the book within a single reading, trying to stay focus as the airplane rocks up and down, side-to-side in the midst of Southern China's July Typhoon.