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Gareth is an Australian who has lived in JiangSu, SuZhou (Heaven on Earth) for a few years - he is a keen observer of the Chinese people, Chinese culture and the changes that are occurring in China at break-neck speed. He can often be found on his a nightly 'perch' in front of his bar in the famous Bar Street in Suzhou, talking to the locals in his bad Mandarin, teaching the 'flower-selling girls' English, eating street food and smiling at the local chengguan (neighbourhood police). Gareth also has several other businesses in China around Business and English training. His experiences have been varied and interesting and his years in China have taught him to be wary of promises but excited about prospects, not a bad situation to be in!
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Where Are You From?    

By Garreth Humphris
2299 Views | 5 Comments | 12/20/2011 12:07:35 AM

If you've read my last blog entry, you will know I have been traveling a little - I’ve spent a week in Singapore seeing some of my clients and business associates and taking a 3-day Middle Kingdom respite.

One of the ’joys’ of travel, especially to cities that have a 'customer service' ethic is if you walk around carrying a bag and a camera around your neck, one of their “customer service ambassadors” will invariably find you and want you to assist to fill in a short questionnaire on services and impressions of their city. While I managed to dodge a few in the downtown area, I was invariably captured by a pleasant young lady with a clipboard and a broad smile in the ’old colonial administration part’ of Singapore city.

Those of you who know Singapore will picture the place, across the river from the Fullerton Hotel, between the old iron frame Cavenagh and Anderson suspension bridges under the shade of the towering Yellow Flame trees and their assorted coating of ferns and succulents. Nestled near the old Victoria Theatre and the now, Asian Civilisations Museum, I was sitting quietly enjoying the breeze and the view when she pounced.

Why was I down here, in a city so full of excitement, shopping, eating and entertainment? It is rather strange but I find colonial buildings have a sort of permanence and quiet dignity about them that newer buildings cannot achieve - that idea of solid stone and brick, the surety of the builders and designers that these buildings would last 100+ years. I find modern architecture interesting but a little soulless - it’s scale outstripping the humans who walk below it. I know some of the new iconic buildings, and is true that their engineering and austentaciousness is amazing - the new Mercury Sands ’hover deck’ Casino is within view of these older buildings, but for me, it doesn't hold the appeal. This has also been an issue for me in China, living in a ’new city’, I am dismayed to see the ’old city’ disappear... yes, I know everyone wants to live in a modern house with modern conveniences and their own toilet so the move is understandable but I lament the loss of community and uniqueness. To me, the new buildings are built with a feeling that they will be gone in 20 years, not still around in 100+ years like the ones I am looking at now.

So, down to my problem at hand. The first question from this nice young lady with the imposing clipboard was “Where are you from?”

Ok, simple question isn't it... I am an Australian citizen so I must be from Australia... but wait, I have lived in China continuously for 7 years and in total 10 years... I haven't been in Australia for 7 years... does that mean I’m from China?”

The girl looked perplexed at my silent dilemma... ”So, where are you from?” she repeated, sensing that this may be the longest survey she has ever filled out with anyone!!

“I am from China!”, I said with straight face.

“Really-la?”, she laughed.

“Yes, JiangSu province, SuZhou city”.

She cocked an eyebrow, cleared her throat and said to me in putonghua “If you are from China, you could do this survey in Chinese, couldn't you?"

To which I replied, also in Putonghua “we could try it out!”. She nearly fell of the chair! “My problem is”, I continued in shaky but discernable dialect, “I have lived in China for 10 years, I have a business there, I pay taxes there, I like living there... does that make me ’from China’ in your survey?”

Reverting to Singlish, “let's make easy for you-la”, she said, “your family-la, live where?”

“Sister in Hong Kong, brother in Australia, mother in perpetual transit between the three places”, I replied.

“Grandparents-la?”, she asked hopefully.

“That would be Australia”, I replied.

“So, let's say that you come from Australia-la, but you are visiting from China... right, why are you here?”.

I decided not to take the existentialist route on this one... and the rest of the survey went off without too many other difficult issues.

But after she had run off to attack some other unsuspecting person with her clipboard, it had me wondering... where can I say I am from? Can I legitimately say ’China’ if anyone asks me?

Currently, if I do say I am from “SuZhou”, I laugh and say a few words in local dialect - but maybe I shouldn't do that! Maybe I am from China...

How can I test this out? I watched a tour-group from the mainland go to the museum and I can certainly spit and throw rubbish and cigarette-butts on the ground like they can! I can also complain loudly in putonghua how expensive everything is! Does that make me Chinese?

In China, I drive my ebike like a mad-man and park it wherever I like - half Chinese?

I can eat sewer-oil chou dofu without dry-retching - quarter way to Chineseness?

What else do I have to do?

I thought I should try it out from a historical perspective, I visited the Museum of Asian Civilisation in Singapore and although people I could identify as ’like myself’ are featured in it, they seem to be late on the scene and in ’conquering’ mode.

Is that still the case? Will caucasians always be seen as ’imperialists’? Will the greater China community be able to get to a stage of multicultural acceptance? Does it need to?

I have had similar discussions before with foreigners in China... they contend if they take their Chinese wife to their home country, within a few years of assimilation in language and community, they would be considered “American, Canadian, French, Malaysia, Singaporean, German, Australian” by others but they also felt it unlikely that they would ever be considered Chinese by Chinese-folk in China - always a laowai, never a bendiren!

Interestingly Justin touches on it in his blog briefly - what does a person need to do to be considered Chinese? Does 50 years of living in the country do it?

I hope not, I probably won't live that long!!

Copyright owned jointly by Author and CyberCupid Co., Ltd. Breach of copyright will be prosecuted.
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(Showing 1 to 5 of 5) 1
#2011-12-20 19:15:23 by panda2009 @panda2009

Gerreth, you need to marry a Chinese wife to be considered Chinese! Good Luck in 2012!!!

#2011-12-21 14:12:10 by doctorj @doctorj

another great piece! to some extent many nations are undergoing both ethnic and racial blending, but even here in the extremely diverse united states you will still see people who look asian to be viewed by some as foreigners. only in places like new york and california can we mostly accept the melting pot of peoples as our own. china? isolated for thousands of years, we won't see similar perceptions for centuries. but that makes the astonished looks on natives' faces when you speak with whatever regional dialect you've learned!

#2011-12-21 23:21:10 by Bluefoxcoffee @Bluefoxcoffee

What a wonderful and "funny" experience! (Parden me, I laughed...some words were really funny). I agree with "modern architecture interesting but a little soulless"...I think that is an issue. In China, the modern cities have a "same look", high buildings (10 minutes later, you will forget what they look like), bridges, too many autos, motoways, etc. They have no souls. We have to protect the historical buildings which are going to disappear from our cities and our heart. I love historical things, because too many of them were destroyed in 60s-70s last century. It's time to protect!

Well, about "where are you from?" A colleague of mine asked me a similar question. He married a chinese lady, but he had to renew his visa every year. He wanna apply a "green card"of China and found that was difficult. He asked why and how. the only answer he got from me was "forget about it. This is China." Well, I has to explain the law and the politics to him. So...he is still "Laowai" and no PR.

By the way, sometimes I think to be a foreigner is a good thing in China (if I'm not right, just let me know. I'm glad to know it). If a foreigner, especially white people, has a problem, there are so many chinese people try to help. Once, I heard from a foreigner, when he was asked "could you speak mandarin or cantonese", he said "chinese people can speak english". Well, when I was a foreigner, a friend of mine was mocked by a local perpson, because her chinglish. another time, a grocery guy laughed at her and said "you can't speak english, why do you come to XX"...That's a Chinese in oversea. So...sometimes I'm "jealous" of the foreigner in China. Chinese people are too nice to the foreigner. please don't take these in a wrong way. Be nice, that is absolutely right. we are taught in that way. just sometimes...too much...

#2011-12-23 09:56:23 by aussieghump @aussieghump

Bluefox - I agree that there are some people in every location that can be unfriendly to others. I understand enough Chinese language to know many Chinese people are 'rude' to me every day...sometimes it is curiosity and not realising what they say can be offensive, sometimes it is nasty and pointed. Case in point, I was in a bar last night and a group of Chinese men were 'laughing at my expense' - until I shamed them by singing a karaoke song in Chinese.
In Singapore, a group of Mainlanders on holiday were smoking (dropping cigarettes on the ground), spitting and being quite offensive in Mandarin about foreigners around them ( to the point of being embarassing) until I casually leaned over and informed them in Mandarin that "in Singapore, Chinese are also foreigners".

For me, it is important you know who you are, what you stand for and not worry about what other people think! You have to admit that not everyone in the world is as nice as you are- and some are way nicer! And hopefully you spend most of your time with these people!

#2011-12-26 11:21:07 by randyteacher @randyteacher

The last time I was in another country aside from Canada or China I would say I was from China and if pressed I would relent and explain that I was originally from Canada but have lived in China for over 14 years. When I have traveled through China and people ask where I'm from, I proudly tell them that I am from Suzhou. I get interesting looks from Chinese, expats and travelers alike at that one. Another great blog Garreth.

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