April 19, 2009
'I used to be anti-Chinese'
I harboured an irrational dislike for mainland Chinese - until I hit it off with a woman from Xi'an
By Mak Mun San
Last Sunday, I did something that would have been unthinkable for me three years ago.
That afternoon, I attended a seminar organised by Chinese- language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao to mark the launch of Crossroads, a new feature section aimed at new immigrants.
About 450 people turned up, two-thirds of whom were new citizens and permanent residents and, judging by their accents, most of them were from China.
I was there not for work but because my friend H, a Xi'an native who has been in Singapore for 10-1/2 years, asked me to join her.
It was an enjoyable afternoon, one that was made especially memorable when Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, who was there as a special guest, addressed the crowd.
After his speech, a new immigrant stood up and thanked him for giving Singaporeans a better life through the way he had governed. He was soon followed by five others. The tributes were spontaneous and heartfelt and I was genuinely moved.
Why, then, was my attendance at such a meaningful event so unthinkable?
You see, I used to be unapologetically anti-Chinese. I would much rather watch paint dry than be surrounded by a roomful of mainland Chinese.
Put simply, I loathed everything and everyone related to China with a vengeance. My feelings were so extreme that I would switch channels on the TV set in irritation whenever a certain news anchor from China appeared.
There was no reason for my prejudice - not that prejudice can be justified in the first place. It was all the more irrational because none of the usual explanations for anti-Chinese sentiments applied to me.
No China-born woman has ever snatched away my boyfriend or my husband or my father, and no mainland Chinese has ever taken away my job.
Most importantly, with my very Chinese background, I should be the last person to be Sinophobic. My grandparents came from Guangdong, I received a bilingual education in St Nicholas Girls' School and Hwa Chong Junior College, majored in Chinese Studies in university, worked in the Chinese media for more than eight years, and regard Mandarin as the language closest to my heart.
In fact, I have always been regarded as sort of a 'Chinese expert' among my English-educated colleagues, the one they would turn to for information on all things Chinese.
However, I was very much biased against China and its people, and it probably began after an ill-tempered trip to Beijing and Huangshan in 1998. Not a single day went by during those two weeks that I did not have to argue with the locals who crossed my path. I was partly to blame - I found fault with everything, from their bad service to their arrogant attitude. After that trip, I just knew I wanted nothing more to do with any mainland Chinese, period.
And this is what makes prejudice so scary. We hate some people because we do not know them; and we will not know them because we hate them, as 19th-century English cleric and author Charles Caleb Colton wrote.
Fortunately for me, I broke out of this vicious circle when I met H in late 2006.
My long-time friend W, who worked with H, had wanted to introduce us for months. She felt that with our outspoken personalities, we would hit it off. I had zero interest and repeatedly dismissed her good intentions. I even cautioned her: 'Be careful of H. People from China are very scheming and she will take advantage of you.'
Never mind that I had not spoken one word to H back then; I was a self-declared expert on the Chinese people and I knew everything about them based on one plain fact - where they came from. My logic was infallible: They were one and the same; if you had seen one, you had seen them all.
But W persisted and to get her off my back, I finally gave in. W was right, of course. H and I got on like a house on fire, but it was only in the past year, after going through an avalanche of ups and downs together, that we really became close.
So what happened to my incorrigibly and unashamedly anti-Chinese sentiments? I was narrow-minded, simple as that, and all it took was for my first friend from China to open my eyes and my heart.
Scheming? Truth be told, H is one of the most straightforward and uncomplicated people I know. Often, I am the one who has to remind her to, yes, be careful of others. Talk about irony.
With our contrasting backgrounds, we have our differences but that is precisely what makes this friendship mutually fascinating. Instead of consciously seeking common ground, we choose to celebrate our differences.
Granted, H, who became a Singapore citizen in 2003, is not your typical China-born girl and that could be why we get along so well.
She likes Western pop culture - she is the one who alerts me to a new Jason Mraz song and the latest American TV serials instead of the other way round - and although we converse in Mandarin, we chat online and SMS each other entirely in English.
Then again - and I do not mean this in a bad way - you can take a woman out of China but you cannot take China out of the woman (the same applies to this born-and-bred Singaporean, of course). Some cultural traits are so deeply rooted in H that no amount of time spent away from her motherland is going to change them - her taste buds, in particular.
On any given day, she would opt for a kick-ass Sichuan steamboat over a Peranakan meal, la mian (hand-pulled noodles) over bak chor mee, jiao zi (boiled dumplings) over rojak.
Which is fine. I have a friend who has never eaten a bowl of laksa in her life but that does not make her any less Singaporean in my eyes.
What I see in H is someone who loves her new country with a fiery passion and that, to me, is more important than loving our bak chor mee or rojak.
To her, China will always be a very important part of her life, but it is Singapore that she considers home. When she heard about the Singapore Flyer incident while holidaying in Shanghai last December, she immediately SMSed me to find out more. I am not sure if I would have been as concerned if I were her.
A few days ago, I asked H if she would have agreed to meet me if she had known my feelings towards her countrymen.
'Yes, of course,' she replied without hesitation. 'It's hard to find someone who doesn't dislike mainland Chinese in Singapore.'
So it was that I found myself in a room full of new Chinese immigrants last Sunday and feeling completely at ease in their company.
I cannot say I am ready to embrace every single mainland Chinese I come across now, but I no longer shun them simply because of their nationality. I am not proud of how I felt in the past, but I am not afraid to stand up and admit I was wrong. We really are more similar than I thought and less different than I feared.
As I sat listening to MM Lee talk about how we should welcome new immigrants into our homes, I recalled one day last August when H came to mine.
Together, we cheered on Li Jiawei and company at the Olympic table tennis finals while enjoying liang pi, a traditional Xi'an fare that resembles kway chap, which she had bought, and my mother's Cantonese-style soup.
To be honest, I was not crazy about the rice sheets but I slurped them up, if only to have a taste of H's childhood memories in the land of the terracotta warriors.
As we left the seminar, I confessed to H: 'I was very touched during MM's segment.'
She turned to me and said quietly: 'Me too. I was fighting back my tears.'
We reached our cars and waved goodbye. She went home to nibble on her hometown snacks and I popped in at my neighbourhood kopitiam for my teh c and kaya toast fix.
We had done enough of inter-mixing and integration for an afternoon. It was time to let our differences - those that make us unique and who we are - out to play.
The writer is an executive sub-editor with The Straits Times