An overseas Chinese in China

Holidays to China always felt like I was travelling to a foreign land instead of returning to my motherland. I could never understand why my mother would always choose China as our annual holiday destination until now.

As a fourth generation Malaysian Chinese, I find myself stuck in-between two identities: I am too westernised to be Chinese, and I am too Chinese to be western. My childhood was confusing, because within my immediate family we speak English, however my relatives speak a mix of Chinese dialects – Cantonese, Mandarin, Hakka, and Hokkien.

Growing up in a multilingual household where English was mainly used, I did not get to fully connect with my “chineseness” and understand my Chinese traditions, culture and ethnic origins. It’s a shame that I did not properly learn my mother tongue – Mandarin. In Malaysia, people like me are labelled as “bananas” as we are yellow on the outside but white in the inside.

In retrospect, my adolescence irritation about travelling to China was related to my inability to connect with the mainland Chinese. I thought I was the superior Chinese because of my fluency in English and exposure to the western culture.

With the Chinese tourist stereotypes that we hear about, I had been ashamed of my Chinese ancestry. Little did I know that I was at a major loss for not fully immersing myself into the beautiful Chinese culture.

Whenever we travel to China, mother immediately became the designated translator as her Mandarin is the most fluent amongst the four of us. During that time, tourism in China was not as internationally friendly as it is now – the information displays were in Chinese. She would read it and translate it to the rest of us. If we had a tour guide, my narrow range of Chinese vocabulary was just enough for me to understand the words I know and guess what the guide was saying.

The most memorable trip was to Xi An, where we visited the terracotta warriors built as a form of funerary art and were buried together with the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. Without the tour guide, the mausoleum just looked like a room of excavated statues. To save money, we hired a Chinese tour guide to explain and unravel the wonders of Emperor Qin and his extravagant tomb.

Although Emperor Qin was cruel, I felt unworthy of visiting the resting place of the man who finally unified China and established Mandarin as its national language. Geographically, China is a large nation, and with it comes great difficulty to unite the various clans between and within the provinces. If Emperor Qin managed to achieve this task that many Emperors failed to complete, I too can learn to unite my Chinese roots and western influence, and craft it to my own authenticity.

Mother’s desire to return to China was more than just for a family holiday, it’s about seeking answers and comfort to find herself as a Chinese diaspora in a land away from home.


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sylvie tan

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January 2022
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