Who are we, when the practice dies away?

As I grow older I understand less what it means to be an East-Asian-presenting woman living in white-Australia, by which I mean that I feel a loss of identity tied in with a disconnection with culture and the presence of oppression.   As a younger person I felt much more connected to the culture of the land that I was born because my family openly practiced it. But time has weakened that connection; over time our versions of ourselves become colonised by the dominant culture around us.

It’s coming on spring here in Melbourne, which means it will be Mid-Autumn Festival time soon. A celebration of family and harvest, the Mid-Autumn Festival, is one of the biggest celebrations in the lunar calendar, and was once one of my favourite occasions of the year. I remember as a child how I would gorge myself on mooncake, digging the preserved egg-yolk heart out of the lotus paste flesh, and leaving it to savour at the end of the treat. Come night fall, my sisters and I would stick dodgy candles into colourful paper lanterns and hang them around the house, we would have a dinner of baby taro and other round-shaped foods, and then head out into the night to marvel at the brightest of bright moons.

Mum and Dad told us the story of Chang’E and how she was banished to the moon with a small white rabbit as her only companion. She was granted the right to see her lover, a celebrated hero who saved the earth from drought by shooting down nine suns with a bow and arrow one night in every year, the fifteenth day of the eighth month in the lunar calendar, the night of the fullest and brightest moon. The underlying woman-blaming context of this folktale is real (Google it, if you want to know), but as a young child this story had enough tragic, romantic and magical elements to make Mid-Autumn feel personal and loaded.

When I was younger, when my family were newly arrived immigrants, we took these holidays and traditions seriously. Chinese New Year, the other very auspicious day in the lunar calendar was stress-filled and wonderful. I often think back to that brief period of years when we equated Chinese New Year with crowded temples and the heady smell of incense, and the tduk-tduk-tduk of Kau Cim sticks clanking in the hands of optimists seeking a good fortune for the year ahead.

My parents had a small altar in our house, which housed the porcelain figurines of Kwan Yin, the goddess of mercy, Lo Han, the laughing Buddha who I associate with mock-meats, and the three essential deities of wisdom, of longevity and of prosperity. The altar also had photos of ancestors who had passed away – my dad’s mum Siu-Jean, his father and paternal grandparents. My parents are not religious at all, they have never been, but the symbolism of those deities were important in my family’s psychological fabric. It was to what we were to aspire – kindness, joviality, intelligence, good health, and economic security. And most importantly, honouring who and what you come from, giving thanks, and providing for loved ones even after they’ve left the earth.

Every Saturday, after going to the markets, I would help my mum select the best oranges to place as an offering on the altar.   On the first and fifteen of the lunar month, we would offer fresh tea and incense. These were rituals my parents impressed upon me as somehow being an important part of who we were, and we approached it with some degree of seriousness. I remember when I was finally old enough to have friends visit the house, they would always ask about the altar, and it became something of a source of embarrassment to me. I equated this with difference, otherness, with being Chinese and therefore not Australian. Very soon I started to resent those rituals, the offering of oranges and brewing of tea and burning of incense. I resented the oddly painted porcelain faces, and the existence of the altar itself.

At some point through the years, my mother stopped being as meticulous with her altar rituals as well, and as the years went by the rituals stopped and then the altar disappeared altogether.   My mother had imported these rituals all the way across the Pacific Ocean; rituals that the Cultural Revolution and sixty-odd years of communism didn’t completely stamp out, but that a mere decade of assimilation into western society quite easily whittled away.

Years later, I would ask her why she didn’t performs these rituals anymore, and she would shrug and say “I guess, it’s not really the trend anymore.”

I spent several years abroad, living in another white-colonised western country, and during those years, missing home and family and throwing about ghost ideas of a Chinese community, I re-invigorated some of my old cultural practices. My roommates and I gathered good friends together to celebrate Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival. We would bike down to the Oriental supermarket and buy mooncake and dragon fruit and literally spend an entire day making dumplings, sticky rice parcels and san choi bao. I would tell them about my childhood memories of these holidays, of throngs of Chinese diaspora in Chinatown, rows and rows of firecrackers going off like ammunition leaving the dirty streets paved with scraps of red paper and smelling like gunpowder for hours. We talked about Chang’E and her rabbit friend and her heroic sun-destroying lover. We talked about family, and somehow it felt like I was with my family again, newly-arrived immigrants in a tiny flat in Footscray in 1989.

When I moved back to Melbourne last year it hit me that I had fabricated much of that sense of ‘Chinese-ness’ that I had impressed on my friends in Canada. My Chinese family did nothing to mark the fullest of moons that year.

Four months later, for Chinese New Year, I tried again to re-establish our Chinese cultural practices, gathering up my niece and nephews and dragging them to a street festival by the river. It had the usual things: lion dancing, Chinese drumming, corporate banks giving out fifty-cent pieces in red envelopes, an MC who was a white woman with dyed black hair wearing Choengsam. I may sigh and I may joke about it, but here’s the truth – I felt like that fake Chinese woman on the stage that day; who are we trying to be anyway?

My sisters’ kids don’t know the heady smell of incense; they don’t know red paper littering the streets. They know a western capitalist version of it. One that doesn’t feel real. One that isn’t real. Now, because they speak to the grandkids in Cantonese, my parent’s rural hometown dialect of Kaipinghua is dying away too. My sisters’ kids will never know the language of their grandparents.  They are ‘bananas’, and I suppose people of our generation are bananas too. Maybe I am, as they say, white on the inside.   Sometimes I even forget that I’m yellow on the outside. Sometimes I think about how I traverse through this world looking in on my culture as an outsider, and in doing so, on myself as a stranger. I remember studying Chinese politics at university – one of the only people of Chinese heritage (or person of colour, for that matter) in the class – and the some of my classmates, many of them serious Sino-philes, joked that they were more Chinese than I was. I didn’t know the history of Chinese communism because my parents avoided talking about it, I didn’t consume Chinese media, and my grasp of the language was broken at best. I was Chinese, but perhaps we were the same on some level – we were on the outside looking in, otherising.   But for one obvious difference: white Sino-philes don’t experience much of the things that people who are East Asian-presenting experience, like stereotyping or objectification or just plain vanilla racism.

Perhaps, as third culture kids, we create our own versions of what it means to experience or embody our ethnic and cultural identity, and that’s where it sits: in the coincidental spaces of a Venn diagram of sorts. Of course, all culture naturally shifts and evolves and responds to intersecting and parallel cultures. I don’t want to hold on to cultural practices for the sake of it. I have no desire to recreate the altar. I don’t want to practice culture in a way that lacks authenticity. But when we stop practicing culture, how do we maintain a connection to it? How do we quantify what we lose in that process, and how do we maintain who we are and honour where we come from? How do we know whether we are othering our own?

It is hard. It is hard when one can’t really be sure which narratives belong to you, except the narratives of oppression; because here’s the thing: I want to feel Chinese all the time and not just when I am reminded of otherness; I want to feel Chinese all the time and not just when someone calls me a ‘Chink’.

iggi zhou

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