Samseng Zhabor

By Kirsten, the Samseng Zhabor

My "Chinese heart" is not yours to define

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Samseng Zhabor
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“饮水思源 Remember your roots.” “East" “West.” “Asian Values.” “Western influence.” “This is not our culture.” “You don’t want to be a banana.”
How many of us have heard this from teachers and elders cajoling us into studying harder, scoring better in Mandarin language tests, or behaving in a certain allegedly “Chinese” way? How many of us have struggled against this sort of emotional blackmail? How many of us ended up distancing ourselves from the language, the traditions, the culture, because of this?
— — —
On 11 July, the Singaporean Chinese daily broadsheet Lianhe Zaobao published an opinion piece (link in Chinese; a rough translation can be found here) by one of its editors, Yap Pheng Hui, in which he blamed (again) influence from “the West” for an individualistic “narrative of rights” that has undermined the morality of the young. In his characterisation of what’s “Chinese”, he clearly means China, because he also includes Hong Kong and Taiwanese pop culture alongside “the West” in the list of negative foreign influences.
A day before, the Hong Kong broadcaster RTHK reported the deputy director of Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, Tan Tie-niu, characterising young Hong Kong protesters are slandering their own race and being against their own country. According to the report, he emphasised the need to prevent students in Hong Kong from becoming people who only have Chinese faces, but not Chinese hearts.
Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong. 重光團隊
In other news today:

“Hong Kong must boldly push ahead with patriotic education. Youngsters had been misled—and their values must be rectified.”

“Students educated in HK must not become people who only have a Chinese face but don't have a Chinese heart.”
https://t.co/kvqxLQ4KpR
A Chinese face without a Chinese heart. I’m familiar with this sentiment. The wording might have been different, but I’ve heard variations of this during my childhood, and even at some moments in my adult life. It’s not something that’s said to encourage or spark interest; instead, it’s said to shame one into compliance. A holding of one’s very ethnicity and heritage ransom, until we perform to satisfactory levels.
— — —
It’s a long-standing practice of the Chinese Communist Party to conflate party, nation, ethnicity, language, history, culture, identity. They claim power and authority over Chineseness. They smear their fingerprints over it all, even if what they’re claiming is far bigger than them, even if what they’re claiming existed before they did.
It’s a politically expedient play, one that imposes an obligation of loyalty and obedience. If you criticise or oppose the CCP, you must be a self-hating Chinese person, slandering your own race. It works in the other direction: if you value your Chinese heritage—something that’s important to so many people—you must support the CCP and what it’s made China to be. If the party is the country, and if the country is the land of our ancestors, then we must feel some sense of affinity with the party. The party hijacks the respect and affection we have for our family histories, our elders, the very story of our lives, for itself.
It’s worked. Many have adopted this sort of framing, even if they don’t explicitly profess support for the CCP. In recent years, I’ve noticed this sentiment balloon further, particularly as Trump and his ilk grew more and more petulant, belligerent, and racist in his comments against China. Faced with that disgusting bully in the United States, I noticed people around me rally around China, and indirectly, the CCP. And as we seek shortcuts and simple binaries, a massively complex geopolitical issue has been turned into an act of “picking a side” and sticking by it no matter what. Serious human rights issues have become the foundation for petty whataboutism and childish slime-slinging. As if it isn’t possible for both the US and China to be perpetrators of abuses. As if the ordinary peoples of both countries, struggling to make ends meet, don’t have more in common with each other than with the rich and powerful exploiting them on both sides of the world.
Then there’s the simplistic “East versus West” dichotomy, that rhetoric of “Asian Values” used by politicians like Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad to dismiss and undermine discourse on human rights as “Western influence” and somehow incompatible with the Asians they ruled over. There’s no consistency to the deployment of this argument; it’s undue Western influence when it comes to talk about human rights and democracy, but good policy and common sense when Asian governments court Western corporations and open the door to foreign lobbying. There doesn’t need to be consistency: it’s an excuse, not a principle.
All of this flattens Asianness and Chineseness for political gain. (Yes, I’m still stewing over George Yeo, Singapore’s former foreign minister, declaring that the Chinese are the “most homogeneous people by far in the whole world.”) Within the exhortations and policies of these politicians, governments, conservatives, these vast and complex identities—held by a huge number of people across the world, all with different stories, journeys, experiences, and opinions—are reduced to monoliths. They are presented as fossilised, essentialised stereotypes, used to rationalise or demand particular behaviour or reactions. If you don’t respond accordingly, if you disagree… well, you must have lost your way and your “Chinese heart”.
— — —
Last November, I wrote about reading in Chinese and reconnecting with the language on my own terms. I wrote about how I enjoyed it being something that I wanted to do, because it was fun and interesting for me, and not because I was trying to fulfill other people’s expectations.
Yet the politics and the chatter online are constant reminders that there are so many trying to hitch all sorts of baggage to this language, culture, and heritage. As people fight to dismantle authoritarian, oppressive, and unjust structures—from the denial of political rights to the entrenched presence of systemic racism—there are those who seek to define “Chineseness” in their attempts to influence and coerce entire communities against progressive struggles.
When I see these arguments, these false yet powerful and widespread claims of ownership and authority over Chineseness, I feel their intrusion into my own recent embrace and exploration of my own Chineseness.
My work and activism is largely conducted in English. It’s in English that I read and gather news and information, often of difficult and depressing things like breaches of human rights, police harassment, smear campaigns against activists, smug pronouncements from politicians about policies whose harms they’ll never have to experience. It’s in English that I get trolled and harassed, that I have to engage in tiresome debates with people who are more focused on finding a “gotcha!” moment than actually engaging.
Of course, I still find plenty of fun and pleasure in English, but in recent years I’ve found immense relief in stepping back from it all and disappearing into the world of Chinese dramas, novels, and nonsensical reality TV/chat shows with the actors of the dramas I’ve seen. I enjoy shipping the couples, escaping into the jianghu world of wuxia stories, getting caught up in the plots and intrigues. When I’m tired of the arguments and debates, I retreat into the comfort of a different headspace, clearly demarcated by an entirely different language.
The stories and behaviours and mannerisms I find in these dramas, videos, and novels are at once new and familiar; in them I find echoes of things I’ve been taught as a child, or just absorbed via osmosis growing up. They combine the joy of discovery with the comfort of memory, and I appreciate this space that I’ve found.
But the outside world keeps trying to force its way in with its reductive binaries, demanding to know if we are pro- or anti-China (again, that conflation of China as a country with the party that rules it), if we stand with the US or with China. As I take refuge in my Chinese novels and serials, we get people like Yap Pheng Hui, like Tan Tie-niu, like reactionaries and Asian tankies on Twitter, defining and demanding a Chineseness that leaves me feeling alienated.
There’s an instinct, perhaps born from the habit of my youth, to throw it all back in their faces and stomp off. You say I have to be like this to be Chinese? Well, fuck you then, I’m not interested!
But doing that would mean giving up all the happiness and comfort I’ve received over the past few years, when such relief and escape was precisely what I needed. And I don’t see why I should do it. What I’m left with is a simmering anger and resentment that, after all this years, I’m still having to deal with these politicised, insular claims when I’m just trying to exist in and appreciate a culture and heritage that’s supposed to be mine, that I’m told is mine and should be proud of. The catch is, those in power—and those who support this status quo—only want you to own and be proud of this culture and heritage in ways that they approve of.
— — —
The fictional worlds I escape to are by no means perfect, but there are friendships that stand the test of time, loves that last from one life to the next, brave warriors willing to fight the power. Mindless conformity and greed are called out. Power is shown to corrupt, and corrupt absolutely. There are personalities and conflicts and the messiness of human life. The people who create these worlds, write these stories, produce these dramas, participate in these fandoms, are not the simple “communitarian” followers we portray Chinese people to be when we perpetuate essentialised stereotypes that, honestly, would be called out as racist if they came out of anyone else’s mouth.
In real life I’ve met activists from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Chinese diaspora across the world, who teach me about courage, conviction, and resourcefulness. In the short glorious period of time that Chinese users could speak with Taiwanese and Hong Kongers via the app Clubhouse, I tuned into multiple conversations that showcased the diversity of thought and hunger to engage that the Chinese authorities have tried so hard to suppress. Even so, we constantly find evidence of the ingenuity of the Chinese people in evading online censorship.
It angers me to see others implying that people who speak out and criticise the Chinese state are race traitors, self-hating, or turning their backs on their roots. I’m outraged by claims that, to be “really Chinese”, they should speak Mandarin, or give up on Taiwan’s sovereignty, or stop shaming China for its human rights abuses.
But ultimately, I’m sick and tired of this attempt to occupy an entire identity and history, to dictate something so deeply personal and important to so many. My “Chinese heart” is not for others to define, especially not conservative, powerful men who have grown too used to dictating from their podiums and pedestals. They present themselves as the guardians of Chineseness, but they’re the ones stifling and killing it.
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Kirsten, the Samseng Zhabor
Kirsten, the Samseng Zhabor @kixes

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