After a lifetime of being a visible minority, living in China is an oddly liberating experience, a life where I just melt into the crowd.
Here in Shanghai, I am just another Chinese girl with black hair and brown eyes scurrying into the subway, mingling in the park, snacking on the street, shopping in the mall. No one can point me out as Chinese first and Malaysian second, or as an immigrant in the UK, or “the tall Asian girl” in my Canadian elementary school. It’s not that I’ve found my roots in Shanghai or I’ve come to embrace being ethnically Chinese; instead, I’m just darn happy I am like everyone else.
That is, until I open my big fat mouth, and the local Chinese person I’m talking to laughs at me, or worse, looks utterly confused.
Because I can’t speak Mandarin Chinese.
I am learning, am enrolled in a full-time language course at a Shanghai university. But until I finish the course, until I achieve maybe HSK level 6, I refuse to consider myself fluent, and I carry this inadequacy like it’s my biggest shame. I am Chinese who can’t speak Chinese. A banana, the word that’s haunted me all my life. “Yellow outside, white inside!” said my aunties, uncles, classmates, teachers.
So what, you might say. After all, there are lots of overseas Chinese who can’t speak Mandarin. It’s nothing to be ashamed of if you didn’t have the chance to learn it, or learn enough of it to be able to communicate like a native speaker.
But I’m not just “overseas Chinese.” I’m Malaysian, and I haven’t met a Malaysian Chinese person living in Shanghai who wasn’t fluent in Chinese. There are students of Chinese descent from the US, Britain, France, Sweden, the Philippines, and Brazil in my elementary level at the language school, but the Malaysians (and Singaporeans) are all high and mighty in the advanced classes.
Many of my conversations with local Chinese people go like this:
Local Chinese: Ni de *something something* de *something something* li mian bu shi *something something* ma?
Me: Ah… what? Sorry sorry, I didn’t understand all of that.
Local Chinese: Oh. You are not local?
Local Chinese: Korean or Japanese?
Me: No no, I am overseas Chinese.
Local Chinese: American?
Me: No, I am from Malaysia.
Local Chinese: Wah! Malaysia! Nice country, I hear! I have a cousin there!
Me: Yes, Malaysia is very nice.
Local Chinese: So why you cannot speak Chinese? The Chinese from Malaysia I know can speak very good putonghua, hen lihai de. Singaporeans also speak very good Chinese.
Me: I never had a real chance to learn… mei xue guo lah.
Local Chinese: Must learn properly.
Or, the usual taxi conversations:
Taxi driver: So which route you want to take? Do you want to *says something in rapid Chinese* or *something else in rapid Chinese*?
Me: Ah… whichever is fastest… sorry, I didn’t understand all of that.
Taxi driver: Korean right? I can tell.
Me: No, Malaysian.
Taxi driver: You don’t look Malay? You look like Asian person?
Me: I am overseas Chinese, raised in Malaysia.
Taxi driver: Oh… quality of life good in Malaysia? High salary?
Me: Okay lah.
Taxi driver: Why you from Malaysia but cannot speak Chinese? My Malaysian and Singaporean passengers all speak such fluent Chinese, Singapore is near you right?
Me: Many Malaysian huaren can speak Chinese… just not me.
Taxi driver: Must learn. The other day I had German passengers who spoke perfect Chinese! No mistakes! They didn’t have strange accents like you.
If you are a Chinese Malaysian in Shanghai/China who can’t speak “proper” Chinese, contact me. If you are a laowai who speaks perfect Chinese, contact me too so I have more people to be jealous of. In the meantime, I’m continuing my quest to master this darn language, and get rid of the banana stigma, once and for all. Zai jian!