Tuesday, May 09, 2006

"You wouldn't understand... we do things differently."
I speak only in English with my sisters and my brother. I speak only in Cantonese with my parents. My sister is pregnant with her first child and this child will be brought up in France. Like us, the child will speak one language at school and with his friends (French) and another at home with the parents (English). There'll be an extra language to deal with - the child will have to speak Cantonese in order to communicate with the grandparents. How lucky for this child to be given three different languages, three different cultures to mix and match through life. It is in no way a bad thing but...

While Prandial ponders reality, truth and magic, I am stuck between the three myself and not enjoying the sensation of swinging madly between these frequently incompatible states. All major personal events such as weddings mean over-exposure to family and friends but this particular event I'm involved in has over-exposed me to my own mixed-bag reality and truths: I'm British on paper but I'm Chinese in my genetic make-up and in reality... I'm more confused than I've ever been.

I have never experienced culture clash this badly before.

Growing up in the very heart of London has meant I can look back on a childhood that was so nonchalantly multiracial and so casually "fusion" style, I had culture shock going to Cambridge. Whilst there, I discovered I was a novelty for some of the people I was meeting because they hadn't met anyone as British as themselves and yet I ate with chopsticks when I went home to see my parents and spoke in a different language with my family and could tell long amusing stories about hilarious mistranslations and cultural misunderstandings that only someone of my first generation immigrant background could tell.

But since I've entered the last stretch of organisation for this wedding I've felt something I've never felt before: an alienation from my own Chinese background that has upset me more than I can express. I've always felt enormous pride in my Chinese background and the particulars of being British-born Chinese. I've always felt very comfortable and firmly entrenched in Chinese culture and customs. I'm interested in what goes in my community and endeavour to promote cultural practices, customs and arts.

But I'm essentially not Chinese enough when it comes to my own personal life. I'm beginning to feel that all my Chinese-ness so far has been academic. It's not natural to me. As my mother keeps telling me, I should leave all the planning for the Chinese parts of the day to her because I wouldn't understand and I should let her and my father, my numerous relatives, family friends and the restaurant staff do all the planning and organisation because they know how it works. And I couldn't possibly get it right.

And yet... trying to organise a "Western" wedding has baffled me too. I wasn't intending to have a hen night, I think it's a very odd thing to do but was cajoled into having one by my all-British friends. I put together a guest list and included all my male friends - I had no idea this isn't the done thing. Hen nights are for girls and stag nights are for boys. But where is the fun in that? Segregating my friends would make a miserable night out for everyone. So I invited both male and female friends without giving much thought to what is "traditional"and then fielded several emails from amazed and intrigued men who were apprehensively confirming their attendance. Other things left me reeling with incomprehension and frustration especially when we were considering a church wedding in the very early stages - how could I ask my non-English speaking relatives to attend a church ceremony with hymns and standing up and sitting down and readings and so on? How could I go through with a ceremony that means so much to me knowing that it means absolute gibberish to half the people I invite?

I feel as alienated from my Britishness as I am from my Chineseness. I don't understand how things are done on either side and even though I'm constantly told to just do things my way, I don't know what my way is. It isn't half British, half Chinese. It isn't even British-Chinese. I don't know what it is or what I want it to be.


Anonymous said...

You should do what I did at the 3rd year at school (QK) and pretend you're Polish. It seemed to work and nobody asked any questions.

On a serious note, your wedding is about "You & Him, together(tm).", it's not a celebration of your ethnic identity or lack of, which is frankly what some people will be concerned about. This is an opportunity to educate them and expose them to a broader world, rather than provide them an event to further reinforce their view that their way is the 'right' way.

Enjoy your day, encourage everyone else to enjoy it, and make no apologies to any killjoys.

Greg said...

Hey H - I don't really have anything particularly insightful or helpful to say, but I thought I'd just -- as we say in California -- validate your discomfort. It's not easy and it's not comfortable and it's not supposed to be. It might be some small consolation that if it were easy, that would only mean that you had no choices...

We homos have had occasion to think about what a wedding means and why we should want them recently, and along these lines, I'd like to respectfully disagree with Mr or Ms Anonymous, above. Your wedding is most certainly NOT all about you and him -- if it were you could just do it alone on a beach somewhere. Your wedding is about standing up in front of a community, who collectively acknowledge your relationship, and offer their support. The wedding guests are active agents in the ritual, and your desire not alienate or confuse one subset of the guests or another is admirable. Good luck!

By the way, here you hear the term "ABC" for "American-Born Chinese" quite a bit. Does anyone use term "BBC"? Or would that be... confusing?