Cinese di merda!
This was hurled at me like a badly thrown javelin. It fell wide from the mark but the intention stung nonetheless.
The Puma-hoodie, Nike Air sporting Italian youth more or less just called me a shitty Chinese. My friend, who was sitting next to me as we waited for our bus, stared at me open-mouthed. Probably out of embarrassment, since she was Italian. Strange, how we feel responsible for the actions of our compatriots like they’re an embarrassing significant other meeting our parents for the first time.
My first urge was to shout back. Not abuse though. You see, having been abroad for a while, clarifying the difference between ‘Hong Kong’ and ‘China’ has become an instinctive reaction. Ah, you see, I’m Chinese but there’s a difference. The convoluted explanation of colonial history inevitably peters out into a shrug in the face of the I-don’t-see-why-this-matters expression of the person I’m addressing.
It’s not the first time I’ve been on the receiving end of racist treatment. Spend enough time in places where you’re obviously a foreigner and some idiot is bound to do something to you. The sniggering Albanian youths throwing tissue pellets at me for the best part of a two-hour long bus ride. The waiter who serves every single table except for mine. While these may be annoying, they don’t really hurt. In the first case I was too pre-occupied with doing a deal with the devil at every mountainous turn to be bothered with the pellets anyway. The point is, these incidents didn’t hurt personally because they weren’t accusing me of being anything.
But Cinese di merda. That’s different. To make matters worse he might actually have a point, and an accusation that you know is true is always worse than one that’s false. For a moment I was 14 again, my face stinging as my mom told me that the baggy T-shirt with a dinosaur on the front was, contrary to what I thought, anything but cool.
First off, I got offended for the wrong reasons. I was more bothered about the fact that he called me ‘Chinese’ than anything else. And yet, I am. National identity for me is a bit like the fact that I have Justin Bieber on my iPod. It’s something I don’t feel anything in particular about until someone shoves it in my face, in which case I feel obliged to defend it. It came with the charts. It’s good for SOME situations! The anthem-touting adverts want me to be proud, a feeling I just can’t feel about any national identity.
Another thing is that, all things considered. I am quite shit at being Chinese. Or any nationality, for that matter. For various reasons, (probably because God was having an off day when he made me) I feel most at home when I’m not at home. If being a good Chinese means being able to recite classical poetry and tell the order of the 12 year Chinese Zodiac, I’m pretty much out. While we’re at it, why would anyone think a poem about being stranded from home is a good first poem to learn? Maybe the gushing homesick nostalgia of those succinct lines instilled in us from an early age an underlying propensity towards all things distant and tragic. Who knows? Also, why isn’t the panda part of the zodiac? Someone should start an online campaign for that.
But I digress. I guess I just enjoy pretending to be in a group that I don’t belong to. Sometimes it’s subconscious. Since English isn’t my native language, I don’t have a ‘default’ accent to fall back on, and it changes according to the people around me, or the TV shows I procrastinate with. A couple of days with a friend from Texas is enough for a few ‘y’all’s to slip into my vocabulary; a binge-session of Doctor Who leaves me with a slight Scottish drawl, kudos to David Tennant. Sometimes this gets me into awkward situations, as people think I’m making fun of them when my accent morphs into a bastard child hybrid of their own one and quasi-American. The Mumbai bakery shop owner’s burning stare as I said ‘OK’ in what must have come across as a mocking Indian accent accompanied with the sideways head-bobbing ‘nod’ I picked up after two weeks, is still vivid.
But really, am I that different from the rest of you? Don’t we all want to experience being someone we’re not? I don’t know about you, but half of the time I lie, I do it for no apparent reason other than creating an alternative image of myself. The thrill of convincing a taxi driver in Beijing that I was from his city and grew up in an orphanage tells me more about myself than I would like to know.
And indeed, isn’t it the same with the host of ‘national’ symbols around us? Minute differences in pronunciations or a few extra letters in the alphabet gets magnified out of proportion; miniscule differences in foods warrant a different name and nationality. It seems that we are intent on creating small differences so that we can celebrate them under the slogan of tolerance, while deriving security from knowing what’s ours and what belongs to the omnipresent them. Nationalities aren’t there for us to be proud of. They’re there so we know when we’re experiencing something new.
My friend opened her mouth to shout back, but I mumbled something like whatever. She looked at me, exasperated, as the offending youth ran away with his amici. Our bus came, surprisingly on time. She waved it down, her Thai, Hindi and Chinese wrist charms rattling audibly. We boarded the bus, which happened to sport an advert for cheap vacations with pictures of grinning tourists and locals.
We passed the group of teenagers as we drove away, and I smiled as his electric blue Puma hoodie faded into the distance. I guess at the end of the day, I am a Cinese di merda. But so are the rest of you.