Chen Zuoer (陳佐洱）, a mainland official who has overseen Hong Kong affairs for over two decades, said it broke his heart to see the city’s people waving colonial flags at street protests, for it showed they still clung to their identities as colonial subjects.
Had Chen known about the kind of education I received in the twilight years of colonial Hong Kong, he would have some idea why shedding off a colonial mindset can be so difficult.
I had a Eurasian teacher who instructed, when explaining the rules of charade (the game in which one person has to by gestures alone give hints on the word she has in mind while the rest of the group guess what that word is): if we wanted to indicate the word “Chinese,” we should push up the outer corners of our eyes and produce slanted eyes.
If anyone needs proof that one need not be born and raised abroad to be a banana – yellow on the outside, white on the inside – the above scene should be it: the message became ingrained in me that If I wanted to be Chinese, I had to make an effort to pretend to be one.
Then there was my headmistress – a transplant from Shanghai who spoke English with a crisp British accent – who recounted in a tone of disbelief that her sister (presumably westernized like herself) suddenly became enarmoured of Chinese literature after she went abroad to study.
“You should think of it as strange that someone would pursue a subject so remote and exotic” was the implied meaning of the story.
Back then, if someone had told me the time would come when I, too, would be entranced by the culture of my ancestors – that traditional Chinese culture would frame the way I see the world so much that I couldn’t help but identify myself as Chinese – I wouldn’t have believed her.
Yet this was exactly what happened.
It all began as a practical need: I went to mainland China to work as a reporter and had to cultivate sources. I noticed many of those who could help me shared a passion for Chinese literature and history. Even though my Chinese proficiency wasn’t great, I could always rely on modern translations to understand the classics. So I deemed it worthwhile to acquaint myself with such subjects: if I could share an interest with mainlanders, I would have people to call in the event of breaking news.
Initially, I thought I had to turn to my kind (i.e. white people) to obtain a sense of how daunting the task of learning Chinese literature and history would be. I found a quote shared among 19th century British missionaries in China listing the qualities necessary for the study of Chinese: “bodies of iron, lungs of brass, heads of oak, hands of spring steel, eyes of eagles, hearts of apostles, memories of angels, and lives of Methuselah” – and steeled myself up for the ordeal.
My fears were unfounded. China was in the process of reviving cultural education (國學), so learning tools in the form of TV programs and books were widely available. I became particularly hooked on “ Lectern of a Hundred Schools” (百家講壇), a series of lectures delivered on state television by professors notable for making the Chinese classics accessible to a general audience. Before long I was able to captivate potential sources by sharing my takeaway on the lectures. I had little trouble getting people to take my calls after that.
As time went on, their culture became my culture, too. Most intriguing was the impact my metamorphosis had on my orientation to the English language: the less of a banana I was, the more of an egg – white on the outside, yellow on the inside – my approach to English writing became, and, paradoxically, the further writing in English evolved as a way to fall in love with traditional Chinese culture.
I can’t identify with my ancestral culture through Chinese alone because my westernized education exposed me to far more English than Chinese – so I’m far more attuned to the workings of the former. When I admire an English copy – say I’m awestruck by an author’s off-label use of a rule – I understand something of the bliss ballerina Margot Fonteyn drew from her dance partner when he illuminated for her the intricacies of her art: “”during a performance I can still become fascinated if I catch sight out of the corner of my eye of the way in which Rudolf (Nureyev) will place a foot on stage.” When I’m reading Chinese, however, there is a distinct drop in such moments of epiphanies, so I can only conclude I’m largely tone-deaf to the beauty of Chinese that I know must exist.
Luckily, all is not lost. While familiarizing myself with Chinese poetry, I discovered Chinese poets who became my guide through the English writing process because they elucidated truths about it that I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed.
To cite just a few examples: “When books read exceed thousands, The pen is gripped by a force not of this world” (讀書破萬卷, 下筆如有神) is a counsel to seep the many English texts I admire into my consciousness , so that when I grapple with my own copy, they can guide my hand the manner of the spirit behind an Ouijia board as I eye the most engaging way to present my thoughts; I have yet to write a piece I hadn’t thought of giving up halfway, so “Last night the rising tide rendered the warship light as feather, Though previously all efforts to push it were in vain, now it floats effortlessly on its own” (昨夜江邊春水生，艨艟巨艦一毛輕。向來枉費推移力,此日中流自在行) provides me with a much-needed hand-holding service when I’m stuck in my writing; I write while staring out at a window, and “Thousands of scrolls old and new dissolve the hours of the day, From dusk to dawn the lone window bids the years farewell” (萬卷古今消永日，一窗昏曉送流年) heightens my awareness that even as I’m so absorbed by the task of poring over ancient texts and pondering their relevance to the present that I lose my sense of time, the changing light outside my windows is there to remind me of the transient nature of my existence.
If (to paraphrase E. M. Forster) one can’t know what one thinks until one can see what one says, then, in achieving greater clarity about my ancestral heritage through seeing my thoughts about it expressed in English, I have made English my conduit through which to understand the cultural legacy of my homeland.
Other unexpected conduits kept occurring to me as well. I teach English writing – I do so the way I wish I had been taught, by writing along with my students and letting them witness the process by which barely grammatical gibberish is chiseled into compelling copy – and more than anyone, the Chinese calligrapher Zhang Chonghe （張充和）opened my eyes to the possibilities of this coaching approach.
Like Fonteyn, who was so captivated by Nureyev’s footwork on stage that she momentarily forgot she was supposed to perform as well, Zhang, too, was so arrested by this scene of her teacher the calligraphy master Shen Yinmo （沈尹默）at work that it was only halfway that she had the presence of mind to ask herself, “why have I allowed myself to fall under his spell when I should be watching his technique?”: “the tip of his brush pirouettes like a dancer, and the stage is set for a flurry of movements that will unveil the beauty of symmetry at its most sublime. Under his cunning, the brush is spirited across all fours of the paper, rising and falling, advancing and retreating, orchestrations in thrall to a tempo of their own, a spectacle that enraptures me so much that it throws me off balance, while at the same time instilling in me an eerie calm.” ( 只見筆尖在紙上舞動著，竟像是個舞者，舞台的畫面與動態，都達到和諧之美的極境。運筆時四面八方，抑揚頓挫，急徐提按都是音樂的節奏，雖然是看得我眼花繚亂，卻於節奏中得到恬靜).
Zhang went on to become an acclaimed calligrapher herself, and the Chinese scholar Yu Yingshi （余英時）credited Zhang’s artistry to her capacity to be most in her element when immersed in her craft (游於藝) – a state of mind prized by Chinese thinkers since Confucius, who likens it to a fish swimming with joy and abandon by gliding along the current and loosing its consciousness of the waters （“人之習於藝，如魚在水，忘其為水，斯有游泳自如之樂”）. In retrospect, this quality she was already in possession of back when she was a student; now that I have students of my own, I absorbed from Zhang the idea that the ultimate heights my lessons can aspire to is my mastery of English writing is such that I can induce my students to lose themselves in the act of watching me write.
My conversion from banana to egg would have pleased Chen Zuoer, who has called upon Hong Kong government officials to use education as a tool to instill a sense of national identity in Hong Kong youths. I’m probably no poster child for his brand of decolonialization, though: my change was self-propelled and self-paced , my affection for my homeland merely the accidental by-product of the pleasures my immersion in Chinese culture has given me. Hole me up in a classroom and force me to participate in a program that trumpets its agenda as making me feel Chinese – the very approach Beijing’s control-freak disposition will incline it to take – and I will feel like a fish out of water. Confucius would have understood.
To me, the one thing that stands out about feeling comfortable in my own skin as Chinese is it consists of moments that can’t be planned for. The very act of writing this piece yielded a surprise of such nature: a few paragraphs back, when I translated Zhang Chonghe’s prose into English and experimented with ways of keeping her voice intact, I felt the force of her words acutely, and, for a split second, it felt as if it was she and not I who were labouring to deliver the original text in the reincarnated form of another language. It spooked me a little, but to have the spirit of doyen of Chinese calligraphy take possession of me – it doesn’t get any better than this, especially considering I had once thought to experience even a semblance of Chinese-ness I had to resort to slanted eyes.