Friday, October 24, 2008

Are you a Chinese? The tussle between ethnicity and nationality

chinese-ethnicity-nationality-Singaporean















I was having drinks at the local pub with a couple of colleagues after work yesterday when the conversation, for reason unknown to me, steered towards the Chinese people. At that point in time, my English colleague (a jolly fella really) gestured towards me and two others.

Let me just put this into context, our band of three consist of an Australian Chinese, a Hawaiian Chinese and myself, a Singaporean Chinese. After a moment of silence, the English colleague quickly went on to say how much he respected the Chinese culture and decided to throw in the Japanese culture for good measure. Like I mentioned in an earlier post, the English are generally a very polite and politically correct lot.

Frankly, I didn't feel the least offended. Why should I be? Just a bit amused though as I've never considered myself as a Chinese per se. I'm a Singaporean through and through. In fact, I would definitely have more in common with Singaporean Malays and Indians than the Chinese (from China).

What do you think? Does nationality takes precedence over ethnicity for you or is it the other way round? Or is it an issue at all?

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23 comments:

Dutchie said...

I am very Singaporean when I'm in Europe n very Dutch when I'm in Singapore - what does that make me *scratches head* ?

Jokes aside, I think we tend to be pro our birth identity when we r up against a counterpart in a foreign land, wouldn't u agree ?

With our older relatives, u can still hear their yearning to go back to the old country, if u know what I mean.

lina said...

what about being mistaken for a Chinese when you're not (not even a Malaysian Chinese) I get that a lot, not that I mind.

C K said...

@dutchie,
I am wondering, are there any characteristics that make a Dutch stand out from the crowd?

I would think that it's the amount of time that you spend in a particular country. I mean, if a person born in Singapore spends almost his entire life in a foreign country, he wouldn't build up any ties to Singapore, would he?

Hmm... some of my relatives are from Malaysia. Never heard of them saying that though. But then again, that's probably because Malaysia is just across Johor Straits.


@lina,
Really? Perhaps you have the features of a Chinese.

Imagine that... a Malay who looks like a Chinese and speaks Japanese (yes, you do, don't you?). Heck, you're a mini regional UN in your own right. :)

Dwacon® said...

It's the way of the world...

LoneStarVintageClothing said...

I suppose it is the way of the world. I'm American and I know the rest of the world views America by our politics, etc.. It's really frustrating because American's simply stand out because of the people who run our government and we have no control over anything. I'm from Texas and I wished Texas would become their own country again. I will say that many Texans do stand out because of their accents and many people think that all Texans are cowboys. I'm not a cowboy however, I do suppose I have a bit of an accent. :-) Sorry for my babbling post.

SG Entrepreneur said...

I think as the world grows smaller because of cheap travel and the internet, the idea of nationality will slowly go away. I'd give it one more generation and no one will be saying "I'm this or I'm that" anymore.

Better Interpersonal Communication said...

Interesting having so many chinese from different countries together. I guess that is what happens in an international environment.

Deb said...

i m Singaporean, but if u ask me for my race i would always hesitate a bit, cos I can say 'Chinese', or peranakan, or baba, or hokkien, but I don't speak any of those languages, i dun speak Mandarin.

And i feel strange whenever i m in China itself, not so much in other countries or in the West.

Ori said...

When I went to a Chinese Resto in UK with 2 of my Thai friends (who are a couple)and one Chinese Indonesian friend, suddenly having felt annoyed by the very slow service, my Thailand friends started to mutter bad things that Chinese was this, that,..et cetera, and laughed.
Perhaps they thought because we're from Indonesia, then we must be Indonesian, but my Chinese Indonesian friend looked a bit offended and he's kinda told me something by his eyes, and I was confused of what to say since those Thai friends even look more Chinese than the two of us (well, though I'm not Chinese Indonesian, but in Indonesia people generally thought I'm Chinese).
The funniest thing was, the gf even told her bf, "but your face is very Chinese". Indeed, the boy looked more Chinese than his gf who's also look Chinese.
When we didn't respond them, the stopped making fun :-D. It's really a weird situation.

A. said...

I think there's a huge confusion between ethnicity and nationality in many people's minds. My work used involve collecting forms that asked nationality and ethnic group and it was quite amazing what people would fill in. I often had to ask what passport they had to get the answer. And even that was sometimes a surprise - a person with a broad Scottish accent, born and brought up in Edinburgh, had an Indian passport and had retained his Indian nationality.

Martin Miller-Yianni said...

It shouldn't be an issue of course. As long as you are a law abiding citizen with respect for others as humans, that is all that is needed. But this is fiction to many societies in this world.

Anonymous said...

When I was a kid one of my best friends was chinese (i'm from chicago) and one day at school I was cracking a joke and for some reason I broke into a chinese joke doing "chin-chin-chin-chin-chin" to that most famous tune -- everyone stopped dead and I was like "what the hell is wrong with you guys"

My chinese friend was sitting right next to me.

He never said anything and we just went on -- but my point is that's how unaware of race I was and am (I know you could say 'gee that's funny...you were so unaware but you were making a racist joke') In my mind I was just making a joke like I would of any other situation.

I dated an indian girl and called her 'darky' -- I liked her skin. I liked the playful name...and so did she.

As far as being mistaken purely based on looks...how can you be offended at that? Some think I'm german...some think I'm irish looking....maybe some say british...why do I give a shit?

I think younger and younger generations don't care and this will soon be a non-issue...but it was interesting to read your point of view.

Good post.

Robin said...

I think nationality is becoming a thing of the past. Where I work we have people from many cultures .. Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Jamaican, Palestinian, Egyptian and several others but we're all Canadians. I'm originally from England.

Dutchie said...

CK, the only way to distinguish each "ang moh" is to listen to the language spoken. The dutch themselves consists of several dialects btw.

Then there is the term AUTOCHTHONOUS for the indigenous dutch n ALLOCHTHONOUS for others without ancestral roots here. I hv friends married to Japanese n they were classified as "Alien" which sounds just as bad !

I think I will remain a Sg'rean at heart no matter how long I live here. It's only when visiting Sg that I'm perceived to be a non-Sg'rean, which is weird.

Don't u hv this feeling of being very S'grean when in UK n kinda British when in Sg ? When I meet up with old friends who speaks English with an Aussie or American accent, the feeling that they r in fact a foreigner like myself is very real indeed.

Ryan said...

I think nationality should take preference over ethnicity, but that is just my take on it!

pikey said...

I'm a Malaysian Chinese residing in Malaysia and I feel myself close to the nationality rather the ethnicity....

I've been to Beijing for my working trips and I can feel like I'm an alien there.

Though physically I'm a Chinese per say, but culturally, it feels so different...

lina said...

Pikey,
I heard the same sentiments from my Chinese Malaysian friends too. They don't feel like they are a part of mainland China.

CK,
you know, there are people who commented on how well I speak Malay when they first met me. LOL!

I do have a pretty mean vocab of swear & curse word in Cantonese. :D
The adavantage of being surrounded by Cantonese speaking colleagues and an insane amount of watching TVB dramas. Hahaha

American Mom In London said...

I'm a Filipino girl born and raised in America, married a (white) American, and am now living in London...

My nationality definitely takes precedence over ethnicity for me, but I think that's because I didn't have an opportunity to grow up among a larger Filipino community. I didn't even speak the language.

Although, I have to admit. It still throws whenever I hear a British accent from an Asian person :-)

Joeru said...

Here's my thoughts, I do agree with @Martin Miller-Yianni the fact that it shouldn't be an excuse. Yes our ethnics can be Chinese, Malay, Korean, etc but Natioanlity is where we are born/grown up with, a place most of us identify ourselves with, a place most of us call home. So when people asked me: You are Chinese, are you from China? (typical) I'll just say yes and no. Yes, I'm Chinese; No, I'm from Singapore. We Chinese are all over the place on this earth so don't assume we are just in 1 location. :D (Yaya here)

Rudy said...

I can't get away from my ethnicity (Chinese). It's on my face and I can't change it. So I might as well embrace it.

blurblurpiggy said...

I get offended if people say I'm from China. I'm happy to tell that I'm Malaysian and then mention that I'm Chinese but Malaysian alone works fine.

kyh said...

Haha. Well, M'sia has this issue with ethnicity and nationality. We (non-Malays) always say, we love the country, but does the country love us? So in that case ethnicity might take precedence over nationality.

Frances said...

I think it's citizenship. Well, I wouldn't know since I've been born and bred in the Philippines all my life. But when I have American cousins coming over... well, they may look Filipino, they may even have some Filipino quirks, but darling, they're all American to me!