Monday, November 17, 2008

Insider-Outsider... Part Deux

I am not one of those people who could proudly say that there have never been any regrets in their lives. In fact, I had many. One of them was to do with not being able to apply to L'Oreal's graduate recruitment programme when I was fresh out of university.

I went to their recruitment fair with a couple of my college best friends, and we were all very impressed by their presentation and by the down-to-earth personalities of their senior managers. It really seemed like a fun and decent place to work.

For me especially, I was very heartened by one of the qualities that this French company looked for in their applicants: biculturalism. I was mentally jumping up and down with joy when I read that in their graduate recruitment brochure, thinking to myself, "How cool is a company that not only appreciates, but actively promotes, the value of its staff having multiple cultural backgrounds?"

My friends and I all vowed that we would apply to the company. But things turned out differently for all of us.

I ended up with a full scholarship to America, something that I only applied on a lark, but it turned out I hit the jackpot. My friend decided to pursue a Masters at a prestigious local school before hitting the job market, and the other friend decided to go travelling for a year before settling down into the world of work.

In short, none of us applied to L'Oreal in the end.

When I came back from the States, I just missed the milk round, so I applied to whatever openings there were and ended up working for a German company. We spent weeks training in this remote picturesque town in the middle of nowhere in Hessen (which was three long train-rides from the Frankfurt airport!), where one of the trainers was especially fond of telling off-colour, even border-line racist jokes about people with different cultural backgrounds.

Thankfully he was only a trainer, not my actual superiors. But the fact that a person with that kind of attitude could be put in charge of training thousands upon thousands of staff from all over the world, spoke volumes about the actual corporate values of the company.

It was since then that I occasionally couldn't help but wonder, what if I have given up my scholarship and have worked for L'Oreal instead? What would my life path - and with it, my perspective on life - have been like instead?

* * *

Before I went to the States, all my friends said I would have an absolute ball in New York, and a couple of them were planning for trips to come visit me, so envious were they of the opportunity I was going to have to experience the Big Apple. Needless to say, my own expectations were extremely high also.

I remember stepping into the streets of NYC for the first time. I was gobsmacked. So many Chinese people. So many skyscrapers. It was almost like I stepped into Hong Kong. During the first orientation session, I befriended an Australian woman and a Japanese girl, and I was already loving the experience of being an international student in a foreign land.

Over time, I made friends with people from all walks of life, with all sorts of cultural backgrounds. But I noticed certain things. I began to realise that there were two different types of young Chinese college students in New York: the first group consisted of those recently immigrated from Hong Kong, and they tended to socialise among themselves and seldom used conversational English in their day-to-day life; the other group were American-born Chinese, who jested with each other easily and naturally in English, it being their mother-tongue.

The curious thing for me was this - these two groups didn't really mix socially. I couldn't help but wonder why, but to this day, I still don't quite know the answer.

But I do remember feeling a bit cheated in life somehow, as I couldn't (still can't actually) believe that people could live in an English-speaking country but manage to survive (even thrive) without having to grasp the dominant language.

In fact, my long-held impression that Hong Kong people have a superior command of English vis-a-vis other East-Asians was shattered after my stay in New York. Based only on a convenient sample of my friends and acquaintances at that time, my impression was that Taiwanese, Koreans and Singaporeans have much better English than Hong Kongers.

I was feeling so envious, thinking to myself, Geez, if only my parents have decided to move to America instead of Ireland, then I wouldn't have to spend so much time - more accurately, blood sweat and tears - mastering the English language...

But of course, English became my new love, despite the fact that I still believe proper Chinese to be the most beautiful language in the world. And on reflection, I am grateful for my parents' decision to bring us here.

Before I moved to the States, I idealised the Big Apple and other big cities like it. But afterwards, I realised that, despite all its faults (and there are many), Ireland suited my temperament much better than any other country I have come to know.

* * *

When I came back to Ireland after my sojourn in New York, I was in for another shock: all of a sudden there were many Mainland Chinese people in the streets of Dublin.

The difference between before I left and after I came back was startling - suddenly cafe counters were manned by young Chinese students, the girl behind the coat-check in the night-club was Chinese, pint-glasses in pubs were cleared away by young Chinese fellows, and there was even a Chinese woman busker on Grafton Street!

I was shocked, and I have to admit, dismayed. Not so much because of the fact that there are now many Chinese people who make Ireland their home, but because they were mostly - and still are, to a large extent - represented in low-ranking, menial and casual jobs.

For instance, for the longest time, I was embarrassed to come upon the Chinese woman busker on Grafton Street at night, whose routine consisted of doing a Chinese dance wearing very flimsy clothes even when it was freezing cold at night (I mean, it wouldn't have been so bad if she busked in broad daylight like the majority of buskers, but her flimsy dress and the fact that she chose to perform only at night seemed to indicate that she was "selling" something else). It was demeaning to watch the drunks jeered at her admittedly dismal performance.

As a person who has for years been mentally carrying the responsibility of being a quasi-ambassador for Hong Kong, I feel both shame and anger at the Chinese woman for reducing our culture to a mere sideshow for drunks and selling it for a pittance. (Even though I know she couldn't help it as it was probably the only way she could scrape a living in rip-off Dublin).

Prior to the waves of immigration from Mainland China in recent years, the small Chinese community in Ireland for decades past was mostly originated from Hong Kong. They were mainly in the restaurant and takeaway business, but, unlike their counterparts in the UK, they did not choose to stick with each other and congregate together to form a Chinatown.

No, they scattered far and wide, opening a small family-run take-away or a restaurant here or there, in small towns and villages across the length and breadth of Ireland. Apparently this made good business sense, as it meant that they wouldn't have to compete with each other for customers.

But on a deeper level, there was also another logic at work here: that the Chinese families would by necessity be integrated into the local Irish community.

When I first came here, I was the only foreign student in the entire school. This had tremendous advantages -- my school friends got to know me, rather than knowing me as just "one of the overseas students"; my teachers saw me as their pet, and gave me special treatment out of indulgence, rather than because they were mandated to support a group of foreign-born students with special needs in an already crowded classroom.

In that environment, my younger brother and I were given room to explore and develop our personalities in tandem with our peers as we grew up. We weren't simply conceived as "one of the others", precisely because there weren't enough of "us" to be considered as "the others".

It was the same kind of environment that allowed John Rocha to be thought of as an "Irish" designer, even though he came originally from Hong Kong.

However, for better or for worse, that seems now to be a quaint, bygone age...

* * *

Perhaps I should round off my musings above with this passage from Peter Hoeg's "Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow":

On Disko Island in 1981, I helped test the corrosion effects of sea fog on the snaplinks used for safety lines on glacier crossings. We simply hung them up on a cord and came back three months later. They still looked reliable. A little tarnished, but reliable. The manufacturer claimed the breaking strength would be four thousand kilogrammes. It turned out that we could pull them apart with a fingernail. Exposed to a hostile environment, they had disintegrated.

It is through a similar process of deterioration that you lose your language.

When we moved from the village school to Qaanaaq, we had teachers who didn't know one word of Greenlandic, nor did they have any plans to learn it. They told us that, for those who excelled, there would be an admission ticket to Denmark and a degree and a way out of Arctic misery. This golden ascent would take place in Danish. This was when the foundation was being laid for the politics of the sixties. Which led to Greenland officially becoming "Denmark's northernmost county", and the Inuit were officially supposed to be called "Northern Danes" and "be educated to the same rights as all other Danes", as the prime minister put it.

That's how the foundations are laid. Then you arrive in Denmark and six months pass and it feels as if you will never forget your mother tongue. It's the language you think in, the way you remember your past. Then you meet a Greenlander on the street. You exchange a few words. And suddenly you have to search for a completely ordinary word. Another six months pass. A girlfriend takes you along to the Greenlanders' House on Lov Lane. That's where you discover that your own Greenlandic can be picked apart with a fingernail.

* * *

This post was inspired by a number of recent and not-so-recent posts/discussions on other blogs. In all cases, the bloggers concerned have been extremely kind to indulge me spouting nonsense or spilling my guts on their comment pages. I'm humbled by their politeness and tolerance, as I am not sure I would be similarly patient if I have been in their shoes. I shall learn not to do that again in future - in fact, I shall even put it as one of my new year's resolutions.

On ReadandEat
On Orangutan House
On Petiteinote
On Toffeeland

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At Mon Nov 17, 07:25:00 p.m. GMT, Blogger laichungleung said...

People form cliques based on race, religion, hobbies, sexual orientation and what have you. You identify with some certain group and that's about it. Sometimes it's voluntary and sometimes it just so happens.

The term "Chook Sing" is rather neutral, maybe if anything just a bit derogatory. It's a ghetto speak to describe Chinese Americans who are born here, yellow outside but white inside, like bamboo or like a bananas, whatever. That was when their Chinese parents thought their kids identify with White kids or White America, truth be told, that might not even be the case. They might just identify with the same American Chinese who were born here, i.e. other Chook Sing who share a very similar American experience.

And then of course you have the FOB which is what some Chook Sing call other Chinese immigrants as in Fresh Off the Boat. Any foreign Chinese students and Mainland immigrants who can't speak the English language well enough or who tend to be an embarrassment are all lumped as FOB.

At Mon Nov 17, 07:39:00 p.m. GMT, Anonymous readandeat said...

I can't believe that I can finish this post. Nothing offensive. I usually don't spend so much time to read blogs written in English.

The Chinese American you mentioned are brought up in this country. Their values are different, I would say, are close to American, from Chinese from the Chinese community. Besides that, I sometimes find difficulty to understand my neighbor's conversations because there are a lot of cultural backgrounds that I don't know. Some people may not aware this fdifference and assume that you know everything in the States.

I don't have a lot of Chinese friends, well, actually not even non-Chinese friends here. I think it's the culture of this city. People come and go easily. Whenever you find someone to be your friends, they move away.

At Tue Nov 18, 05:09:00 p.m. GMT, Blogger Snowdrops said...


Thanks for your thoughtful comments here. Hmmm, I didn't realise that my worldview seems to coincide so much with the "Chook Sing" you mentioned. I was gobsmacked though by the prejudicial term "FOB"... I'm really conflicted, as despite the fact that I've always thought of myself as a leftwing person, I guess some of my musings in my post made me sound more like Bill O'Reilly!!

I'm going to write another post to tease out exactly what my thoughts were regarding the conflict between so-called "first generation" immigrants with the later immigrants, in the context of Ireland at least. It would be great to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Just wondering: how would you consider yourself between the "Chook Sings" and the "FOB"s? You are clearly neither of those things, so is there a specific term to describe people like yourself in the States? Do you call yourself Chinese-American? Or would you think such labels are totally unhelpful, which is kind of what I was getting at in my poem.

The saddest thing for me to read is actually when you commented that the "Chook Sing" term is a label given to their own flesh-and-blood by the Chinese parents themselves... Sigh... I just think that, if you can't manage to see your own kids as complex individuals needing your love and support, then no wonder there is so much inter-generational mistrust and misunderstandings...

(and just to avoid any confusions, the "you" in my above sentence is a GENERAL "you" and not a specific "you", and definitely I do not mean to refer to you LCL!! It's just easier to use general "you" instead of using "one" in a sentence like that.)

At Tue Nov 18, 05:19:00 p.m. GMT, Blogger Snowdrops said...


Hey good to see you here!! I'm so happy that you managed to finish reading my long-winded post!! I must think of other ways to entice you to come visit more often :)

Thanks very much for your thoughts as well about the Chinese Americans. As I mentioned in my post, my understanding of New York was very impressionistic, based solely on my experiences and knowledge of my friends and acquaintances at the time, so it's good to learn more about the Chinese community there from the perspectives of long-term residents in NYC like yourself and LCL.

I agree that NYC is a very transient city (after all, I only stayed there briefly myself). But from what I can see on your blog, with your description of all the lovely dinner parties and treats you've shared with your workmates and neighbours, you seem to have made lots of friends with all those you came into contact :) To your friends and acquaintances, you and your family are probably seen as a lovely warm ray of sunshine in an otherwise cold city.

At Wed Nov 19, 02:11:00 p.m. GMT, Blogger laichungleung said...

Wonder no more. I think I am a FOB all right. My command of the language would never ever be as good as a person who was born and reared here. So an FOB no doubt. I have no problem with that. I know my place on earth.

But usually I don't dwell on my race or ethnicity at all. It's just me that's about it. Not that I would happily deny who I am because that's just embedded in me from day one. What I am trying to say is I just live my life without much reflecting on my own race. Reflection usually doesn't help me live my life.

At Wed Nov 19, 08:07:00 p.m. GMT, Blogger laichungleung said...

If you mean "people" as in "me"
feeling offended because of you saying that Hong Kong people you came across in NYC can't master the English language, I have to say no em pathetically. I don't at all feel offended because I think your observation just echoes mine too.

I know my place on earth as in I know I will never be smart enough in general, like I will never be able to go to Harvard Law school or like great in literature or anything or like somebody important.

The only reason I mentioned Chook Sing and FOB is for your information. I don't particularly use it and since you asked I think I am more of a FOB just an FYI, and that's my sentiment and assessment. I don't think about my race too often.

I didn't know I always came across offensive. Sorry it wasn't my intention whatsoever. I failed miserably.

At Wed Nov 19, 09:49:00 p.m. GMT, Blogger Snowdrops said...

Sorry LCL, I overreacted basically. But I did permanently delete my initial comment to you after a few minutes. I guess you could still see my original reactionary comment via your email.

Anyway, I saw your message after I have replied to Michelle's on her blog, and while individually I could respond with relative equanimity, the combination of both your comments seem to suggest I'm this joyless stuck-up b**** who were oh-so-proud of her English proficiency. I know that this is not what you intended (I hope not anyway), but maybe I just got back from a long day at work or whatever, anyway, as I said, I overreacted. And I'm sorry.

At Wed Nov 19, 10:07:00 p.m. GMT, Blogger Snowdrops said...

Anyway, just in case anyone is wondering, this was my original comment that was deleted by myself after a few minutes:

"Okay, I get it, people are offended because I mentioned that during my stay in NY my impression of HKers's fluency in English was shattered. I'm sorry, but it's true. Because I remember how much I wished that I could have got on with my life without having to expend such blood sweat and tears mastering a different language.

Why did you have to "know your place in the world"??????? Why subscribe to the idea that one cannot "have notions above their stations"?????? Why must the world be divided into Chook Sings and FOBs?????????? Why can't we leave those bloody terms alone already???????

You know, the only positive thing I got from googling about the Chook Sing label was that, apparently the new generation don't use that term anymore, and so loads of youngsters don't know what it means. Well, thank goodness for that! There is progress in the world after all. And I hope the term FOBs would be similarly consigned to the dustbins of history.

And I guess because I care so much about these things, I will die a bitter bitter soul. Perhaps that would serve me right."

As I said, I'm not proud of the above comment. I was committing the error of taking somebody else's personal approach and life perspective as somehow being an indictment of my own. This is ironic as I was the one who was arguing for different strokes for different folks over on Michelle's blog.

Anyway, my regret at losing my proficiency in Chinese is real and could never be compensated by my command of English. Thus my citation of Peter Hoeg's passage.

Does that somehow render me less "Chinese" or more "Irish"? I don't believe so. The key thing I don't like about the "Chook Sing" term is this idea that cultural identity is a zero-sum game, that having one must necessarily mean having less of another. That's why I really appreciate L'Oreal wanting its staff being bi-culturate - here, at least, having two backgrounds doesn't mean that you're a bamboo pole, unable to branch into either culture; instead, it's a great quality to be celebrated, because it makes us all more open-minded and less ethnocentric. I think that is a good thing.

Okay, I've said enough.

At Thu Nov 20, 01:24:00 a.m. GMT, Blogger laichungleung said...

Apology accepted.

At Mon Nov 24, 10:50:00 p.m. GMT, Blogger The Man Who Loves Everton said...

hi snowdrop,

such a long one, huh? i understand and i agree what you said.

i have one story. from a polish friend of mine who lives in dublin.

he knows one polish who doesn't know english at all but still manage to live in dublin without any problem. for years. amazing, isn't it?

appears that to live in a country one needs not to learn the (official) language of that country. this is just another proof.

i just wonder if he has lived in this city for years why he still doesn't know english.

life is just too short to have any regrets.

At Wed Nov 26, 12:51:00 a.m. GMT, Anonymous Anonymous said...


i love this post.

i miss mixing with aussies and japanese and hk and china students and ABCs back in melbourne...i had a vietnamese (or thai?) neighbour who blasted viet/thai songs and even though it was irritating but it was cool.

it was also until i came back tt i realise how ive lost the Chinese language and even the ability to speak fluently! I was embarrassed - more sad because I used to love the Chinese language alot back in secondary school days...

so i know how you feel. but dont fret, there are more things in life to be thankful about! :)

At Sun Nov 30, 01:45:00 a.m. GMT, Blogger Snowdrops said...

Everton Man and Ser:

Thank you so much for your really nice messages here, you don't know how much it means to me to see such warm comments here especially on this topic, thank you... ((((virtual hugs to you both!!))))

Everton Man:
Thank you for sharing the story of your Polish friend. Whilst perhaps it's not surprising - and indeed totally understandable - that people from older generations (like my grandparents for example) might not have a good grasp of English, but who managed to earn a decent living in a foreign land through their sheer determination and hard graft, what surprised me about the young College students from HK that I came across in NY at the time was the fact that many of them seemed to feel content to stay in their own circles and not that interested in getting to know the country they've immigrated into... I guess I was expecting them to be a bit more curious since they were COLLEGE STUDENTS... So on this point I guess I am somewhat in agreement with some of the expressed viewpoints of your hero To Kit there...

Thank you soooooo much for your encouraging comment :) I know exactly what you mean about how great it is to find kindred spirits from other countries - it's one of the major reasons why I love being an eternal student I guess ;)

I'm really heartened by the fact that you understand what I was talking about regarding the loss of Chinese... I haven't totally lost the language as I could still read without problems, but it's shocking now how rusty my conversational Cantonese has become... I actually didn't know that you studied Chinese to secondary school level, how envious am I!! But yeah, I agree there are many things in life to be thankful about, such as meeting a great blog friend like you!


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