Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Who or what is an overseas Chinese? This mind-boggling concept has a story of its own; it’s complex and confusing, even to me. This post is a long time in the making, and in it I try to explain the term to all those who may be curious, but first and foremost to myself.

I’ve often tried to explain to people what the phrase overseas Chinese (海外僑民) means. To most audiences I would simply define it as any Chinese descendent born, or living for an extended period of time, overseas—i.e. outside of China—and, as a consequence, may hold a Chinese passport and the passport issued by their country of origin or residence.

I am overseas Chinese. And here, when applying my own definition above, we encounter the first problem: I don’t hold a Chinese passport, but a Taiwanese passport. This is because I’m not Chinese, but Taiwanese—or am I?

Why would I choose to use the above mentioned contradictory statement to define myself? Because when speaking of this puzzling (I understate) status, we must first return to a time before geopolitical conflicts and cross-strait awkwardness; to a time when no such thing as “blue” or “green” parties ever existed, when the only preoccupation of the Chinese was to literally divide and conquer.

It’s arguably difficult, and admittedly not very practical, to define any one people without the use of borders and nationality. Be that as it may, just as the numerous Jewish communities living outside of Israel continue to proudly articulate the existence of their bloodline in the one-eighths and one-sixteenths; as steadfast Kurds continue to call home the divided regions within Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, I, too, shall take a step back and insert into the equation a place whose name is known but not often used. This is a region simple in geography, yet sometimes too simple and insufficient to serve the pragmatism of today’s geopolitical and economic strife.

We know this region as Greater China (大中華地區).

Greater China, also known as the Greater China Region, is comprised of today’s Mainland China, Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. When speaking of Greater China in a political sense, the term does very little to remove the complexities surrounding the governing bodies of the four locations, as individually each is governed—albeit controversially—separately.

However, for the purpose of explaining the status of being overseas Chinese, the term is nothing short of perfect, as it was from this exact area that the first Chinese descendants migrated across land and sea to spread wealth and tradition, some even reaching as far as South Africa, my birthplace and first home. Furthermore, it is out of Greater China that we now understand the semantics of the term “overseas Chinese”, as we speak of “Chinese” in terms of ethnicity and not nationality.

It’s also worth mentioning, for those who may be wondering, that the term “overseas Chinese” is thus not synonymous with “Chinese immigrant”, which can be used by a receiving government and its people when referring to people of Chinese ancestry residing in their country.

Oppositely, the term “overseas Chinese” is not passively given to those with Chinese ancestry after immigration, rather it is actively pinned by the governments in Greater China to all those who have left the region to reside in other countries, with a time frame beginning from a handful of years to several generations, which is to say, as long as you have Chinese (or Taiwanese) ancestry, it doesn’t matter how many generations you’ve been abroad, you are still recognised as a Chinese or Taiwanese citizen by birthright of your ancestors, and therefore have the right to apply for, or reclaim, a Chinese or Taiwanese citizenship in the form of a passport, so long as one of your parents are citizens.

This has to do with a principle known as the “right of return“, upon which nations decide whether individuals have the right to “repossess”—return to—their parents’ nationality. The criteria for reclaiming citizenship is decided separately by each nation.

Let’s take Singaporean descendants born in the United States as an example. Such a right of return should mean that children of Singaporean descendants should have the right to reclaim Singaporean citizenship, right? Yes and no. It’s not that simple. In some cases, a nation’s right of return policy is very straightforward, granting citizenship to any individual who can prove that at least one of his parents is a citizen.

However, other nations and their policies stipulate that the reclaiming of citizenship must go hand in hand with the renouncing of all foreign citizenships. That is to say, if a Singaporean American wanted to apply for Singaporean citizenship through a parent, he or she would have to waive U.S. citizenship by the age of 22. It sure does make you think twice about going back to your roots, doesn’t it?

This is simply because the ease or difficulty of acquiring citizenship through right of return is often in direct correlation with a nation’s immigration policy—with a shrinking population, the Russian Federation recently made it easier for ethnic Russians to apply for Russian citizenship through just one ethnically Russian parent, greatly reducing waiting time and criteria of the procedure. But those with dual citizenships must still declare their existing foreign nationality, or face the prospect of being fined and labelled a “traitor“.

Nevertheless, while Taiwan may be faced with a similar population crisis, China certainly is not. Yet Beijing continues to grant citizenship to “overseas compatriots”, as the Chinese-speaking world likes to put it, simply out of principle, and even generations after they’ve settled elsewhere.

It is through Taiwan’s right of return policy (it sounds like someone is returning unwanted goods) that I acquired, without hassle, a Taiwanese passport, while not having to give up my South African passport. The same policy applies to Taiwanese living in other nations (maybe not China), thus giving us dual (or sometimes even multiple) citizenship, making us overseas Chinese.

Also, while “overseas Chinese” is an official status of citizenship recognised by both Beijing and Taipei, I’ve yet to hear a similar term elsewhere, such as “overseas Australian”, or “overseas German”. Odd.

Growing up in South Africa as an overseas Chinese meant, at least for us, that it didn’t matter where in Greater China you were from. In Johannesburg nobody short of a scholar would understand your political sensitivities. And why should they? Can you tell whether a black South African belongs to the Xhosa, Tswana, Venda, Tsonga or Zulu tribe just from their looks? No? Well, neither can I.

If you can’t tell the difference between black South Africans, why should they be able to say if you’re Hong Kongnese, Taiwanese or Chinese, much less Hakka or Hokkien?

In South Africa if you’re overseas Chinese, you learn to stick together, because if you single yourself out, you’re going to be left out in the cold. And in fact, during my childhood that was the exact code we, descendants of the brave peoples from Greater China, lived by, and continue to live by.

This applies not only to me in South Africa, but also to overseas Chinese residents in Australia, Europe, the United States, Canada, and Central or South America. My best friend in South Africa was ethnically Chinese, in the same way I am ethnically Taiwanese, but culturally we were one and the same. We were the embodiment of the Rainbow Nation, a country whose rich history is inseparable from the fate of the peoples of Africa, Asia and Europe. We didn’t care if our friends were Taiwanese or Chinese, all that mattered was that we got along. And isn’t that just the essence of what it means to be human? Who ever defined like-minded people by race, gender, religion or, indeed, political affiliation?

Being overseas Chinese is something I’ve always been proud of, more so as I’ve aged. I didn’t know what it meant to be overseas Chinese until I returned to Taiwan to study more than half a decade ago. I looked the same as everyone else in Taipei, yet our interests differed, our values varied. To a certain extent, my skin colour was the only criterion by which I qualified to be Taiwanese. Not even my lightly accented Chinese was enough to fool seasoned native speakers of Mandarin.

Of course I wasn’t completely and utterly irreversibly different from my Taiwanese compatriots. After all, one does not live for 18 years in an Asian family without picking up some stereotypically “Asian” attributes, such as a lack of discipline, mathematical incompetence, and a loathing for academics. Oh, oops.

What I mean to say is that, for all intents and purposes, I was at first very different, and I, ironically, oftentimes felt alienated, like many overseas Chinese still feel today, especially those who are more in touch with the culture of their birthplace.

Over time, and beginning in university, I slowly but surely adapted to Taiwanese culture, mingling more and more with the locals. In essence, I had not returned to Taiwan, as it is physically impossible to return to a place where you’ve never set foot in to begin with. Instead I became accustomed to Taiwan, in the same way a foreigner would get used to being in another country, with the locals having also become used to the sight of me.

The oddity of the situation, however, was that I found myself very happily spending time with other foreigners in Taiwan, who shared an all too familiar perplexity when faced with new and unfamiliar culture shocks, and also, as it turns out, an undying similarity in musical taste, sports preference, food choice, and a pick of activities I enjoy.

We, overseas Chinese, spend time with local Taiwanese friends. We also spend time with foreign friends. Where exactly do we fit in? The answer: anywhere and nowhere. And that was when I understood the role, and calling, that is being overseas Chinese.

A month before I graduated from university, I was sat around a table in my favourite restaurant on campus when I asked a close group of overseas Chinese and foreign friends how they would defined their individual roles in a miniature university society, given their status as either “overseas Chinese student”, “foreign exchange student” or “local student”. In other words, why is it beneficial to have these three categories of students studying together? And what does it bring to those who learn to appreciate the diversity?

For starters, locals students, in my opinion, probably have a more straightforward role. They play the host. Local Taiwanese students should typify what everyone loves about Taiwan, welcoming foreign guests, while at the same time forgiving their ignorance in the face of a radically new culture and language.

This works both ways, however. I believe that Taiwanese should only be as tolerant as the foreigner visitor is humble. If a foreigner with a superiority complex is rude and blasphemously critical of Taiwanese customs and traditions, why should a local have to put up with it?

Foreign exchange students have a really interesting role. I encourage all exchange programmes and policies that universities might promote just because I am a believer in culture exchange. That is, the enrichment of our minds through meeting new and different peoples.

These students bring different, and sometimes controversial, values on culture, politics, economics, etiquette and just lifestyle in general. I would wager that without the introduction of foreign exchange students, Taiwanese university life would be quieter, as they just bring so much more to the table. They are opinionated, with contrasting views and polarising arguments. In a class that requires debate, no one stirs things up more than a vocal foreign exchange student.

However, only a select few classes in universities are taught offered in English, so with language as a major stumbling block, their chances of initiating debate are oftentimes limited.

Last but not least, we have the overseas Chinese. What is it exactly that we do? It’s difficult to pinpoint since we often sit on the fence. And besides, even amongst ourselves in the overseas Chinese community there exist massive, gaping differences in ideas and opinions depending on one’s birthplace and associated culture. But generally speaking, I think overseas Chinese in Taiwan play the role of intermediately very well.

Those of us who are nice—and unfortunately not all of us are nice—are like a bridge connecting the foreign exchange students and local students, some of whom would never have connected otherwise. Other times we see ourselves having an understanding and tolerance for both the good and bad of Taiwanese and foreign culture, often defending one or the other.

We don’t always play this matchmaking role. Society at large would get on just fine without us, I’m sure. But the idea that our inclusion makes Taiwan and her culture just that little bit more colourful brings a smile to my face.

Naturally, one could never complete limit the role of any one individual. There are always those who feel more inclined to be outgoing or shy irrespective of student category. But as a general community in university and in the country, I, for one, really do appreciate the mixture. JSF.

2 thoughts on “Barrelled Thoughts #48 – Overseas Chinese: Self-Determination

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