A Nonya on Yellow Mountain
What’s a nonya to do when nobody seems to know what a nonya is?
In 2002, I made a trip to China with a busload of largely Mandarin-speaking Singaporeans.
During the course of the trip, word spread that I knew very little Mandarin. And that I was Peranakan and was more likely to exclaim in Malay than in Chinese.
I might as well have stepped out of a spaceship, no one seemed to know what a Peranakan was.
On the remaining days of that 11-day trip I was quizzed sporadically. On Huang Shan or Yellow Mountain someone asked me if my mother was Malay. So I explained that for most Peranakans, the mixing of Malay and Chinese blood had taken place a long, long time ago, probably centuries ago.
Days later when we were walking along the bank of a canal in Zhujiajiao, the same woman said to me, “
Oh, I can see it now, you move like a Malay.”
I took that to mean I was graceful and delicate. She did not explain what she meant and she did not really get it when I said, “Do you think I gelek (walk with a swaying gait)?”
So I demonstrated that to her and we had a good laugh.
Another woman asked, “So you Peranakans have a bit of Malay blood in you. Can you eat pork?” she said, all in the same breath.
In my mind I thought, “Ethnicity does not equal religion” but I only said, “I can eat pork. I really like suckling pig.”
And that wasn’t the end of the investigation. While we were trawling the streets of Shanghai, a man from the tour group asked, “So you speak mostly English at home. Do you eat mostly Western food at home?”
It was all I could do to keep myself from saying forcefully in a Greta Garbo accent, “What I speak does not determine what I eat. I vant to be alone.”
I was frazzled by the constant sifting of my cultural identity.
So could you blame me when a Shanghainese cab driver asked where I was from and I answered in English, “Outer Mongolia.”
I could have said “outer space”. It would not have made a difference.
asia! IN A SNAP
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