When an intercultural relationship ends – a relationship that deeply impacted who you are – what does it mean for your identity?
Serina Huang (a fantastic writer, blogger, mother and frugalista many of us know as the Taiwanxifu) writes, “Now that I am no longer with my Taiwanese husband, I am beginning to rediscover and question who I am. Will I keep my Asian surname? Am I Asian? Am I Western?”
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“Is he Australian?” my friend Rose asked.
I knew what she meant, but still the question surprised me. I paused for a minute, before replying, “no, actually, he’s English.”
Her eyebrows went up slightly, and she gave a slight giggle. “Oh, Serina!”
For seventeen years I had shared my life with a Taiwanese man, with whom I bore two dual-cultural children. We were introduced while I was studying Mandarin Chinese at University: he had been my language partner, and – quite unexpectedly to all concerned, myself included – morphed into my partner with whom I hoped I would spend my life.
I have spent over twenty years being immersed in Chinese (and Taiwanese) culture. This isn’t something faddish, but rather something was essential in my role as a Taiwanese xifu or daughter-in-law. Before we were married, my Taiwanese mother-in-law told me that once I became a xifu I must become Taiwanese rather than a foreigner. (She also made it clear she expected to live with us and for me to care for her in her old age.) I laughed a little about this as it seemed absurd not to live like an Australian in my own country.
But somehow, bit by bit, I changed. I became an egg: outwardly white, yet inwardly Asian yellow. I would go to work and act out my work existence, but somehow felt different and apart, unsure about how to behave in the oddly open Australian office environment. I didn’t spend my evenings and weekends the way that other people seemed to; I rarely went out for after work drinks, rarely went to the movies, hardly ever watched commercial TV.
Instead I went home to cook for a house full of Asian people – for six years we had home-stay students and invariably they were Chinese, broken up occasionally by Japanese or Korean students. I bought rice in 10kg bags (only ever high-grade Japonica rice, which I cooked in a special Ta-tung electric cooker we had imported from Taiwan). I only purchased the proper brand of naturally brewed soy sauce. I learned through trial and error to cook meals that tasted the way a Chinese mother would have made them. I still remember the night my husband nodded with appreciation because I had stir-fried a simple meal of Hokkien chicken noodles just right “That tastes like it was cooked by someone Chinese, not like a lao wai,” he said, scooping up mouthfuls of the noodles with relish in his shiny metal chopsticks.
We were always saving money to invest in properties that would help build a better future for us and for the children I eventually produced. One of my work colleagues laughed at this and told me I was ‘so boring and so Chinese.’ Unlike him, I didn’t have cool or expensive hobbies, and we rarely travelled. When we were invited to noisy dinner gatherings with Chinese friends, invariably the discussion would drift to money and investing in property. Even people who were not working had investments. We were held up as models of the successful Taiwanese immigrant life. My husband was an investment guru and financial star and held court dispensing advice for those looking to emulate our experience.
We rarely dined out and instead spent evenings sitting on the sofa watching Japanese soap-operas with Chinese subtitles. My favourite mega-series, which I have watched at least four times, is called ‘Diamond Girl’. Kind of like a Japanese version of Legally Blonde, it follows the journey of a privileged and spoiled young woman (with her endless wardrobe of brand name clothing) who worked as a secretary in law firm in an impossible quest to win back her fiancé. In the beginning of the series she studies (or rather socializes) in Sydney, and I loved seeing my own country through the eyes of a Japanese fashion princess. I so wanted to be Diamond Girl: she was cute and sassy, and I aspired to wear her bright and sexy clothes.
Later, I became madly addicted to a Taiwanese soap Inborn Pair. It is an odd title, and a better translation is Love Looking for Trouble. I lusted over the clean-cut Burberry overcoat clad actor who played the lead in the series, Chris Wang. I discovered that he spent his early years studying/working in Australia, and I used to daydream about meeting him and casually asking about his experiences Downunder. I imagined him as a younger and more romantic version of my husband. In my dreams I was transported back to an idealized vision of when we first met, before xifu responsibilities and cross-cultural misunderstandings got in the way.
Of course these were hardly tales that you could talk about in the kitchenette at work while filling up my thermos to make a cup of Taiwanese gaoshan high mountain green tea.
“You know, last night I cooked Chinese kongxincai greens with fermented beancurd, stewed fatty pork belly with star anise and hard boiled eggs, and served it over perfectly steamed rice. And then I watched Diamond Girl pretend to be a hostess in a bar in order to win back a client whom she accidentally insulted at the law firm she worked at. Oh, and her boss really likes the tea that she makes for him – you can tell because he grunted.” This wasn’t something most ‘Aussies’ could relate to.
Now that I am no longer with my Taiwanese husband, I am beginning to rediscover and question who I am. Will I keep my Asian surname? Am I Asian? Am I Western? What does the ‘West’ even mean? What bits of my ‘egg’ identity to I want to keep? Are there bits that I want to separate out, like a yolk being separated from the whites?
Above all, how to explain to New Man, whom I started dating in a strange yuan fen coincidence of destiny that only Chinese people could fully understand, that I might look like outwardly a plump middle-aged Anglo-Saxon mother, but my head and my heart operate quite differently.
Some things are easy: I tell him my favourite band is the Taiwanese rock group Mayday (aka wu yue tian), and I love singing karaoke classics by Teresa Teng and Ah-mei, and more recent songs by the lovely Della Ting and breathless Jia Jia. He nods but I know that Mando-pop will probably never appeal. At least my Taiwanese-Australian girlfriend gets it; over Easter we spend an afternoon belting out karaoke classics on my computer while my kids are with their father. She introduces me to Leehom and Kimberly; I fall in love with Leehom youtube videos and he becomes my new Asian pin-up model.
I talk about my student days in Beijing, with toilets that stank so much I could smell them from my room down the hallway. About my first frightened night in student accommodation and the drunken Kazakhstanis who kick-boxed down the door opposite mine in a quest for beer from the xiaomaibu store. Surviving that to spend a year partying and flirting with abandon. Naively backpacking through China. About living in Taiwan, about the dumplings, vegetarian buffets with fake meat and vegetables grown in the mountains, hidden hipster cafes in the back laneways and how sad I was to say goodbye to the royal blue LED-lit tiers of Taipei 101 as our chauffeured car swung past it in the light winter rain. I joke about travelling back to Taiwan with my mother-in-law on my honeymoon, and (having left her in Taipei) reminisce about clutching my new husband on a scooter while we travelled along the fiercely beautiful coastal region near Taitung. I tell New Man that Taiwan is a clean, green city in Asia, that the subways (jieyun) and High Speed Rail (gaotie) are amazing. I get excited about the emerging art scene in Taiwan, the way that ancient and modern cultures are converging to form a new identity.
He has been to Hong Kong but never really travelled through Asia; Asia to him is a night at a Thai restaurant eating laksa. (That prompted a whole explanation of Singapore’s nyonya cuisine, and regional differences in Chinese cuisines, which I think again went over his head.)
I tell him I can speak Mandarin. “You clever thing,” he says. He starts sending me sexy messages on Facebook messenger with the help of Google Translate. They make me laugh.
But it is difficult to explain that my brain doesn’t just translate from English into Mandarin, like a tap that I can turn on and off. I might not be a native speaker, but I think, I live, I dream in Chinese. I am often at my happiest prattling on in imperfect Mandarin, so happy to meet Taiwanese Mums on a playdate and to bitch light-heartedly about the frustrations of navigating the Australian dream – many are married to Australian men and experience what I did in reverse. My children’s English is littered with Chinglish phrases. “Mummy, bao bao,” my toddler pleads when he wants a cuddle. My preschooler, who seems to perpetually have his hands in his undies, refers to his genitalia as ‘xiao niaoniao’ and this seems an easier term to use when chiding him about it in public.
In the early days of dating, I had to stop myself from speaking to New Man in Chinese. “Ni xian shuo ba! – you speak first,” I have nearly said on the phone countless times. Chinese was the secret language of courtship and intimacy with my husband, a language I intuitively retreat to when thinking emotively. “Talking about love – tan lian ai’ , is how they refer to this stage of dating someone in Chinese.
I argue best in Chinese. It is only in Mandarin that I feel that I can truly express my anger, my indignation about things, especially injustices right or wrong in my marriage. When I get truly worked up, I make my point more shrilly and cruelly than in English. Perhaps it is best that I am not able to tap into this, as it would probably tear New Man’s soft vulnerability to shreds.
I explain to New Man that I feel uncomfortable when people split bills. (Thankfully that has never come up on a date.) I talk a bit about the importance of face (mianzi), and gloss over the importance of cultivating networks or guanxi. I explain about how I plan to help my kids maintain their Chinese language skills. We take our children out together to a Chinese lantern festival. He likes the lion dance and tells me it is fun but that he doesn’t like yum cha (yuk cha, he calls it).
How to explain the deep yearning within me to return to Asia, how I constantly miss living in Taiwan? How a part of me feels this quest to explore, to discover, to connect with Chinese culture as if I was born into it in a past life? That despite my Caucasian appearance, that I feel a sense of belonging and normalcy when I glance out the taxi window and read glaring neon signs in Chinese? That sometimes I feel lost and lonely just being normal in suburban Canberra? How I am a temple junkie, and pray with unadvisable regularity to Guanyin for relationships, Matsu for safe passage, Guan Gong for courage and wisdom, Cai Shen for money and Wen Chang for a promotion in my public service career? What it truly means to express gan en – appreciation – when you receive your hearts desire? How feng shui matters to my life and defines where and how I live? How my children’s Chinese names were chosen by a fortune teller, and mine has layers of meaning that takes five minutes to explain?
“But you are not even Chinese,” I tell New Man on a picnic date shortly after meeting him, as we discuss how inexplicable that it was that we should have hooked up.
With his blond hair and blue eyes, this is fairly obvious. Nor do I wish he was anything other than what he is. The attraction took me by surprise, powerful and unexpected, making me as giddy as a teenager. He is unaware how very English he is. I went to Beijing rather than do the usual pulling a beer in a pub gap year that many Aussies do and so I know nothing about England, nothing about his culture or the landscape that shaped him. To me, being with him is the new foreign, the new exotic.
And through it I am inventing my new life as a mixed-up scrambled egg, choosing how I want to flavour my omelette.
Serina Huang is a writer, blogger, mother and frugalista. She blogs about Taiwanese culture and food at www.taiwanxifu.com, and about parenting and being frugal at www.weekendparent.co. She is currently working on a book about her experiences of doing Chinese postpartum confinement (zuo yuezi).
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