“You are more Chinese than the China Chinese and you know Chinese history, cultures and traditions much better than us” （“你比我们中国人更象一个中国人。你比我们更懂加理解中华历史，文化连传统。”） , said a China friend of mine during one of my visits there recently. She also added: “We had forgotten much of our cultures and traditions. Most of it lost during the Cultural Revolution” (“我们也忘了很多中华文化和传统，很多是在文化大革命的时候”). She is not the first person who said this. I have heard this from many of my China Chinese friends. I am humbled by their praise but my journey towards learning Mandarin and Chinese history, cultures and traditions was not easy.
Since young, I was sent to English medium kindergarten. Then I went to Convent primary and secondary where the medium of teaching was English and Malay. Then I proceed on to New Zealand and I know very few words of Chinese until I was 20. At home, I speak Hokkien (my native dialect) and English with my parents, aunties, uncles and cousins and Hokkien with my grandparents. Back then I only know my name (慧怡) and simple words like “你" (you) and “我” (me).
One of the science books that I read during my secondary school wrote that pain and shock release neuropeptides in the brain and it stamped the experience into the brain cells to make sure that it will be remember for a long time. My experiences with language especially when I am with Chinese from China and Taiwan during my first semester in New Zealand are vividly imprinted in my mind and these experiences only spurred up my baptism to master Mandarin.
It was also at this time that I feel I am neither here nor there in my roots whenever I have conversations with the Chinese. I was not well tutored in my Chinese cultures, yet not part of the westerner culture either. I was lost and I knew I have to find my roots or else I will not belong to anywhere.
I was lucky that I found my saviour. He is Professor Teng Rong Jin from Taiwan who was my lecturer in World History and he wrote beautiful Chinese calligraphy. (He professed that he is a pro-China Taiwanese) I approached Prof. Teng to teach me Mandarin after lecture hours. He agreed to this and I go to his house three times a week from 7pm to 10 pm on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for Mandarin lessons.
He started with teaching me pronunciation using Tang dynasty poems (many of which I can still memorise) and then proceed with teaching me with the writing using calligraphy brush (I still master them till this day). After three months I can speak Mandarin fluently and can write basic characters. From there he teaches me Song dynasty prose, the four books, Confucian studies, Chinese history and many more. He taught me for more than 2 years.
My Chinese studies opened my mind to the richness of Chinese literature and culture. I developed a fascination with the new world I discovered and I go deeper and deeper into it. It became a lifelong study and research. It has also brought me to all corners of China no matter how remote the place is in my quest to see for myself the historical sites and cultural relic leftover by five thousand years of civilisations.
I have also started to love Chinese stuffs such as paintings, calligraphies, porcelains and furniture. (Today my house is all full of those stuffs plus statues and pictures of Chairman Mao, statues of Red Guards in various actions made during the Cultural Revolution and purple clay teapots)
Prof. Teng was strict but he was very helpful and encouraging. He was also the one who gave me my first Little Red Book of Chairman Mao’s quotations. My admiration for the Chairman was also developed from there. Till today, Prof. Teng and I still keep in good touch.
When I return from New Zealand, I was a different person with fluency in English, Malay and Mandarin and I discovered my Chinese roots and its world. Perhaps my Chinese friends are right; I am more Chinese than I knew, I am more Chinese than the Chinese themselves.
However, no matter how they may say about the Chinese I am, I am a Malaysian first and Chinese second. My motherland is Malaysia and not China and I am proud to be Malaysian.