The Heart Opener
The heart-opener #thirdculturekid
I am hit with a gasp of chill air as I enter the air-conditioned hospital. Lately, I’ve had some stingy pains in the chest area.
Fearing the worst, I decided to make an appointment with the cardiologist in the nearby hospital. It is a very fancy looking hospital, fit more for the likes of a high-end hotel. It is my first time here.
And since it is a private hospital, I am required to register and do some logistical paperwork before seeing the doctor. And so I am given a form to fill out.
I scribble across the form as I fill out general details about my life. It’s a very normal and typical form. A form one would fill out when applying for an ID, or a entering a country or (surprise!) registering at a hospital.
Mechanically I fill out the form, writing out my name, date of birth, my nationality and eventually I hit a section that says: “Permanent Address”. Well that’s interesting. For me, the idea of a “permanent address” is very vague and always has to be contextualized first before answering.
No doubt, depending on where I am at the moment and the purpose of the form itself, I have the choice of filling out an address that is in the Netherlands, in Malaysia, in the USA or maybe even in China if I feel like it.
For instance, I would fill out my Netherlands address when filling out a form in the USA where I am a foreign student. The Malaysia address would be used if it is ever related to my parents’ location.
And the USA address is for shipping goods and services I need from Amazon or the like. Sometimes I just fill out my old China address if I just don’t really care. Naturally, with so many options, these forms can be a bit of struggle.
Often I am confused about writing the date, since date format convention varies across the globe. Is it Year/Month/Day like in most Asian countries? Or Month/Day/Year – the preferred way in the US? Or the European way of Day/Month/Year?
Then there is the occasional section that asks for your “Native Language”. Now what does that mean, exactly? I typically assume it is asking me for my most proficient language. But many regard “native language” to be synonymous to “first language” or even “mother tongue.”
But these are all different (English, Dutch and Chinese respectively). These straightforward-looking sections may be filled with deep meaning regarding how I view myself, how I describe myself and how others view me.
It didn’t used to be so complicated.Things used to be simple.
Well.. simple enough. At 9 years old, I was a Dutch kid. My parents were Chinese but I was born in the Netherlands. I was Dutch Born Chinese, congruent to American Born Chinese. I went to a local public Dutch school, I grew up with Dutch kids and I spoke Dutch infinitely better than Chinese.
If asked where I was from I would say, “I’m Dutch.” If asked if I were Chinese I would say “I’m Dutch.” If someone talked to me in Chinese I’d say “huh?” I think you get the point. Everything about me was Dutch, except my skintone and my parents.
I would reject anything else Chinese that would threaten the view I had of myself that I was Dutch. So things were simple… enough.
This all changed when I moved to China.
The shaky turbulence from the road rocks the two-storey bus. My body sways from side to side, much more used to the smoothness of airplane rides.
I had opted to take the bus from KL to Singapore, the alternative being flying. With the disappearance of MH370 and the crash of MH17, everyone is paranoid about anything to do with Malaysian airplanes.
My parents definitely wouldn’t have let me on a plane even if I wanted to. While of course concerned about flying, the primary reasons I took the bus was because I was curious of the ride, it was cheaper and it was new.
Embarking on the bus, sitting in the leather seat and watching the metropolis of KL move by, I can’t help but have that feeling of home-leaving. It is the first time I’ve been in Malaysia for longer than a few days.
I’ve only been here for a few weeks. Already a part of me feels this is home? No doubt it is thanks to my parents that I can call this random and foreign place home.
Family has probably been the biggest factor in shaping who I am today; through the values they taught me, the cultures they imbedded in me, the love given to me. Paradoxically, it was through their love that this obsession of questioning who I am started.
I was about 11 years old or so. I had been living in China for a few years already. My English was picking up, my Chinese laid dormant, but my Dutch remained intact. I was still a stubborn prepubescent child who thought I had figured everything out. Most importantly, at heart, I was still a Dutch kid.
This thought was seriously challenged when I went to visit grandparents and family in central China for Chinese New Year…
The train ride from Beijing to Suzhou was long and tedious. With over 1000km to cover, and before the high speed bullet train, the journey had to be a overnight one, in cramped bunk beds stacked on each other 3 times. It was usually crowded, dirty and smelly–especially after 12 hours.
But my memories of these journeys have never been unpleasant. Early in the morning, I awoke as the train stopped. Followed with an announcement that we had arrived somewhere. My parents ushered me out of the train into the chilly late winter air and fresh morning taste hinted with the fumes of coal.
Immediately, a male figure approached me, his face beaming. “Jimmy!“ He cried out as he embraced me. “Look how tall you’ve gotten!” He said in Mandarin. I was surprised I understood him.
I gave a wry smile, staring at him blankly. Who was this man? I thought, as dad gave him a hug. The shadowy man guided us through the train station. He uttered some sounds to me. I looked at my parents for help. My Chinese was still terrible.
I said nothing. And I kept to myself as we walked, nearing the horde of people crowding around the narrow exit, trying to get out. After some pushing, shoving and squeezing we survived the exit and got on a car, and this stranger driving us.
When we arrived at our destination we were welcomed by an entourage of smiling, happy people. There were two elder people who hugged me with ecstatic excitement. They were, of course, my grandparents surrounded by my aunts, uncles and cousins. I finally understood.
That man at the train station was my uncle! But I didn’t even recognize him. I barely recognized any of my family members. They crowded around me, greeting me.
I barely understand what they’re saying, I don’t understand our interactions or anything. That didn’t change during my entire stay, but I did understand that they cared about me. A lot.
Chinese New Year is also referred to as Spring Festival, a direct translation of the Chinese term: 春节 (chun jie). It is the most celebrated, most famous festival celebrated not only in China but by the Chinese diaspora all over the world.
This festival places family union as its foremost importance. And as a result is responsible for the largest annual human migration in the world.
With a nationwide week-long holiday, the hundreds of millions of workers have this time as their only opportunity to go back home and visit family.
Everyone goes back to their 老家(lao jia)–literally meaning old home, a constant reminder of where you came from and where you belong. That year, for the first time in a long time, I went back to my old home.
I didn’t know any of this when I visited family for the first time in memory. Truthfully, I didn’t care. I just went with the flow. But I had no idea what to expect. So I kept my distance.
During my stay, I saw my family care so much about me. But I was confused. They were the very people I thought were so different from me, people who, initially, I wanted nothing to do with.
But they represented the roots of my very existence. This is where I came from, I thought. At the very core, I am just like them. And they treated me, for the most part, like I was one of them.
Obviously, there was the language barrier, and there was the cultural barrier, but that didn’t stop my cousins from fussing over ensuring I had a good meal. Or making sure I got a good night's sleep. Or offering to buy anything I expressed the slightest interest in.
It helped that I was the youngest of them all, that I was a guy, and that I was a visitor. I was spoiled very much. Yet this was all very new to me. It was a profound experience.
When it was time to go, I was overcome with emotion. My uncle held my hand as he led me and my parents on to the train platform. I looked at him and saw a face I now equated to welcoming and love.
“Be a good boy and study hard!” he said. I nodded. I didn’t want to leave. But I had to. I got onto the train and laid down. I couldn’t hold back my tears. I was never one to show emotions so I covered my face with my hands in an attempt to hide my feelings.
But my parents immediately noticed and were surprised at my strong reaction. I told them that I didn’t want to leave, but I knew I had to. A running theme that would show up many times later on in my life.
From the moment I left my old home, I knew I couldn’t deny my Chinese heritage any longer. Slowly, I spent more and more effort on ways to connect to my Chinese roots.
I joined my friend for Chinese lessons on the weekend, we went to places in Beijing of historical importance, I talked more Chinese and I got more serious about learning the language–dedicating a summer on learning Chinese writing and literature.
This all culminated in dedicating my college essay to the topic of confronting the detachment I had to my heritage, laying down the cornerstone in the foundation of my future.
My Chinese heritage has remained essential to how I define myself. Since China, it has been one of the few unchanging elements of my life.
As I left for college in the US and my parents moved to Singapore and then to Malaysia, things have only gotten more complicated.
My departure from China also marked a change in lifestyle. No more glamorous expatriate luxuries. No more domestic helpers and drivers.
It was time to enter the real world. The ‘real’ world of college, at least.
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