As part of Peril’s coverage of the Chinese Writers Festival, we are reviewing some of the work by guest writers hosted at the festival. Here, Allison Chan reviews keynote speaker, Xu Xi’s, essay “Why I stopped being Chinese”.
“Why I stopped being Chinese” by Xu Xi, is not about the freedom to choose our identity but the historical, social, cultural processes that unmake us, that make us invisible.
The essay is structured around the interrogatives, how, who, what, where, why. There is a familiarity to those words that creep into the lives of most people of colour:
Where are you from?
How did you get here?
(Boat or plane?)
Why did you come here?
(Do you have family here, or…?)
What is your accent?
In the initial reading of the piece, Xu Xi is pragmatic, stoic, playful, anthropological: “The Who should be brief. Chinese-Indonesian, native of Hong Kong, domiciled in the world”. Sentences are clipped and brisk. Family history condensed in two-three paragraphs, “four thousand-plus year History” of a Nation in five-six hundred words, present personal history in less than that. The truncating of long, winding narratives are pinched into sound bites that mimic the repetition of explaining one’s origin, experience, difference over and over and over.
The second reading of the piece is devastating.
“Am I or am I not Chinese?”
Who am I in a postcolonial world, where “post” does not mean forgiven or forgotten? Xu Xi’s essay is almost show-and-tell (because no matter how post-postcolonial we get, we continue to have to explain ourselves) and the imprint of imperialism is still evident. “British colonial masters”, “yellow-skinned barbarians”, “The study of Chinese does not meet the MFA requirements”: it is not long ago enough for us to be “post”colonial. But Chinese is not white enough for everywhere else and Chinese is not good Chinese enough for China.
“Its etymology suggests a doubling, repetitive, overlapping effect, a complexity, combined with an assortment that is both numerous and petty.”
Layers on layers: being Chinese is not only whatever else that comes with being colonised, diasporic people (even if you are in your country of birth, is it truly your country if you don’t hold the deed?) but it is also contending with the crimes perpetuated by those who look like you. The Cultural Revolution, the internalised shame of being “dark”, the 1965-1966 purges of Indo-Chinese people, present day Chinese nationalism (Tibet, Taiwan)—all as dark and terrifying as the history of colonialism, at times reflecting the process of domination and subjugation. Layers on layers: if given the choice, is one better than the other?
Where does this leave us, me?
Fighting between the sheets.
“To be American you just have to pledge allegiance and pay taxes on worldwide income.”
Creating a new identity. The lure of the American Dream—Xu Xi’s statement initially feels dismissive, irresponsible. Being American is so much more than pledging allegiance and paying taxes, doesn’t making America great again exclude a whole populations? But that isn’t it, as Xu Xi goes on to demonstrate how her Mandarin fiction is rejected–“not good enough”, while French fulfils the requirement of her MFA. Maybe “American” doesn’t just mean paying taxes and and pledging allegiance—the constitution does not pledge its allegiance to you.
And then what of the attempt to distil all of these complexities that manifest in paradoxes, silence, translation, difference?
“Are you a traitor or patriot?”
“And who or what do you betray and to whom or what should you be loyal?”
“Doesn’t literature succeed and endure because it’s ‘universal’?”
Xu Xi answers none of the how, who, what, where, why and instead multiples the how(s), who(s), what(s), where(s), why(s), and the end of it all is just the utter exhaustion:
Here is the moment of surrender: I must stop being Chinese.
The “must” hurts because I know that it is not a free choice to stop being Chinese, it is not the freedom to inhabit other identities, it is a matter of self-preservation, of being harassed and then coerced into being less other.
Yet, I think despite the claustrophobia of enclosing histories that threaten to strangle and delimit, choosing also means insisting that you are also the “universal”. Choosing to be less complicated is to accept that we are human and cannot individually bear the brunt of a four-thousand year history. Because this is how we begin to write, on a blank page where these intertwined historical failures reiterate–willing not to be forgotten.
And I wonder when and whether I will stop being Chinese.
Xu Xi’s forthcoming book, “That Man in Our Lives” is due to be released 15th September 2016.