“You look Chinese.”

I was blindsided by the simplicity of the statement. Of course I look Chinese. I am Chinese. Until that moment, I’d never needed anyone to reconfirm it for me. What confused me further was that the person saying this to me was herself Chinese.

I was attending a “language partner” event. The Fudan Student Union’s Department of International Affairs had organized a group of Chinese students who wanted to improve their English to meet with foreign students who wanted to improve their Chinese. Falling into the latter group, I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to get some Chinese-speaking experience outside the classroom, aside from the usual, brief interactions with food vendors and shop assistants. The idea, as stated on the flier, was that there would be half an hour of Chinese conversation followed by half an hour of English. What were the chances that the only foreign student to arrive for the event would himself be of Chinese descent? 100%, in my case.

Spring blossoms at Fudan

The group was determined to go ahead with the event, and as the weather was nice it was decided that we would sit on the grass outside the main administration building. I happened to be one of the first to reach the grass, along with one Chinese student, and it was then that she said that I looked Chinese. Not for the first time, I explained that my parents were ethnically Chinese, my mother coming from Singapore and my father from Malaysia. I grew up mostly in Australia, speaking only English, a situation I am only now rectifying.

It never occurred to me that people outside Australia, on learning of my citizenship, might find my appearance noteworthy. I don’t know if she assumed that all Australians were white, and there was clearly no malice in her statement in any case, but the implication was that, having identified myself as Australian, it was weird that I looked like a local.

At any rate, the event proceeded smoothly enough. A French student and a German student arrived late. Being cosmopolitan Western Europeans, they both spoke fluent English, meaning the Chinese students now had a minimum number of people with whom they could converse in their (almost) native language. We played a couple of games, talked about travel, and added each other on WeChat. I made vague plans to catch up with a couple of students for further practice.

My purpose in China is not simply to learn the language, but to get a feel for the culture. For my exchange program to be a success, I need to come away with some understanding of what it means to be Chinese. Given my background, I guess I feel a little guilty that I don’t already know.

But growing up in Australia, I’ve learnt to be on guard for the question, “Where are you from?” Depending on how much time and patience I could draw on, I’ve usually given a variation of the explanation that I gave to the Chinese student, although I’ve sometimes wanted to emulate a certain Chinese Australian friend, who just tells people he’s from Rockhampton.

So I made it a point, when I was younger, to try and understand what it meant to be Australian. I made sure to read up on Captain Cook, 1788, and the Anzacs. I went to my share of barbeques and holidayed at the Gold Coast. I never found the primeval passion that some have for cricket/AFL/NRL/rugby union, but I like to think I developed an intellectual understanding of the important place they occupy in the fabric of our nation. I wasn’t even challenged that much by the controversies of Australian history and society. Whether it was the Stolen Generation, the Dismissal, boat people, gay marriage, I knew where I stood. I still do, and while people may disagree vehemently with me, I would never accuse them of being “un-Australian”. If that label were applied to me, I would reject it.

Take me out of context, however, and my certainty crumbles. Not long after my arrival at Fudan, my Austrian roommate asked me and the other Australian in our apartment (because we’re everywhere), “What is unique about being Australian?” I think we told him that his knife was not in fact a knife, and that ours was. In all seriousness though, I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t sure if any of our national sports had a presence in Austria, so recounting the athleticism of Don Bradman or Sonny Bill Williams would be lost on him. Aussies like to drink, but there are other nationalities to whom that stereotype has been ascribed. Maybe it’s our larrikin spirit and our faith in mateship that set us apart.

Well. You may recently have heard of Scott McIntyre. I won’t recount his saga, save for these links to a news article and an opinion piece I found especially insightful. Suffice to say, discussion of identity can arouse passionate debate. Sometimes it’s important enough for people to get sacked, other times for people to riot. So, if I can’t decide what makes me Australian, and Australians can’t entertain opposing ideas of Australian-ness, how could I even hope to crack the enigma of Chinese identity?

Wreaths at the Anzac Day dawn service, Australian consul-general’s residence, Shanghai

As any true-blue Aussie would do, I decided to attend the Anzac Day dawn service at the Australian consul-general’s residence in Shanghai. The ceremony was understated and respectful. I did fear for the immaculate lawn, which was occupied by a several hundred-strong crowd comprising expats, their families, and a bunch of Aussie school kids on the best excursion ever. Afterwards, we were provided with what was advertised as “light refreshments,” but was actually a sumptuous buffet breakfast, including spring rolls, sausage rolls, Thai fish cakes, scones, lamingtons, and coffee with optional Bundaberg rum. The DFAT hospitality budget is obviously generous.

Upon leaving the compound, I saw a line of Chinese people stretching from the gate to the end of the block, and growing. Surely they weren’t queuing to participate in this most Australian of ceremonies, even if it was the hundredth anniversary of Gallipoli. Then I noticed that they’d simply left a gap in front of the gate, and the queue continued past the residence to some point up the street. Turns out they were lining up for half-price theatre tickets. Outside my Australian bubble, there were people going about their business, getting out of bed for something more tangible than national pride. Having paid tribute to the dead, I was reminded of my mission to understand these living.

A week later, I found myself having hotpot with Sunny and Candice, two of the Chinese students I had met at the language partner event. Candice is Taiwanese while Sunny is a mainlander from Harbin. They come from geographically quite distant places, and speak with noticeably different accents. Indeed, most of their chatter revolved around differences between Taiwan and the mainland. But they still spoke the same language, and they understood each other. I, on the other hand, sat mostly mute, chewing my Australian beef. Try as I might to emulate them, the moment I opened my mouth I was marked as a foreigner. I was a self-peeling banana, in constant fear of being eaten alive.

While many things were eaten on this occasion, I was not. Listening to Candice and Sunny speak, I understood more than I was afraid I would. This was heartening in itself. And as much as they enjoyed speaking to each other, they made an effort to keep me involved. It was mostly my own shyness and language incapacity that held me back. The only way to change that is to have more conversations. If that comes at the price of more lunches, so be it.

Candice told me later that I was the first Australian she had ever met. She asked what my weekend plans were (cramming), whether I had a girlfriend (I do), whether we would get married (I don’t know). Big questions! But these weren’t topics of conversation for a national representative. It was just two people chatting. If this is how my future conversations with my Chinese friends go, I can probably handle it. And it’s not like I have nothing to offer. As much as I want to learn Chinese, they want to learn English. I think I can help with that.

Will this approach help me to understand what it is like to be a Chinese person? I’m not an anthropologist. I can’t get to know Chinese people by treating them like science projects. I already know from books that China is as diverse as it is huge. Why try fruitlessly to learn what “the Chinese” think when I could be learning what Candice, Sunny, or any other individual thinks? I could have spoken to every person in that queue outside the consul-general’s residence and come away with a thousand different stories, every one more enriching than an entire Lonely Planet book. Maybe I could have scored some theatre tickets as well.

Chinese and Western tourists at Shenxianju, Zhejiang province

Trying to figure out a singular Chinese identity won’t give me special insight into China’s actions on the world stage. I won’t gather any intelligence on Chinese defence or economic policy here that I can’t find on the internet. But if Chinese leaders are interested in sound policy, their decisions must be informed by the needs and wants of the common people, and there is a treasure trove of that information right outside my door.

As for my own Chinese hyphen Australian identity, perhaps I’m overthinking it. It doesn’t really matter if one Chinese girl thought it weird that an Australian might look Chinese. It matters that, whatever I looked like, she was willing to make a connection with me.

Perhaps identity can’t be empirically observed and accurately delineated. It’s something you just know. Immigration and citizenship laws notwithstanding, when you know in your heart who you are, and when others accept this truth to be their truth also, that’s not science, that’s magic.

A year in a foreign country cannot replicate an entire upbringing, so I’ll never pass for local. But the point of immersing oneself in a different culture is not only to transform oneself, but to connect with other people. The mere recognition and acceptance of difference must be important steps in achieving mutual understanding.

I will meet Sunny and Candice again, and hopefully there are more conversation partners waiting in the wings. I will keep trying to talk like they talk, maybe even think like they think. If I could just let that banana chip fall of my shoulder, there are so many around me who will never be blood relatives, but may become chosen friends. If they think I look Chinese, I’ll take that as a compliment.

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