The Difference a Few Generations Make

Flag pins: Malaysia and China.The taxi driver doesn’t give me a second glance until I respond to his “qu nali” in badly accented Chinese. “You’re not zhong guo ren?” he asks me in surprise. “No, I’m Malaysian Chinese,” I reply, and wait for one of the following questions:

A) Are living costs lower in China or Malaysia?
B) Why did you come to China?
C) Why is your Chinese so bad?

Instead, he asks me something completely unexpected. “Xiao gu niang,” he says. “Which generation are you?”

“Generation?” My brain turns to mush. Generation X? Y? Z? What am I again? I wonder, and he laughs at my confused expression.

“Yes, which generation of overseas Chinese are you?” he asks. “Who in your family decided to leave?”

I think back to my family tree, and the delicate black-and-white photo of that elderly Chinese man with the long face and solemn eyes . “My grandfather’s father,” I tell the taxi driver. “I’m 4th generation. My ancestors left Fujian a hundred years ago.”

The driver smiles, and to my surprise, gives me the most unexpected praise. “Not bad! In your case, your Mandarin is very good,” he says. “For a 4th generation huaqiao, it’s very good you can speak any putonghua at all, and also good you know how to come back to China.”

I am strangely elated. After so many months worrying about being “fake Chinese” and my lack of Mandarin fluency, it feels good receiving a seemingly genuine compliment.

“What if I was born in China?” I ask. “Or if my parents were the ones who left China?”

“Then your Mandarin would be considered bad!” he laughs. “But you are 4th generation, so it’s quite okay.” And then he asks me whether living costs are lower in China or Malaysia, and I happily answer him, my words flowing into easy conversation now that I’m no longer terribly ashamed of my Mandarin.


Hai Gui: Sea Turtle ReturneeA few days later, I’m in an All Days convenience store in my pajamas, satisfying a late-night craving for Chinese chocolate. A short elderly man is at the counter, chatting away with the cashier in animated Shanghainese. They’re so engrossed in conversation that I’m invisible even though I’m standing there in my panda pants.

“Um, bu hao yi si,” I say. The man jumps back, urging me to go forward, endearingly apologetic, and curious about where I’m from since he’s heard something unfamiliar in my accent. “Malaysia is a nice country,” he says after I reveal my place of birth. “So you are a sea turtle that’s come back! Where is your old home in China?”

“Somewhere in Fujian.”

“Did your parents leave?”

“No,” I say. Remembering my conversation with the taxi driver, I announce, “My grandfather’s father left. We’ve been many generations in Malaysia.”

The old man doesn’t disappoint me, and praises my Mandarin like I hoped he would. (Praise is encouragement!) “I like seeing overseas Chinese returning, especially those who come back after many generations,” he says. “It’s the time to return. Chinese follow opportunities, and there are many opportunities in China today.”

I tell him I like China but wonder whether there is a place for me here. He looks at me kindly. “First, you can slowly learn more Chinese. That will help you. You are not Chinese yet, but you can be.” And this is how I spend twenty minutes talking to him about my 4th generation Chineseness, finishing all my chocolate then and there.


Remembering that I am generations removed from China has been oddly liberating. It makes me less self-conscious of my poor Mandarin, and has become my excuse for not emanating ‘Chineseness’ from my pores. With all the temporal distance between my forefathers’ lives in China and mine, I feel less of a responsibility to my origins. There is an absence of any forced loyalty — after all, the China my great-grandparents left in the early 1900s is vastly different from China today. My ancestors spoke the Hokkien and Teochew dialects and not a word of Mandarin, so learning Mandarin for me no longer feels like a desperate search for identity but a practical decision and career choice. And in a way, I think the generational distance is what allows me to be more appreciative of China, to love this country in a way I couldn’t if I’d felt bound to her by obligation.

In contrast, it was interesting to see how my parents reacted to China when they visited me last week. My third generation overseas Chinese parents remember family who belonged to China — they had mainland Chinese grandparents who did not grow up in Southeast Asia, grandparents with living ties to and memories of the motherland. My grandparents, on the other hand, were “Mah-lai-yah” people, raised on the Malay Peninsula. As a result, my mum and dad have a personal connection to China that I don’t, and stronger conflicted feelings towards their Chineseness.

As I showed them around Shanghai and prattled on about my life in China, my parents were awkward and uncomfortable in a way they aren’t when vacationing elsewhere. “China’s our ancestral country, but I feel so out of place in China,” confessed my dad. “It’s so embarrassing, looking like a Chinese man and not being able to speak their language. The culture is also different.” “But you’re Malaysian Chinese,” I argued. “You’ve never lived here. Of course it’s different, and you don’t have to feel weird about it.” My dad wasn’t convinced.

My mother, who speaks fluent Mandarin, had her moment of Chinese pride: “I look like them, talk like them, eat whatever they eat, dress like them, behave like them!” she said. “I will feel sad if anything bad happens to China, after all we are still one big family.” But when asked whether she can ever live in China long-term like me? “No.” At the end of her vacation, she was eager to head back to Kuala Lumpur.

Christine Tan's Malaysian-Chinese parents visiting Shanghai.

So there we were, a strange Chinese-looking trio in China — the daughter who can love China and live here because she feels disconnected from her family’s past, and the parents who are adamantly Chinese but unable to stay in China for longer than a week. After reading so many stories on chinaSMACK and elsewhere about the identity issues of overseas Chinese my age, it was interesting to know that my parents have identity issues of their own, and that they feel even more out of place in China than I do.

Oh, what a difference a generation makes.

What generation of overseas Chinese are YOU? What is your relationship to China when you are one, two, three generations or more removed from the country?  

Christine is one too many generations removed from China and blogs at Shanghai Shiok!.

Help us maintain a vibrant and dynamic discussion section that is accessible and enjoyable to the majority of our readers. Please review our Comment Policy »
  • Just John


    I think everyone has their own places they feel more comfortable.

    I think this is a mistake people make, thinking they will be more comfortable based on some identification (Yours being China, while your parents feel uncomfortable about it).

    Me, I like it more here in Taiwan then I did in the US, and I am white, so I don’t really “fit” in. I just feel the culture and values are more like my own. That may be the difference between your parents and you.

  • You know, I liked this post.

    I find it oddly strange and oddly comforting (it’s a compliment) that the decedents of those who left China still feel oddly connected to a country and its people.

    To be honest, I would love to hear a the story of a Chinese-America with similar circumstances and to see the differences in their thoughts and feelings returning to China.

    Thanks for this uplifting post!

  • jason in england

    really enjoyable read

  • rich8606

    3rd generation Chinese from Indonesia, lived a quarter of my life in Australia, speaks very little Mandarin.

    I visited Beijing, Shen Zhen and Hong Kong in 2005 and 2006, felt so out of place. For the first time in my life, I had an Identity crisis, in Indonesia, I feel that I’m so Chinese, but while I was in China, I can’t believe how Indonesian I really am.

  • stevelaudig

    Reminds me of the scoring protocol for diving. The harder the dive means there is a multiplier for quality. What a kind and thoughtful approach to consider the degree of difficulty a learner was faced with by the degree of attenuation from the “homeland”. Born in America I was, my father’s father’s greatgrandfather came from Germany. My mother’s father’s greatgrandfather’s father came from France. I know “bon apetit” and “guten abend”!

  • Nice article! :) It was pretty cool to read, as a 2nd generation Chinese in US it makes me feel pretty bad that I am horrible at Mandarin. lol But I never had the identify crisis like many other people, I was really welcomed in the US and made some very nice friends. I consider myself an American and every year when I have to visit China, I don’t worry about feeling out of place in China because I know I’m an American at heart.

  • someasiandude

    Nitpicky detail question, but technically, you have 8 great-grandparents. Were all of them immigrants? If not, you could probably count your distance from the mainland experience a few generations further. And were all of them from the same place? Ancestry is tricky

    • @someasiandude: Ancestry really is tricky. I’m actually not sure whether all 8 of my great-grandparents were immigrants, but I know they/their families came from the same region. Some of my grandparents were immigrants too, but considered themselves second generation instead of first because they left China as very small children and had no memories of the country. I’ve always thought of myself as 4th generation based on my dad’s maternal grandparents.

      Thanks everyone for reading and commenting.

  • Eileen

    1st gen australian-chinese
    seriously having a hard time learning chinese[beginners after 16 years of pure english]
    when i went to china bout 1 year ago.. i felt really out of place.. everything was so diffferent and i didnt feel comfortable even around people. the main word i would describe china would be…. “dirty” thats the only word i can describe china.
    staying in china for 1 month was a struggle for me.. not knowing how to speak proper chinese or even just going out to buy a snack would be just handing the item to the counter person and being… silent… which im usually loud… hypo westernish attitude :P

    also… school kids seriously looked like zombies compaired to my school/…. everyone shouts talks to teachers about stuff thats totally off topic >.<

  • ddd

    3rd generation malaysian chinese

    • ddd

      mandarin is my first language so I don’t really have any problems communicating in mandarin.

  • Qwerty

    3 of my grandparents were born in China and left to Indonesia around 80-90 years ago. 1 of my grandmother was born in Indonesia. Her father was born in China, but from her mother side, her mother parents are the one who left China. So, I can say that I’m mostly 3rd generation Chinese Indonesian, with the remaining are 4th and 5th generation. I observed that most of my Chinese friend’s parents cannot speak Chinese or only a little bit (I was born in 1980s). I never hear my relatives speak in dialect, but occasionally I heard some of the one who above 60 speak Mandarin. For myself, I learnt Mandarin first before I learn English. It’s quite unusual when I compare to most of my Chinese friends around my age. But my Mandarin is limited because I am lazy to learn it when I was a young kid.

    Of course China has changed a lot since my great grandmother left China together with my grandfather. My great grandmother generation still have a small lotus foot. When I visited China I never see people who wear clothes like what I saw in my great grandmother photograph.

Personals @ chinaSMACK - Meet people, make friends, find lovers? Don't be so serious!»