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!.

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