Monday, 5 November 2012

Han Suyin 1917-2012

Han Suyin has died. Everyone's heard of her novel, Love is a Many Spendoured Thing,  because it was turned into a hit movie in the 1950's.  Read the book, the movie is pure Hollywood. But Han Suyin was far more interesting as a person than as a writer.  Her novels are autobiographical, rather than works of fiction. Indeed, one of my aunts who knew her personally said that one of the characters in Love Is a Many Spendoured Thing was a composite based on several Hong Kong doctors they both knew, including my uncle.  Her books are therefore a form of highly subjective social commentary.

To people in the west, Han Suyin symbolizes China. In fact, she wasn't Chinese but mixed race and very westernized. She wrote in English, not in Chinese. To Chinese people in China, she'a an anomaly.  There are plenty of Chinese novelists, but  Han Suyin was different, sometimes trying too hard. You can read the outlines of her life anywhere on the web and read her formal autobiographies, especially the early instalments like A Mortal Flower, and Destination Chung King. (Her accounts of her parents lives aren't first hand so a little highly coloured)  But from me, you'll get a more individual perspective.

 For me, Han Suyin was an example of someone growing up "between" cultures, always alert to cultural clues people in mainstream societies take for granted without noticing. "We always have to negotiate," a prominent Eurasian woman of her generation told me. "We are interpreters all the time". And she didn't mean just language. One thing for sure, being Eurasian means always being the outsider.

 In colonial times, mixed-race people were considered degenerate, quite literally "mongrels" and "lesser breeds". Remember Madama Butterfly? Many assume that mixed-race children came from prostitution when in fact this was most certainly not the case. What kind of handicap is that to live under? But because Empire depended on the bluff that white people were somehow destined to rule, any contagion with the natives was politically dynamite. The downside of being Eurasian was that Eurasians were always under pressure to prove themselves worthy. On the other hand,  that gave them "hybrid vigour", as my father used to say. 

 Nowadays there are hundreds of thousands of Chinese growing up in the west, largely cut off from the experience of growing up in a community where everyone is rooted in Chinese culture. When children grow up, they want to be like their peers, so it's hardly suprising that cultural dilution is pretty much the norm today. This new generation has a whole new set of identity issues to develop, and many more options. Having Chinese DNA does not make anyone Chinese in the deepest sense of values and mores. "Bananas" people joke, "yellow on the outside, white on the inside". Since it's almost impossible to completely penetrate a culture as complex as Chinese, there aren't any reverse bananas.

So how do foreign born and raised Chinese develop their identity? Having a Chinese face does not automatically make anyone Chinese. That's not a value judgement. It's realism. People respond in the way the culture they grow up in teaches them to think.  If they grow up in large communities with a common background, and know the language, that helps. But not everyone is in that position. I thought I had myself figured until I went to the west as an adult, and it threw me off balance for years. That I think is the challenge Chinese growing up outside Chinese society need to tackle. What is identity, after all? Do we create our own as we go through life? Are we fated to be "outsiders"?  That's not such a bad thing because conversely, you're not bound by what others expect you to be.  Face is not destiny. There will be lots of different ways, personal to each individual. Han Suyin found her own way, controversial as it was. Others will find their own.


Pohaku Nezami said...

I've followed your posts for a couple of years and been amazed by the quality and quantity of your observations, but I've never posted a comment until now. We happen to live in Honolulu, which is mixed in all imaginable ways. Half the individuals are of mixed race, the city is so filled with different groups that no one group is a majority, half of all marriages are "mixed." In fact, things are so mixed--and proudly so--that we would think it unfortunate to be deprived of such richness.

The reason I wrote tonight, though, is because we just got back from the park where we enjoyed a "mixed" experience. We, Caucasians, were doing our tai chi and met a Chinese couple who also knows the same form of tai chi that we do. They did not know a word of English, however. Only when their daughter came out with her son did things become clear. The daughter is a visiting scholar, her husband is staying in China to handle his business, and her parents are visiting for a few months from China. We'll be meeting some mornings and evenings to share our tai chi and qigong.

This has nothing to with classical music, of course, and it's not remarkable at all, at least here in Honolulu. But when I came home and read your post about Eurasians, I felt (as I often do when reading similar comments) that I had to tell you that there is at least one place on the planet where people of different races and faces and languages and food and customs not only get along, but actually find the mixed brew intoxicating.

Doundou Tchil said...

Thank you from the bottom of my heart ! It means a lot to me that you read my work, thank you sincerely ! Much appreciated. You and I have been truly privileged that we've lived in multi cultural situations.

Doundou Tchil said...

PS Good Luck for the Honolulu Boy Tuesday !

Pohaku Nezami said...

Our son went to the same school as Obama (though many years after him), and he lived quite nearby. We think that much of what people don't understand about his style of working with people derives from our local customs. There is no majority group here; everyone is in a minority. Everyone is very aware of differences between groups, from foods to language to interpersonal style, but people tend to appreciate and learn from those differences rather than stigmatize them. There's an openness rather than automatic suspicion or disdain. Humor is the local way to deal with differences, and this must be the only place left in the country where political correctness has not obliterated ethnic humor. People here constantly play with each other using ethnicity as the basis for commenting, learning, adapting, and appreciating people who are different from them.

The University of Hawaii, btw, presented the Noh drama Sumidagawa, on which Curlew River is based, a few years ago. It was performed by students who were directed by Japanese instructors, and it was very well done. We look forward to watching the Britten opera (of which we already have a CD). Thanks for that tip!