Lincoln Tan: Migrants need to hold on to identity in new home
5:00AM Monday November 05, 2007 Lincoln Tan
One of the upsides to having this column is that it has allowed me to meet some really nice and interesting people.
A couple of weeks ago, one such person, Joan, invited me to afternoon tea at her Karaka Bay beachfront cottage, where I had an enjoyable time listening to her perspective on life in New Zealand and sharing mine with her.
Since she retired as a surgeon, Joan had spent time working with refugees and migrants, and it was really refreshing talking with someone who has a good knowledge of Asia and Asians.
Unlike her, at least three readers who responded to my column last week referred to Singapore as part of China in their emails, and I still find it hard to believe the level of ignorance some people have of Asia.
Before I left, she loaned me a book titled Guests of the New Gold Hill.
In this novel, author Jye Kang, a former sociology lecturer at Massey University, talks about the plight of the early Chinese; their fleeing the poverty of China and their struggles to survive the hardships in the New Gold Hill, New Zealand (California was the Old Gold Hill). The book described New Zealand as hostile, inhospitable and often cruel to the new guests.
The first few chapters in the book did enough to open my eyes to the wide divide between the early settlers and the new Chinese immigrants, as is reflected by two letters sent to me last week.
A local-born Chinese, who said he was a third generation New Zealander, had this to say: "The early Chinese came here and were ready to accept that with their decision, comes the need to abandon their culture and adopt the one of their new home. (Although) we were brought up eating rice, we enjoyed rugby, went fishing, tramping, things that normal Kiwi families do. As the saying goes, when in Rome do as Romans do. Therein lies the problem with immigrants like yourself, who are unable to shrug off your Chinese culture or Singapore mindset.
"We kept our heads low because we recognise that we are just visitors to this land. I do not speak any Chinese and feel appalled that new migrants continue to speak their native languages at the expense of learning the language of their adopted country."
In contrast, a new arrival from China asked in her letter: "Why should I learn to be Kiwi? I'm Chinese."
She wrote: "Other parts of the world now want to be more Chinese by learning the Chinese language and understanding the Chinese culture. There is more value to me to be Chinese than to become Kiwi."
The early Chinese, who had to raise the equivalent of two years of wages to pay the poll tax to earn their right to come in New Zealand, came under a backdrop of a poor and impoverished China.
Some were even ashamed to be called Chinese and wanted their future to be with New Zealand. To gain acceptance they tried to become as un-Chinese as possible, and I have recently worked on a story where local born Chinese ditched their family names for European ones to help them with assimilation.
But times have changed and tables turned. Some Asian countries, which once received handouts from New Zealand, have become economic power houses in their own right, and it is New Zealand which is now seeking business and trade opportunities with them.
China has risen to become the world's biggest and fastest growing economy and Asia the fastest growth region, and everyone, including New Zealand, wants a piece of the Asian pie. This was clearly spelt out in a paper titled Our Future with Asia launched by Prime Minister Helen Clark and Foreign Minister Winston Peters a fortnight ago.
With China's economic growth comes a renewed sense of pride among the Chinese.
Under this new backdrop, it would be that much harder to convince new immigrants that they should stop being Chinese and become Kiwi.
Why should they? Being Chinese is no longer something to be ashamed of and unlike the early Chinese who see their future tied with New Zealand, many of these new immigrants regard themselves as global citizens.
The local Chinese man, in his letter concluded with this suggestion: "When we are in New Zealand, we must do as New Zealanders do. Maybe its time you changed your love for soccer for the love of rugby, and you may find that its not so bad after all."
This was what his ancestors did to integrate, he said.
Well, they probably did not have Sky television or the internet then.
With the realities of this changing world, it would make more sense to abandon this traditional inward looking, self-contained approach and become more outward looking.