Academic journal article Hecate

Speaking as a Settler Chinese Woman in Aotearoa New Zealand: An "Utterly Charming Picture of Oriental Womanhood"

Academic journal article Hecate

Speaking as a Settler Chinese Woman in Aotearoa New Zealand: An "Utterly Charming Picture of Oriental Womanhood"

Article excerpt

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... although she has taken to Westernisation eagerly ... she still remains the same enigmatic, strange but utterly charming picture of Oriental womanhood. ("Going Western")

I have often wondered what might have happened had my father decided to remain in Hong Kong after he married my mother, instead of returning to New Zealand in the footsteps of his brothers, father and grandfather. What kind of life might my siblings and I have led? What experiences might have defined our formative years? As a young woman, what liberties could I have been privy to? Instead of growing up in a minority cast of a few thousand, I would have grown up among millions of people "just like me." This demographic difference alone might have-doubtless, would have-had a profound impact on how I learned to perceive myself. When I returned to Hong Kong at the age of 20, I was immediately struck by how self-assured, independent and outspoken the colony's Chinese women were. To me, these women appeared remarkably self-aware and confident of their place in the world. Next to them, my Chinese New Zealand sisters and I felt faceless and inarticulate, and not only on account of our very limited Cantonese. It occurred to me that perhaps we were unwilling-or unable-to express and assert ourselves because we had grown up in a place where we did not- could not-speak for or of ourselves. We were silent because we were not sure who we were. At the same time, this uncertainty was what seemed to distinguish us as Chinese New Zealand women.

Manying Ip, a Chinese scholar who immigrated to New Zealand from Hong Kong in 1974, has observed this very phenomenon. During her research for Home Away from Home: Life Stories of Chinese Women in New Zealand (1990), she noted that "many ... New Zealand Chinese women ... remain quite unaware of their own separate identity" (9; my emphasis). Ip found the women she interviewed to be extremely humble and self-effacing: they seldom referred to themselves in the first person; identified very closely with their families (Ip, "Home" email; G. Wong, "Harsh"); and within the Chinese community, were known only as "Mrs So-and-so"-apparently, even their "very close friends" did not know their maiden or given names (Home 9). Indeed, the humility of these women was such that the author experienced great difficulty convincing them that their life stories were actually worth telling (Ip, "Unheard" 7).

Ip's observation that these women knew each other only by their married or family names certainly rings true. Having observed my mother and aunts socialise with each other and their friends over the years, I am familiar with the generic terms of address they use, and their lack of knowledge of each other's given names is unsurprising. But I was struck by Ip's inference that such naming indicates a lack of self-awareness: an attenuated personhood that entails an inability to speak for oneself.

Ip's observations gave me pause for thought: could my own inability to articulate myself be traced to the names I have been given by virtue of the Chinese-New Zealand woman identity ascribed to me?

Within Chinese families in New Zealand, women have long been aware of the expectation to comply with time-honoured patriarchal obligations, which require us to defer to fathers, husbands, sons, mothers-in-law and older siblings (Choong 24-52; Ip, Home; K. Chang). And there is, without doubt, a sense in which the names that we are addressed by, for example, "Mrs So-and-so," "Second Aunty," "Little Sister," and the stories told-and, importantly, not told-about us, both create and affirm our subordinate status within the family. When I reflect on my own situation, I can see that the names that I was given, the attributes associated with those names, and the stories about Chineseness and about Chinese women that I heard when I was growing up have had a significant influence on the way I see myself, and on how I perceive my relationship with and in the world. …

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