U of O professor to discuss the Chinese experience in anon-native nation
“It seems very difficult for them to conceptualize a sense of Chinese-ness that’s a locally defined Chinese-ness,” said Sharon Carstens as she explained the cultural plight of ethnic Chinese in Malaysia.
This plight is the focus of her colleague Dr. Alison Groppe, assistant professor of Chinese literature at the University of Oregon. Groppe will visit Portland State Tuesday, Nov. 22, to deliver a lecture, titled “Not Made in China: Identity & Home in Sinophone Malaysian Fiction,” about Chinese fiction written in the Southeast Asian country of Malaysia.
“Looking at the literature that is based on their local culture is something that’s very interesting,” Carstens said.
Groppe’s lecture is part of an on-going lecture series presented by the Institute for Asian Studies. It will focus on the literature produced by the Chinese living in Malaysia from the 1970s to the present, and it will illustrate the Chinese peoples’ struggle with self-identity.
Their struggle presents itself in their literature, living in has evolved in its style and philosophy, according to the Journal of Asian Studies article “Empire of the Chinese Sign” by Kuei-fen Chiu.
“For many Chinese Malaysians, the birth of their Chinese identity takes place simultaneously with the traumatic consciousness of their distance from that identity,” Chiu writes.
The writers have dealt with this conflict in different ways. Earlier works by diasporic Chinese strove for a traditional tone grounded in a distinctly Chinese setting, whereas later writers of Chinese Malaysian fiction actually embraced their sense of cultural displacement.
As a central example, the article focuses on Li Yong-Ping, who wrote the novel Chronicles of Chi-Ling (1886). The story, which focuses on the rape of a woman, presents “a type of writing spectacularly Chinese,” the article notes. A focus on Chinese beliefs and minute details portraying life in the Chinese village give the story its cultural signature.
Chiu’s article also mentions Ng Kim-chew, author of The Fishbone (1995). This novel is a mystery, telling the story of a Chinese Malaysian professor who practices jia-gu-wen (oracle bone script). The tale is heavily steeped in symbolism, offering a dreary expression of the diasporic vision.
“This story is intended to be interpreted as an allegorical rendering of the dilemma of Chinese Malaysians in relation to their fetishization of the Chinese imaginary,” Chiu writes.
Both authors will figure into Dr. Groppe’s lecture, which will explore what it means to write in Chinese and expresses the Chinese Malaysian sense of nostalgia for Chinese culture.
“A lot of people have no sense of how extensive these communities are, and how integrated they are into Southeast Asia,” Carstens said. “They’re ethnic Chinese, but they’re Malaysian.”
The Chinese in Malaysia have long been a significant minority presence in the country.
“Malaysia, at the time that I first started going there in the mid-1970s, was about 35 percent ethnic Chinese,” Carstens said. And while various demographic factors have lowered their numbers over time, the ethnic Chinese still account for about 25 percent of the population.
Despite their long history in Malaysia, the ethnic Chinese are often socially isolated from the Malay, the country’s native population. While the Malaysian government provides some support for the Chinese, such as primary school options in Mandarin, there remains a certain sense of segregation between the nationalities.
“Often they’re viewed by other Southeast Asians as not really Southeast Asian, even though they’ve been there for five or six generations,” Carstens pointed out. “That’s longer than my family’s been in the United States!”
The Institute for Asian Studies is presenting this lecture as part of a series of events designed to increase awareness of various issues within the Asian continent. While the Confucius Institute focuses primarily on Chinese issues, and the Center for Japanese Studies caters to Japanese themes, Asian Studies focuses on Asia in toto. With increased interest in the subject, as well as enrollment from abroad, the institute may see significant growth in the future.
“I think that PSU is poised to expand its Southeast Asian Studies,” Carstens asserted. “That part of the world is important.”