The Insider-Outsider


In the course of the past year, I have visited Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and China. With the exception of Malaysia, all are places where the Chinese population is dominant. It’s taken a while to process my thoughts but here are my early observations. It starts with a question posed by a fellow academic at a 2012 dinner party: do you not think there is a way to speak of the Chinese as one big family? In hindsight, I was guilty of snuffing out promising dinner conversation that evening when I stated categorically that I thought it impossible to understand the Chinese from Singapore to be as those from Malaysia, Hong Kong, Mainland China, Indonesia or vice versa. Then, as now, I believe the lived experience in any of the above-named nations, the growing, living, changing and adaptations we undergo, mark and mould us, leaving indelible traces that lead to over-riding differences.

However, as is often the case, understanding an idea is vastly different from experiencing its realisation. So, despite my categorial denial of a pan-Chinese diaspora, before I arrived in Hong Kong I fully expected to fit in from day one. After all, I had grow up on a diet of Canto-pop, had Cantonese cuisine for most of my childhood and still watch the occasional television drama from Hong Kong. How hard can it be to slide into Hong Kong society?

As it turns out, very hard. At most, all I experienced was a whiff of a Cantonese diaspora, but it was no more than a small puff quickly dissipated as yet another stranger hurried past. Still, I foolishly carried the same expectations on my visit to Malaysia, my mother’s homeland and persisted with somewhat reduced expectations to China, my father’s homeland. For despite my own argument, growing up in Singapore with my migrant parents’ and society’s insistence on our ethnicity, thinking myself a part of this great big pan-Chinese family was more hard-wired in me than I had realised.

On each of the trips I was marked as a foreigner, able to understand some of the lingo but an outsider nonetheless. Never mind that I adore Malaysian food, have the fondest memories of vacations spent there and can even utter a fair few Bahasa Malaysia phrases. Or that over the past two years I have been reading books on China incessantly. Apart from Singapore, I had never lived, spent long periods of time, dwelling in any of the other places I visited. And not having done so means whilst I can appreciate many aspects of Chinese culture enacted in these places, I am not an insider, privy to the contexts that make sense of idioms, jokes and terms.

And so at last, my theorisation has caught up with my lived experience. Without sharing the social imaginary (that “loosely co-ordinated body of significations that make sense of our social acts and practices) born of lived experience, I was always destined to be a familiar guest, at best and a stranger, at worse, in all the above-mentioned places I visited. Even in Singapore, long absence rendered me out of touch with the hurly burly world of life there.

Yet, in Australia, whenever I meet people from Southeast Asia, Chinese or otherwise, we usually manage to find sufficient commonalities to strike up conversations. Thus illustrating the other point I make: that social imaginaries are always of the moment, added to, embellished and subtracted from, with daily social acts and practices. Whilst our past experiential knowledge stays a part of migrants’ multiple social imaginaries, without tapping into a continuing feed sustained by everday life, it stagnates so one becomes an insider-outsider when in one’s nation of birth but an insider outside of that land.

I took the above photo of a poster whilst strolling on the streets of Old Beijing with a good friend. It exhorts the sons and daughters of China to remember and repay the love and respect of the mother country (my iffy interpretation). I wonder if they mean me too? Somehow I doubt it.

I'm a research fellow at an Australian university where I work on a number of projects. These include projects to do with new media and migration and the Chinese diaspora in Australia, projects on the Malaysian internet, ethno-religious issues in Singapore and Malaysia. And, before I forget many of the photos I use on this site were taken by my sister, Jessie and myself. All rights are reserved.