My mother is the kind of person who can coax conversation out of a rock. She is chatty, and her chattiness invites an equal response from her ‘chattees’, especially from taxi drivers in Beijing who wax eloquent on the economy, national politics, family concerns, the relationships between you and me.
Listening to their passionate speeches on the myriad complexities of life in one very particular place, I wish I could take up every person who’s ever commented authoritatively on what ‘my’ country should or should not be doing, magically empower them with the understanding of the local language, drop them in a dozen places dotted around China, and have them maybe realise that there is more to everything about the country than is portrayed in foreign media, that maybe the people who live here know best what they want and need, or at least have more reason to know.
I get so tired of certain assumptions that some individuals like to make. The generalisations, the oversimplifications, the holier-than-thou attitudes cultivated by certain cultures that believe themselves the pinnacle of ‘civilisation’. It’s curious how the most opinionated individuals are always the ones who have never been to China, who have never spoken a word of Chinese, who have no interest in simply listening and learning about another person’s way of being without immediately passing judgement if it doesn’t jive with their world, who don’t really know anything worth knowing at all. They quote what they’ve heard on the news and snort if you even dare to disagree for whatever reason (and there are so many), suggesting you’re a product of propaganda if you don’t believe we should all be just like them. To those individuals, tell me: Why do I have to be made to feel less valid so that you can feel better?
I don’t talk about these things publicly half the time because I can’t bear to, not because I don’t care. I’m not argumentative by nature; I don’t want to enter combative debates where I can see how the hierarchy looks before we’ve even begun. Not least, who am I to talk and defend when I don’t even live here, have never lived in the mainland, and chose to leave? What do I know of the hundreds of problems I don’t keep up with in the news, and of the thousands more that I can’t know because I’m not here? But sometimes someone will come up to me and corner me into giving an opinion, and then it’s another round of hopeless defence because they weren’t asking because they wanted to hear any voice but their own.
And really, if I had the power to grant understanding of the Chinese language, I’d use it on myself so I could be a little less lacking in my grammar and my writing, than waste it on someone who doesn’t care. I’d like to know the words to coax my grandmother to speak a little more about the Cultural Revolution which my mother will never speak about, and which my father forbade me to ask, except when she sees her mother. I wish I could dare to ask a little more about the civil war, about the Japanese invasion, everything about the family I’ll never know beyond my own grandparents.
But I don’t think I have the right — I’ve never gone through anything remotely like what my parents or grandparents did and can’t understand. No doubt this is the reason why they rarely speak to me directly about the past, and what little I know is gleaned from listening in on their conversations with one another. I don’t have the right to ask my grandmother to tell me how she never saw her mother again after the family was split up in the midst of the civil war, my mother to recount whatever griefs she endured. Impersonal history as this may be to others, I can’t force my loved ones to relive their pains to relieve my curiosity.
All I can do is wait for their conversations to begin. Then, I listen.