Caught between worlds: in defense of the jook-sing

The term jook-sing 竹升 is Cantonese slang referring to overseas Chinese. It translates as ‘bamboo pole,’ which can refer to either the bamboo pole being hollow on the inside, or the joint of the bamboo, where the nerve endings of the plant cannot pass through. In either metaphor, it means someone who appears to be Chinese, but their appearance has little effect on their cultural understanding. A modern banana, if you will. In Fanon’s terms, an “colonized intellectual,” who has taken on the culture of the colonizer.

There have been numerous times where I’ve been called jook-sing, most memorably at a Chinese restaurant in Canada where the head waiter expressed surprise that a jook-sing like me ordered the dishes that I did. I replied in Cantonese that I grew up in Hong Kong, and he said, “Okay, fine. Half jook-sing.” I simply shrugged, since there wasn’t any lie that I was at least partly jook-sing. But there are so many variants of the jook-sing, I wanted to argue. It ranges from those who speak no Chinese at all (since Chinese language ability for the most part dictates how much you can immerse yourself in the culture), to those who speak Chinese almost exclusively but live overseas.

Although bothered by it when I was younger, I have learned that only I know how much I connect with Chinese culture. As the number of years I spend overseas increase, the anxieties of being a jook-sing have translated into anxieties over being a visible minority. These anxieties that come with being a jook-sing in America are surprisingly well documented. See: the infamous “Tiger Mother” Amy Chua, who was undoubtedly rejected her identity as a  jook-sing by claiming her abusive over-compensating parenting methods were “Chinese.”

Which brings me to this: Is there an ‘authentic’ Chinese culture? The definition of  jook-sing is premised on the belief that there is an ‘authentic’ and homogenous Chinese society of which said person does not belong. The entire concept is moot if you look at Chinese history.

Although Chinese culture is cited as being one of the oldest continuing cultures, it has never stayed static. One factor that contributes to its understanding as one of the oldest cultures is that the character system that we use remains essentially the same. However, our writing system staying the same belies the enormous socio-political and geographical changes throughout Chinese history. There isn’t even a specific spoken language called ‘Chinese’; the most commonly known spoken languages within  Chinese include Mandarin, Cantonese, Min, and Wu, and that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the varied dialects within those language families. In other words, what constitutes Chinese culture depends on who you ask. It is even joked about that Chinatowns are often more Chinese than China – just look at the plethora of dragon gates and lion statues in Chinatowns, while in Hong Kong you’d be hard pressed to find dragons decorating anything. The march towards modernization in Asia is definite; Chinatowns cling to tradition out of nostalgia and the benefits of tourism. What is universally agreed upon, however, is that being a jook-sing is a bad thing.

All things considered, the term jook-sing should not be derogatory. There is a movement amongst Western-educated Chinese living in Hong Kong to reclaim jook-sing as a term of affection, as it should be. It is a fact that now there are more overseas Chinese than ever, all of who possess varying degrees of so-called “Chineseness.” As a result of the bad American economy, many are returning to China in search of jobs and bring with them their lifestyles and preferences that in turn shape the local culture. Does this mean that “Chinese” culture is being lost? Of course not. It is simply evolving, changing, and traveling like it always has. I am proud to call myself a jook-sing – not Western, not Chinese, not even ‘in-between.’ I just am.

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One thought on “Caught between worlds: in defense of the jook-sing

  1. Pingback: The MOCA: Culture and race in America | Victoria or Vicki

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