But what if we are asked to give the definition of a “Teochew”? It is not every day that we get asked something this difficult, but a kid, your kid, might just be curious enough to do so. Or who is a “pure” Teochew? Don’t sniggle. I have come across several comments on Facebook by “pure-blood” Teochews finding out, with considerable pride, how many are like themselves? Recently I came across another Facebook post by a person who half-jokingly announced himself as a “more real” Teochew than others because he was born in Teochew city itself and not overseas.
In a way, these boasts are not invalid. Although Teochew people have been trading with Southeast Asia since at least the Song dynasty (from the 10th century), and tens of thousands became labourers in different parts of the region after the late 17th century, these emigrants were almost exclusively male, and those who could afford, always returned to their home village to retire. On a survey of Swatow in 1858, Lord Elgin reported of a habit amongst the “Chinamen” seeking work in Singapore (presumably referring to Teochew men) who sometimes brought home with them their Malay wives, leaving them in place of ancestry, and returning to Singapore without them. Accordingly children at that time who were not of “pure-blood” were rare, and even many of them were brought up in Teochew.
Of course things have changed greatly since about a century ago when the advent of steam shipping, civil wars and Japanese invasion led to the migration of Teochew women in significant numbers and many Teochew people setting up families abroad permanently. Due to economic and political factors, the majority of their overseas-born children and grandchildren have never gone back to Teochew and with time, grew up and embraced ways of life different from their forefathers. It was once taboo for a Teochew should marry a non-Teochew, not even another Chinese, inter-racial marriages is now a largely acceptable norm amongst members of the diaspora. Therein lies the question – do you still count as a Teochew even if you are of partial Teochew descent?
By Teochew tradition this is determined solely by your paternal lineage. But of course reality is always more complicated. Some time ago, I came across again on Facebook the spirited defence of a Teochew lady of her “non pure blood” daughters’ heritage. She revealed that she is married to a black man, but while her girls do not look like her, they speak the Teochew language even better than some of their cousins. Rather succinctly, she pointed out that she has always been proud of being Teochew because “our culture has gone through so many dark time (sic) in history, and our strength is based on an open spirit that has allowed us to adapt ourselves wherever we are, and to absorb the qualities of any country we live in.”
It is interesting that this proud mother should stress her daughters’ fluency in our language. I know a girl in Swatow who speaks Teochew daily at home, but told me that her grandfather was actually a Hakka – a language that she has no knowledge of. She sees herself as a Swatow native, and in manners and customs, she is no different from her neighbours or friends. Do such assimilated members of the society count as Teochews as well?
Eminent French sociologist Emile Durkheim noted that kinship through common ancestry (either real or perceived) and marriage does not ensure the cohesion of a community in the long-run. Instead individuals see themselves as one people when they share values, beliefs, customs and a way of life lifestyle fostered. Unlike the modern consumer “culture” that extends its influence through the media and the internet, a traditional culture like the Teochew one thrives on the intimate interaction and primarily oral communication between its members, which creates a collective consciousness. It is this consciousness that is both unique and exclusive, which gives us our enduring identity.
Accordingly, fluency in the Teochew language not only allows us to bond with the elder members of our family, but also serves as a key to unlock knowledge to the treasures of our heritage. Of course, this is not to say that the Teochew identity is exclusive to those who speak the language well, or language competency is the sole measure to the level of our “Teochewness”. Many aspects of our fine culture can be expressed in another language (as we do so on this site) or even in non-verbal forms – such as cooking. But it is also true that we lose a great proportion of ourselves as a community if we forsake our mother tongue. With a diminished proficiency and vocabulary, our ability to pass on what we know to the next generation is compromised.
Being Teochew is a birthright, an exclusive privilege. At the same time, being Teochew is knowing and embracing an appreciation of life shaped by wisdom and experiences accumulated and passed on from generation to generation. The heritage we have cannot be taken for granted. Whether “pure blood” or otherwise, we hold a torch in our hands that we need to pass on to our children to keep the flame burning.
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