March 2008 Reflection

While it may drive Mary Lou mad that many of the Mitchell reflections come in at the last minute, I think it’s because we expect the next day to bring an event or story that’s just a little more journal-worthy. I’ve held illusions of James Bond grandeur aboard an overnight train in Italy with Jimmy in January. Allison, Erin, Scot, and Sean came down to visit in Cork in February. And I have to express my gratitude to Trina for the invitation to the Oscar Wilde event in Hollywood. Although the last few months have yielded enough experiences to write several reflections, I wanted to focus on something that’s come up in the last few weeks as I prepare to write my thesis.

I’ve decided to write on Chinese entrepreneurs in Ireland. I’ll be using qualitative and ethnographic research methods for the first time. These are methods that depend as much on building trust with people as they do with accumulating data. In effect, the interactions I have with people are the research. It’s not just what they say, it’s how they say it, when they say it, and what they are not saying that also matters. With methods like this, access is crucial. While my advisors all remarked that I would have no problem accessing the Chinese community in Ireland since I am ethnically Chinese, it has not been that simple.

So I have spent the last few weeks trying to meet Chinese business owners. While others have remarked on their outsider status serving as an impediment to gaining access, I am somewhere in between an insider and outsider. In short, the Chinese people in Cork don’t seem to know what to do with me. I look Chinese alright. But when I open my mouth, there is a disconnect. Perfect American English. I know – such an Amy Tan moment. I’ll give you an example.

I have made a point to go to the Gia Gia Chinese Market – despite the fact that it is so expensive –in Cork because I know that the owners speak Cantonese. In fact, the first time I was there, I introduced myself in Cantonese.

Me: Oh. You speak Cantonese?
(I know. So smooth.)
Shopowner: Yes! Yes!
(enthusiasm added)
Me: Oh wonderful.
(I don’t think I know how to say “wonderful” in Chinese, but it was something close to that)
Shopowner: Where are you from?
Me: America.
Shopowner: And what are you doing in Ireland?
Me: I’m studying.
Shopowner: What are you studying?
Me: Immigration! (In retrospect, one learns to never exclaim “immigration” in any language with any suspicious amount of enthusiasm) Shopowner: Ah leck jai.

Ah leck jai. The literal translation: “Oh what a clever/accomplished boy!” While this may sound like a compliment on the surface, I resisted the urge to revel in her accolade. In Chinese culture, “Ah leck jai” also serves the purpose of distinguishing between two people. Thus, I was the American student who happened to be Chinese rather than a Chinese student.

It was Chinese New Year the next time I went to Gia Gia. I walked in the store and went through my usual routine of picking out the item that would least hurt my wallet. Would it be the two euro rice crackers? Or the four euro Chinese greens? All the while, I’d have to remind myself not to convert the prices and compare them to the ones in Chinatown back home. I settled on two packs of noodles – they were buy 1, get 1 free. A rare find indeed! As I walked up to the counter, I prepared myself.

Me: (Breath)
Me: (with gusto and a big smile) Gung hay fat choy!

I got no response. To Happy New Year. That was a first! And she spoke to me in English.

Shop owner: (in English) Three euros your change.

Had I not been listening closely, I could have misunderstood her to have meant: “Three euros. You’ve changed.” I was the American. The leck jai.

However, determined to not give up, I went back this weekend and took it down a notch. When I entered, all I said was “Nay ho” or hello with a smaller smile – no teeth this time.

Me: (reserved, with an untoothed smile) Hello.

And then I minded my own business. This time, I picked the rice crackers. And this time, when I got my change back:

Shopowner: baht mun.

Baht mun! Baht mun! I had never been so happy to hear “eight euros” before and it wasn’t because the exchange rate had fallen to a new low. She had said it in Cantonese! It was a minor victory.

Was it the rice crackers? Or the lack of teeth? Maybe it was just because I wasn’t trying too hard to be one thing or another. And that’s more like me anyway. I’ve never wanted to be just Chinese or just American. For me, all-American means being able to pick and choose the best parts of my multiple cultures and to learn from the cultures of others. I find it fascinating that I’ve figured this out while in Ireland. It’s why the Irish think we Americans have got it right. I’ve welcomed the idea that I can be more than just one thing. So at that moment, she wasn’t inducting me into her inner circle. She wasn’t saying that I was now Chinese in her eyes. We had reached a compromise. No, I wasn’t the Chinese student. But I wasn’t just the strange American foreigner either. I was somewhere in between. And that’s a compromise I’m happy to make for the rest of this year.

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