Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"Are you Chinese?"

TITLE: "Are you Chinese?"
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 25 May 2011

I was asked the above question over the past week. The first was by an immigrant from England. As we talked, he asked in a suspicious way: "Are you Chinese?" I said 'No. I am not from China. I'm Malaysian." He then goes on to rattle about how miserly the Chinese people are, and how many promised something, but failed to deliver as promised. A few days later, I met a Polish speaking man in Vancouver. He asked me the same question.

"Are you Chinese? Chinese people come with bags of cash!" He said to me.

Again, I said no. I was born in Malaysia, lived in Singapore, and have only visited China on short business trips. I am definitely not some kind of 'chinese' people in Vancouver who goes around buying up expensive properties, or giving substandard quality kind of work. In fact, my family has been renting ever since we moved to Vancouver in 2004. From student housing, to community apartments, to rented townhouses, we are like any ordinary worker in Vancouver, with humble wages. For that, I am grateful for the opportunity I have to be able to work in my part time capacity as a pastor. 

The Negative Perceptions
Here are the common complaints that I have been hearing from time to time. It is because I look like a Chinese, that people suspect my ethnicity. When they hear me speak, they will know I am not from China for I do not speak Mandarin like the mainland Chinese, or Cantonese like the HK Chinese. I speak English. I think English. I write English. Alarmingly, I find an increasing number of people having a negative perceptions of Chinese people.

Firstly, the CASH perception. The Chinese are the ones with 'loads of cash,' like the words of my Polish acquaintance. I have also heard stories of Chinese from Hong Kong coming to Vancouver and making an immediate purchase of 5-6 pieces of real estate, in CASH! With stories like these, it is not surprising that the man in the street has the jealous perception about rich Chinese people.

Secondly, the CHEAP perception. Due to the difficulty among immigrants in getting jobs, the way to get contracts and jobs is to undercut the market price. There are many Chinese immigrants with great skills but lack the connections necessary for daily business. For many, their competitive advantage is a powerful use of price. In cost conscious Vancouver, people frequently go for the cheapest and the lowest price. For the lowest price, you can get any service. Like plumbing, moving, electrical work, landscaping, or any work that needs to be done in your residential address. Thus we have unlicensed electricians, plumbers, contractors galore, all  competing on the basis of lowest price. Often, such people over-promise but under-deliver. 

Thirdly, there is the COMMUNICATIONS perception. Some Chinese immigrants fail to speak English properly. This leads not only to communication problems, but unfortunate misunderstanding too. I remember a frustrated white man driving a SUV shouting at the top of his voice, to ask the Chinese to go back to their country, if they do not speak English at all. 

Fourthly, there is the CLIQUE perception. There are many Chinese immigrants who spend most of the time with people of their own ethnicity. Failure to mix with the race of Canada gives a bad negative perception, that they are not interested in integrating themselves with Canadian life at large. For example, anyone who visits Richmond, or walk into the Aberdeen shopping complex will almost certainly think that it is a mini-Hong Kong. 

Building a Bridge of Understanding

For all the negative perceptions above, I think it is even more important to build bridges of understanding. Though I am not from Hong Kong or China, I feel it is important to help English speaking Canadians, and Mandarin or Cantonese speaking Chinese to understand one another. For a start, I like to address the four negative perceptions above and suggest some ways to go about building bridges.

On CASH, try to understand that as new immigrants, many Chinese do not have Canadian work experience or qualifications. They need a roof over their heads, and a place to start their new life. For many, the cash that they have represent life savings and hard work over the years. For them to fly half way across the world into a foreign land is a huge risk in itself. While there are some Chinese who are 'filthy' rich, many are living off their life savings. 

Suggestion for New Immigrants: Don't flaunt your cash. Remember that your property purchases are not an end in itself. It jacks up property prices all over the city, and makes them out of reach for many locals. Just be sensitive.

On CHEAP, also understand that many new immigrants from China desperately need jobs. Locals need to accept them as they are, and also make it a point not to offer contracts based on the lowest price. In fact, by giving them contracts based on their low price, you are unwittingly encouraging them.

Suggestion for New Immigrants: Follow the local culture and licensing requirements. If you undercut and give an artificial low price, you will eventually be undercut by others. Better to work based on FAIR-PRICE rather than low price. Know the laws and the safety rules.

On COMMUNICATIONS, give new immigrants the time to learn English. Be more patient with them. For those who are struggling, encourage them. Maybe, local Canadians can help them along, and don the 'Canadian' quality that I find likable: Be Nice.

Suggestion for New Immigrants: Make an effort to speak. Make an effort to attend classes. Your effort helps.

On CLIQUE, it is understandable that new immigrants find comfort and encouragement among their own people. This is only natural. Why not have events that have both English and Chinese together? Have people from all ethnicities come together to have fun each year. I feel the current NHL Stanley Cup run is an excellent opportunity for everybody to come together. The marketing message: "We are All Canucks!" is a powerful opportunity to do just that.

Suggestion for New Immigrants: Remember that Vancouver, and Canada is larger than your small enclave.

It will take a while for bridges of understanding to be built. I hope this blog article can help contribute a small part toward it.


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