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Chinese Lost in Translation in China

Updated: Feb 27, 2021

The old lady stares at me blankly when I use my finger pointing at the picture in the menu saying I want one of this. She must be amused by a scene of a young man with distinctive Chinese features ordering food by pointing his finger and not reading out the menu. Perhaps, I am the lucky number one Banana Man that she had ever met. This happened in Guilin.

A lonely night at Shangri-la, China. Not the hotel but it is actually name of a town near to Tibet

Exploring my Roots

葉落歸根 (Falling leaves settle on their roots, Everything reverts to its original sources.) - Chinese Proverbs

Due to many things that happen in the past 2 years, I started to wonder. Will my path remain the same if my grandparents didn't cross the South China Sea 80 years ago to settle down in Malaya? What if I was born in China instead of Malaysia. Experience especially those bitter ones will always make one wonder what if I was born in a different country?

I am ethnic Malaysian Chinese. However, I am proud to call myself Malaysian whenever I travelled. For me, I am Malaysian first, Chinese second.

However, I can't help but overcome my curiosity to visit the lands where all my grandparents was born. Hence, facing with the possibility of my visa being rejected again, I applied for visa. And guess what, it get approved (after 2 failed applications). Rumah Moyangku, here I come.

The Banana

I grew up in a small town near Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia where many believe have the highest concentration of Banana Man in the whole Malaysia. Malaysian are proud whenever we travel because we never failed to amuse peoples with our language ability. However, there is a minorities group of Chinese known as Banana Man where we might look yellow on the outside, but we are white on the inside. This term was used to describe ethnic Malaysian Chinese who speak, write or read little Chinese due to being educated in English or Malay schools. And, I am one of them. I grew up speaking Cantonese, Mandarin, Malay and English.

The 陈 family mansion(Guangzhou). I feel ashamed to enter it as being the descendent of 陈, I can't read the signage

Lose In Translation

China is a paradise for street foods. But for me, I always ended up ordering the wrong food because it was easy to be deceived by the photos on the billboard. Haha. Even today, I had no idea what I had ate in the 3 stalls as shown in the photos above. But it tastes good 😍

The initial itinerary is to visit the hometown provinces of Fujian where my grandparents originated from. Somehow, I ended up spending most of my time in Guilin and Western China (Kunming, Shangri-la, Dali and Lijiang). And it turns out to be the best experience. I manage to experience it local way albeit with my limited Chinese.

The beauty of Guilin and Western China, places that are underrated for oversea travellers.

The Advantages of being ethnic Chinese in China

From being misunderstood as a local tour guide accompany a group of wealthy white ladies to getting the local price, these are the advantages of travelling in China as ethnic Chinese. I always travelled in a group with fellow travellers from the hostel (whose mostly are Westerner). I remember vividly I am being offered commission by local shopkeeper if I manage to convince my 'Western client' to spend at their shop. Besides, I always get a local price whenever I shop while my fellow western companion being chopped. Haha.

Another advantage of being oversea ethnic Chinese is the local Chinese are eager to know more about you. This is how I manage to make a few local friends despite my limited Mandarin.

The Disadvantages of being a Banana Man in China

Advantages and disadvantages come in a pair. Apart from ordering food, I do face other difficulties due to my poor command of Chinese. A lot of time, I was not able to read the information board of the places I visited. Although most tourist destination in China come with dual-language information, there are some (especially those off the path of foreign tourist) that only have stories written in Chinese. I feel miss out due to not able to immerse myself with its stories. There must be many interesting stories.

Tickets to local attraction and train are mostly displayed in Chinese. However, the locals are always welcome to lend a helping hand .

My takeaway lesson from China

Although it is such a regret that I was not able to visit the places where my grandparents were born, however, a little misadventure in communicating with the local by pointing at the menu is a one in a lifetime experience.

I made a promise to myself. One day, I will be back to rediscover my roots.


Happy Chap Goh Mei


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