Unquiet Heart Soliloquy - Chapter 17
“So when did you quit smoking?” mother asked me just as I was scrolling through nothing on my phone.
She really took me by surprise. I had no idea she knew, and was at a loss of what to say.
We were waiting to board at the gate, each holding an Americano in hand. Mother almost always only drank kopi-o, except when she couldn’t get a hold of a cup, then the meishi was her go to.
“It’s been a few months now. I smoked way too much one night out that I gave up the very next day.”
“Oh? Just like that? Well that’s a good, good thing dear.”
I felt something well up within my chest, but with one deep breath I pulled myself together.
“How did you know, Ma?”
“A mother has her way of knowing, son… on video call I could see your yellowing teeth and chapped lips, and also a pack of Chinese cigarettes in the background.”
I laughed, she laughed.
“Are those any good, by any chance?”
“Well they’re very rich in taste, something like a freshly-microwaved piece of lead,” I said, sipping my coffee.
A fine mist coated Sanya as our plane hovered over the undulating green landscape. As we descended into the fog for landing the mist turned into a fine rain, which by the time we got through customs and booked a Didi, still continued to fall. I could tell right away that the air was different from Shanghai's, in that it was more humid but crisp with the cool of autumn. On the way to the hotel, I admired the enchanting sight of an evening sky clearing up as the sun set over kilometres and kilometres of palm oil and coconut estates. It felt just like home, except we were driving down the wrong side of the road.
Mother had booked us a room at The Great Palm of Sanya, one of the many resorts littered around the island. Tucked away in an idyllic corner up a hillock just off Sanyawan, the low-density resort boasted a mix of villa suites and chalet styled rooms. The chalet room we checked into had awfully high vaulted wood ceilings, which gave off the illusion of spaciousness in the room for two. Though in saying that, the room was not small by any means. From its en suite bathroom complete with shower and bathtub of prefab concrete furnishing, extended a smoothly polished concrete wall throughout the length of the bedroom, where two beds faced the western sunset illuminated a small jacuzzi beyond the sliding doors. By the jacuzzi was a small staircase that lead to a communal barbecue area and a swimming pool in the shape of a palm leaf.
“Did you secretly strike the Toto jackpot, Ma? This room must cost a whole lot… I thought we were here on a xungen trip.”
“Don’t be impatient, we’ll get to that in good time. Let your mother relax for a change.”
“We’re in China, people don’t understand the concept of relaxing. I guess I could always hit a cafe with my laptop and do some editing.”
“Yes I’d do that if I were you, without the laptop that is. Have you forgotten how to Malaysian? Just kick back and relax, stop thinking so Cina all the time,” mother said.
‘Cina’ was a word my mother and I would throw around at times when we felt we were acting too Chinese, or in other words, too highly strung for the wrong reasons.
It was the Malay word for Chinese, typically used to refer to people of Chinese race in Malaysia, though in recent times people tended to use it more in the context of referring to mainlanders, while locals of Chinese descent would just identify as Malaysians.
There was of course a great number of Malaysian Chinese who were very proud of their Chinese heritage, who would have no qualms of referring to themselves as Zhongguoren, which was the equivalent of identifying as a Chinese national. This phenomenon was not so uncommon back in the day throughout the 19th and 20th century, when the Chinese diaspora had moved south toward the Nanyang in search for a better life. The Zhongguoren of the Nanyang hailed mostly from the southern provinces of Fujian, Guangdong and Hainan. These Nanyang Chinese were hardy folk, many of who had journeyed over thousands of kilometres across the ocean to flee from the civil war and the rise of communism in China. Deprived of jobs and opportunities in their impoverished homeland, the Chinese settlers arrived with nothing but dreams of work and wages on Commonwealth soil, and there were few who dared call themselves Zhongguoren if they weren’t prepared to break their back eking out a living. Or so I was told.
I had never given the matter of being Chinese a second thought. For me there existed no confusion between Chinese ethnicity and nationality, no blurred lines between the variegated global Chinese population from the Zhongguoren of China. Nationalism was simply the name of the game in the early 21st century, and the primary source of this confusion regarding identity. After the failures of imperialism and fascism during the course of the past century, world politics saw its only recourse in regressing to another means of exerting power that would like to appear milder, coming in the form of a vehement nationalism wanting to consolidate the idea of a single nation state and identity. At nationalism’s most extreme manifestation, we are able to witness events like the Brexit vote and Neo-neoliberal Trumpism in the west, Xinjiang re-education camps and the re-militarisation of Japan here in the east, also not forgetting the Israel-Gaza conflict— though I don’t even want to talk about all of them and I’m sorry I brought them up. I looked forward to the demise of nationalism and this manifestation of conservatism, but fell short of the foolishness in hoping that it would be at its end anytime soon.
But the concept of a nation wasn’t all that bad in itself, was it? Following civil wars throughout history, countries with delineated borders have been formed that are integral to the governance of a nation with functioning economic and immigration policies, its own currency and perhaps most importantly, afforded rights to the citizens that lived there. Nationalism also made possible international sporting events like the Olympics and the World Cup, the highest level competition imaginable on a world stage, albeit with the capitalism of tourism behind the ‘for the good of sports’ moniker. Inter-cultural exchange was greatly facilitated with the creation of passports and immigration, allowing people the right of travelling or working in countries foreign to their own.
The real question was, whether all this could subsist, or even exist without the formation of nations?