Sat | Nov 17, 2018

Tony Deyal | China tongue

Published:Saturday | January 6, 2018 | 12:00 AM

General Charles de Gaulle made what many people at the time thought was a huge political blunder when he said, "China is a big country inhabited by many Chinese." For a long time, this was all I knew about the country. In the little village in which I grew up, there were two Chinese families, one with a rum shop and grocery, the other operating a laundry. When I moved to the deep South, there was a family on my street running a dry-goods shop and what we call a 'parlour' (also known as a 'cake shop' in other Caribbean countries). In those days, every man of Chinese descent was 'Chin'. We teased them mercilessly, accused them all of stealing and eating our cats and dogs, and said that if you wanted a Chinese haircut, you just had to put a bowl on the top of your head and cut around it. My friends believed that if you wanted to get a Chinese person angry, you either said, "Chin makka hai lo" or opened your mouth wide and repeatedly move your finger in and out of it. The 'Chin' in the shop close to us made the mistake of trying to sing, "Rest your head on my shoulder" and it became "Less your het on my soldier". This provided us with amusement for years. It was like the joke about Chairman Mao adamantly insisting that China was democratic. When asked when was his last election, he replied, "Rast night."

I still know more about Britain, Europe and even America than I know about Africa, India - the land of my forefathers - or China, the world's most populated country with the second-largest economy in 2016 and probably the largest within the next few years. When I was 15, I was lucky to earn a few much-needed dollars teaching English to the children of a few Chinese shopkeepers, and then in my 20s, learnt and played Bridge with two young Chinese boys, fully grown adults now, but in my mind, I can still remember their contagious enthusiasm for the game and for life generally. This changed my perspective completely, but I am still conscious that while my experiences may have dented my prejudices, they might not have entirely eradicated them, In fact, I have to be ever alert that I do not fall victim to any form of prejudice that I may have grown up with. The cold, hard facts are that while we may change our views about individuals and say things like, "Tony is a good feller for an Indian" or "George might be Chinese (or Chinee), but he is really a nice person", it is very difficult if not absolutely impossible for the stereotype to change.

When I started debating and public speaking, I read and later used a joke which helped me to come to terms with prejudice as a way of looking at life and people, specifically the Chinese. At the final dinner of an international conference, an American delegate turned to the Chinese participant sitting next to him, pointed to the soup and asked somewhat condescendingly, "Likee soupee?" The Chinese gentlemen smiled and nodded his thanks. A little later, it was "Likee fishee?", "Likee meatee?" and even "Likee fruitee?" The response was always an affable nod. At the end of the dinner, the chairman of the conference introduced the guest speaker of the evening, who turned out to be none other than the Chinese gentleman who delivered a penetrating, witty discourse in impeccable English, much to the astonishment of his American neighbour. When the speech was over, the speaker, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, asked, "Likee speechee?"

 

INTEREST IN CULTURE

 

Bit by bit, as the years passed, I became interested in Chinese culture. My studies in strategic planning led me to Sun Tzu and later to Kautilya, the Indian genius who predated both him and Machiavelli. Philosophy took me to Lao Tzu. My birth year and the difference between our New Year and the Chinese New Year made me read more about the Chinese culture. This coming year is the Year of the Yellow Dog, and as a Rooster, I should be better off than I was this year, the Year of the Rooster. They believe that your worst fortune is in your birth year. What I quickly found out was that Confucius did not say all the things he is reputed to have said like, "Man who sink into woman's arms will soon find arms in woman's sink." Cars were not around in his time, so he could not have expounded on the horseless carriage with, "Man who run in front of car get tired" or "Man who sleeps on road, wakes up feeling run down." However, among the things he really said were, "Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life," "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand," and "It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop."

I have never been to China, but my life has been a journey of sorts, a trip really, an adventure in learning and respect. What I like about the Chinese is their ancient wisdom. I am struck by their observations or what we think of as 'proverbs'. For example, "When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills." It is consistent with the Chinese view that while you should never underestimate danger, it is always best to look into the heart of a crisis for opportunity. In other words, you sway with the wind and are not uprooted. I also admire the way they think and plan ahead, even from the dawn of their civilisation. They believe pragmatically, "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now." There are so many others like, "The temptation to quit will be greatest just before you are about to succeed," and "If your problem has a solution, then why worry about it? If your problem has no solution, then why worry about it?" It is something that I find hard to do, but what I can go fully with is, "You cannot prevent the birds of sadness from passing over your head, but you can prevent their making a nest in your hair." I am luckier than most people in that I don't have any hair left for birds to nest in or racial prejudice to dwell.

- Tony Deyal was last seen admiring the way the Chinese describe someone who is in a class of his or her own by saying that person is "a crane among a flock of chickens.