It's time for this month's So Your Character is From Another Country! This is a monthly or bimonthly segment where I interview lovely volunteers from around the world to give you a firsthand account of being a citizen of their respective country. I'm hoping to encourage international diversity, break stereotypes, and give writers a crash course on how to write a character from these different places on our planet. If you haven't checked out last month's So Your Character is From Peru ... be sure to hop on over there and give it a read!
Out of the many SYCIFAC posts I feel like I'm more familiar with this one. I had Chinese friends growing up, so I was exposed to some Chinese culture, Chinese language, and authentic cuisine. My family spent New Years with our friends the Ma's and so we got to participate in some of their traditions. We also got addicted to dim sum. I've also watched a lot of Mulan and Sagwa. Not sure how much that counts, but I love those two characters. Alyssa and Grace are here to shed even more light on the subject! I'm so excited!
Disclaimer: The content below may be culturally shocking to some. Each of these posts are as uncensored as possible to preserve the authenticity of the cultures of each of the interviewees.
(None of the Images are Mine)
(None of the Images are Mine)
Hello, Alyssa here from Hong Kong, China! I write YA fantasy novels about empowered, diverse girls (like herself) in worlds of magic, madness, and murder (unlike herself). I also blog about diverse representation and Chinese culture on my book blog. My favourite snippet of Chinese culture is Mulan, and I've translated the ballad to English in iambic tetrameter.
GRACE CHAN is a 16-year-old follower of Christ who has a passion to write. She is a secondary student in Hong Kong and is very pleased to have this opportunity to be featured in this series!
What do you feel is unique to your country? Landmarks? Celebrations?
Alyssa: I’m definitely proudest of Chinese history and folklore. Those 5000 years have not gone to waste, let me tell you. Almost all of our Chinese festivals have historical legends, related through ancient Chinese poetry. I’m not going to lie, the poems are a tough nut to crack in class, but I loved studying Mulan — so much so I ended up translating it!
Grace: The Chinese have lots of celebrations that are unique to our culture, but the list goes on forever so I'd rather not splurge on it. But as for Hong Kong specifically, the Hong Kong Tramways is definitely unique in my opinion. It's the cheapest transport here and it has extreme historical value. Hong Kong is also very international, despite it being very tiny. It's a city where East meets West, and by going to Hong Kong, it's like going to a dozen other places, but in much smaller scales, condensed into one. I think that's pretty rare, or even unique, dare I say.
|Chinese Lantern Festival|
Alyssa: China’s such a large country there are a range of climates! When I visited Beijing in the north, it was still snowing in April; whereas in the south in Hong Kong, it never snows. I love how urbanised and vibrant Hong Kong is—a trait that many Chinese coastal cities share, but less pollution here. (I wrote a poem inspired by Hong Kong once and I’m rather proud of it—both the poem and my city.)
Tell me about your country's food. What are some of your favorite dishes?
Alyssa: The typical Chinese meal is soup, rice, and one to two more side dishes. But there are so many types of Chinese cuisine! Some of my favourites:
- Hong Kong cuisine: Street food from fishballs to takeout waffles. Dim sum / yum cha, aka pastries, dumplings, etc. are served in bamboo steamers.
- Shanghai cuisine: Shanghai ramen + chicken broth = heaven. I also enjoy their steamed or fried bread rolls, stir-fried soya sauce udon, and sauteed river shrimps with dragon-well tea.
- Beijing cuisine: dumplings and noodles everywhere. A luxury is roast Peking duck, which is a slice of duck, roast duck skin, celery, sauce, and so on, wrapped like a taco.
Alyssa: Well, we speak Chinese, which is completely different from English. We don’t have an alphabet and learn characters individually. There are two types of written Chinese, Simplified Chinese (used in the mainland) and Traditional Chinese (used in Hong Kong and many diaspora communities). There are dozens of spoken Chinese dialects, but Mandarin is the official dialect in the mainland. Cantonese is widely used in Hong Kong. In Chinese, we also use four-character idioms called chengyu — it definitely impresses markers in exams!
Grace: Cantonese is a dialect of the Chinese language, and its spoken form consists of lots of slang. One idiom, off the top of my head, is "The cow head doesn't fit on the horse's mouth", an idiom to refer to a response not corresponding to a question, like when you ask someone where they went earlier, and they reply with a comment on the hot weather. Cantonese has nine tones, unlike Mandarin, which only has four, so some may say that Cantonese is quite hard to master if you're not local. However, there is a catch, unlike Mandarin, most things you say can be directly transcribed onto paper and still be grammatically correct, but in Cantonese, a lot of phrasal changes have to be made, due to the wide usage of slang.
Describe briefly a regular day in your country.
Alyssa: I can only speak for urban Chinese cities, but it’s much like ordinary city life! When I wake up, I multitask checking my phone, dressing for school, and eating breakfast. After that it takes me about an hour to cross the harbour for school, which is fairly Westernised. After school, many students do extra-curriculars, but I prefer to go home early so I can work on my WIPs. At around 6:30 to 7:00 PM the family eats dinner—YUM. I sleep fairly early at 10:00 PM after a cup of soya bean milk.
Grace: As a student, it's just school, then meetings after school (if you have any extra-curriculars, like being a part of the Student Union/Council), followed by cram schools, then homework and that's it.
How does your country compare to others, especially the States since my audience is primarily American? Environmentally? Politically? Culturally?
Alyssa: Culturally speaking? Hmm … how about we have a culture. Kidding, kidding. But we definitely have a lot of folklore in our holidays and our idioms and so on. It’s definitely the subtle ways our history and cultural beliefs affect us that set us apart. But just like any other country, our people have a diverse range of personalities.
Another point is the various Chinese ethnic groups. The “Chinese” people most people think of would be Han Chinese, which I also belong to. There are also over 60 indigenous ethnic groups with their own varied cultures. So if you’re writing a Chinese character, consider what exactly you mean by that!
Grace: I can't say definitely, but one thing I'm very happy with is how Hong Kong is very safe, as a community. You can roam the streets alone at 3 am and there would still be street lamps, and it's still safe. The transport system is very convenient, especially the MTR system, which is the underground railway system. It's clean and fast, so that's one of the many things I love about this city.
Alyssa: 1. I would give half my book collection to see Wu Zetian's reign. (My less preferred half, mind you.) Wu is the only female emperor in all of China's dynasties, and from my few history classes, her rule sounds like a deliciously complex time. So, so dissatisfied with all the screen adaptations that's cropped up recently — I'm looking for dynastic politics, not romance? Sigh.
2. In light of all the wall talk nowadays, I feel it necessary to remind everyone the Great Wall didn't work that well. Sure, it was cool, it worked for a while. But there are so many folk tales about it that are very cool, but also kind of sad. My favourite one is where a woman whose husband was conscripted to build the wall, and she sneaked out after him but he'd already died. So she cried until a section of the wall came down.
3. Our history book never talked about who made tea-drinking popular. But kudos to that person. History side of Tumblr, please get on this ;)
|Empress Wu Zetian|
Alyssa: That China is rooted in traditional misogynistic patriarchal Confucianism whatever. Many Westerners will comment on how “independent” I seem for a Chinese girl and are genuinely shocked that I can choose not to marry. Breaking news: while there are certain traditional expectations, the younger generation are not all oppressed by tiger parents. I’ve written about how to approach problematic Chinese stereotypes in this guest post before.
Grace: The stereotype that all Chinese people have an accent. In Hong Kong, not a lot of people actually have accents like that, and a lot of us are able to carry good conversation in English. So I'd like to say that Hong Kong people are quite bilingual, since we currently have 12 years of free education, from grade 1 to 12, and we teach English as a second language.
As for Hong Kong, I can't think of anything in particular right now, so I think that's a good sign. But for the rest of China, I think that some Mainland Chinese tourists are portrayed quite unfairly in a negative light. It's true that some tourists do exhibit uncivilized behavior, but let's not ignore the other 90+ percent that are perfectly respectful, polite and willing to adjust to the visited country's societal rules and standards.
What media portrays your country well be it a movie, a book, or a TV show?
Unfortunately, I’ve not yet come across Western-produced media that really impressed me with its portrayal of China, perhaps because Western-produced media rarely portrays China at all. Although Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon looks quite promising from its trailer!
Alyssa: MULAN FOR QUEEN FOREVER. Ahem.
I am also a huge fan of Wu Zetian, as I explain here, who was recently featured in the Empress of China—not a huge fan of the show, unfortunately. But she is all the awesome for being the only female emperor of China.
Instead of raising a third example here, I’ll leave it blank because I cannot think of an example from YA books whom I really love. So if you’re reading this post, consider it a heartfelt thanks from me that you’re interested in writing a Chinese character—and I am always open to helping you with writing one.
Grace: There aren't many local shows that I watch, but that's just probably me in general. But one movie that I really enjoyed and I think is relatively quite well known is the Ip Man movie series. There are quite a few indie films here and there
Thank you, Alyssa and Grace, for this very informative post! I hope everyone enjoyed reading it. Come back next week for So Your Character is From Slovakia ... Featuring Simona @ Girl with a Cloudy Head!
Are you interested in participating in this project? Slots for Australia, Canada, England, Scotland, New Zealand, the Philippines, Liberia, Algeria, Thailand, Peru, and China have been filled, but if you are from any other country, shoot me an email at howellvictoriagrace(a)gmail(dot)com.
Do you have any Chinese characters? Did this inspire you to write a Chinese character or set a book in China? Are from this or been to this country and you have further input? Feel free to share! Do you have any questions for Alyssa or Grace? Be sure to thank them!
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