Once a year, my father would bring me back to his hometown. It was a nice, idyllic small town that lies at the foot of a mountain called “the sacred mountain,” and hence the village was named “the sacred mountain village.” The mountain, although with such a gilded name, is no plainer than a small hill; the same applies to the village, too: it was no more than a barren hinterland in the massive continent of China.
The villagers here are very proud of their heritage: the mountain, the village, their trite traditions, the prestigious “sacred” name, and also their dialect, the Hokkienese. People value their heritage and keep speaking the same dialect for hundreds of years. But here is a drawback of that cultural conservatism: because the villagers formed a big family here, they had few interactions with the outside world. And gradually, the villagers began to believe that everything in the sacred village is the best, including their language. They started to exclude and discriminate against almost everything from the outside. The big family became an exclusive and narrow-minded community. Hardly any tourist would come to the village for visit, and the villagers dwell leisurely in this shut-away enclave.
My father was born and raised in this serene and secluded place, and was one of the very few who got out of the village eventually. But compared to my father, I do not have the cultural heritage that enables me to speak Hokkienese. Born in Zhuhai, an “immigrant” city far from that village, I have been speaking Mandarin, the only common, unified language of China.
And that’s the problem here: I can’t speak the dialect, the sacred gift bestowed upon me by my ancestors, the necessary ID card to be recognized as part of the big family. The people in the village disliked me because they dislike anyone who speaks Mandarin, or anyone who cannot speak Hokkienese. Ironically, I was excluded by the big family, despite being myself the son of one of its members.
One particular incident has left an indelible mark in my mind. It was on a spring festival and I was six at that time. I was asked to go to the village center to buy some fireworks and some drinks for the coming sixtieth birthday festival for my grandfather.
The shop keeper, noticing that I came from the direction of my home, waved at me with a kind smile. As I approached the shop, he greeted me in Hokkienese. Unable to reply, I pretended I did not hear him and went ahead into the shop and started to look for the goods.
“Deipu, leinia (Do you want to) buy anything?” I assumed that he must be asking something in native Hokkienese.
“Yes...I want to buy some fireworks and a bottle of baijiu(a type of alcohol) for the coming festival. Do you have any?”
The shop keeper seemed surprised when I answered in fluent Mandarin. With a both doubtful and incredulous expression on his face, he asked in Hokkienese, “enpuyishinia? (Excuse me?) howwei, yagonma (You speak) Mandarin? ”
With a short moment of hesitation, I answered, “Yes, I do speak mandarin.”
The shop keeper frowned. With no effort to hide the obvious discontentment on his face, he offered in fragmented mandarin, “Where you from? Are you the Wu’s kid?”
I nodded silently.
And his expression grew even uglier. With a distorted expression, he glanced all over me, as if he was looking at an alien. He sharpened his eyes, like an X-ray machine that keeps reexamining me; in his expression he conveyed the subtlest sense of distrust, contempt, and exclusion.
“Fine...go get what you want,” after a short period of complete silence, the shop keeper conceded. I picked up some fireworks and a glass of baijiu and handed it to him. “Ok, that will be 800 Yuan.” He replied instantly, with no sign of attempting to actually calculate the price.
“What? But it was just a bottle of baijiu and some fireworks! It shouldn’t be more than 100!”
“So? If you have problem, don’t buy then! What a back-talking little bastard! Goumenxie!” He turned around, waving his hand impatiently, as if he was waving off an annoying bug.
There were kids nearby playing with firecrackers. They laughed loudly as they heard “goumenxie,” and they kept calling me that along the way. I learned from my father later that “goumenxie” means “outsider” in Hokkienese.
The word kept echoing in my mind with the contemptuous look on the keeper’s face and the derisive laughter of the playful kids.
I felt hurt.
It is not that I don’t want to speak Hokkienese, to be accepted as a part of the family, or to be able to play with other kids in the village. I used to spend a lot of efforts during my time back in the village mimicking their accent. But with the preconception that I was the kid who spoke Mandarin, the “goumenxie,” other kids would still laugh at me when I tried to speak in blunt Hokkienese. They would usually say, “We won’t play with you! If you cannot communicate with us, how can we play together; moreover, we don’t want to play with a stranger!” Gradually, I gave up my silly attempts and determined to speak mandarin, no matter what the villagers thought of me. I just ignored their suspicious looks every time they walked by, pointing at me and discussing in Hokkienese. Eventually I realized I should not care what they thought of me: I just accepted it and decided to speak Mandarin.
And one day, change comes.
Three years ago, a student in the village was admitted into Peiking University. Everyone in the village was mad with joy when they heard the news. After all, being in an isolated village for so long, it is rare that someone can even get into a university, let along China’s best.
When the student went back to his town one day, he used fluent Mandarin to communicate with his family. With respect to the “village’s pride,” people adjusted themselves and spoke Mandarin with him. And somehow overnight, there was a superstitious notion that people who speak Mandarin have a higher chance of getting into top universities. Knowing that I am educated in a city and speak Mandarin, the villagers saw their hope in me. They started to discuss, privately and openly, about that “goumenxie,” and about the “future of the town.” They started to imagine a better future: a serene village with a sacred name, a child who could bring glory and pride to his hometown will return from a top university overseas, build up the town, and make the life here even more enjoyable...
And as a result, I became the star of the town all of a sudden, being the one who could speak Mandarin, who could get top marks in the school, and eventually (hopefully) who will be the one to get into university overseas.
I remember when I returned to the village for the spring festival three years ago. Before our car had even entered the village, we saw hospitable villagers waving their hands and greeting us in blunt Mandarin.
I was charged with the task to buy the goods for the coming festival on a cold winter morning. When I went back into the old shop in the village center, I was warmly welcomed by the same shopkeeper who once called me the “goumenxie.”
“What do you need?” he asked kindly in proficient Mandarin.
“Just some fireworks and a bottle of baijiu.”
“Sure! Let me get that for you. Okay! Take it with you!”
“But wait, I haven’t paid for them yet.” I regretted when the words came out: I didn’t want to remind him of that unpleasant conversation we had last time.
“No, no, no! You don’t have to pay for this! Take it as a gift for you and your family. Just remember to always focus on your study! We are all very proud of you!” he smiled, patting at my back gently. He seemed to be oblivious of our last encounter. And when I left the shop the keeper waved goodbye, “stop by when you have time!”
I felt amazed by the sudden twist in the way people looked at me. I had risen, from an excluded, discriminated child to a superstar, a celebrated part of the family.
But I have not changed, being the same person, the Wu’s kid, the Mandarin speaker, the “goumenxie” the whole time. But the people have. It is the people in the village who have changed. They had learned to appreciate things that went beyond their insular village—an effect of the changes happening all over China and all around the world. Yet, I was (and still am) the same person.
The idea that I should not change myself suddenly struck me. Indeed, maybe people would change, and maybe the world would change. That change could be either positive or negative, but what’s important is that you don’t change yourself too much along the way. Be who you are, not what others want you to be.
Stay determined and be true to yourself; you just might be the one to change the world.