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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse


The title of this blog is a famous Chinese dictum meaning ‘meeting a compatriot/companion of old on foreign soil’. The maxim is that it is coincidental to meet a person from your hometown in another locale and such chance encounters are heartwarming in that they make one feel less alienated abroad. This has been circulated in the Chinese lexicon for centuries which probably attests to the fact that the Sinitic population is by no means confined geographically or culturally to China but has extended to lands far and wide. Communities of Sinitic origin come in all forms and sizes from significant immigrant settlements to small pockets of diasporic communities all around the world. Well-known Chinese colonies include Taiwan and Macau which were annexed to mainland China in the late dynastic era, and Chinese immigrant communities exist in huge numbers in Singapore, Vietnam and much of Europe and America. One must have lost count of how many Chinatowns there are in the world. It is therefore not difficult to find Chinese heritage in countries to the west of China, and Chinese immigrants range from culturally conservative, native speakers of Chinese dialects to fully occidentalised citizens of the West who can barely speak a word of Chinese (cf Italian-Americans). I encountered one such person on my way to Paris to attend a conference on Romance linguistics last week, and it was a Chinese, not to mention Cantonese, speaking taxi driver who drove me from the airport to the conference venue. It was very strange, though pleasantly so, to suddenly be able to use my native Chinese dialect in Paris after having just flown in from Hong Kong, especially as I had been struggling since landing with my very modest French (though it did show significant improvements from this time last year), and when we started chatting on the taxi, he told me that he was actually Vietnamese and had learnt Chinese from his immigrant parents. He also married a Cantonese-speaking wife from Hong Kong and hence spoke Cantonese fluently. He then drove me through the Parisian equivalent of Chinatown and explained to me that there was a thriving Chinese neighbourhood in town. I was certainly impressed by the level of fluency in his spoken Cantonese (though it did come with an accent which was different from mine) but I was even more impressed by the fact that there were such complex linguistic idiolects which attest to the complex ancestry of many generations of Chinese immigrants (in this case, Chinese-Vietnamese + Parisian-Sinitic mixed with a Hong Kong spouse). There is a lot of talk about China’s growing economic and political influence in the world, which is indeed dominating headlines on international politics and trade, but one must not neglect the linguistic and cultural forces of Sinitic culture which underscore the historical movements and continual expansion of the Sinitic people. Indeed, China’s rising popularity in the West has reached the point where the Paris airport wifi even has Chinese configured as its language on display (see blog photo). So nice to have met a distant compatriot on a land far from home.

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