Week 7: What It Means to Be Teochew

Benjamin Tran, 2018 CAUSE Leadership Academy

The typical phrase that people use when they want to show off that they are knowledgeable about Chinese identity is, “What Chinese do you speak, Mandarin or Cantonese?” Growing up, I hit everyone with a curveball by responding, “Neither, I speak Teochew.” Teochew is a Southern min dialect from South East China, the Eastern part of the Guangdong province. Many people may know it by its Cantonese name, “Chiu Chow.”

My father grew up ethnically Chinese in Vietnam, and my mother is from Southern China. Teochew people have a history of diaspora into countries across Asia. Therefore, I grew up with aspects of both Vietnamese and Chinese culture, foods, and traditions. I have a Vietnamese last name, Tran, but am not ethnically Vietnamese. It was a struggle growing up in the San Gabriel Valley, one of the most Asian-populated areas. However, this did not stop the feeling of isolation and exclusion at times. Most 2nd generation or immigrant children who were Chinese American classmates of mine did not speak Teochew, in fact most were unaware of its existence. While I was connected to a community by cultural similarities with regards to holidays and history, I felt alienated due to a lack of understanding. My parents never explained to me why my last name was Vietnamese, even though I did not speak or understand Vietnamese. My parents never explained why other Chinese people spoke words that I could not understand completely and, when I tried to speak to them, why they could not understand what I was saying. I still remember the pain and confusion of trying to shop at my local Asian supermarkets, unable to read any of the signs or communicate with any of the staff—the pain when an older man yelled at me in loud Cantonese, calling me shameful for my inability to speak Chinese. Meanwhile, I stood there unable to reply that I proudly spoke Teochew, a Chinese dialect, even though he had no idea it even existed.

Teochew is more than just a language, it is a culture and a people. It has its own unique foods, customs, and language quirks that deserve recognition beyond what people see as mainstream Chinese. In Teochew, we have a phrase, “Gaginang.” It literally translates to “our people”, but its meaning is in recognition of how Teochew people identify one another. This week, among my talks, I had the chance to meet with a former CAUSE staff member, Zenni Duong. She is also Teochew with a very similar family history story to mine. Growing up with a mixture of Vietnamese and Chinese identities, but never getting a clear picture on what that meant and why. I listened to her experience growing in the San Gabriel Valley as someone of Teochew descent, and when she was done describing it, I had to hold back tears. Her story resonated so strongly with my lived experiences, and also, for the first time in a long while, I did not feel alone. I used to think that if I could not find someone whose identity I related to in somewhere like the San Gabriel Valley, that it would never happen. Getting to share the information that I had been able to piece together and the resources that I had for exploring my Teochew culture made me feel whole. My talk with Zenni helped me to explore and continue to process my lived experiences as not only a Chinese American, but a proud descent of Teochew heritage.

P.S. My favorite restaurant for Teochew food: Kim Ky Noodle House