Confronting your identity mid-conversation.

Posted by Gyrfal (123 posts) -

We're making a slow cooked brisket in barbecue sauce. The slow cooker is small though, and we don't want to make too much, so I need to cut this big, frozen chunk of brisket in half (technically it's a quarter, the other half was used to make corned beef a while ago). It's pretty thick and I'm not gonna wait until the whole thing defrosts. I'm pretty sure it's not good for anything to defrost then refreeze. There's a knife I have that's perfect for this situation. It's tucked away underneath where we keep the oven mitt because it doesn't get used very much. I move the oven mitt out of the way and pull out the cleaver. It's got a round handle and thick, heavy blade.

I bought this thing in San Francisco Chinatown a few years back. It was in one of those stores that sells a bunch of household items and it probably had a name that had the words "Trading Company" in it. I knew I wanted to buy a cleaver because I didn't have one at the time, and that seems like a thing that I oughta have. They had three boxes of cleavers. Tiny, medium, and huge. I went with huge. At the time I probably had no business buying this thing, it's massive and way too heavy for day to day use. I'm the second customer in line. The lady at the register conducts business with the person in front of me in Cantonese. I approach and set the knife down, feeling a little bit silly, some combination of buyer's remorse and awkward shame. She rings it up and tells me the total. The woman behind her says in Cantonese, "What's this kid buying such a big knife for?"

I am Chinese American. My father was born in Guangdong (Hoi Ping to be more precise) and moved to Hong Kong when he was a child, during the Cultural Revolution. My mother's family is from Chiuchow, also in Guangdong, but they moved to Vietnam before the war happened. (Given these two things, I have a whole lot of weird feelings about Communism but that's another essay at some point.) When my dad's side of the family moved over he bounced around between the East, West, and island parts of the US before settling in San Francisco. My mother's family escaped during the war, holed up in a refugee camp in Kuala Lumpur for a while, before being taken in to the United States. They fought their way through immigrant life, both landing in finance.

I'm not fluent in Cantonese. I can understand more than I can speak more than I can read more than I can write. I'm not going to say that the history of my parents are the only reason for this, but it's probably part of it. By the time I was born both my parents had already been in this country long enough to have careers and the language skills necessary for those careers. The first language that I spoke was Cantonese, but when you're raised in a bilingual household and go to schools where only one of those languages is spoken, you're probably gonna speak that one. So here I am with my Chinese heritage, broken Cantonese, and parents who collectively speak: English, Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese. Enter Sleeping Dogs.

Sleeping Dogs is a fantastic game and anybody who says otherwise clearly hasn't seen one Vinny Caravella play it. The combat is good, the vehicles are servicable, and the juxtaposition between normal life and near-comical brutal murder are fantastic. The story is a little by the book, especially if you've spent any time watching Hong Kong Triad movies, so I don't blame people for writing it off. In spite of that, Wei struck me in a way that no other character has.

How often do you get a character whose background is so similar to yours? Sure, the particulars are a little different. Wei Shen was born in Hong Kong, I was born in the US. Wei's father wasn't around because he walked out on their family, mine wasn't because he co-founded company when I was young (he's been around a little more as he's easing into retirement age, but he used to work 7AM to 11PM). Wei's a little older than me, gets out a lot more than me, etc. etc. Close enough though.

In a personality profile on Wei, he is described as having "chameleon-like" tendencies because he moved to the US as an adolescent and didn't have a strong father figure. It's not often that I experience a piece of media and reflect that back on myself, but here was a mirror staring me straight in the face. I don't keep friends very well, but I usually blend into a group pretty quickly. It describes him as using excessive violence and personal vendettas being a motivation. I'm not a violent person anymore and certainly never was enough for somebody to affix the word "excessive" in front of my actions, but my blood gets boiling pretty darn quick when I feel like somebody has wronged me.

So here's a character whose background is similar to mine, that I psychologically identify with a whole lot. Hey here's a weird thing, I don't ever remember Wei speaking Cantonese. In fact, I'm pretty sure that he doesn't for the entire game. Obviously there were concessions to be made here. There was probably a writer somewhere who was all "We have a Chinese main character in Hong Kong, he's gotta speak Cantonese!" and some business man was like "But you see, this chart says if the main character doesn't speak English for the whole game then we're going to sell this much less." Then the writer had to live with it, because that's how big games are made. Let's push that out of this world of fake Hong Kong though, and pretend that Wei is speaking English to everybody he talks to. What would his motivation?

When I need to speak Cantonese, it's like pouring water the wrong way through a funnel. Phrases, words, and colloquialisms that I've tried to grasp wash over me, and what comes out of my mouth is a stupid fraction of the thought that I started with. I love the idea of speaking it though, so every time I need to use it I go through the same cycle. I get excited at the prospect to finally use it in conversation, I pour water through the dumb end of a funnel, I bury my soul in shame and promise that I'll learn more and get better. This cycle was clearer than ever when my godparents came to visit last year. They're good friends of my dad's from his time in Hong Kong. I have a godmother, a godfather, and a god-grandmother. (I guess that's what you'd call your godmother's mother? I call her Kai Po.) This was the last time that my Kai Po is going to be able to visit America. I think she's in her 90's, and it's amazing that she was even able to make this trip. I promised myself I would get better at Cantonese so I could talk to her more this time. The water came down harder, a little more dribbled through, but that much more washed away. I knew enough to promise her that I would come visit her in Hong Kong though, and that a promise that I really hope I can make good on.

Maybe Wei feels something similar. Maybe he's ashamed at acting like he's integrating into this society that he's left behind, not even by his own choice. All the time knowing that to everybody else he's the obvious outsider trying to fit in with the cool kids. Speaking Cantonese makes him out to be a linguistic, cultural poser. So he just doesn't. When I went to Hong Kong on a family vacation a few years back, I sure as hell didn't.

I looked at the total on the register, she didn't even really have to tell me how much it was. The other lady says her piece. I take out some money and pay in cash. I thank them in the most clear, precise, enunciated Cantonese that I can muster, and I get out of there.

#1 Posted by Gaff (1815 posts) -

Great piece. I pretty much felt the same when I was playing: It was oddly comforting to finally be able to play as character so close to my own. Who knows, maybe even his excessive violence and personal vendettas come from the same frustration: not being able to express yourself in a culture that is ostensibly your own and sticking out because of that (despite trying your hardest to "get over it"), the almost pathological need to give and save face...

Then again, it was probably more practical for Wei to speak English and I might be projecting too much.

#2 Edited by Legend (2659 posts) -

Wei is a great character. I hope we'll see him again in Sleeping Dogs 2 if they're making a sequel.

#3 Edited by believer258 (12017 posts) -

This was a pretty good read, thanks for kicking off my day with it. This and Boston.

Sleeping Dogs was my favorite 2012 game and I want to replay it at some point, more thoroughly this time.

#4 Posted by Karkarov (3193 posts) -

Just to throw this out there but Hong Kong was an British territory for a long long time so I don't think it is that unusual for someone to speak English there. That being said nice read and it puts an interesting spin on an already great character. Sleeping Dogs was a great game and I still need to go back to it and play some more of the DLC's. Wei Shen really is one of the best open world protagonists because he is relateable and speaking as a generic white dude even I could find parts of his personality and situation to identify with.

#5 Posted by probablytuna (3744 posts) -

I was planning on writing something similar about Sleeping Dogs (well, the misrepresentations or inaccuracies of Chinese culture depicted in video games to be exact) recently so this was a pretty interesting read for me.

I was born in Hong Kong but immigrated to Australia when I was four years old knowing very little of my hometown. My family speaks Cantonese so I was fortunate enough to be able to speak quite fluent Cantonese despite not being able to write or read Traditional/Simplified Chinese (I did eventually learn to read a fair bit thanks to the subtitled TVB dramas we watched during dinner time but even then I'm still not very good).

Playing Sleeping Dogs was both a great and kinda terrible experience because Hong Kong has never been chosen as a video game setting (that I'm aware of and on this scale) but when I drive around virtual HK, nothing ever feels quite right. The neon signs and hawker-filled streets are there, but I was never able to get past the inaccuracies in the details (for example, they used the MTR map as a bus route, or green cabs showing up in Central). The biggest thing that took me out of the experience was the voice acting, as characters often speak in accented Cantonese that you won't ever hear from people who actually live in the city.

I constantly thought about how great it would be if a HK development team had done Sleeping Dogs but then I would remember that pretty much all of HK's game development is focused on MMOs or other online PC games. Still, it's hard not to commend United Front on their effort and I would love to see them make another Sleeping Dogs in HK (hopefully they expand from Hong Kong Island this time so I can actually get to see my house).

#6 Posted by pakattak (204 posts) -

I'm Korean-American, but that didn't stop me from connecting to Wei in how he sometimes feels alien around the people who look like him, and yet also feels like an outsider with the people he grew up with. That conflict between the home of ancestry and the home of circumstance is a pretty good encapsulation of the Asian-American experience.

#7 Posted by Zelyre (1233 posts) -

My dad was from mainland China, my mom from Hong Kong. I spent a lot of time in Hong Kong as a kid and in America, went to Mandarin school on the weekends. Because I never differentiated the two dialects, and both were spoken in my house hold, the only way I know which dialect I am pulling words from is if I feel like I'm saying urrr a lot. Or ma a lot. Throw in my 'Murcan accent and the fact that I can't compose a proper sentence in Chinese if my life depended on it - suffice it to say, I rarely speak. When I do, I can't single out a dialect as I'm grasping for words as soon as they pop up in my mind; it makes going to China Town a pain. I can understand 75% of what anyone says, with just about no way to communicate back outside of body language.

I think that in a way, being a Chinese-American nets you the worst of both worlds when it comes to racism. You deal with it from random "pure" Americans. You know, the ones that immigrated from Europe. You deal with it two fold from other Asians who think you have forsaken your heritage.

Around the time I first started playing Sleeping Dogs, I started looking into going back to Hong Kong for a visit. In my digging, I found a series about Chinese-Americans living in Hong Kong. Some of them spoke fragmented to no Cantonese - some spoke fluently, having heavily used their Cantonese in the States with relatives. Even fluent speaking Chinese-Americans were called out as outsiders.

#8 Posted by Veektarius (4932 posts) -

I just want to throw it out there that as a fan of Hong Kong triad movies, Sleeping Dogs did a way better job of handling that genre than the Raid 2 did (I know that's not set in Hong Kong, but it's obvious where they got their inspiration).

#9 Posted by Gyrfal (123 posts) -

Thank you to all the people who are saying they've had similar experiences. I wrote this because I felt like nobody else was saying anything about it, especially because it sticks out so much to me in Sleeping Dogs. It's comforting to know that there's other people out there.

#10 Posted by fetchfox (1298 posts) -

What a great read, you've got a knack for writing. I'm a film student and love Hong Kong cinema (especially crime and triad related), which is actually what initially interested me the most about Sleeping Dogs. I certainly saw the inspiration in the games story, butI think they handled it well.

Interesting take on the main character. It might be reading a bit to much into it, but that doesn't make it any less true for you. It's a solid theory.

#11 Posted by Nomin (983 posts) -

Thank you for a good read, I enjoyed it, and how a game can make a person relate to certain parts that make it that much especial. Good luck with your Cantonese, even as a person with very limited knowledge of China, I find it is very much a cultural heritage that should not be forgotten.

#12 Edited by bgdiner (282 posts) -

That was a great piece, one of those introspection pieces you think is going to sound like a by-the-numbers college admission/SAT essay until it actually goes a little deeper than, "Hey, I'm like ___ because of ___."

I don't really have an analogue in video games now that I think about it. I guess I could point to Raiden from the Metal Gear series and say something about how his naivety is destroyed by real life, but that's probably too simplistic, given that MGS2 was about a lot more and pretty much everyone's life is like that. But great read nonetheless.

#13 Posted by Pezen (1640 posts) -

I love a well written framing device. I think your overall point is an interesting insight into the game and your experience. I love the game, but for a variety of other different reasons.

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