You and I, just a couple of average Zhous

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This is an archive of a letter sent to our subscribers on 13 Dec, 2018.

Dear Discoverers,

How much of the following resonates with you:

  • You feel fortunate to have what you have, knowing your family went through hard times just one or two generations ago
  • You work so hard, while it seems like others around you get ahead with less effort
  • The most important thing to you is that your parents, children and loved ones are well
  • Sometimes you wish you could just throw it all in and go on an epic adventure, like spend a month hiking in Patagonia or riding a motorcycle across India

Chances are at least one of the above. Maybe all, to a degree. The more time I’ve spent with people from many backgrounds, the more I’ve realised that certain hopes, dreams, fears and aspirations bind us all together. It doesn’t matter where or when you grew up or to whom you were born, we all value a different balance of similar things: family and friends, a feeling of success, adventure, routine and stability, and freedom.

That was the primary motivation for us to embark on this quest: to find the common threads that unite us all in different parts of the world.

china wudaoying hutong temple
Burning Incense at the Confucius Temple in Beijing, China

Around ten years ago, when I first went to China, I didn’t know what I was in for. I had heard China was a pretty important place, with various people I knew ooh-ing and aah-ing over its growth in the form of bar charts (“look how big this one is! yeah that one’s China”). A few friends of mine seemed cool because they could speak Chinese, and weren’t Chinese. I wanted to be one of those people.

economists predicting china's ascent - goldman sachs
“Ermagherd!” – Economists

So I went to Beijing for a few weeks to check it out. I saw some giant buildings, a lot of snow for which my poor Australian wardrobe was woefully inadequate, ate some dumplings and came away not knowing much more. I had to go back. I did, eventually, spending six years in Greater China.

Even that wasn’t enough. Because China doesn’t stop at its borders. Its tendrils reach everywhere. You see echoes of it all over Asia. It took years to begin to get my head around it all. As Confucius said, “Doing hard stuff is really bloody hard.” (paraphrasing somewhat)

I figured, in the end, that the best way to understand China was to ask a bunch of dumb questions.


  • “So Vietnamese and Chinese… are they similar?” What a dumb question! Of course they’re not, and I definitely should have felt bad for asking it! Except… wait, are they? If you speak Cantonese and go to Vietnam, you’ll hear them counting numbers and think… hang on, those sound like our numbers! Turns out over half the Vietnamese vocabulary comes from Chinese languages, and the entire region was once part of the Chinese empire.
  • “Do you write Mandarin and Cantonese the same, or is one traditional?” Ridiculous, those different languages and traditional/simplified writing have nothing to do with each other!! I was a terrible person and had no cultural sensitivity. Except yes, this is an excellent question and the answer is complicated. Some people write in traditional, and some in simplified, but they may speak Cantonese or Mandarin primarily, and will also write formal and informal language differently (particularly informal Cantonese… which gets super informal).
  • “I know you’re American and grew up here, but do you partly identify culturally as Chinese?” Get out of here, racist! J/K. It’s all about how you ask that question. You don’t say “But you’re really like, super Asian, right?” We’re so afraid of asking cultural questions that we basically stay mute in modern Western society. A little informed sensitivity can go a long way, though, and with the risk of a little embarrassment, you have the potential upside of learning a lot about someone.

There’s so much more. Who speaks “Chinese”? Who writes it? Are Malaysian Chinese Chinese? How does Hong Kong fit into it all? It’s confusing. I’ve tried to demystify this in our latest piece on Discover Discomfort, The Surprisingly Complex Politics of Being and Speaking Chinese, as an introduction. But really, it’s an invitation for you to explore yourself.

Hope you enjoy it. There’s more of this to come, from other parts of the world.


Dana & Jo

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