Ai Weihua, 2015

Minorities at HKU #3 – Ai Weihua the Tujia

May 21, 2015 / by / 0 Comment

Part of an ethnic minority in Hubei, China, Weihua has been aware of her ethnic identity but has only ever reacted to other people’s interest in her background – she’s never been that interested in it herself.  Her stoical personality makes her a tough person to interview, but in the end I discover that her personality has much to admire.

Series introduction:  In this series I will be interviewing different students at Hong Kong University (HKU) who are also members of ethnic minorities in either their home countries or in Hong Kong.  I’ll be finding out about their lives as members of an ethnic minority, and what their experiences at HKU have been like.


We met up mid-afternoon on a gloomy day at university.  It was 3:30pm and Weihua told me she hadn’t eaten because she’d been working.  After getting a chicken and mushroom pie at Starbucks we went to a park area near the Jockey Club Tower and took some photos.  After I got bitten a few times by the small flies I insisted we retreat, so we found a seat in the central open area on the ground floor, just outside the bookshop.  Weihua was already a little tense – maybe my directing for the photos had annoyed her, or maybe she was, as she said, a little preoccupied with a presentation she had to work on for the following day..

“Can you introduce yourself?”

“I’m from Yicheng in Hubei.  I’m an ethnic minority.  I’m Tujia.  My family are all ethnic minority.  But my grandpa isn’t sure [we’re Tujia] because after the establishment of the PRC [People’s Republic of China] the Tujia became a new minority.  It was in about 1959.  At this time many people changed from Han ethnicity to Tujia ethnicity.”

A new ethnic minority?  What is it, some sort of genetic engineering?  “How can it be a new minority?” I asked.

“Well there is a long history.  The people were originally from a different minority, the Miao, who migrated from Yunnan to Hunan.  They said they weren’t like the Miao any more.  The government set up a working group to research the issue and eventually they agreed.  That’s why it only started in 1959.  The PRC was founded in 1949.”

After thinking out loud for a bit, she wanted to emphasise that as far as she knew, she was Tujia. She didn’t know for sure.

“Where does the name Tujia come from?”

“I’m not sure.  There are different opinions about this.  I did a thesis.  I can send it to you.”

“In your community how many people are Tujia?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you feel different from Han ethnicity people?”

“No.  The culture in my hometown isn’t typical.”

I’m beginning to struggle here.  There doesn’t seem to be anything special to investigate with regards to Weihua’s background.  I’ve known Weihua since the beginning of the year.  In fact I’ve never seen her shout loudly, wave her arms around excitedly, or, cry, be depressed or actually show any extreme emotion.  Most of the time her voice is very relaxed.  Sometimes when someone says something that excites her she may expel something almost like a shout saying “that’s right” in a higher pitched voice with a smile on her face, but in normal conversation it is usually a much more relaxed “mmm, that’s right”.  I think if I ever saw Weihua do anything unorthodox or too bold, I would faint.

I push.  “At school did you ever feel different?”

“No.  You can’t tell I’m Tujia just by looking at me.”

“It sounds like it makes no difference in your life?”

“Well, I get a 10 point reduction for the Gaokao [Chinese University Entrance Exam].”

That sounds like an affirmation.  The only significant effect that being an ethnic minority has had on Weihua’s life is a minor reduction in the requirement for a test.  It seems she was never bullied – or admired – for being a minority person.

We then spoke a little about some efforts she’d made with Han ethnicity classmates at university to record Tujia cultural heritage, but the impression I got here was the same feeling I had about the interview: for her, being a minority person doesn’t make any difference, the motivation to do any Tujia-related activity always comes from other people.  The only difference it makes in her life is the interest it attracts in other people.  She doesn’t boast about being special or different, nor does she hide the fact.  She doesn’t care about this.  She simply entertains curious people from time to time.

I still wanted to find something that marked her out as different, to find some cranny I could explore in the polished exterior she was showing me.  Nothing was very blessed or very damned – every experience was very normal.  Her parents don’t pressure her to get a Tujia boyfriend and don’t care about her retaining Tujia ways.  In fact they’re very open and supportive of her, she assured me.

I had an idea.  “If there’s no difference…”

“Yeah” she cut in quickly, “you can say there’s no difference.  It’s only in some Tujia communities they still maintain the clothing, singing and dancing.”

“Isn’t that just for tourists?”  I asked cynically.

“No.  It’s not for tourists, but tourists do like to go to those places.”

Ai Weihua in a small park near the Jockey Club Tower

Photo 2: Ai Weihua in a small park near the Jockey Club Tower

So having failed to find anything remarkable in her past experience I moved on to life at Hong Kong University.  I tried to find some experiences that stood out as amazing or disappointing but was left myself feeling disappointed and not amazed.

Most of her classmates went to Europe.  She doesn’t regret coming to Hong Kong and is really happy here.  She’s never had problems with Hong Kongers.  She’s adapted to the culture, coped with her studies, made friends and never felt lonely.  Everything, she claims, has always been good, like in the following question I asked.

“What has been the hardest thing to adjust to?”

“Nothing has been really hard.  I like going to different places to live.”

I myself love living in different places.  I lived in mainland China for a few years.  I absolutely loved it – but there are all sorts of difficulties I could talk about.  Did she just not want to express the truth publically?  Has life really been a constant shade of magnolia?  Is it possible that, now as a postgraduate student, nothing in life has really been a serious hardship or a great pleasure for her?

“It sounds like everything is perfect!”

“Yes” she says confidently, then laughs a little saying, “it’s just I need to find a job”.

I persevere, asking her more open questions about challenges in her life but she just tells me time and time again there is nothing.  Finally I simply try to get some good tips about life here in Hong Kong and advice for people thinking about coming to Hong Kong University.  She claims she’s never thought about these things and just offers a few simple platitudes.  We move on.

“So how do you feel when other people talk about their problems?”

“I try to support them” she replies insipidly.  “Some hardships are real, but some can be dealt with by being prepared or by being positive.”

This was in fact how she answered many questions.  Her life philosophy is to deal with things like university assignments early, then you get everything done in good time without being too stressed out.  However, it was late afternoon and I did recall that she was about to meet a group to complete a presentation for the next day – but this could have been part of her master plan.

“What’s next for you in life?”

“My next life?” she looked surprised.  She misheard, but we shared the funny misunderstanding. “Find a job and start a career.”

We officially concluded the interview but immediately I told her I doubted if she was telling me the truth.  She affirmed time and again that she had told me things exactly as she felt them in her heart.  So what was I to think?  Let’s just say life has been “perfect” for her so far.  Why should I question this?

I felt like she was being naive or that she has had a sheltered life and should be pitied, but neither of these responses is correct.  She’s been to one of the top universities in China and is now at a top university in Asia.  She’s has also lived in Korea.  And she’s still very young.  Her parents and grandparents are still alive and she has good relationships with them.  She doesn’t have a boyfriend, but she isn’t in any rush to get one – she wants to wait to find the right one.

Perhaps if I examined her life through my own eyes there’d be much more complaining.  It is truly an admirable quality to approach life confidently and positively, as she does.  It’s helped her cope with what life has given her so far.  She’s always been able to find the good things, and perform well, in a situation.

Would I be happier if she told me about how unsatisfied she was, or about how she has had a hard life and hasn’t had the opportunities she had dreamed of, or that she has had every opportunity she has ever dreamed of?  It seems to me that she has a balance in her personality.  Clearly, she has the drive to work hard and achieve great success academically, but she also has the good nature to accept what she has with pleasure, to appreciate it, and not to constantly complain about how much richer, taller or more beautiful she could be.  She could bemoan and covet those things she doesn’t have in life, like a good job or a handsome and successful boyfriend – but she doesn’t.

She’s loved her course.  She’s made lots of friends.  She’s happy.  What a wonderful thing that is.

Ai Weihua

Photo 3: Ai Weihua


Martin Archer – 23rd April 2015

The Series so far (click the link):

Thursday 30/04/2015: #1 Jin Peng the Manchu from China

Thursday 14/05/2015: #2 Kimberley Watt the Jamaican

Thursday 21/05/2015: #3 Ai Weihua the Tujia from China

Thursday 28/05/2015: #4 Trimmy the Sri Lankan