My tricky relationship with my British Chinese identity


Originally published by Varsity on 5th February 2017

In some ways, I’m every bit the Chinese stereotype. I have a grade 8 in piano; I got A*s in all my science GCSEs and an A* in my maths A Level, at home; I eat rice almost every night for dinner, and I can speak a decent amount of Mandarin. In other ways, I defy it completely: I’m an English student (try finding a face like mine in a lecture on Chaucerian dream poetry), I can’t play table tennis for the life of me, and my ‘Chinese work ethic’ is questionable at best.

I’ve spent years trying to walk that tightrope – trying my hardest to avoid becoming a walking stereotype, to draw attention to the parts of me that defy that stereotype, and to not let my ‘typically Chinese’ hobbies define me and my personality. At the same time, though, I’m also trying not to be embarrassed of my heritage, and to take pride in my identity if I can.

Finding a sense of identity is a bewildering and frustrating process even without these considerations and anxieties, but that’s the challenge that all BBCs – British-born Chinese people – are inevitably confronted with as they get older. The realisation that you’re not like other kids comes quickly: playground teasing about your name, about your ‘slant eyes’, people constantly asking you if you speak any Chinese, and so on. You can try and shake it off, but of course it always comes back, and so, growing up, your experiences are always tinted by a sense of being different.

It doesn’t help that the British Chinese community is so small and so scattered around the country. We make up about one per cent of the population in every major city, but we’re not concentrated anywhere. We’re everywhere and nowhere, visible and invisible. What’s more, because we’re so much smaller than other BME groups, there’s a severe lack of British Chinese presence in mainstream media and culture. We never had a Goodness Gracious Me or a Bend it Like Beckham, for example. We don’t have Zadie Smith, Hanif Kureishi, Monica Ali, or Benjamin Zephaniah. The closest thing we have is Gok Wan, Cho Chang and, if you’re lucky, a Chinatown district in your city.

This isn’t to say British Chinese kids are somehow more disadvantaged than other BME groups – visibility can often be as much of a curse as invisibility – but I think that invisibility is a big reason that kids like me struggle so much with the issue of identity. There are no British Chinese icons you can look up to, no wider cultural community that you feel like you’re part of. Instead, you just have many kids going through a lot of the same experiences but who have no way of building a substantive dialogue about it all.

Don’t get me wrong, there does exist a British Chinese community. For several years, for example, I attended a Chinese-language school on Sundays where I would meet other Chinese kids from the area. My parents had a stall at the Chinese New Year market that I would help out at, and they’d meet with family friends to cook dumplings or play traditional Chinese instruments. The problem is that all of these events are deeply steeped in traditional Chinese culture, a culture that most of us have only ever had contact with on summer holidays, if at all.

Growing up in modern Britain, these things can seem outmoded, but most importantly they are different. Being Chinese makes you different. No one at school talks about eating moon cakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival, or learning the vocab for next week’s Chinese test, so you don’t either. You want to fit in. You want to fit in so badly that you don’t build an identity on your Chinese-ness, although you may have Chinese friends, and you may be very involved with the Chinese community. You find ways to minimise it, to differentiate yourself from it. When your teenage years come around and you start rebelling against your parents, all of this becomes even more justified as a way to get back at them.

The result of all of this is that many British Chinese kids are in a strange limbo between their senses of Britishness and Chineseness. Some people are more receptive to their Chinese upbringing as kids and have embraced that from the beginning. To others, their only attachment to the Chinese community is vestigial. I’ve met people, for example, who can understand Chinese perfectly well, but when spoken to in Chinese by their parents, they’ll respond in English.

Most people, like me, are somewhere in between. We care about our Chinese heritage, but are busy with work or study and don’t have the time or energy to dig any deeper. We’re sort of but not really bilingual. Our lives are defined by code-switching, swapping out Chinese words we don’t know for English equivalents, speaking different languages depending on whom we’re talking to. We’re more settled now – the alienation we felt in childhood doesn’t bother us as much – but we still feel a bit like outsiders, and we wonder if that feeling will ever really go away. Finding your identity is a confusing process for any young person. For British Chinese kids, though, it’s just that little bit more confusing.

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