Hey there, stranger!
Sorry it’s been a bit quiet on the blog recently, this month’s been a bit hectic. Nevertheless, I’m back with a topic that I’ve wanted to write about for a long time but didn’t quite know how to go about it until I watched Jenn Im’s video on her struggles on growing up Korean American. May is Asian Pacific American Heritage month and there’s a list of 9 questions in the Asian American Tag that I thought would be a great way for me to share my experiences (but obviously writing from a British perspective because I’m about as American as Buckingham Palace is).
So let’s get cracking!
1. Which ethnicity are you?
I’m British-Born Chinese or a BBC if you’re as into acronyms as I am.
2. Which generation are you?
First generation. My parents moved from Hong Kong and my brother and I were born in England.
3. What is the first experience where you felt that demarcation of being a minority/different?
I’ve given this question a lot of thought but I can’t pinpoint exactly when I felt different. I always knew that I looked different to my peers, especially as I’m from Devon, which has a predominantly White population (94.2% according to Wikipedia). I guess it must have been during some point in primary school where someone would pull at the sides of their eyes to look more ‘Asian’ or pretended to speak Chinese at me.
4. Were you always proud of your heritage or was there a time you rejected it?
I think there was a time, maybe late primary school to early secondary school, where I wished I wasn’t Chinese as I just wanted to fit in, not that I ever had problems making friends. I guess maybe it was partially due to a lack of attention from guys as I felt less attractive due to looking different to my peers; I wished I was curvier, had bigger eyes and thick lashes that curved upwards (I have thin, straight lashes that go downwards).
Christmas was a time when I’d noticed a big cultural difference too. My family and I would still decorate the house a little, have a special meal (seafood and roast meats or a hotpot) as opposed to the traditional Christmas dinner that all of my friends had. Although it wasn’t traditional, it was always delicious as my mum is the best cook! It was also quite difficult growing up and chatting to friends about what their parents had bought them for Christmas and birthdays because my parents never bought me anything. I was given money instead to buy myself what I wanted. Nowadays, I prefer getting money (forever skint) but when I was younger, I would have preferred to have had something to open on special occasions (#firstworldproblems).
Also, not getting racist abuse shouted at you by chavs in the street would have been nice.
Highlights included when people would pretend to speak Chinese and it’s always “ching, chong, chang” – what I genuinely want to know is where they got this stereotype from and why it’s so universally used as racist abuse because no Chinese words sound like that. I also want to know the origins of “chink/chinky” because quite frankly, they’re all lazy insults. It’s just the first few letters of the word “Chinese” with other random letters behind it. Another great line was “go back to China” – I was born and bred in the UK so this never made any sense to me. Anyway, my parents are from Hong Kong so don’t even get me started on the divide between Hong Kong and Mainland China.
Speaking of Mainland China, it was always super cringe when people thought they were speaking my language by saying ‘Ni Hao’ which means hello in Putonghua (not Cantonese). On behalf of all Chinese people in England, please just say hello, like you would anyone else. We don’t want to be treated any differently.
I also thoroughly enjoyed having this conversation multiple times when I worked at a Chinese takeaway:
Customer: So where are you from?
Me: Oh, just down the road.
Customer: No, where are you REALLY from?
Me: Well if you want to get specific, I was born in Exeter.
Customer: Where are your parents from?
Me: Hong Kong.
I’m pretty sure that no White person has had to continue this conversation past the second line but please tell me if you have as I don’t want to generalise. For future reference, if you want to know what someone’s ethnicity is, just ask them. Don’t make them feel like they don’t understand your question or that they’re lying to you.
Another highlight was the number of people that would compliment me on how good my English was. After a while, I’d just reply with, “Thanks, you too!” My personal favourite was when someone just shouted “Kung Fu Panda” through the door of the takeaway. I didn’t even find it offensive. It would be the equivalent of me shouting “Mary Poppins” as I walked past a chippy.
5. What are some stereotypes that you struggle with?
The biggest stereotype that I struggle with is the exotification and objectification of Asian women through men who claim to have “Yellow Fever” which describes men who prefer dating Asian women. Firstly, being described as ‘yellow’ is vile. For some men, it may just be that they prefer the look of Asian women, which I can kind of deal with, considering how fussy I am about what I find attractive in the opposite sex. However, it’s the racist and misogynistic stereotypes associated with Asian women that I can’t stand i.e. compliant and less likely to challenge their partners.
During university, a guy told me that looking ‘sweet and innocent’ was what initially attracted him to me and was surprised when I wasn’t actually that naïve. I’m not sure if it was my personality, ethnicity or a mixture of the two that gave off this impression. Also, I’ve had the line, “I can’t believe I’m going out with a really hot Asian girl” quite a few times. I wonder if any White guy ever says, “I can’t believe I’m going out with a really hot White girl?!” Why can’t I just be hot? Why must my minority ethnicity play a part in it? One of my exes also referred to me as his “Asian girlfriend” for a good month before I told him to stop, as if my ethnicity was my defining feature (FYI, my defining features are my recorder-playing skills and defined jaw line).
On the flip side, there is also a stereotype that local Chinese girls are easy to foreigners. I don’t know how true this is as I didn’t have any local Chinese friends when I lived in Hong Kong but I don’t personally see any problem with being sexually active if you’re single and protect yourself. There are girls from every culture who are sexually active and I don’t think that describing them as ‘easy’ is doing feminism any favours.
Having had a chat to some of my BBC and CBC (the Canadian version) friends, here are some of the stereotypes that they struggled with: being good at Maths; bad at speaking English; all Chinese people eat dogs; eating Chinese takeaway food every day (FYI, Chinese takeaway food is completely different to home-cooked Cantonese food); the assumption that our parents were rich and/or owned a Chinese takeaway.
Just to banish the latter stereotype, my family actually owned a fish and chip shop. I was a dab hand at adding salt and vinegar to the chips.
6. Can you speak your language?
Yes, I speak Cantonese fluently enough to get by but people in Hong Kong can usually tell that I’m not local as I sometimes have to fill in Cantonese words in a sentence that I don’t know with English. My parents didn’t want me to grow up and not be able to speak my mother tongue or communicate with my relatives. Unfortunately, I can’t read or write it which makes ordering at Chinese restaurants without English menus a bit more challenging.
7. How has being British Asian affected your relationship with your parents?
The biggest challenge that I had growing up British Asian was getting my first boyfriend. My dad is really easy-going but my mum didn’t want me to start dating until I was 18 but she accepted me having a boyfriend at 16 as long as we’d been friends for a while first. My parents ended up loving him and my mum actually hoped we’d get back together after we broke up. She always saved him some home-cooked food and put it in a container for my dad to take to work, as they worked together at the local restaurant, and she knew how much he loved her cooking.
The second biggest challenge was when I turned 18 and starting going on nights out and my mum disapproved of me going to bars and clubs as she said that those places weren’t suitable for me. However, she never actively stopped me from going as all my friends went out; she just scowled a bit.
8. How do you feel about your heritage now? Do you identify with it?
I love being British-Chinese because it means I get the best of both worlds. Now that I’m older, I identify with it a lot more than I did while growing up. In the past, it felt like I didn’t really fit in in England because I was Chinese and had a completely different cultural background to my peers. On the other hand, when I went on holiday to Hong Kong to see my relatives, I didn’t fit in there either because although I was ethnically the same, I was brought up in England so my Cantonese wasn’t that strong and people could tell that I wasn’t local.
9. What is your favorite thing about being British Asian/your heritage?
I have dual citizenship so I can live and work in both England and Hong Kong without getting a Visa. Living in Hong Kong for almost 5 years were some of the best years of my life and if I could find a job that I wanted to do out there, I’d be back in a heartbeat. It’s my favourite place in the world and if you haven’t visited already, I’d thoroughly recommend it! Being able to live in two contrasting countries has broadened my horizons and helped me to work out what I want in life, even if it is still a work in progress. Life isn’t made to be spent in one place.
I’m forever grateful for having been educated in England as the Hong Kong education system is so competitive and hard work. You need to interview just to get into a decent kindergarten. Public healthcare in the UK is also excellent.
Finally, food plays a really important role in my life and brings me a lot of happiness and I’ve been lucky enough to have grown up on my mum’s incredible home-cooked Cantonese meals as well as British cuisine.
And that’s a wrap!
Thank you if you’ve made it to the end!
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my thoughts and if you have any of your own experiences to add or anything you’d like to ask me about, please feel free to drop me a comment.
Wishing you all a wonderful May Bank Holiday Weekend!