Photos by Kaye Ford.
I’ve wanted to pen this post for about a thousand months, so please forgive me for its length.
This year (and beyond), I’ve pledged to myself to discuss race and culture more openly on my blog. Because if we don’t, then who will? Grab a cup of (Chinese) tea and pull up a comfy seat as I attempt to talk candidly and concisely about my experiences growing up British-born Chinese.
Let’s start at the beginning. I was born in Hertfordshire, England in 1991 to Chinese parents. Dad was born and raised in Malaysia and Mum in Hong Kong, and they moved to England in search for a better future in their twenties and teens respectively.
At home, I was raised speaking solely Cantonese – with the expectation that I’d eventually pick up English in traditional education – and was loved on endlessly by my family. I was mostly raised by my Granny while my parents worked six days a week at our family takeaway business. Not once did I feel I was different, even at pre-school when I’d play make-believe and make a mess in the sandpit, talking to the other kids (predominantly white with one Indian boy who was my only friend!) in Cantonese.
By and large, I don’t know whether I genuinely didn’t realise I was ‘different’ or if I simply did my best to blend in because I’ve always felt so uncomfortable in group settings.
Food, glorious food
Riffing on Winnie’s frankly awesome post surrounding cultural differences in food, this is where my memories of ‘being different’ really begin.
School lunches at primary school were a minefield for somebody that ate traditional Chinese dishes at home 99.9% of the time. I didn’t know how to use a knife and fork (as we used chopsticks and spoons at home) and I distinctly remember being singled out and told off at the dinner table by both a dinner lady and the head teacher.
I remember finally, finally being invited to a friend’s house for ‘tea’ and being amazed that what we ate at school, continued through to their dinners! I also remember, later, taking lunch to eat at school and my peers being horrified at dim sum leftovers, braised pork belly, steamed fish and other dishes that I so treasured and loved.
With food so ingrained and esteemed in Chinese culture, I felt thoroughly disheartened and decided to make a case for my parents to let me buy lunch at school. Yes, I was completely prepared to swap my home-cooked meals for turkey twizzlers…
Sundays would see us head to yum cha after Chinese school. Yum cha can be translated to ‘drink tea’ and is simply the term used to describe a dim sum meal. I absolutely loved our yum cha sessions, and it’s still something I regularly look forward to.
Bamboo baskets filled with steamed buns, braised beef short rib, chicken feet, soup dumplings and sticky rice in lotus leaves, amongst many more. Yum cha is almost a ritual in itself: selecting tea leaves, ordering on the tick sheets, wildly calling for a waitress’ attention, chopstick etiquette. All of these activities call to mind my treasured childhood memories.
As time has progressed, I find it interesting to see Asian cuisine trending and fetishised across the world: how can such an important establishment of our culture become a passing trend for others to often mock and create their own versions of?
For the most part, throughout my childhood I felt wildly out of my comfort zone anytime that I wasn’t home. Break times at school were a bit wild too: I was bullied by girls in the year(s) above me for being ‘a chinky’ despite not knowing what one was, I wasn’t allowed to take part in roleplay with my friends because there wasn’t a Spice Girl that looked like me.
I even remember being asked to tell my class what Chinese New Year was like ‘back home’ (i.e. in China where none of my family are from, actually) when I was around 6 or 7, and going bright red in front of the 30+ white kids.
The ‘winyee’ in my social media handles? That’s actually my first name! Michelle is my middle name, a trend that my parents phased out with my younger sister 😉 All of these micro-aggressions led to me eventually deciding I wouldn’t bring any of my home life into school realms.
Beauty and the East
The next hurdle in my attempts to be a normal British girl was, of course, that that stemmed from makeup and beauty. Ever since a sick day in primary school when Mum came home with tomato soup and my first ever issue of Girl Talk, I was an avid magazine reader. Remember my experience with books? That adoration of the printed word only magnified when faced with these colourful tomes that I could indulge in weekly, and often with a free gift.
Within these hallowed pages lay step-by-step tutorials of how I could use that week’s free plasticky eyeshadow palette to ‘get the look’ of the placidly smiling blonde pre-teen girl on the cover. Spoiler: it never worked on me. Coupled with having Chinese parents who were adamant I wasn’t to wear makeup to school at the age of 13, I was not experienced with beauty at all and when I was allowed to at the age of 17, I had no idea where to begin.
I remember flicking through Sugar magazine, ELLE Girl, Teen Vogue (who were admittedly better) and other such magazines, looking for somebody that might make me feel known and that I could mentally model my clothes or makeup looks on. Nil. It was very rare that I’d see a Chinese or any East Asian girl in magazines or on TV.
After spending a summer in Hong Kong before Uni, I opened up YouTube to catch up on BIGBANG music videos and ended up watching Bubzbeauty’s 5 Minute School Makeup tutorial. I was completely blown away that here was a British-born Chinese girl, teaching me how to apply makeup sans hooded eyelids, sans long eyelashes and with makeup products that my older cousins had helped me buy in Hong Kong just last weekend. What madness was this?!
Volume turned all the way down so I wouldn’t be outed for literally not knowing a jot about beauty, I rabbit-holed my evening in a whirlwind of similar videos and couldn’t believe my eyes. Finally, I felt somewhat understood and represented, even if it was through a self-made video by one YouTuber on a video website in 2007. I even remember a few months later, Lindy filmed a comedy video about Chinese takeaway life and shared it with my siblings and cousins because, look! Comedy we understood and that shone light on these experiences that made us so different from our classmates!
We Are Family
Growing up British-born Chinese, I also noticed quickly that families always took priority in our culture. After school, we’d often head over to my auntie and uncle’s place for a pre-dinner snack or pop to Mum’s cousin’s house to catch-up and play mahjong. On Sundays, we would go to our swimming lessons at 9am before heading to Chinese school at 11am, followed by our usual dim sum sessions. Unlike many of my classmates, I spent most of my time with my family and, looking back, I’d certainly choose to do so too. I’m extremely close to my family and count my siblings as two of my best friends.
I’m lucky enough to be a very well-travelled individual. From my earliest years, my parents flew with me (and on their head be it!) to Hong Kong and Malaysia so my extended family could ‘see’ me too. I can remember playing with firecrackers in front of our house in Malaysia with my cousins, I recall living room sleepovers in our beautiful flat in Hong Kong.
I remember my Mum carrying me all across Penang in searing 40 degree heat and I also remember visiting the Peak in Hong Kong for the very first time and feeling completely enchanted. I’m ridiculously lucky to be able to call of these places home as much as I call the room I’m writing this from, home.
When I moved to live in Hong Kong for what would end up being two years, part of my decision was spurred on by the fact that I might finally feel like I belonged. I felt jaded by London and England’s inability to approach representation and my own attempts at doing so via my blog and writing were proving futile. And yet? I actually found that my move to Hong Kong highlighted my unique position as a British-born Chinese girl.
Locals in Hong Kong could hear the nuanced differences through my accented Cantonese and how I didn’t have a grasp of their current slang, and suddenly I was ‘the British one’ within my new team at the office. My colleagues marvelled daily at all of the things that made me so British and I’d often feel just as awkward then as I did back at school when my differences began to unfurl.
What I’ve learned thus far is that my wonderfully unique position as British-born Chinese is just that: wonderfully unique.
These days we’re told we must be ‘woke’ and I think I’d begun my own journey into that idea once I started secondary school. I was actively interested in learning about my differences and trying to do better towards myself, even if it was via surface-level segues like ‘how to do makeup on Chinese eyes’ or embracing others and their own diverse and genuinely fascinating backgrounds.
Whilst yes, I have felt railroaded by my circumstances, I also appreciate that sadly representation amongst all cultures is still a work in progress. Could it be said that some of this lays in my head or indeed in ignorance? Yes. But that can no longer be an excuse.
Sometimes it feels like I’m shouting into the abyss that we as first-generation British-born Chinese or even as Chinese people are underrepresented. All through my life, I’ve found that ‘it isn’t cool until somebody white says it is’ and that simply isn’t and cannot be the way.
Just because someone didn’t see what I saw or feel what I felt, that doesn’t afford me or them the instant right to feel a particular way. And regardless of whether I spent 8 years writing about BB creams and sheet masks before the Western world decided they were popular/hilarious/novelty-like/kawaii/‘omg so funny hehehe’, the way in which the tide sways simply affords you and I ample opportunity to share our knowledge and tradition and break down the barriers that lead to cultural ignorance.
Whew! I feel like I didn’t even touch the surface with all that I wanted to say in this post…! I found this post incredibly cathartic to write and put together and am already full to the brim with ideas for follow-up posts.
I would absolutely to hear your experiences growing up Chinese or as a minority in your country.