I’d never paid much attention to who I’d end up with in life. As a child, I thought myself destined to be a vet with two kids and living in a house-that-definitely-doesn’t-exist-in-England with a white picket fence. As a teenager I imagined myself a fanciful writer, sipping coffee and tucking my heeled feet beneath a polished desk. In my now? Well, I hadn’t planned on being a confused faux adult constantly questioning her life decisions. But here we are.
Growing up in a traditional Chinese household meant that I’d grown up hearing ‘boys later, study first’. A stereotype, sure, but it was also my reality. And to be honest, I was and am so shy that I didn’t date until much, much later than my peers. One of the first roadblocks I encountered on my dating journey was finding somebody that, well, looked like me. It was always implied that I should marry a nice Chinese boy, but I didn’t even know any who a) I wasn’t related to, or b) wasn’t a family friend.
The early days and a realisation
Throughout secondary school, I found talking about boys and dating painfully awkward, knowing full well that nobody had ever asked me on a date and that it was more than likely nobody would. I finished secondary school having been on no dates but with diary pages full to the brim, each surmising the thought I may never end up with anybody.
When I eventually did start speaking to boys – why does that high school phrase never leave you?! – I was elated. A real-life boy had actually slid into my MySpace message box and told me he’d spotted me around college! Night and day, we’d exchange messages and hang out at college and share our dreams, fears and everyday stories. I was smitten, to say the least, and he ended up being my first kiss. Watch out world, Michelle had arrived!
Eventually, our non-relationship petered out and he became my best friend for a stretch of time. We continued to laze around and watch anime together, game together, laugh about everything and anything, and find solace in both feeling othered – he was half-black, with a white Caucasian mother. I remember questioning him once about why he’d backed away and his response has been laser-focused into the back of my mind forever:
‘I was worried about what my family would think.’
Reader, in that moment I realised how I different I still was, and the struggles that I might go on to experience.
Feeling familial pressure
Given that I wasn’t allowed to date, throughout my formative years I never felt any pressure to date within my race. But as I progressed through the teens, I realised I was beginning to feel a little at war with myself. There were no interracial couples in my family and none on TV, much less in Sugar and ELLE Girl magazines. As such, I felt as though I ‘had’ to date somebody Chinese, something reinforced by the natural conversations at home, referencing cultural norms that I’d never known outside of my family.
I’d spend hours wondering what my future looked like: how would somebody not Chinese make conversation with Dad – whose English is somewhat okay but doesn’t extend to much more that small talk – or with my Granny? Moreover, how could I feel that I could be completely myself, speaking my modern mix of English and Cantonese (the best way I can express myself, as there are terms in each language that can’t be translated), eating rice every day without ‘getting fat’, prioritising my family as though my life depended on it, living in a home that is a collector’s dream with leftover takeaway stocks in the spare room?
I also worried constantly that it’d look like I was giving up on my own race. I’m no stranger to the stereotypes that Asian men have; that they’re weak, unattractive, lesser than. I don’t believe that any of these are true. Eventually, I realised that I’d be happier with someone who could wholeheartedly embrace both parts of myself; the traditional Chinese upbringing I’d had, as well as my inherently British side too. After all, you are a melting pot of everything you encounter.
Annie Ly, fellow British-Chinese, shares the same values: “Broadly speaking, that meant wanting anyone I was dating to be open to: trying new foods, perhaps making effort to pick up the language or connect with my Chinese culture, but also trying to balance that and not take ownership or appropriate Chinese culture. And in the same breath, wanting them to not see me as ‘other’ — I too was British, just like them.”
Filial piety and family values are, to me, at the core of most Chinese principles. I wouldn’t bat an eyelid at unfailingly spending every Sunday night at my Granny’s house along with my cousins, whilst growing up my peers would do all they could not to. I give money to my parents each time I’m paid — their spending money and a way of saying ‘thanks’ for raising me. Somehow, this has always been a point of contention in relationships or when dating men who weren’t raised in the same environment as me.
Jessica Li, British-Chinese, experienced a slightly growing-up: “When I was younger I resented being different. I didn’t want to socialise with fellow Chinese kids, I dropped out of Sunday school. I yearned to be white English; from an early age I rejected the culture and this applied to dating too. I would cringe when speaking to Chinese people outside of my immediate family — almost wanting to apologise for not being Chinese enough, enhanced by relatives commenting on my ‘European ways’, and my poor grasp of Cantonese.”
Being first-generation mixed-culture or mixed-race brings along its own set of nuanced issues. Whether it’s an unsaid awkwardness because parents have never dealt with interracial relations yet or nerves from our end, it’s an issue across the board: “The main issue between me and his family was the language barrier between me and his mother. She spoke very little English and even if she knew more, I think she felt quite uncomfortable speaking to me because she had never interacted with white people in close quarters before, let alone had one in her house and potentially a part of her family.
When I went to stay with him and his family during Chinese New Year, I felt very aware of my race. It was always praised/celebrated, though I never really felt included and although it may have been down to my own insecurities, I felt mocked a little sometimes. The whole time that we were together, his mother and sisters never thought that we would last as a couple. He would talk about marriage and his mum would never really believe him that he was serious.” says Hannah Roberts, a white-British woman, of her experiences dating a Chinese-Bruneian man.
Personally, I must admit I often felt the same. I’d revert back to my old ways of hiding my Chinese identity, pretending my home life wasn’t mildly chaotic with my parents slotting life around running a takeaway, eating from rice bowls with family-style dishes in the middle, because meeting the parents was absolutely terrifying. My main observations are certainly that whilst I feel wholeheartedly accepted into my partner’s family, my own family see our relationship as a ‘friendship’, at least until we marry.
Asked about any pressure felt from family, Lizzie Bee, half-Chinese and half-white British, married to a white-British man, said similarly: “The only pressure I got was that my parents were insistent that my boyfriends were only my ‘friends’. It wasn’t until nearly half a year into our relationship that my parents finally accepted that he was so much more than a friend!”
Yellow fever and fetishisation
“I have sometimes struggled to identify within myself which was more important – to be seen as ‘British’ or ‘Chinese’, but I’ve come to understand that being British-Chinese is a category in itself and contains a lot of nuances that my other half would have to understand wholeheartedly, rather than fetishise, appropriate or not pay attention to all together. I think this is perhaps why things never got to the stage it has with my boyfriend with people I’ve dated in the past: either the men I’ve dated haven’t shown any interest in wanting to connect with my ‘Chinese’ side, or if they did, I was always scared that they only liked me because they have ‘yellow fever’.”Annie Ly
When I mentioned the phrase ‘yellow fever’ in a group chat with friends who are Caucasian, not one of them had heard of it. Yellow fever is something that has lurked in every dating experience I’ve ever had. It refers to the fetishisation of Chinese women, and it’s a nuanced topic that I’ve always found difficult to explain. You see, when you’re othered in society, you somehow also become an object of desire in select circles.
I remember going to an anime society event in my first year at Uni. There was a varied set of people at the event, but it felt like a sleazy ‘yellow fever’ gathering. A boy came up to me and, without even asking anything other than my name, proceeded to plough into listing all of the Asian things they could think of.
‘I love anime, and cup noodles, and White Rabbit sweets, and I found a Chinese supermarket in town, and had a Thai takeaway last night.’
I was completely taken aback. Did this person want to get to know me because we had a (clearly) mutual interest in anime? Or did he spot one of about three Asian girls in the room and seek me out because he liked the image society gives about women who look like me? I’d never given yellow fever a second thought before, but from then it plagued my dating experiences.
“I think this is perhaps why things never got to the stage it has with my boyfriend with people I’ve dated in the past: either the men I’ve dated haven’t shown an interest in wanting to connect with my ‘Chinese’ side, or if they did I was always scared that they only liked me because they have ‘yellow fever’ (i.e. only attracted to Asian women, and all the stereotypes attached to that),” says Annie of her previous relationships.
Fast forward a few years and I’m now just-another-Tinder-user-in-Hong-Kong. I swiped voraciously and went on a plethora of dates with locals, expats and other British-Chinese. First, there was the local Hong Kong guy who was wonderfully sweet to be ‘within app’ but had no chat when we met because he was shy about his English and I about my Cantonese. Then, there was the Canadian-Chinese who seemed to hate that I was British. And then there was a British expat, white, worked in finance, loved to read and regularly invited me to cool, local restaurants. And on our third date, there it was: ‘I wouldn’t date anyone that wasn’t Chinese.’ I didn’t see him again.
Jessica has only dated white-Caucasian men and once resented being Chinese because she felt she didn’t fit in either culture wholly. She agrees: “My very first relationship was with someone who fetishised the Asian thing. He put me on a pedestal and I think liked the idea of me more than my actual self, constantly asking questions I didn’t know the answers too, leaving both of us disappointed. I regret that relationship because, once again in life, I found myself not being Chinese enough.”
And it doesn’t simply apply to Chinese individuals. Katherine Ellis is half-Hmong and half-Caucasian, raised in Utah where 86.6% of the state is white. “In high school I was seen as Asian and was asked every day: ‘So what are you?’ I remember pushing back and explaining I am mixed-race, detailing my heritage to whoever would listen. I didn’t want people defining who or what I was. As a result, I often felt fetishised in my early relationships. There weren’t many other races at my high school and I didn’t know a single person who knew what Hmong even was. I remember guys constantly saying things like, ‘I’ve never dated an Asian before,’ or ‘You’re so exotic.’
“College wasn’t any better. My first boyfriend in college called me his ‘Blasian’, because my curly hair made me look half-black. I am not half-black. No matter how many times I protested, he thought it was funny and wouldn’t stop. Another one called me his China girl even though I am not Chinese. Another one told me he was so happy he ‘got’ an Asian girl because I wouldn’t age the same as his past, white girlfriends.
“I remember thinking that I would always have to fight to be seen as a person, rather than a fantasy or fetish.”
Obstacles: An honest mistake? Or something far more sinister?
I’ve been with my current partner – a white Caucasian man – for three and a half years now. For the most part, it’s smooth sailing. But sometimes there are slip-ups. The cultural disparity is strong: little things like how we always take our shoes off in the house, yet he regularly forgets to, how he sometimes forgets his white privilege when I or my family discuss sticky situations we’ve experienced, how Chinese occasions and holidays are far more than ‘acknowledging a day’ but come with lengthy rituals.
One obstacle is how often I’m completely ignored when we’re out together. I remember the first time it happened. We were out for dinner in London and the waiter failed to look me in the eye once, not even to ask me for my order. I read out my order, and the waiter proceeded to confirm it with my partner. Odd. That hadn’t ever happened to me before then, but my gosh was it the first of many. Sadly I put it down to a race thing and didn’t feel outspoken or confident enough to call the waiter out on it, or mention it to my partner.
Fast forward a few months and we were holidaying for the first time in Bali. I’d made the reservations – being the more organised in the relationship! – and so I prepared our documents and booking notes to check us in whilst Harvey set about getting our bags in order. Surely this lovely Balinese woman wouldn’t treat me like the waiter had so cruelly done. And sure enough: she left her spot behind the counter, ignored me and headed straight over to Harvey by the door to ask for his booking notes.
Microaggressions like these are everyday obstacles that I now face. I’ll never be handed the bill (although this could also be a feminism issue!), I can ‘be in’ a conversation and never be looked at once, I’m almost always reduced to a piece of furniture. And yet I’m an able woman. I have a degree, I’m bilingual, I’m financially secure and independent, and I have thoughtful, articulate and (I think so!) witty contributions to make to conversations. As a white man from England, my partner has never had to think twice about whether he’ll be spoken to or served in public, about where he fits on a hierarchy. I regularly spend my evenings completely ignored by wait staff or shoved aside in queues, treated like second best in a country where I was born, raised and technically belong.
Natalie from West Sussex, black-British (Caribbean), engaged to a white-British man, says: “The majority of the pressure comes from social media. I follow ‘black’ accounts/businesses to show support and it’s nice to see people who look like me on my timeline. However, I start feeling uncomfortable when people start talking about ‘black love’, because it’s almost never a black individual and someone from another race, it’s usually a black couple. While I love seeing these beautiful couples and agree their love should be celebrated and normalised in mainstream society, it makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong. Like ‘black love’ can only be complete if it’s two black people and my type of love isn’t valid.”
As many of us in our late twenties do, I often think about the future. I wonder what it might be like raising a child who’d likely be susceptible to the same obstacles that I faced. In fact, I think about it a lot: how would I share my own experiences without prejudicing their own thoughts? Would they ever feel resentful of their father (should that be my current partner or anyone else from another race) for the issues I encountered and that they might? And on a more selfish level, how do I feel about navigating these murky waters for the rest of my life?
Well, thankfully I have an incredibly supportive partner who always listens to my concerns and comes to my defence wherever he can.
Natalie and her fiance have made the decision to start relationship counselling in order to foresee any issues, off the back of her experiences so far: “We’re currently engaged and planning to have children in the next couple of years. We’re going to relationship counselling to try and navigate any bumps that may come up in the future, almost like pre-marriage counselling. I would highly recommend it! It’s been an invaluable experience and I feel like we understand each other more now.”
Annie has also made huge considerations for the future: “For the future, I think about if I were to having children with my boyfriend, will my children’s surnames be double-barrelled? If they are, I’m certain I’d want my surname to go first, followed by my partner’s surname as I want my children to be recognised as half-Chinese as soon as you read their name.
My name is traditionally English-sounding, but you’re able to tell I’m probably from Asia by the time you read my short two-lettered surname. So, I have this fear that my half-Chinese children will be assumed fully English if my surname also isn’t there, and I don’t want it to feel like an afterthought by having it go second in a double-barrelled surname. If you were to read their name off a register, I wouldn’t want people to assume my children don’t have a dual heritage.
“It’s one thing to be British-Chinese, but to be half-Chinese in blood is something that will be so integral to their identity that I fear my children might lose touch of their Chinese side, which would be a massive shame.”
Whew! That was a BIG post. And, this wasn’t the entirety of the article. I decided at the eleventh hour to trim this feature and I’ll be sharing another part of it in coming weeks. The follow-up also features the incredible women who contributed so eloquently to this part, and deals with topics including white privilege, dual-cultures and breaking down the stigmas that we’ve each encountered.
I’d love to discuss this topic with you in the comments. But please be mindful of your comments on this sensitive topic, particularly as the feature contains plenty of guests and their personal experiences.