A couple of months ago, I was discussing the reasoning for calling myself a ‘British-born Chinese woman’ with somebody online. I’ve used the phrase to describe myself for over 10 years, because it’s a succinct way to share who I am. Not a single day goes by where my identity doesn’t impact my day, and I’m sure it’s the same for many of you reading this.
If I begin to unpick the phrase bit by bit, that’s where it gets a little more complicated. Why do you want to be labelled ‘British-born’? You’re Chinese, leave it at that. But to do so would be erasing my lived identity. Firstly, as an East Asian ethnic minority in the Western world, my voice is already diminished by institutions. I’m especially keen to maintain an identity of any sort in this sweeping society that is so quick to squeeze us into neatly packaged categories. ‘Chinese’ wasn’t widely available on many documents where it’s required to log your ethnicity for much of my life, and the same can be said for all other East Asian ethnic groups. As such, data about Chinese people in the UK is fairly new, and it’s sad to imagine the impact that may have had. Even in my late teenage years, I’d feel completely dehumanised at ticking ‘Other’ on the box, as if I were some sort of alien. Don’t get me started on that time in 2016 when I discovered there was once an Aliens Act in the UK in 1905, that limited immigration. On a personal, micro-level, I’ve always felt that the phrase helped me to feel like I might belong. If I had a British pound for every time somebody asked me ‘where are you really from?’, I’d probably be able to buy my own island and never have to answer another question again.
What’s more, growing up British-born Chinese in England means that my experiences are worlds apart from other people in the global Chinese diaspora. My cousins in Hong Kong and Malaysia weren’t subjected to being called a ‘ch***y’ in the streets as they walked home from school, and they also didn’t experience watching The Inbetweeners and oddly finding it all Hashtag Relatable. I’m as much British as I am Chinese. So why can I be praised for being quiet and non-trouble making (I’d argue these are personality traits more than a racial stereotype for me), but racially abused by the same demographic? I spent most of my adult years trying to untangle what on earth I was doing wrong.
With little to no representation in mainstream UK media, I often felt a little lost and unchartered amongst my predominantly white peers. My Black and non-Black PoC friends always felt similarly to me: lost and left out. I know now that the problem wasn’t with me or us, it was the system. And with that, as I’m slowly learning, comes my privilege: in select circumstances, I’m used as a model minority to look ‘better’ than Black and certain other minorities. Effectively, Chinese people (especially in the West) are used as pawns in the white supremacist structure to uphold systemic racism. I’m not okay with that.
To be British-born Chinese is to celebrate dual culture living. I’m grateful every day to honour Chinese traditions and my cultural identity, so ingrained in me that I didn’t realise my non-Chinese friends hadn’t done the same all their lives. I’ll never forget the time I invited a friend round for ‘tea’ and they quizzed me about the Sanxing (three ancestral statues we keep in the house) up on the sideboard. It means being incredibly privileged in many ways: the education I received for free that my cousins had to spend thousands on, learning English as a native language, being seen as somebody that ‘will comply’. It’s also to be a touch more empathic of others’ and their unique experiences. Straddling both cultures — which clash and jar terribly at times — has taught me to always have an ear open and to be understanding, to speak out on behalf of those whose voices aren’t heard, and constantly learn from those around me.
I’m still learning about my own identity and where I might ‘belong’ in this world.