This month marks the UK’s first ever East and South East Asian Heritage Month, a huge feat from the be.sean community. Although I didn’t feel mentally or emotionally capable enough to join in on the month’s calendar of activities, I wanted to share a little something here, in the classic Daisybutter way, about what it’s like to experience life as a Chinese woman born, raised and living in a Western country.
When I first started writing this feature more than a year ago, it was full of sadness, anxiety and even a smidgen of guilt. But today as I sit down to try and do a better job of it, I feel quietly confident.
It’s certainly been a rough 18 months for us all. But as a British-born Chinese woman, it’s been quite the struggle on a new level that I didn’t know I’d have to experience, never mind handle and survive. I’ve written extensively about how it felt to simply exist as a Chinese person during the COVID-19 pandemic, how it felt to grow up British-Chinese in England, but never an open-hearted piece about life as a Chinese woman now, in a Western country. How I feel about it now that the pandemic-induced racism has settled is much different. In fact, it’s seen me twice turn to professional help and therapy.
A feeling of ‘third-best’
Despite best efforts from all of us, there’s no denying that women and non-binary people experience life feeling second-best. Our voices are diminished or erased, and don’t get me started on the plethora of everyday items and systems that were designed with a men-first mentality. Since beginning to explore my place and role in the East Asian diaspora a few years ago, I’m coming to terms with understanding how, in many instances, it’s third-best that I feel.
For instance, when visiting a restaurant with a group of white friends, I’ll often be the last person the wait staff calls upon or ignored completely. There’s that sticky, uncomfortable feeling that somebody would rather select anybody in the room but that one Chinese woman sitting in the room: me. It’s one of the things I return to a lot in my counselling sessions, the gut-wrenching thought that despite my very best efforts to present myself in the best way, I would not be equal to my peers.
The pressure to be a good immigrant
On that note, there’s the overarching burden of feeling like I must be a good example for my community or, as Nikesh Shukla graciously puts it: a ‘good immigrant’. When Emma Raducanu recently won the US Open tennis tournament, she was lauded and praised by the British press the nation over. She (rightly) instantly became known as the first British woman to win the title. But I couldn’t help but consider that her multi-nationality only seemed palatable because she’d become champion; she’d earned her humanity in Britain. There’s nothing great about that.
And on a lower scale, I feel it implicitly in day-to-day life. From code-switching my everyday vernacular to appear ‘more British’ (despite having the broadest southern British accent because, well, I was born here) to gaining a University degree to ensuring I never break even the smallest of rules, I can’t help but move through my adult life just as I did when I was a child – mildly scared of being rejected by the society around me.
Treading a balance between traditions, values and progression
In many East and South East Asian cultures, feminism hasn’t moved as quickly as it has in the West. And we’re expected to fall into line, in a sense. On top of that, there’s familial structures to keep to – which I gladly do – and many values that protect and safeguard our communities. Don’t lose face. Don’t bring negative attention to yourself. Let them do their thing, and we’ll do ours.
When I became a touch more vocal in owning my identity as a British-born Chinese woman and everything that those five words stand for in my eyes, it was a point of contention. Why did I need to bring attention to it? You’ll only attract more racism or division. But finding this delicate balance between keeping our traditions and values and fighting for progression is easily one of the best things I could’ve even done.
To my fellow East and South East Asian diaspora, you are seen and valid and I appreciate you endlessly. I can’t describe how much your comments, DMs and personal emails mean to me. And, if you feel you may need it, I can’t recommend counselling or talking therapy enough when it comes to detangling troubling and persistent thoughts about identity.