Alex Tan is a contributing writer for Nee Hao Magazine. He is currently nearing the end of his PhD study at Newcastle University with the topic ‘ Young British Chinese People ‘. In the process of his research, he has met many nice and kind people from all cultures and backgrounds and in particular, the Chinese people in the UK. Alex shares some of his thoughts about the journey he encountered whilst compiling his thesis.
This piece is part of my thought process, trying to understand and also make open the connections which support us in our lives. Although I focus on certain connections here, I want to note that I have been supported by a whole range of people during my time as a student, so I highlight Chinese connections here in particular simply because this links to my study topic; Young British Chinese people.
In my previous article on Nee Hao, I gave a good overview of my PhD research. This same PhD is soon to be completed and the final draft is in the pipeline for examination. Aside from the academic study itself I have, over the past four years, started to get to know British Chinese people not just close to Newcastle where my study began, but in a wider national context.
A personal journey has been made, from identifying with similar sensibilities to those interviewed in Ngan’s (2008) study. Ngan found that Australian Born Chinese use of Chopsticks, eating rice, and giving Red Pouches (Hong Bao) could give Chinese growing up ‘in diaspora’ a cultural sense of Chineseness. Influences on early attitude to Chineseness in Britain: A personal early anecdote refers to a friend from Beijing during my time as an undergraduate; who was actually the first Chinese person from mainland China I befriended. During this time I also met other Chinese students from outside the UK.
Being in the university environment and having this friendship set me on a course to explore Chineseness in the local context (Britain) but also the idea of ‘Chinese’ being widely seen as foreign to Britain, what this could mean for Chinese who found themselves in the UK, were born here, wanted to be here. This questioning lead to me devoting my Master’s dissertation to interviewing Chinese and Malaysian students; as I began to try to balance understanding of being ‘Asian’ in Britain.
Eventually I came to focus on British Chinese experiences, underlining the British here as I wanted to avoid narrowing the project to just British Born Chinese (BBCs). It made sense not to place a restrictive definition on what ‘Chinese’ is because, for example, I always understood a number of people would have arrived after childhood or just after birth, yet otherwise would have grown up in Britain. As readers can possibly identify, Chinese people also arrive in Britain from a number of different countries, often with their own varied traditions and understandings of culture (examples may include Malaysia and Vietnam).
Experiences beyond the PhD study
This part of the article is an open attempt to try and share the journey and lessons learned over the past four years of study beyond what I did for my PhD. To return to the title of this piece it is due to the kindness of others that I have managed to come this far. I want to talk about three distinct groups in particular:
The community in Manchester
Early in my project I wanted to connect to the Chinese community in Manchester. While London does have the largest Chinese population, Manchester has the second and this made it potentially important for understanding those experiences outside London. I was fortunate to be able to speak twice for BBC radio Manchester ‘Chinatown’ a radio show I still listen to for useful news and of course the latest Chinese music! By meeting the presenters I was also able to understand the situation in Manchester regarding the Chinese community – for example gaining awareness of the Wai Yin Chinese Women Society and Chinese Arts Centre. There have also been networking events run out of Manchester and I have attended these, which have been very interesting in noting what Chinese people in Britain might be doing now, and looking for in future.
A few years ago some friends were starting to learn Mandarin, I was also invited to start and have kept going since then. It is now over three years. Whilst I have studied in mixed classes, with many who are non-Chinese, as well as self studied, the direct input of Chinese teachers has been particularly useful. The experiences of my Chinese teachers have been valuable in understanding not only some of the meanings behind the characters but also what China itself is like. I also had the chance to attend Chinese school for a time (although then over twenty) and see all the hard work that goes into trying to impart Chinese language to children; sometimes a challenge when their language environment outside the family is almost totally English. Learning Chinese has also opened up a whole new world of interests, such as Chinese music and films, but I still very much need character subtitles!
London and meet-ups
Most recently, during my time working in London, there has been the chance to take part in London social meet-ups. Previously I knew from my research that various British Born Chinese/British Chinese groups existed and I had taken the time to join these on facebook before coming to London. Eagerly then I used the chance to join the infamous BBC meets, which involve dinner with strangers followed by socialising over drinks. I read many anti-racist and postcolonial texts at university; these writings challenge us to think more openly about the meaning of race. These texts argue that understanding difference is often cultural and belief based, it is not a natural truth. How then could these gatherings of people, because they are ‘Chinese’, and my own place in them, be explained? Early on in my study of Chineseness in Britain I sometimes felt the odd one out when meeting groups of Chinese people, I still remember the first time in a room where everyone looked Chinese. I also remember an ‘ah ha’ moment in Chinese class when I realised I could for the first time actually read the characters on the page. As someone I met said, the meet-ups are about connection, and hopefully finding others that understand each other with a similar background and set of and sense of belonging(s).
The standard route for academics is to use publishing in journals, and obviously books, to make their research known to the wider world. Much of this knowledge though still remains hidden, not only from the world outside academia, but even the people we touch through research, and whose lives and experiences also touch us. It also seems possible that what seem like very ordinary experiences to us, when not talked about, may remain unknown and undiscussed. I wanted to give some short examples to show that there is much more beyond the papers and reports researchers produce, although ink or pixels stay in place, the lives involved and informing these writings carry on. It has often been through the kindness of others that I have been able to progress both personally and academically.
If anyone is interested to get a further sense of what I have been writing about here, I might recommend two different books, ‘21: Discussions with Artists of Chinese Descent in the UK’ which can be bought at the Chinese Arts Centre shop and ‘Cultural Curiosity’ a book which features many stories from Chinese people living outside China.
BBC Radio Manchester – Chinatown (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p001d7qy) Chinese Arts Centre (www.chinese-arts-centre.org) Hancock, D., Kwok, Y., Champion, S. (2009) 21: Discussions with Artists of Chinese Descent in the UK, Chinese Arts Centre Khu, J. M. T. (2001) Cultural curiosity: thirteen stories about the search for Chinese roots, University of California Press. Ngan, L. (2008) Living In-between: Hybrid identities among Long-established Australian-born Chinese in Sydney. Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies, 2(1), 127-135. Wai Yin Chinese Women Society (http://www.waiyin.org.uk/)