What being both culturally British and ethnically Chinese means
Ethnic minorities in the UK are experiencing a rapidly increasing level of hate crime after the EU referendum. Racially motivated attacks on those who are not Anglo-Saxon have spiked over the last two weeks. From firebombs to graffiti, individuals who have been bitter about immigration for a long time have misinterpreted the results as support for their xenophobic impulses.
However, a significant portion of British immigrants are born and raised in the UK. Their identity is more complex than their ancestry and family values. Is identity defined by the official citizenship documents one gains from one’s country of birth? To what degree is identity connected to the social norms and values one carries? Is it possible to have multiple ethno-cultural identities at the same time?
This topic inspired Chenxu, an intern at the British Chinese Project, to gain a deeper understanding on the different factors influencing identity. He sat down with Aaron, a British-born Chinese (BBC) student, to explore what his identity of being both culturally British and ethnically Chinese means.
Growing up as a minority
Chenxu: Can you tell me about your childhood?
Aaron: I was born and raised in Nottingham. We are the first ones in our family to have been born here. I attended a small private school of a predominately white population. I very quickly adopted British culture – eating British food, following football and singing weekly hymns.
Chenxu: Were there any other Chinese or East Asian students in your school?
Aaron: Throughout school and sixth form, I was one of only two or three students of full Chinese heritage. At the time, it didn’t really matter to me because it was natural to me.
Chenxu: This is quite common among second generation British Chinese. Many of my BBC friends are like you, growing up without much exposure to Chinese culture and people. I think this is related to how the older generation settled in the UK before the 1990s.
Aaron: Yes, many first-generation Chinese immigrants dispersed across the country in order to avoid competition, especially those who were employed in the catering sector. Growing up with white British friends, I was rarely conscious how I was different.
Chenxu: Without much of a presence of Chinese people or culture in early years of your life, it is understandable that you did not feel particularly ‘Chinese.’
Aaron: I definitely felt a stronger sense of being British than Chinese as a child. When I was 11 or so, I visited Hong Kong. At the time, I wanted to make it clear to everyone that I was from England and spoke English only. I remember a specific time when a lady at a shopping centre tried to sell my friend and I some fragrance. Although I understood her, I didn’t respond and just waited for a family friend to communicate to her.
Chenxu: Why do you think your younger self did that?
Aaron: With the stereotypically submissive Chinese characters in the UK film and media industry, being Chinese was often seen as a negative thing by many BBCs. The portrayed roles weren’t necessarily things I wanted to be a part of. Until this day, there are rarely any positive depictions of Chinese people in UK films and media in general. If they appear at all, they are often portrayed in a geeky or foreign way. It was much easier to present myself as a British person. So when I was in Hong Kong the first time, I was consciously acting as a so-called westerner.
University life and new encounters
Chenxu: Has anything changed from then on?
Aaron: Yes. In 2014, I finished sixth form and started university. Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by thousands of oversea students, especially those from China and Hong Kong.
Chenxu: What did this mean?
Aaron: It was the interaction I had not previously experienced. It encouraged me to speak Cantonese outside of home. Before university, I didn’t know in which ways being able to speak Cantonese can or could be an asset to me. As I met more Chinese students, I realised it was much easier to start a conversation if I spoke Cantonese with them and that led me to make some of my best friends in university.
Chenxu: Are there a lot of Chinese students in the University of Nottingham?
Aaron: Yes! Also, we also have a campus in Ningbo, China, and that provides students from the Nottingham campus the opportunity to study in China and vice-versa. International students from Hong Kong and China definitely benefits our university in terms of diversity of opinions and culture.
Chenxu: It is the same in my university, the London School of Economics. Some departments are filled with students from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. In school year 2014-15, there were approximately 120,000 ethnic Chinese students studying in the UK. This is the reflection of the so-called ‘studying abroad fever’ in China.
Aaron: What’s the ‘studying abroad fever?’?
Chenxu: It is a social phenomenon in China nowadays. There are more and more parents sending their children to pursue education overseas, and this is not limited to those who can afford it. Some families would do everything they can to make sure their children can study in top UK or US universities in order to stay competitive in the Chinese job market.
Aaron: I guess China’s rise is one of the reasons why we see more and more international students and in sparking my interest to think more about my Chinese roots!
Chenxu: Maybe that is one way of looking at it.
An Expanding Identity
Chenxu: Are you more comfortable speaking Cantonese now?
Aaron: It took me some time but I eventually got used to it. Now my friends and I often send messages in English with Chinese pronunciation. It is always fun for me to read them out loud but for my friends, it’s more like matrix decoding. I recall asking my girlfriend for two pounds for the laundry, and rather than writing it in Chinese as ‘Leung Bong’, I wrote ‘Learn Bon’, with a second attempt of ‘Lurn Bon’.
Chenxu: Do you think your Cantonese is on par with native speakers?
Aaron: Definitely. I still feel more confident speaking in English – it just comes more natural to me. I try to speak Cantonese as much as possible, but I often pause for thought on specific words because I still lack practice and vocabulary. But at the end of the day, I want people to know that I can speak Cantonese and I am very proud of it.
Chenxu: Has speaking Cantonese changed the way you think about yourself?
Aaron: I think just by the difference in attitude I’ve explained – identity is certainly a transformative process. Certain stages in life play a major role in shaping yourself as a person and getting to know students from Hong Kong and China have also developed me as a person. By understanding my friends’ lifestyles and what is important to them gives me an education to the culture they’re from, something reading alone would not provide. University has just been a great opportunity for me to embrace my Chinese heritage and background.
Chenxu: Other than university, do you think there are other ways for individuals like yourself to integrate their Chinese identity more in their lives?
Aaron: I think the work of NGO’s and other Chinese representatives in tackling these issues are essential. I mean, taking the British Chinese Project’s annual fundraising walk for example, it’s a positive event because it involves the community in its work; it exposes individuals to the efforts which may help build their identities or bring awareness to the experiences of other people. These events are a great opportunity for many BBC’s like myself to be more aware of the social issues many others face.
About the British Chinese Project
The British Chinese Project is a not-for-profit organisation devoted to promote the engagement, understanding and cooperation between the Chinese community and wider UK society. We conduct original community-based research and provide an innovative media platform for the expression of British-Chinese aspirations. We work with partner organisations, individuals and volunteers on community outreach events and projects to strengthen the social, media and political presence of British-Chinese community.