By nationality, I am 100% British – I was born in London and have a British passport. By blood-grandparents-heritage-ethnicity (I’m not sure about the best term), I am half-Chinese, quarter-English, and quarter-Scottish; two grandparents born in Toisan in southern China, one in the north of England, another in Scotland.
As a child at primary school, there were a few incidents that would rightly be called racist: teasing and name-calling because of my unusual surname; but I didn’t have a sense that I was being teased or provoked any more than the other kids. Everyone seemed to have a name or a hairstyle or a twitch or a football team that elicited some kind of faux-resentment when the pack mentality demanded it. Low-level playground stuff that didn’t leave too many emotional scars.
I don’t think I’m glossing over some unacknowledged but deep experiences of racism. The fact is, I look white, and not half-Chinese like some of my mixed-race cousins do. I haven’t really experienced what it is to be Chinese in Britain, as my father’s generation did. Now and then someone will give me quizzical look and ask if I’m ‘Greek or something’; but only Chinese people ever spot that I am actually half-Chinese.
In the wake of recent discussions about racism in this country, Elizabeth Chan writes about her experiences as a British Chinese woman.
Chinese Britons are often referred to as a “silent” or “hidden” minority. For although we are the fourth-largest minority ethnic group in the UK, we are virtually invisible in public life, principally the arts, media and politics.
On the surface, the Chinese seem relatively content and well-to-do, with British Chinese pupils regularly outperforming their classmates and Chinese men more likely than any other ethnic group to be in a professional job. Consequently, we are often overlooked in talks on racism and social exclusion.
But academic and economic successes do not negate feelings of marginalisation. A 2009 study by The Monitoring Group and Hull University suggested that British Chinese are particularly prone to racial violence and harassment, but that the true extent to their victimisation was often overlooked because victims were unwilling to report it.
Growing up in the north of England in the 80s, I had few role models. Popular culture was dominated by white faces and occasionally black and south Asian, but never east Asian. I’m not sure that much has changed since.
Shouts of “Jackie Chan!” and kung-fu noises from random strangers continue to greet me in the street, perhaps followed by a “konichiwa!” Just a few days ago, a friend was having a post-hangover drink in a trendy east London pub, only to be accused by the manager of being a DVD pedlar hassling his clients.
Going to drama school in London was a revelation; I was told I couldn’t perform in a scene from a play because it had been written for white people. The scene was two girls sitting on a park bench talking about boys, and the year was 2006. Worse was when it came from my contemporaries; one (white, liberal, highly educated) helpfully suggested I did a monologue from The Good Soul of Szechuan instead, and another rushed up after one performance to tell me how delighted her parents had been that I’d spoken perfect English (I’m from Bradford).
In hindsight it was good preparation for a profession where, on my first job, the Bafta-winning director chuckled to everyone on set that I’d trained in kung fu, and where any character who speaks in some kind of dodgy east Asian accent is considered hilarious.
I have friends who are shocked that such things actually happen. They are usually most surprised at the fact that it’s happened to me. Why? I suspect mainly because, like them, I am part of the educated middle class, and things like that don’t happen to people like us.
Well, they do, and quite often. And frankly, it isn’t surprising that prejudices are rife in a country whose media perpetuates the very images that evoke stereotypes and cultural misunderstandings: Chinese characters rarely appear on our television screens, but when they do, you can bet they’ll be DVD sellers, illegal immigrants, spies or, in the case of last year’s Sherlock, weird acrobatic ninja types. Many Chinese viewers were outraged at the portrayal of east Asians in this show, but typically, few complained.
Sadly, the British Chinese are reticent about speaking up for themselves, and simply do not have the numbers to make the same noise the black and south Asian communities do, whose vociferous and galvanising voices have been making waves against racism for decades. Racism is one of those horrendous, soul- and confidence-crushing things that, when faced with, you’d much rather forget or pretend didn’t exist. So we tend to brush it off, pretend it never happened, or laugh along with the rest rather than come across as bad sports. We Chinese have become dab hands at this, living up to the stereotype of the smiling but silent Chinaman.
If we are to make progress in understanding the true extent of racism in this country, we all need to be a lot braver in confronting truths about how we live. It’s about swallowing our pride and being less afraid of telling the world how racism affects us and really thinking about the people across Britain who have come to accept racism as a part of life. It’s about standing up in classrooms, television studios, offices, pubs and public transport, not just for ourselves, but for friends and strangers, too.
Denial gets us nowhere. But awareness, thoughtfulness and courage could make millions of lives so much better.
I don’t know enough Chinese outside my own family well enough to judge whether this description of British Chinese reticence is accurate or not. But it’s certainly good to broaden the discussion about racism to include the experience of British Chinese, especially if – as Chan writes above – British Chinese are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the UK.