An Antidote to ‘Dilution’
Feature image: a pixelated version of Jasper Yu‘s photography
Time to get a little raw and uncomfortably real. Definitely easier not to broach the subject. Awkward silences ensue, noses rubbed in anxiety, “shit, did she really just say that?” Definitely easier to stay silent, to not be difficult, to let the small things slide. There’s apparently even a formal term for these things— “microaggressions”, nice to be able to intellectualise something which has gnawed at my edges for a while now. It’s not always easy but sometimes entirely necessary to speak, especially when things have been left unsaid, a narrative unravelled that should have been uprooted long ago. When you’ve allowed others to speak for you, over you and instead of you for one too many chapters. But what if, you are here on this earth, in this very moment, living and breathing alongside 7 billion others “for such a time as this”? (Esther 4:14)
What has prompted me to speak up about an issue where I usually take a curious observer’s backseat is that the dominant discourse right now overwrites the mixed, we are put in one box or another, in my case I have been called everything under the sun. Dependent on where I am in the world and usually how much and what make-up I am wearing (it’s still amazing to me how a little flick of eyeliner can radically change someone’s perception of you) I am ang moh (phrase for white person in Hokkien), Brazilian, Thai, Eastern European, and just recently on a trip to Florida spoken to in Spanish half a dozen times as I guess those people perceived me to be Hispanic. I unfortunately do not speak Spanish. Geography has never defined my identity. Culture crosses borders. I have never felt offended by the question (which I often receive when I meet new people) “where are you from?” Though I know and understand why some people do get offended, I’ve always understood it to come from a place of curiosity and it has often opened up richer conversations for me, though I think I have been fortunate in that case.
I speak for one small corner of the mixed race experience, but I am speaking. The diversity within being of mixed ethnicity is beautiful, complex and underrepresented. Other people’s fascination, attribution and association regarding who I am is interesting in itself. It is important that parents who are raising children within an interracial environment allow them to embrace that, it will pay dividends in later life. The face you see, the features you analyse. In most cases I haven’t seen it as racism, but merely racial study. The external has a big part to play. Trust me I get it. I code differently according to your familiarity with the “Eurasian” face. I also fully recognise that in some senses I have a cultural monopoly due to what has been thrust upon a lot of Eurasians, Pan-Asians (the terminology differs dependent on where you are in the world, another issue altogether), ethnic neutrality, sometimes privilege. Even a surname can discriminate, sorry, ‘help one to discern’.
Most of the time I find it amusing and let it be, so I’ll say that it has taken me 25 years of living to reach the point where I felt compelled, truly so, to write this. Simultaneously, I do not take the below lightly, the death-by-a-thousand-cuts incidents that myself and others like me, us “mixed others” who tick that hilarious box on every form, who have grown up straddling an invisible line of others’ perceptions live within. I figured it was time we spoke for ourselves. Following on from recent events, such as casting decisions in Hollywood to the amazing photographs and accounts captured by Daniel Adams on racism experienced by Malaysians in The Guardian, I’ve decided to let this see the light. Some of this I wrote about three years ago in reaction to a specific incident. Some of the below was written as a direct result of marinating upon derogatory terms I read in a prominent newspaper; some of it years ago, some of it just this afternoon.
It has always darkly humoured me how people make backhanded compliments about the appearance of my mixed heritage and in so doing diminish my being Asian, and Chinese beauty generally. I’ve heard it all: “wah, she’s so European-looking lah” said with reverence at the salon (this disquieted me even as a child as I could sense the implication), “your features are so interesting, it’s like the Asian and white have mixed so they’ve diluted the edges off each other to make this nice fusion of both”. Dilution. I hate that. I’ve heard it from people I love dearly, well-meaning people, Chinese and non-Chinese people alike. I accept that the Eurasian face in particular is commoditised and it can be seen as a ‘privilege’ in these times of globalisation, I actually wrote a whole piece on just this for the Business of Fashion, which will be published at a later date. We in many ways embody the “best of both” that casting directors are looking for, the familiar and the exotic whether a local or foreign audience is onlooking. On my visits to Malaysia I would often be stopped in the mall and asked to be in this “Milo/Nokia/Dove” advert before they realised I wasn’t a citizen or of legal age. In the midst of this talk of commodities and demographics, as a human being and an individual I am well aware that one of the hemispheres I represent is often derogated, so if I use my “so European-looking lah” face to talk about and give voice to those who don’t inherently straddle this ethnically ambiguous line then I will do so. Alongside this ethnic neutrality/privilege is a double-edged sword, as one of my mixed best friends recently said to me, “can I choose to bring out my white ‘half’ when I am being frisked in the airport for the umpteenth time” (she’s got more melanin in her skin than me)? Being mixed is a hodge podge when it comes to many things, from whether I am considered first generation, to being ethnically viable for diversity programmes.
I am a woman who likes things with grit and minus the bullshit. I cook with garlic and ginger as base ingredients like I was taught to. It’s interesting what goes on in the pot, what that mix means. That melding of genetic and cultural and ethnic calculation, appropriation, attribution. A lot of my life I have taken the stance: Allow me to be what you assume me to be. It’s interesting as it tells me so much more about you when you tell me who I am, and I don’t have to say a word but smile warmly and nod. What does it make you comfortable for me to be? I am comfortable in my skin and my identity, but what I’ve realised more and more recently is that others aren’t, and that it is time we had a conversation about it, rather than sitting on the sidelines and allowing others to speak about us, others who don’t inhabit the skin and identity that we do. Others who have tried to make me and others like me feel “less than” over the years and as if the fact that we are “only half” disqualifies us from understanding and participating in our own culture in a meaningful way. It’s an ugly and bigoted reality and perception and is a form of racism like any other.
I remember the small things easily, I am a person of the details. A strength or weakness like most character traits dependent on how they are exploited. We were at a very crummy Chinese buffet, the kind that no self-respecting Chinese person would ever willingly go to (I was there against my better judgment, kind of like when one used to hang out at Tiger Tiger, Cheapskates and those other not so fun places just because the rest of North London was there). Anyway, I’m sitting there, amongst friends, good friends, some of whom I’ve known since baby ages, eating my sub-par sub-room temperature mediocre “Chinese” food and that’s when I hear: “Oh wow, so you’re really, like, actually in touch with your culture, you’re eating with chopsticks! (Laughter) I never realised you were so Chinese”. Chopsticks and mouth both fall open. This was said by someone I’d known most of my life, who had seen my Chinese mother pick me up from school every day for the last seven years. I had no clue what to say, what do you say to that? Do you bring out that list you’ve been keeping since birth “all the things that make me Chinese even though I may not code it when you look at me 101”? Culture doesn’t appear on demand, it is not always visible, this is what disrupts some people without them realising, the subtle realisation that you cannot be put in a box. These incidents are major-minor but they are also cumulative, we cannot let the conversation and discourse surrounding race and subsequent racism be reduced to one versus another, there are a multitude of mixed others who have a voice and an experience that is equally valid.
I remember that same friend diminishing an internship I got through my own shameless teenage persistence as due to racial preference in front of my peers, I laughed it off though it jarred with me, and upon later reflection realised how jealous and petty a statement that was. On a piece of paper you can’t tell anything of my ethnicity, most people think my surname is Scottish. This was the very same friend who voiced their shock at my “Chinese-ness” earlier that year. I quickly learnt that I needed to know and stand firm in who I am internally, as BOY will others thrust their definitions on you, utilise your perceived ethnic ambiguity to their own agenda and if you aren’t secure in your identity you will lose yourself in the confusion of others that attempt to categorise you.
These so-called micro-agressions started getting even more up in my grill when I read some ridiculously derogatory comments about a mixed race actor’s casting (Henry Golding) being published in Hong Kong’s most prominent English-language newspaper SCMP (South China Morning Post) and I finally realised that all these small small incidents that I had been playing down my whole life were actually death-by-a-thousand-cuts and that if we stand by and let it, the experience of being mixed will be written off as one of privilege, commodification and without real nuance or genuine understanding. As Maya Angelou said, they bite and blow, take a bite out of you so small you feel embarrassed to comment for fear of “overreacting” and then blow on it to ease the pain. The process continues until the wound is irrevocably deep. The headline reads “Hollywood adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians has cast its Chinese male lead – and he’s half white”, the sub-head goes on to talk about “whitewashing” and the whole piece is full of passive aggressive jibes about his mixed heritage. I get the backlash regarding the casting to an extent, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the acidic nature of some of the comments that the piece reports on: “Guess this film will be two steps forward and one step back for diversity. We still aren’t at a point where a Hollywood film can have a full Asian male lead. Do Asian males need to be half white to be ‘good looking’ enough for the big screen?”, “Golding’s newfound stardom could at least be considered half a step forward from the diversity problem”.
“The message is clear; you simply CANNOT be a full-blooded Asian male in a romantic lead in Hollywood.” This last comment made me laugh out loud at first at the ludicrous notion of being “full-blooded” and feeling like I’d stepped into Harry Potter and its world of “half-bloods”, which I guess is what anyone of any kind of mixed heritage would be considered. Let me just stop and say here as a side note that there are many seriously, objectively HOT Asian men in the public eye: Ross Butler, Hayden Szeto, Godfrey Gao, Harry Shum Jr., Charles Melton to name but a few. Hayden Szeto was the romantic lead in The Edge Of Seventeen, granted this is the first time in a very long time. But anyway this side note is just to clarify that Asian men, like every other ethnicity can be hot, and we need to get over this idea of them as effeminate/unattractive rn, please and thank you.
Anyway, can we address the fact that these terms are derogatory: “Could at least be considered half a step forward”, “whitewashing” in regards to a mixed race person? I can firmly say I am half of nothing, I am neither a division or a dilution, the result of an equation or an experiment and I am sick and tired of these terms being used to describe my personhood and to make me more palatable, less other. There is no internal line running down the middle of a biracial or multiracial person marked “quarter Chinese” “7% Polynesian” “just half Indian”. Is there a chance we can be more creative? Is there a chance we can make more room than binary terms of biracial, half of this, a quarter this and accept people for who they are without having to categorise what we can’t understand? The above also completely dismisses the struggle of “not being Asian enough” or “not being white enough” that mixed actors such as Chloe Bennet (who had to change her name from Wang to even get a casting call for non-Asian roles) go through in the industry. Being of mixed heritage and a product of a mixed race marriage is something that wasn’t even legally recognised in the US until 50 years ago. Louise Hung wrote an incredible piece called ‘The Privileges and Pitfalls of Being Eurasian’. She speaks about the history of being mixed in East Asia, specifically Hong Kong with its British colonialist history being very recent, and how dependent on the situation you may be “called white and your Asianess discounted” or barred from living in certain parts of the city because of your Chinese blood. There is often a third culture in a lot of Asian countries, where generations of Eurasians have their own customs, traditions and communities due to being both. Some key and poignant extracts below:
“Yet, amidst the strides Eurasian families made in Hong Kong in the colonial era, it was death that, instead of being the great equalizer, was the reminder that Eurasians were neither European nor Chinese in the eyes of Hong Kong. Eurasians could not be buried in colonial cemeteries due to their Chinese ancestry, but were also not allowed to be interred in Chinese cemeteries.
Mixed-race Asians are typically just glossed over as “Asian”. Western media is not yet equipped to understand what it is to be mixed-race – be it Asian, Mexican, Black, etc. Because of this lack of visibility and understanding, many hapa and Eurasian people still strive to find acceptance in the two or more cultures they simultaneously inhabit.
Eurasians, hapas, mixed-race Asians are pressed to choose a race to embrace – usually the one they most physically present as. One might make the argument that forcing a mixed-race person to choose the race they most physically “resemble” is a way for dominant races to make it easier on themselves.
Though for Asians, being mixed race may be seen as “favorable” in certain circles, let’s not forget that Eurasian and hapa people also fight for visibility and equality, often from both sides of the racial divide.”
One evening at university I was at a late night exec committee meeting for one of my societies and half zoning out as the meeting wrapped up after an extremely long day. I was packing up my stuff to head home, when I caught wind of a conversation by a fellow exec member who was semi-addressing the group (including me) still in the room. She was venting about the class she was teaching and how there were a lot of international Chinese students who couldn’t really grab the dance routine, perhaps due to language issues (after taking dance classes in French —trust me— trying to coordinate your body, remember choreography and simultaneously translate instructions in your head is DIFFICULT). Instead of explaining the situation as I just did however, she said acidly: “These Chinese people have no idea what they’re doing and just don’t get life. They’re a fucking nightmare”. I actually felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. I sat there. Silent, shocked and wondering how and if to explain my rage about this ridiculous statement. I was the only ethnic minority on this committee and those who know me know that I am not one to not have the words, but quite honestly in that situation I didn’t have them. I packed up my things, left the room and walked home angry, upset and disappointed that people felt comfortable saying things like that full-stop, let alone in my presence.
It is sad but not surprising that at a very intellectual university – one which prides itself on diversity and is more integrated than many others in the U.K – home students in particular, those who did not grow up in major cities, are still largely ignorant of anything beyond their sphere of reference. Maybe I’m too harsh on people who don’t understand what they don’t know, but isn’t that the point of encountering those different from you in environments that foster interaction, to engage and learn? Not judge and dismiss? I honestly don’t believe in pleading ignorance in this day of constant information, there is a key difference between being curious about what you do not know or understand and coming at something or someone with an arrogance and assumption. It made me wonder for the umpteenth time in my life if my eyes were more monolid, my heritage tattooed on my skin, if people would still say these things to my face? The hurt that racist behaviour incites isn’t less “because I’m just half” it cuts as deep and penetrates as much, not half as much. I was also shocked as it made me realise again that others will use my perceived ethnic ambiguity to their own agenda. Perhaps if I used my Chinese middle name in public life, or had my mother’s maiden name, I would more easily “code” as Chinese, perhaps she wouldn’t have felt comfortable saying that in front of me then? In her eyes I was white, or off-white, but I certainly wasn’t Chinese, or perhaps because I can speak perfect English, I’m “acceptable”. How arbitrary. Because I have European blood in me, therefore I am neutralised from being ‘other’? Sometimes people try to treat us like some kind of chemistry lab experiment, a few drops of this to make you more alkaline and palatable and somehow you are transformed into something that you don’t recognise yourself in. We can be chameleons.
I could cite many more incidents, much more vicious, vitriolic examples of racism myself and other Chinese people have directly experienced in our every day. However, this isn’t about blame and definitely not about naming. This is about opening up the dialogue, speaking for ourselves and expanding the conversation. As P. P. Wong wrote in ‘A Life of a Banana’ and a good friend reminded me recently: “Chinese have mouths”.
Who doesn’t prefer people to ask them who they are rather than thrusting your perception of their identity upon them? It is a real conversation to discover someone rather than a monologue when you decide who someone is. Assumption results in small talk and small mindsets. As I said, the irony is it tells me so much more about you when you tell me who I am, and funnily enough, you end up knowing nothing about me or anything new. I love how Priyanka Chopra put it in her recent interview with US Glamour:
“When somebody else calls you exotic, exotic is a box—it’s the stereotype of snake charmers and face jewelry. You’re just that stereotype. But I don’t get offended anymore. I used to get offended by things that were said to me, or how I was seen. Now I educate. If I get pissed off, I’ll educate in a sassy way. Other times I educate in a Gandhi-like way. You know—I have my moods. [Laughs.]”
There are layers, there is nuance. Let’s not drown each other out in whose voice is the loudest or the most commonly heard. Don’t speak for others, I represent myself. It’s just skin, it’s just eye shape, it’s just a nose. We’re mad to be honest, and we’re also obsessed. Before publishing this I spoke to a good friend about censorship, I felt blocked and like I couldn’t write my own experience as I could foresee the backlash in writing about something which has little mainstream commentary or traction. However her advice was the best: she reminded me that we all have a seat at the table, and that I can speak from my own experience resolutely, in fact as we become an ever more globalised society and mixed kids are more and more common, it is high time our voices are heard with clarity and an open ear. This one’s for all my Hapa brothers and sisters, to beating more bold, beautiful and nuanced paths.
Who knows, maybe you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this and for this very occasion? (Esther 4:14)
Don’t remain silent at this time.