(I wrote this two years ago)
Earlier this week my son asked me to ‘be a mummy who helps with the walking’. His school was involved in a collaborative music project and they were going to sing at Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral with the Cathedral School Choristers. I acquiesced and donned a high-vis safety vest and set off on the drizzly walk into town with 30 seven-year-olds.
The walk was surprisingly lovely. I enjoyed eavesdropping into the children’s conversations, fielding their questions, and listening as they shared what was on their minds. The boys were weighing up the probability of The Hulk having green bowel movements, so I moved closer to the girls. One wanted me to know that her parents had met in Pakistan, the next told me that her parents had split up. Someone else said her mother was Polish,
‘So she’s rubbish at English.’ I gently told her to give her mum a break. The more I engaged the more they told me.
‘Dylan’s Mum,’ came another little voice (this is how they address me), ‘Dylan says he’s from China.’
‘Yes, that’s right,’ I said. The child gawked.
‘He doesn’t look Chinese though does he?’ I said. Dylan has fair skin, blue eyes and light ash brown hair.
‘He says he doesn’t look Chinese because he’s been in England too long.’
I chuckled and ushered the children through the meadow gate, wondering how my son had reached primary three without us ever having had a proper conversation about ethnicity.
It has been an interesting five years since we moved to England from Hong Kong. I’m watching Brexit unfold from the position of a foreigner who will not be directly affected. I am not an immigrant. Hong Kong was under British rule when I was born, and because my father was Welsh I have always had a full British passport.
My father, a historian, had embarked on a long awaited research project into Hong Kong Eurasians shortly before he died. Throughout my life he asked me often about my experience, wanting to know if I felt affinity for one race over the other, whether I felt a sense of belonging with both the Chinese and the British. My usual answer was no, I was not both, I was neither.
‘Neither (N-igh-ther).’ He corrected me. ‘Not nee-ther.’ There was no good reason for my tendency to adopt American pronunciations. My brother sounds English, but I’ve got a bastardised International accent. Vitamins (vite-a-mins), yogurt (yo-girt), dance (daahnce), plastic (plaahstic), garage (ga-raahge), aubergine (not eggplant), zucchini (not courgette)… there is zero logic to how any of this works.
I don’t feel accepted by either race (eye-ther race). I know when they look at me they do not see one of their own. It is what it is. I’m not hard done by. I was quite tickled by the recent discovery that I am considered a BAME writer (BAME is Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic). I am almost 40 and this classification had never occurred to me before.
Historically, being Eurasian was a problem. People tried to hide their mixed heritage because it suggested that a vulnerable Chinese girl had been taken advantage of by a white man. Attitudes have changed and nowadays Eurasians are considered rather special. I got called gwei mui as a child, but never cared. Gwei mui is the little girl version of gweilo (foreign devil/ghost). Gweilo can be used for anything ranging from a harmless (almost) term of endearment to a full powered insult that rivals the n-word. I disliked hearing locals call my Dad gweilo though. This is because the Chinese saw foreigners as bumbling buffoon characters, dependant on the help of a savvy local. This is largely true - foreigners in any context do benefit from the help of a native. The tendency for the Chinese to roll their eyes and snigger was exacerbated by the fact that often gweilos thought very highly of themselves. They took for themselves the highest positions in a society built off the backs of the locals. No wonder there was animosity. But as a child who loved her father, I felt it was a bit mean. My Dad was a good guy. He acknowledged the imbalances of power that characterised the territory. I think he recognised the British as intruders, and with that in mind, treated locals respectfully. Perhaps that is why my parents had a harmonious marriage. I remember him fumbling with something small, a cufflink maybe, saying,
‘I can’t do this, this is a job for your mother’s slender Chinese fingers.’
During summers in England he would get very impatient with the slower pace and say he couldn’t wait to get back to Hong Kong, ‘where Chinese people know how to get things done.’ There was a beautiful tension between east and west that, for many Hong Kong-belongers, worked. Hong Kong is a funny place because now, 21 years into the 50 year grace period designed to transition us back to China, I think a fair few Hong Kongers would gladly welcome Britain back.
My (fully caucasian but raised in Hong Kong) husband told Dylan that the next time someone asks him why he doesn’t look Chinese he could explain that his daddy is English. Dylan looked at him for a moment and said,
‘Wait, you’re English?’
As parents, we have clearly failed to place much emphasis on issues of who is what, and what coming from a certain place or background means. It’s a failure born of privilege. I am aware of this. We’re a cosmopolitan family. Instead we have spent time teaching the idea that our children should aim to become whatever their heart desires.
I was looking at the pamphlet I got from the Cathedral. In it was an ad for an event: Be a Chorister for a day.
‘Dylan, do you want to be a choirboy?’ I asked.
He thought for a moment and then said, ‘No, I don’t want to be a choirboy. I want to be a Jedi.’