Like many, this year has been my toughest, both personally and professionally. The multiple national and local lockdowns in Britain have meant staying in a lot with (thankfully) a housemate — but also intermittent work, a rapidly reduced income and a firm halt on my life’s hopes and plans. So, I would never have guessed that in the middle of a pandemic, I’d find true love and appreciation of my Chinese heritage.
Not being able to see my family or eat my favorite foods so easily, I found myself visiting the Asian supermarket more often; making more Chinese foods from scratch; feeling a familial warmth when I saw Southeast Asians on my screens or in real life, or heard Cantonese being spoken around me. It made me at once feel alive and grounded, able to remember who I was amid the chaos.
But I haven’t always been this way.
It’s only truly been in the last four years that I’ve started to fully appreciate and accept Chinese culture as it is: for its uniquely dedicated family dynamics and care, its community spirit, and the nuanced tones and delicate inflections of the language to an knowing ear. These are just a few features I’ve come to proudly recognize as anchors to my ancestry — and reminders of the steep challenges my family surmounted that gave me greater opportunities.
More than 40 years ago, my maternal grandparents were the first from my family to leave rural Hong Kong and immigrate to Britain. My mom grew up in the rice paddies of Hong Kong and my dad near the fishing villages, but in the 1960s, when they were 10 and 11, they each reunited with their parents in Britain. Both started school in different small coastal towns as one of a handful of non-White kids. Neither knew a single word of English.
Now, my siblings and I are the first generation to have been British-born citizens, attended university and formed careers out of our passions.
But by the time I was growing up and entering adulthood in suburbia just outside London in the early aughts, I sought distance from my Chinese heritage. At the time, all I saw looking back at me was ridicule, judgment and a sense of being “lesser than.” The “funny” Chinese accent, the sideways pulling of the eyes, the questions about eating dogs, the “jokes” about Asian sex workers and mail-order brides, the repeated mocking references to Asian martial arts. I wanted nothing to do with these stereotypes, so I rejected my heritage in its entirety.
In school, I was proud of the fact that I was more Westernized than the other Southeast Asian girls; I wore a full face of makeup, had Westernized clothes and sounded just like my White friends — I was fitting in. But I was let down every time my elders spoke Cantonese in public, when they pronounced English words differently or when they ate loudly; essentially, whenever they set themselves apart in any way from British culture.
For me, our customs were only ever acceptable behind the secure doors of Chinese restaurants and Chinese homes, away from the possibility of fueling the sneers and caricatures. Only here were the sights, smells and sounds “normal,” mundane even. The shoveling of rice into my mouth wasn’t seen as unsophisticated, and our beloved cartoons and triad gangster films were imitated out of celebration and idolization. It was only in these specific settings, surrounded by others who looked like me and my family, that I felt I belonged.
At all other times, I felt embarrassment, fear and shame. I didn’t want any affiliation with the subservient, quiet, broken-English-speaking, noodle-slurping stereotype, because to me that was lesser than. The message growing up was loud and clear: White and West was best.
How could I not believe that, being raised in a majority-White suburb within a country that prides itself on its long history of invading, conquering and “bettering” faraway lands?
Research, such as the now well-known doll test, shows that I likely held racial bias from as early as kindergarten because of the colonized mind-set I’d absorbed. And, it continued as I used my proximity to Whiteness to feel elevated above other Asians, because I too am a product of and complicit in this white-supremacist society.
Now, I wonder, if this is how I felt growing up, how do Asian children today feel? We know that overt anti-Asian racism has gained momentum since the start of the pandemic — in 2020, while overall hate crime fell by 7 percent, anti-Asian hate crimes surged 150 percent — with verbal abuse, physical attacks and, most recently, a tragic shooting that has left six Asian women dead.
Britain has also seen increased attacks, but like the United States, the violence won’t be fully noticed until it’s unavoidable. If kids today can see they’re at high risk of being targeted, abused and even killed for being Asian, why wouldn’t they want to shun their heritage to stay alive?
I think back to those other Southeast Asian girls in my school who didn’t crumble under the weight of white supremacy, who maintained who they were from the start. They allowed the world to see their Asian-ness endlessly, and I’m in awe, feeling both envy and hope. They didn’t separate themselves from their culture, but rather seamlessly amalgamated it into their Western lives.
I wish I could have been more like them. But I’m encouraged to know that that foundational strength has always been present within me. And with more support and guidance, the next generation needn’t suffer or be silenced the same as I was.
With the wide-reaching and hugely influential platforms available today, it’s important that younger Asians actively seek and curate a more diverse community online and in real life to expose the true scope of our community. We are not only doctors, dentists and bankers but also soul singers, crafters, climbers and members of the LGBTQ community.
When feelings of shame and fear start rising, it’s crucial not to try to swallow them down but instead find a personalized mechanism to work through to self-acceptance and pride. The mass mental health stigma within Asian communities is being combated by organizations like Project Lotus, Asian Mental Health Collective and the National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association, which are working specifically with young people to invigorate change.
Every person of color deserves to feel unlimited comfort and unadulterated joy when they think about their families, their history and their culture; we should celebrate proudly, loudly and fondly through our own gaze.
In the past year, reconnecting with Chinese foods and films has combated the monotony of lockdown and supercharged my celebration of our differentness. Togetherness and inclusion is our culture, and I’m so proud this is in my DNA.