Being mixed-race is more common than ever before. Here are some things British-Chinese feature writer Sarah Kwong discovered when she moved to Hong Kong…
Folded arms. That was the first point of difference I noticed between me and Hongkongers when I moved here. In the throngs of people expertly weaving through Causeway Bay, I could not see one person who mirrored my body language. That was the first hint that perhaps moving to Hong Kong in a bid to magically transform into the half-Chinese person I was born to be may have been somewhat misguided.
It sounds like nothing, but when you’re mixed race and have spent a sizeable portion of your life looking for clues you belong in the subtle behaviours of both British and Chinese people, folded arms felt foreign to me.
Growing up in a mostly white environment meant that most of my friends assumed I was the same as them. As a mixed-race kid, this was like winning the jackpot because I appeared to fit in – the main goal of most children. But as I got older, it became difficult for me to express myself as a mixed-race person because I had been cast in the role of Western and white, and thus surely felt the same way as my friends about topics like race and politics. I knew that saying otherwise would mean unveiling a whole separate world, my world, that they had never asked about (owing mostly to British society rarely discussing race), and consequently, I had no idea how to talk about. There aren’t many moments when it feels right to randomly, without relevance or context, launch into a story about that time your dad had a light fisticuffs with his brother-in-law in the middle of a packed restaurant because he wanted to pay the bill – a fairly common scene within Hong Kong families.
Perception Vs. Reality Of Being Mixed-Race
From the outside, being mixed race can be viewed as a head start at connecting to different cultures. But to people who actually are mixed race, the general consensus often seems to be: feeling like you’re not quite enough of anything. I have certainly invested an unquantifiable amount of energy into figuring out how to successfully be a mixed-race person (jury’s still out).
Before this comes across as a massive generalisation, I want to be clear that not all mixed-race people experience this kind of inner cultural maelstrom (quietly wondering if Alexa Chung ever feels racially confused) – but it has always felt urgent to me.
Everything here is written from my point of view and is not to be taken as the view of all British-Chinese (and certainly not all mixed-race) people.
Deciding To Move To Hong Kong
Being mixed race is a different experience depending on where you are in the world. On my travels, I’ve heard not-so-quiet comments dispatched in my direction, and watched people pat themselves on the back for correctly guessing that I am not totally white (“I just knew from your insert-body-part-here”).
In the UK, where I spent 26 of my 30 years of my life, being half-Chinese mostly involved: having my name misspelt and mispronounced; misplaced comments from teachers and old people; and being stared at by the type of Caucasian man who uses the word ‘exotic’ to describe a human being – they were either overly interested in my being an Asian woman or passive-aggressively affronted by my not-being-white.
After years of accepting a perpetual state of mild discomfort and confusion, I was desperately optimistic about Hong Kong being a place where I could shrug off my visible ‘otherness’ and feel like I truly belonged.
So, in 2016, I decided that sitting at my computer in London, trying to elicit (read: force) similar feelings of agony from a lovely group of half-Chinese girls I met in a Cantonese class was probably not going to satiate the hungry mixed-race identity monster within as much as, say, moving to Hong Kong.
The Cultural Shift Of Moving To Hong Kong
The first snag is that I’m confusing to look at. This is proven by the tilted heads and furrowed brows assessing my face and eyes, and the subsequent glance down at my footwear (nope, no heels, I’m just tall). Often, people openly ask if I’m from Hong Kong. The well-meaning curiosity in their voices and smiles on their faces is, unsurprisingly, more pleasant and appreciated than the awkward interrogation I often received in the UK. Conclusion: nobody – myself included – knows where I’m from.
This confusion is exacerbated when I’m spoken to in Cantonese before a full visual and audio assessment is complete. Most of the time, though, I’m filed under ‘Western’. I get it – my 5’10 frame and British accent belie the ‘Hong Kong’ in my DNA. But often before I’ve spoken, I still receive an English greeting and sometimes, I’m appalled to say, favourable treatment (by way of politeness and smiles). This seems like an unforgivable complaint considering it’s much easier for both parties to converse in the language they both know (while my efforts in Cantonese are regular, they are also massively flawed). Plus, who doesn’t appreciate a smile in a city that moves this fast? Even still, being treated differently was not my hope when I moved here. Rather, it was to be seen as a Hongkonger, if for no other reason than to feel like I fully belonged somewhere.
Absurdly, what makes it worse is just how friendly and understanding people are here. I know not all races and cultures are offered this kindness, and that only feeds my guilt. I have made a conscious effort over the last few years to learn Cantonese, find out more about my family history, and become acquainted with the cultural norms of being a Hongkonger, but guilt shows up anyway.
Another issue is that pretending to know doesn’t mean you know. With my lofty ambitions and myriad of insecurities, this is a problem. I find myself regularly apologising to people for my garbled Cantonese (I do not recommend pretending to know Cantonese), trying not to do the ‘wrong’ thing in restaurants (should I wash the bowls as I’ve seen my grandma do, or am I not qualified to?), and sheepishly attempting to figure out what’s going on during religious ceremonies.
All of this is to say that I’m starting to realise that I have not become the comfortable, authentic Hong Kong person I had my sights set on being because I am undeniably, one hundred per cent mixed race.
The Joys Of Moving To Hong Kong
Of course, it’s not all an unsuccessful game of “Guess Who”. In fact, despite the aforementioned strangeness, I have found magic in being half-Chinese in Hong Kong, especially when I stop trying so hard. I get the sense that a large proverbial hole, previously growing wider with each day I was unable to connect my dad’s life to my own, is slowly filling up.
The musty smells that I once identified only as parcels from aunties and uncles are now scents of my daily life; the sounds I grew up hearing around the dinner table are no longer just sounds but words I somewhat understand…
It’s heartening to be able to successfully unpick the threads of culture from my past – the ‘ohh, this is what that meant’ moments where something my dad once said or some item we had at home suddenly makes total sense to me. The musty smells that I once identified only as parcels from aunties and uncles are now scents of my daily life; the sounds I grew up hearing around the dinner table are no longer just sounds but words I somewhat understand; the other half-Chinese people I wouldn’t see in the UK seem to be here, on ferries and in restaurants. Oh, and the food. There seems to be some kind of innate understanding between the flavours and textures of Hong Kong food and my mouth.
While I may not be fully accepted into the fold here, I do feel less visible – partly due to the diverse expat population here versus the minuscule Chinese population in my hometown. This sense of anonymity is a relief: I can figure life out without people’s inane comments, racist questions, and unabashed stares pressuring or confusing me – a ‘luxury’ I wasn’t readily granted back in Blighty.
It’s not just strangers, but my inside circle, too. Thanks to my Chinese friends here (and their extensive knowledge of the tendencies and cultures of the west), I actually feel like I can process all of this aloud and be accepted and heard.
Since Moving To Hong Kong…
I’ve learnt that the Chinese part of me and the British part of me are inherently dissimilar. They are shrouded in very different cultural experiences, and both require a different mindset if the chief aim is to assimilate – a lesson I learnt in childhood when dressing and behaving one way for my Chinese relatives (modest, fancy) and another for my British relatives (casual, low-key). Luckily, this is no longer my chief aim.
I’ve realised that I should honour each part, rather than trying to force things a certain way and say, with a perspiring brow and a face fooling no-one, ‘ta-da, I’m a Hongkonger!’.
Living in Hong Kong has provided me with a different lens through which to view my mixed-race-ness. Ultimately, it’s messy and mixed-up and cannot be expressed on an ID card or understood through the comments of others. Having been immersed in both of my cultures, it’s getting easier to eschew stereotypes and expectations, and focus on my own experience instead. And that is: I am not a deficient Chinese person or an almost-British person, but rather a mix of Chinese-ness, British-ness and just general human-ness.
Read more: Cantonese and Mandarin Classes In Hong Kong