Understanding Difference, From Punk/Rock to PhD

Alex Tan.

Hi, hello. Let’s get to know each other. My name is Alex Tan and I decided to write to Diaspora @ chinaSMACK as part of a journey which began officially 3-4 years ago. The purpose of this journey? To discover if there were more people like me out there, was I unique? What issues/challenges, hopes and dreams did others like me have? Like many other writers on this website I am a mixed-race (Anglo-Chinese) person. I found chinaSMACK a little while ago and the Diaspora site offered a great opportunity to share what I have learned about “Chineseness” and identity, having made it the topic of my PhD 3 years ago.

Before I reveal the recent conclusions from my academic study, I want to give a little background. It was recognising my difference growing up in a small village in England which I can say led me to start enquiring more about Chineseness. Then, I was one of the only non-white pupils, not usually a problem, but I stood out. I only knew the reason being I looked different due to having a Chinese father. For other intents, I considered myself the same as other pupils. But I wasn’t. My difference became clear in secondary school where I remained a minority in terms of having Chinese parentage, despite the school being quite ethnically mixed. Sometimes my ethnicity would form the part of bullying, and recalling being called a ‘paki’, a derogatory term for people from Pakistan, is still a sore memory. Sticking out perhaps naturally drew me towards an outlet which would express my feelings about being different. I found this in music, furiously playing guitar, listening to rock and punk music. Bands like The Offspring, Fugazi, GlassJaw gave me something to hold onto and explore the idea of being different in society. This music though had little to say about ethnicity specifically, and didn’t refer to Chineseness at all…

Guitar strings.

Fast forward then to 4 years ago. I started meeting more Chinese people from China as an undergraduate and I became really interested in how the notion of Chineseness might be worked out and ‘lived’ for those in the UK. I decided to combine what academics had written with the accounts and experiences of individuals. I used my master’s dissertation to explore some of the themes which interested me and eventually I began a PhD in which I interviewed a number of young British Chinese, asking them about their experiences of growing up, the transitions in life they were making, changes and priorities for the future. The aim was to extend academic understandings of British Chinese young people (16-25) which I have argued traditionally look to racism, social justice issues, the takeaway and education as a focus in research. As I myself knew, there was much more to being Chinese than those four categories expressed; this was not to say they were no longer relevant or important. What though about music? What about family, friends, the vibrancy of life?

The young people I interviewed were not necessarily representative of every British Chinese in the UK. I wasn’t looking for that. Just to open conversation on the issue about the many experiences out there. As a human geographer I believe that where we come from and how we grow up has an important impact on whom we become. I wanted that represented for young Chinese people in the UK. I was still questioning my place within Chineseness in Britain, but perhaps by contributing to discussion I have played a part in that. In particular a personal question was whether there were others like me whom had grown up in isolation from other Chinese people or the issues facing them as a group, perhaps even the norm was something else.

My research was based in Newcastle but in order to understand the differences between Chinese community experiences in the UK I also visited Manchester frequently. Manchester is the largest centre for Chinese people outside of London and the outlets there for Chinese artists and expression on the BBC’s radio Manchester ‘Chinatown’ show also attracted me to give two interviews there. I would suggest readers give the show a listen sometime, the mix of Cantonese and Mandarin music speaks to some of the differences in languages Chinese people in the UK identify with and also features interviews and features on the community.

Like myself, I found many young people were figuring out the idea of being Chinese in a UK context. I did not agree with the argument that there was an inevitable culture clash for young people, sometimes exemplified in terms ‘banana’ or ‘fake Chinese’. The people I met had faced challenges, perhaps bullies at school, rude customers when working in takeaways or even awkward questions from other Chinese people originating from outside the UK. Like all of us though, those I interviewed were living in a globalising world, where locating your self and having an identity are seen as being important to young people, and learning how individuals dealt with this formed the base of my conclusions and findings.

My conclusion was that difference and change are related. We search to find the source of our differences and might look for comfort after rejection; perhaps we seek collectives with others we believe are similar or hold similar experiences. How were young British Chinese people able to explore their identity and related their ethnicity? Living as a minority might mean not having your heritage recognised in schools, on TV, in books. People you meet may only know chow mein and sweet and sour as examples of Chinese food. Perhaps they think Chinese people all come from China mainland as it is today, not realising there are a large number of diasporic family histories, where many young people with these backgrounds may never have even visited China nor their parents’ origin countries. In terms of Chinese experiences in Britain, I looked at four areas:

  • Language – usually Cantonese, Mandarin and possibly Hakka. Language was important for communicating with parents, but it also gives a link to countries abroad which might use Chinese.
  • Family – parents might not speak much English, one reason to use Chinese to communicate, but this might also mean they need assistance to translate things in daily life. Extended family in the UK or abroad could mean travelling to visit them. Family could be important as the closest Chinese people individuals might know growing up.
  • Education – young people often stressed the importance of education, having seen how their parents may have worked hard to get jobs in the UK at a time when employment was difficult for immigrants. Parents wanted their children to have a different life and often hoped they would use education to enter into professional work.
  • Leisure – through leisure we might make connections with others around us and learn about socialising. It might be too easy to forget the importance of interacting with others and coming to terms with difference in this way. Listening to Canto-pop for example might allow young people to connect with their parent’s home cities or places as well as with others whom have a similar background.

Out of these, I suggest that for many British Chinese it is their experiences of being raised by parents of Chinese background which brings them to identify as Chinese and to what extent and in what ways they come to view this. So far this might seem like a quite obvious and logical point to make. However, I am keen to note that the parents of many young British Chinese have had quite different experiences of being young compared to their children; many having moved here when they were in their 20s and starting work and families quite early. The British Chinese of the next generation have a different and new set of experiences and interpretations of Chineseness compared to their parents. Chineseness and identity has been explored away from China or Chinese settings, where perhaps pop culture, music from Hong Kong (Canto-pop), anime from Japan, use of English alongside Chinese and a period of extended childhood and adolescence might all combine for an individual. A look at the young Chinese in Britain now has shown me that there is a vibrant and dynamic generation of British Chinese people which are not necessarily confined by racism or inequality compared to other members of the British population, are well educated and often have escaped the catering work many parents have done since entering the UK. Because the society young British Chinese grow up in might not present a lot of places for Chinese language and cultural activities, there were often worries about how Chinese they were, and sometimes this could lead to questioning their identities or feelings of awkwardness.

Having faced some of the same questions and feelings of awkwardness myself, doing the PhD project helped to give me a more open look at the idea of identity. During my PhD I started to learn Mandarin and visited China for the first time. I began my journey 4 years ago barely knowing anything about Chinese people, what Chineseness meant to me or others. I began to investigate Chinese experiences in the UK in my masters. Having looked at the experiences of British Chinese for my PhD I have in some ways been able to locate myself, I am fortunate to live in a country where exploring my ethnicity is possible and perhaps the significance of those four concerns about the Chinese in Britain can be looked at more flexibly and opened to the importance of other experiences young British Chinese have. Hopefully by writing pieces like this and getting others to discuss, individuals won’t have to question their identity alone. Considering the many backgrounds and understandings of Chineseness out there, perhaps keeping conversation is important.

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  • Chupacabra

    Dude, why get hung up on ethnicity. Yeah, you were bullied as a kid. Now you are an adult. Move on. You are not a Chinese or Paki, you are a Brit. So get over it. The world has changed. London is now Londonistan. White people are a dying race in the U.K. The world is yours. Conquer it.

    • moodi khan

      nice!!!!!!!! man really nice…….

    • Daniel

      worded perfectly!

  • Fauna, please less stories about “identity” or Chineseness and more like the dating stories or maybe something about how someone managed to integrate into a new society.

    There’s a very small sub-set of people who can relate to stories like this one, the rest of us are ready to fall asleep and probably don’t read until the end.

  • revoltingbrain

    Insightful. Exploring identity is definitely a privilege.

    • A. Tan

      Thanks! Yes getting the chance to talk to others and hear what they had to say has been really interesting and meaningful too.

  • B1A4

    I like stories like this. Im half chinese too nd grew up in britain, i was also the only non white kid in primary school so its cool reading about similar experiences. I aslo spent a few years in china….and i really miss it! Deffinatley moving back there when im older ^^

    • A. Tan

      Cheers. What do you miss about it?

  • M.N

    Song of the article
    Common feat Dwele – The People

  • Kyle

    Interesting story. You shouldn’t focus too much on the issue of your race, as you are the sum of two intelligent races. That’s what is important. You are a smart and educated person. Use that to make a good living for yourself and contribute to Britain.

    I can understand you being a little sore about being called a “paki”. That’s a pretty nasty insult. If someone called me a worthless “paki”, I’d kicked his ass.

    • A. Tan

      Maybe I got the tone wrong but I wanted to show that although there was a negative experience in the past something good came of that. Using music as an outlet and asking questions about life are worthy causes I believe.

      There were many other reasons I chose to work on the idea of Chinese experiences in Britain besides bullying…I have chosen not to talk about those in the article. Another reason is that the people I met were not well represented in research and this left a gap.

      Thanks for the comment :)

      • Patrick

        Dude, for someone who has just gotten a phd in the I’m blown away that you would positively respond to a violent, Nazi comment like this.

        Just, fucking wow, man. How awful was this comment and how horrible are you for promoting it? Don’t feel too bad though, I’m just a member of one of the stupid races.

        • Kyle

          Oh please stop your crying. He is in no way promoting what I said by responding. Get a grip, dude.

          I’m just a member of one of the stupid races.

          That’s pretty obvious.

          • Pat

            What’s obvious is that you’re both losers. Thanks for making my point even clearer.

            …I’d kicked his ass.

            You can’t even speak English, you paki faggot.

  • dim mak

    Well that was a whole lot of nothing.

    I’m just gonna say it. This entire section of Chinasmack is fucking cancer.

    Every one of these diaspora articles reads the same: verbose hipster has identity crisis, throws out politically correct phrases, laments mixed ancestry etc.

    I know exactly who I am: a full-blooded Han Chinese immigrant of Canadian nationality, loyal to China and Canada. I say what I feel and do what I want, to hell with haters or cultural constraints.

    What’s wrong with you over-analyzing faggots? Everyone is different and will take shit for being different at some point in life. Could be race, could the way you dress, could be anything. Most people in life will treat you fairly as long as you’re not a total d-bag/whiny little bitch.

    No, someone picking on you because you’re different didn’t scar you for life, you fucking pussies. I’ve met racism from all colors of people as a kid and stopped giving a shit the week after. Quit your self loathing moralfaggotry and get over yourselves.

    • Patrick

      Please dim mack don’t smooth it over, let us know how you really feel.

      Truthfully you should have submitted this comment (with a little extra) as your own diaspora submission. Although I’d make one more suggestion, people will completely yawn at you being a foreign born Chinese. They’re more likely to look down on you being Canadian. That being said, relax, if you come to town I’ll buy you a beer or ten and we can spend all night throwing the bottles at all the overage European guys banging hookers younger than their daughters.

      • dim mak

        Immigrant, not foreign born
        And that was my diaspora submission, there’s nothing more to say

        PS: no one looks down on Canadians, at least not when I’m around (:

        • JEFFLI

          dim mak is right,
          I hope he’ll allow me one PC term though (Canadians are usually very cultured!..)
          Stop being professional victims! Yeah ….you get teased at school and the skinheads terrorize you, Hell 40 years ago I was partially responsible for my fellow students uncles and grandads death in two great wars, I was called commie basterd and nazi basterd all in one sentence …So Fuckin What?! Chinese Diaspora never had it so good as the last 20 years or so!

          There is always someone around to hate you.

          And when you go back to the land of your ancestors…hahaha hohoho … are you in for a shock eh? rumplestiltskin is everywhere!

          wake up smell the roses …it nearly all good for you
          no melamine in your milk
          exploding water melons
          stupid political parties …republicans fit here?
          fake rice….yes China = fake rice …sheesh!
          fake eggs
          fake LV (for my LVVy DVVy…gawsh hehe)
          pesticides in purified water
          god knows what else.

          You say you’re hard done by? Well fine go to China to emigrate, maybe cambodia or Vietnam …Ohh no no as an “expat” but live as a local does in a shoebox next to a paint-factory .
          read George Orwells 1984 he got near everything right in a way except the year. Oh I forget you people are too busy reading:- “What Victim Am I” …author – Athunkum Malooser.

          get with the program doods and doodettes!
          put all that energy toward Wall street. they are making sure your future will be more difficult and it is nothing about race just pure greed thats it! whallah! Bingo! Dangran! Zicher and frackin Fu:rchbar!


  • klg

    Chinese race? Ethnic Chinese?

    There is no such thing as ethnic Chinese / race , only Han. China is composed of many ethnic groups, being the bigger one the Han (in all its subdivisions). If not this is the most weird of the assumptions and in Chinese is a race type a Tibetan (or a Mongolian, Chaoxian, Miao…) can never be Chinese.

    • Jeffli

      yeah right, and your point is………..?
      Europeans also are in a similar disposition.
      Ask A true blue Finnish Laplander what he thinks of swedes,germanic types and so-on. He’ll tell you they’re all weird.
      so what?
      be proud (or at least try to be) of your ancestry but it doesn’t mean crap, during wars and famines we all eat our children! We’re here because
      1. our parents didn’t get hungry enough.
      2. having children means they grow up and send money to their parents – an investment – simple!

      whatever your DNA, culture, language or creed just WAKE UP!

      “he’s black, the others yellow and another is white…If I hold my breath I’ll be purple but I won’t live long!” Nuts!

  • typingfromwork

    Very nice to someone doing research on this.

  • Lena

    Hi Alex,
    I immigrated to the States when I was 8 and I was the only one non-white student in my school so growing up in the USA I used to have this inner self-conflict about where I belonged for years. Now I just embrace who I am because it’s unique being different

    • A. Tan

      Hello Lena,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Yes, I think that’s the point of the piece really, that we can engage with difference in different ways…maybe music or something else…

  • Jennifer

    My name is Jennifer. I have three kids of 1/2 ethnic han chinese and 1/2 austrian. My daughter looks more ilke her white father & my two boys more chinese. One of my boy looks completely asian. I hate it when asian people say rude things to me. I had some Vietnamese ladies talking about my one son having chinese eyes when the proper way of saying it is asian eyes. I even had a teochew (an ethnic chinese group) calling my son’s eye chinese eyes. The funny thing is my sons eyes are bigger than hers and hers look more asian than my son’s eye. She was pretty much directly insultilng my son and his appearance. She even aksed me if I was a filipina which makes no sense. It is strange that she looks more of a very oriental looking light skin filipina than me cuz her nose is very wide. Anyway the problem with not just how non asian look at us, but also within our race there are people that love to do the same thing what whites do to us. People from any asian country can look a certain way. It is not just chinese having asian eyes. China is very big, so there is a lot of mongolian blood and korean blood infused into the Northern chinese and northeast Chinese people. The southern siberians look just like any mongoloid race people. Japan is mix up of many different gene pool. Japan have pepole from Southern china, northern china, from korea, from southeast asia = ainu, so forth. There is no pure asian group. China is consist of 1.3 billions of people and of course you will see more frequency of those typical asian eyes than in other asian country, but they people of many different asian kingdoms in ancient time. Small and or slit eyes are in any asian groups except Indians of India .

    Your look is more of white hispanic to white arab looking. Maybe that is why they called you a paki. Some paki’s have very light skin.

    • Alexander Tan

      I think you missed the point. It is unacceptable to call anybody P### in my opinion…

  • transh

    interesting to see people struggle so much about this

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