How to be half-Chinese

Sophie Taylor explores the ambiguity in being labelled - 'half-Chinese'. This article was first published in SACU's China in Focus magazine 2002.

Imagine life as a human ink blot test. Whether physically, linguistically, or culturally, your existence usually confuses others in some way. Cursory glances deepen into befuddled inspection; kinship recognition provokes misplaced pride - and creative oddballs opt for making slanty-eyed, buck-toothed faces.

Being part Chinese can be an open invitation to reactions pleasant and perverse. First, though: what does it mean to be partly Chinese? And why should anybody care? Growing up in Hong Kong, I never questioned whether I was a banana (yellow outside, white inside) or an egg (white outside, yellow inside). I certainly never inquired whether I was more 'western' than 'Chinese'; 'both' or 'half'. Normally I am taken for a Westerner (gweinui - in Cantonese) and so have been spared the curious 'what are you?' questions my more obviously mixed friends have encountered. Maybe, like Mr. Prosser (a direct-line descendent of Genghis Khan) in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the 'racial mixing' has so 'juggled my genes' that the only vestiges of my 'Chinese-ness' are a pronounced talent at using chopsticks and a predilection for inscrutability.

Flippancy aside, there seems to be several ways to be Chinese. One obvious criterion concerns the uncomfortable subject of ethnicity and phenotype. Either one is born genetically Chinese, or not at all. But what does this mean? Genetic definitions of Chinese-ness can be extremely arbitrary, as they do not always correspond to conventional notions of fluency in Chinese (in all its vastly different dialects), understanding of Chinese traditions or loyalty to the PRC. Other than denoting a certain combination of DNA, being born Chinese, to whatever degree, is meaningless without taking the social environment into account. Worse, the pervasive and rather retchworthy sentimentality of phrases like 'Your mother is in your bones!' (Am Tan) merely fuels an indulgent exotification of an otherwise unremarkable human being.

Being Chinese is often, therefore, much more of a social construct than such essentialist arguments allow. It is tied to lived experience of Chinese culture, which I will not elaborate on here. Which means that depending on the context, one's genetic make-up sometimes does not even banish the internal flip-flopping between cultures and mindsets. Despite the pretensions of some mixed people to being simultaneously 100% 'Western' and 100% Chinese, I would argue that being mixed is never a zero-sum existence. Any one viewpoint is immediately matched up with its cultural opposite number - a typical example being the tussle between Chinese notions of filial piety and 'decadent' Western individualism. This, I suppose, is the so-called 'experience of ambiguity'. The ambiguity is often made worse by the reactions of others. More often than not, identity - a nationality; a particular ethnic origin is conferred or even imposed on the mixed person. Hence the ink blot allegory: mixed people are purportedly ambiguous entities, to be given a clear structure by the interpreter. They are at once self-defining and actively defined.

Amateur psychology aside, perceptions of mixed-Chinese people and mixed people in general have more serious consequences when taken in their historical context. There have been cases where mixed-race children have been ostracised as uncomfortable reminders of Western domination and national humiliation, especially in South East Asia. In Thailand, mixed people, or luk kreung, were not even allowed to become citizens until the early 1990s. And no matter what they say about the cute Eurasians who are all the rage in the Cantopop scene, their historical legacy lies in the Opium War - the beginning of '150 years of shame' for China.

Other factors belie the notion that being half-Chinese is an exotic 'bridge' between two cultures. For sure, being mixed can lend insight into cultural disagreements. But it does not necessarily equip one with the diplomacy skills needed to deal with the almighty Culture Clash. What's more, my double set of roots is not necessarily a 'passport' into two cultures either. Cultural belonging is definitely a two-way street. Unlike Amy Tan, (who is an American-Born Chinese 'A.B.C.'), I really can't presume that, as soon as my feet 'touch China', I will become 'Chinese'. In fact, the minute my feet touched Hong Kong last November, the more obviously gwei I felt. Compared to how society at large saw me, whatever I felt for my childhood hometown was mostly irrelevant. More often than not, mixed people feel compelled to align with one culture over another by default.

And so, the other side of claiming one's heritage is rejection by that same heritage. It is a game of cultural politics which can even culminate in ethnic nationalism. Amy Tan's 'The Joy Luck Club' describes the characters' frantic attempts to break out of their Chinese-born parents' 'cultural gravity' by being more American. On the other hand, one prominent half-Chinese academic was once told: 'you cannot talk about yellow pride and sleep white'.

Rather than conforming to any one 'monocultural' bracket, is it possible to create a 'mixed-Chinese' category? My most recent brush with such an attempt was in April this year, when I attended the '6th Annual Pan-Collegiate Conference on the Mixed-Race Experience' at Comell University, Ithaca. The conference was the latest attempt to identify the 'experience of ambiguity': Hapa. 'Hapa' is originally a Hawaiian word denoting a person with one Asian or Asian-American parent and one non-Asian parent. Hapas claim to be part of a burgeoning social movement (found almost exclusively in America), and its aim is to give a 'national voice' for multiracials/biracials/multiethnic people/members of trans-racial families and trans-racial adoptees. According to the organisers of the conference, mixed race births are increasing 2500% faster than between same-race parents, and in the 2000 U.S. census, nearly 7 million people identified themselves as 'multiracial'. For sure, being in a room full of other mixed people made my 'ethnicity radar' go haywire.

There were some very angry Hapas at the conference. Matt Kelley, founder of MAVIN magazine (which means 'one who understands' in Hebrew), railed against the ridiculous remarks that have been flung his way since childhood ('You're black and you have purple eyes', which was Becky Bartholomew's way of saying I was different. If it's any consolation, Becky did the first grade twice.) There were attempts to foster a sense of community based on the 'mixed-race experience'. There was also much antipathy towards the evil 'What are you?' question produced by the 'failed instant (ethnic) analysis' imposed by observers. They were sick of being ethnic curiosities. And the overall message was: 'don't let anybody define you'. Kelley declared: 'it is not our faces, but the experience of those who perceive us - it is a confrontation to others when we do not fit into other people's categories and assessmen'.

But is there any point in trying to subsume being half-Chinese into a larger Hapa 'culture'? Terms such as 'ambiguity,' 'amorphous...... fluidity' and 'gumbo' were splashed around. There was even talk of 'Asian-American pan-ethnicity'. Perhaps the most striking part was the assertion that Hapa is a process of 'becoming, not being'. What does that mean? According to WeiMing Dariotis, it meant that Hapas can and should explore their ethnic background with a view to 'becoming' more like it. There were attempts at creating a common Hapa 'culture' to span vastly different ethnicities and experiences. But, although the Hapa community seems like an attractive support network for people of mixed background, there are several problems with this.

The obvious point is that Hapas have nothing in common other than they are of mixed race. This tenuous 'common factor' becomes increasingly diluted as the Hapa community increases, and so different methods of stratification come into play, like citizenship. The Hapa movement is a curiously American phenomenon. That said, their activism has yielded important achievements, such as successfully campaigning for the 2000 U.S. Census to allow individuals to self-identify with more than one race. But this raises another question: raising awareness of the problems and discrimination that Hapas face (for example, black/white Hapas who are discriminated against on the grounds that they look black) does not necessarily mean the problems of non-mixed racial minorities are not equally important. And, since the problems of each minority can be different, it is hard imagine a global community of Hapas sharing a common experience. I personally felt no 'instant connection' whatsoever at the conference; in fact, I felt more of a Brit than ever, especially when I opened my mouth. If 'race' is lived experience, then so is identity as a whole. In this way, the Hapa community is a new social category superimposed on existing social constructs.

So what does being partly Chinese mean in the context of Hapa ideas of flux and 'becoming'? Can one become more Chinese? I have already pointed out that cultural belonging is a two-way street. My own mother contends that one cannot be Chinese if one is not genetically Chinese, though I am not sure where to draw the line. Is an eighth too small a proportion? Does an ABC 'acting white' make him or her less Chinese? Perhaps the things that being half-Chinese, and 'Hapa culture', have in common is that they provoke an overwhelming tendency in humans to judge and classify others. I also don't know how I feel about being stereotyped as 'exotic but not threatening' - Dariotis actually said: “There's something chewy about the word 'Hapa'”.

Human experience is a constant internal and external process of definition against that which is considered 'foreign'. The need to assess others is a prelude to judgement, if not prejudice. There are infinitely more variables to a human being than ethnicity, and I would prefer to continue being myself. That is, 'everybody's bloody foreigner', even if that does sound terribly British. Even ink blots have feelings.