Growing Up As British Born Chinese

Being born in the UK, I never had memories of experiencing life in a context other than England, so growing up was, in a sense, quite ordinary. My parents, who immigrated as teenagers would probably have a much more colourful story to tell (don’t worry, I’m quizzing them right now). The city I grew up in, now has a booming international university student population, the majority coming from Mainland China, so it’s quite funny to think back to when I was in primary school and immediately targeting the only other Chinese girl to be my best friend – here’s to 20ish years (and more) of friendship!

From my first invitation to a white friend’s house, I started to experience some shocking cultural differences; frozen food for dinner and shoes worn in the house. Inviting friends home, I took pride in my mum’s cooking, made from scratch, using fresh ingredients and after a full working day. To be honest, I was incredibly lucky to not have to overcome an initial language barrier (I’m sure my childhood would have been a lot more difficult if so) and have grown up in a somewhat open minded and accepting community.

Since I’m part of the third-generation, my parents (or more so, my mum) are pretty relaxed in terms of viewpoints and adapting to Western society – hello to Sunday roasts and sleepovers, although core Chinese traditions and values are maintained – no dating until after university, school is life, etc., etc. However, not being able to speak Cantonese has been one of my biggest inner conflicts. The desire to fit in and excel at school, despite bringing me closer to friends and academic success, created a language barrier between older generations of my family as I earnestly pursued English and rejected my mother tongue.

Of racism, I’m convinced that I was once looked over for a retail job because of my ethnicity – my friend (white) also applied at the same time, with less experience and ended up getting the role?? Will I carry this grudge to my grave? Yes. But general or rather, more horrific racist incidents, fortunately did not happen to me. Being part of the ‘model minority’ offers some layer of protection, but is ultimately another harmful idea that frames East-Asians in highly-pressured and narrow definitions.

In the end, I do identify myself as British. That’s not to say I disregard my Chinese roots, or view myself as any other race. It’s something wonderful in terms of British society that people from a range of ethnic backgrounds, European, Asian or African, can proudly proclaim that they’re British as well as be accepted by others as being British too.

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