ethnicity

Diversity on the Rise

multicultural britainmixed race uk

The world is becoming an unavoidably interconnected place.

People from opposite ends of the social spectrum now often come into contact.

Social boundaries are ever-changing, and though cultural barriers are still enforced in some instances, they are being broken down in others.

Many of us have become something we label as ‘global citizens,’ our identities made up of a complex combination of ethnicities, nationalities, religious beliefs and cultural practices.

No longer is a Brit necessarily Caucasian by ethnicity. And though rarely heard of, a Chinese citizen may not necessarily be of Chinese ethnicity in today’s world.

A result of all these things is an increase in people of mixed ethnicities – mixed race people.

Now the largest and fastest growing ethnic group in the UK, were we all to be bunched together.

Even if those who deem themselves as purely of one ethnic group look deep into their origins, it’s nearly impossible that they wouldn’t have mixed ethnic lineages somewhere down the line.

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Living in Limbo

It’s a strange existence to be mixed race. Fitting in, neither here not there. We spend half the time pretending to be somebody, as if playing a game in which we’re trying to merge in. Will they notice that I’m not from here?

The first time I ever went to Hong Kong and stood on the MTR (underground) surrounded by Chinese faces, a strange feeling ran over me. Have I finally been accepted?…I thought as nobody batted an eyelid at my presence. But whether I had been accepted for how I look or not, I still didn’t belong there. It was a false kind of belonging.

Face value

The simple fact is that we are judged by our appearances. Though mine can vary from day to day from looking mixed, to East Asian, to Nepalese…there is no way that I look much like my dear white (Irish-Roma) Father. I happened to take the looks from my Malaysian-Chinese Mother, something my Father said he was glad about.

My parents and I, when I was a baby

In my hometown in Kent, I can walk into a pub filled with burly bigots, and they’ll look around the place shouting “Chinese take-away anybody?” As if the only thing a Chinese face would be doing there, is delivering Chinese food.

Upon the opening of my mouth, out comes a stark British accent. That’s enough to convince most people that I’m a local. But an odd few still don’t get it, even when I’m repeating “I was BORN here” over and over again.

Some people even used to ask my Dad whether he had bought my Mum and I off the internet! And we’d get funny looks at times when I became older, as I walked down the street with my Dad, people mistook me for his disturbingly young wife – as if they had stereotyped him as a perverted white man with a thing for Asian women.

Chatting with Puja Kapai, a Law Professor at Hong Kong University, she explained how her Indian appearance sometimes dilutes the strength of her message. When she teaches human rights law regarding ethnic minorities in Hong Kong (the place she grew up), students see her as an ethnic minority advocating  for her own rights. If it were a white teacher, they would find it more legitimate.

It’s the same story for my fiancé, who was born and lives in Hong Kong, but is ethnically Indian. Chinese locals find it very hard to accept that HK-born Indians are Hongkongers too. The waiter, no matter how confused I look at him, will speak to me in Cantonese and completely ignore the true local. And ironically, it is my fiance who speaks it fluently.

Staying true

Thankfully, the UK is one of those places where our ancestors could be from anywhere in the world, and we still have the right to call ourselves British. But that doesn’t mean everybody in the UK accepts that.

Growing up, I always strove to be more Asian. I used to think to myself as soon as I get to an Asian country, I will fit in. When people asked me where I was from, my answer would be “Malaysia”. But going to Asia made my sense of British identity stronger. Now I proud and comfortable to answer “England”, accepting who I am.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I am denying my other identities. Just being honest with myself and the world about the many dimensions there are to a person’s identity. We have ethnic, national, religious identities, which all intermingle. And to label yourself as one, doesn’t neglect the others. That’s just of the fun things about being so mixed up – being able to be many things at once.

Thanks

Last week my post “My Mixed-race Family” was Freshly Pressed. Thanks WordPress! And I just want to thank everybody who took the time to read or comment on it. Especially, thanks to the people who shared their own experiences and lives with me. It was a pleasure reading about them. I can’t tell you how much it means to know that people care about what I write.

My mixed-race family

Embarking on a journey to discover my own ethnically diverse background.

Mixed-race people, like me, are now the largest and fastest growing ethnic minority in the UK. My own immediate family is a perfect example of the growing trend. My Mother is Chinese, born in Malaysia, and my Father was a mix between Irish and Roma travellers.

My parents and I

My Mother and Father on their wedding day

My parents didn’t go through the same challenges in marrying into a different ethnicity as many others did, including the BBC’s George Alagiah for example. In fact, for my Mother growing up as the only Chinese girl in her class, shortly after coming over from Malaysia, she luckily didn’t experience any racial discrimination. “I never thought why is he [my step-Father] white and why am I Chinese? We didn’t even think about race then,” she said.

This is quite a world apart from the England I grew up in – Folkestone, Kent in the 1990s. I had never thought of myself differently until I became of a conscious age, when people started pulling the corner of their eyes back in an attempt to imitate Chinese eyes. I got called ‘chinky’ and my Mother, Grandmother and I have all been told to ‘go back to your own country.’ Have times gotten worse?

After some time trying to reason that it is easier to live just saying I’m British, I was reminded by a lovely lady from a clinic in Folkestone today, that I should be proud of who I am. Because if I ignore it, the heritage of my parents and their parents will be lost forever.

Starting the search…

For me, the journey starts when my parents met in Pullman wine bar in Folkestone, Kent in 1987. My Mum must have been one of the few ethnic minorities that were in Folkestone at that time. Nowadays, it is far more diverse.

My parents and I in the 1990s

Admittedly, I don’t know as much about either of my ethnic backgrounds as I would like to know. All I have to remind me of it are the stories my Father told me of his Roma mother and Irish traveler Father, a few photos of my Mother’s childhood days in Malaysia, and my own face when I look in the mirror every morning, reminding me that I am different.

A huge, decrepit old Bible from the 1800s has my Mother’s step-Father’s family history written neatly in the front page. But there is nothing of this sort for my Mother or Father’s families. So it’s up to me to put the puzzle together.

My Grandmother and John’s families come together

The Malaysian-Chinese side

Though you wouldn’t be able to tell from her southern British accent, my Mother was born in Melaka in Malaysia. My Grandmother didn’t want my Mother or Aunt to know their Father after they divorced. His identity, along with my Mother’s long-lost brother, remain a mystery to us all. The remnants of an old photo of my Mother’s real Father, with his head cut off, lay in the cupboard.

My Grandmother later married an English man called John Hunter. He was an electrician and brought my Grandmother, mother and Aunt to England in the 1960s. Since a young age my Mother and Aunt then began to only speak English. This explains why none of us can speak Chinese very well. From what she and my Mother say, they were very happy with him. He was a real English gentleman – tall, well-dressed, and with pipe in hand.

My Grandmother and her English husband John.

Following clues

After my Grandmother passed away, we found a pile of photographs of our Malaysian and Singaporean family members. Most of them have also passed by now too. But one photo baffled me most. A family is posing for a typical family portrait shot. Their ethnic background is hard to work out. The Father, maybe Malay, is adorned fully in Islamic dress, even topped with a fez-like hat. His wife seems Chinese, and their children seem of mixed ethnicity. But who they are is a mystery to me. Maybe my family has been practicing mixed ethnic relations for longer than I had thought.

A photo found in my Grandmother’s cupboard

We also found an old-fashioned, yellowing photo of my Mother’s anonymous brother, smiling at the camera with a sweet innocence. Hand-written on the back reads “Your son, Ah Hong…Birthday: 9th September 1959.” But everything else about this man is a blur to her. The stamp from the printing company tells us it was printed in Malaysia.

Mum’s brother, Ah Hong

In another photo, the Chinese calendar on the wall says ‘1980’. A red and gold ancestral worship shrine is in the background. The people in the photo seem to be my Uncle (my Mother’s second cousin), his Mother and some nameless family members crowding around my Great-Grandfather for his birthday. He is a spit and image of my Grandmother. Every year, the Chinese side of my family, who now live in Singapore, still visit his shrine in Malaysia.

The more I look at that photo, the more a young man wearing Ray-ban sunglasses begins to look like a man I met in Singapore 3 years ago. He said we were related in some distant way, but I didn’t think to ask anything further.

The Irish and Traveller side

My Grandfather from my Father’s side, who I never knew, was originally from Kilkenny in the Republic of Ireland. He was an Irish traveller, not that many people in the family know that. That is, the family who still speak to us. My Father’s Mother was also Irish, but was half Irish and half Roma traveller. This explains the wanderlust I must have inherited.

My Father and I

Although he was born in Essex, my Father was still never content with being called English. He had a typical Irish pride. How we came to have the name ‘Castle’ as Irish descendents still puzzles me though. Years back, I stared for hours at a map of Ireland that marked every area by the name of the descendents of each village or town. But ‘Castle’ was nowhere to be seen.

Unfortunately, when my Father sadly passed away, all the memories of his childhood and background went along with him. Of course I remember many of the things he told me about. But sadly, memory fades. And the generations of my Father’s family who came after him seem to know nothing about their real heritage. It’s not exactly viewed as something to shout about these days.

Just the beginning

The gaps in my knowledge are troubling me. After all, if I don’t make an effort to search for the answers to my questions, who will teach my future children how interesting their ancestry is.

I owe this to my parents and my Aunt and Uncle alike, who set a beautiful example through their love, that it doesn’t matter where you are from or what you look like.

This is just the beginning of my search.

My Auntie Maggie and Uncle Kevin