HOW TO BE THIS Sarah Kwong
Here’s a list of things that embarrassed me between the ages of 6 and 16 : 1. Being chosen, with devastating frequency, to be the brown (yellow) girl in the ring 2. Any mention of China 3. My dad talking loudly in Cantonese on the phone in Sainsbury’s 4. The musty smell of the presents our relatives sent over 5. Being asked to speak in Chinese 6. Not knowing if Hong Kong was a city or country 7. Having to spell out my surname 8. Having to wear a nametag with an incorrectly spelt surname 9. The lyrics ‘Chickity China, the Chinese chicken’ (courtesy of Barenaked Ladies. It was a chart-hit for ten agonising weeks) 10. That I didn’t know how to be half-Chinese The list didn’t end there, nor did it fade when I left school. It turns out that being an ethnic minority means existing in a perpetual state of embarrassment, especially because of number 10. Number 10 is really the crux of it all.
I stand on a hollow wooden stage block wearing a conical ‘coolie” bamboo hat, and half-heartedly flap a tea towel around to the soundtrack of high-pitched squawks. It's a dress rehearsal for the school production of Bugsy Malone. We are practising the Chinese launderette scene. To make this scene authentic (racist), we ‘make Chinese sounds’ at the drama teacher's request. As my peers make ambulance-like noises, eee-noor, yee-or, and strain their mouths into the most distorted (racist) shapes possible, I ask myself: how am I, the daughter of a Chinese, Cantonese-speaking man, supposed to ‘make Chinese sounds’? I am embarrassed that we have been asked to do this, but I am more embarrassed about who I am. I am certain that everyone is looking to me for some kind of masterclass — I’m the only non-fully-white person here and I have those squinty eyes — so I spend the next few minutes considering this predicament in complete seriousness. I don’t speak Chinese, but maybe I can assimilate the words I hear my dad use. Is that better than making incomprehensible (racist) sounds? Can I be Chinese for this scene, channel my inner Chinese person? I turn it over and over in my head as the flapping and squawking and awfulness continues. Only, in the end, I am too humiliated to open my mouth. The blood rushes to my face until I am — hopefully — crimson enough to closer resemble my Caucasian, rosy-cheeked friends than my yellowy-white, half-Chinese self. In nineties and noughties Britain — flashing its diversity like a badge of honour while refusing to celebrate the very people enabling it to be diverse — being mixed-race was a strange experience. Growing up in anaemic Somerset, I was seen as ‘exotic’, like an unknown species of lizard or a mysterious world food. As well as passive-aggressive and aggressive-aggressive assaults on my ethnicity, I was also faced with the constant verbal demand to declare my origin, like I was filling out a tax form. Only, I was just buying a packet of crisps or waiting for the bus. My un-white skin and Chinese nose belied my 5’10 body, hazel eyes, and BBC English accent (the latter also incoherent with the distinct cadence of the West Country accent). That was enough for racists, bold and timid, clandestine and open alike, to see what they could get away with. Back then, it was all about what you could get away with. People like to get away with things, especially hateful things that, if caught, would defame them. The intolerant beast inside of them, threatened by difference and thus desperate to feel a sense of unity with the masses, asserts its power by yanking out someone’s otherness, their ‘weakness’, and flashing it to an audience. I was lucky because I only experienced this, the shit that people tried to get away with. In a way, that’s the type of trouble that being ‘half ’ invites. It props open the
H O W T O BE T HI S door, just an inch. Racists don’t need to be valiant, they can slink through the crack of my ability to understand them, my British-ness, the un-fullness of my race and therefore the fact that I won’t be that upset, and have a quick go. But those offering up racist slights seem to know more about me than I do. They don’t appear to be confused, like I am. In fact, they seem to know exactly what they’re talking about. They always have. There were the scrawny, mouthy boys vying for admittance into the popular gang, using my ethnicity as a weapon to impress. It was nothing sophisticated, we’re talking racism 101; chink, chinkychong, eyes clumsily pulled into slits. Then there were the probing teachers and shop workers, reeling off questions — interrogation disguised as interest so as to confirm that I was indeed a mixed-race person. High-fives and pats on the back for exceptional ethnic-minority knowledge. I was pulled into the headmaster's office with other minority kids to see if I was being bullied, asked if I ate dogs, and became the unwilling star of playground ditties that cleverly paired my surname with funny rhyming words like ‘thong‘ and ‘dong’. During this time, the media did not give me any guidance on how to be halfChinese, nor did it provide others with any guidance on how not to be racist to a Chinese person. On the rare occasions Western media covered China, it seemed to focus solely on the negatives: one-child policy, pollution levels, animal cruelty. This ensured that those around me possessed extremely pejorative views of China (and Hong Kong , to the many who believed the two places were the same). Silently, I defended. London has pollution, too, guys. In Hong Kong, we can have as many kids as we like. We’re not even full Chinese. We. We, who? We, half-Chinese people? We, my family? Who was this we, and did I really think that I could call myself a member? Being an ethnic person every day, a role from which you cannot bow out, is like a trying to complete a Sudoku puzzle. I select the right answers and gain momentum, but just as I’m feeling confident, I realise that I made a mistake seven steps back, which means that all of the stuff until right now is all wrong. I have to go back and double-check every answer in every square. I never finish the puzzle successfully. In frustration, I scribble any old answer in all of the little compartments and none of them align. And it sits uneasily with me because I know I could try to work it out. But I’m exhausted of trying to work it out. I’m exhausted of trying to work it out in private and I’m exhausted of trying to work it out under society’s scrutiny. I’m exhausted that I’m not yet what I was supposed to have been from day one. After school sometimes, my siblings and I hung out at my aunt and uncle’s
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house, playing on the Sega Mega Drive and chewing on White Rabbit sweets sent from Hong Kong, until my dad finished work in their fish and chip shop downstairs. I didn’t realise that these moments, when my aunty served up orange segments in the late afternoon or my feet padded around in plastic slippers that weren’t mine, were the only Chinese bones in my body. The only bones in my Chinese body. It’s important to note that when I was younger, the embarrassment I nursed had many layers and caveats. I was embarrassed about being half of something and half of another. I was embarrassed about not knowing what I was. I was embarrassed about being not-completely-white in a completely white sphere. But I was ‘only’ embarrassed about these things in public. This is because it was only a problem in public. I was not embarrassed to have a Chinese family at home. I enjoyed the loud dinners in the kitchen of the fish and chip shop, crowded around the table glazed in shiny plastic (easy to wipe, practical), me a goofy, grinning wall, rebounding chatter I didn’t understand. I knew it was good, the whole thing. But I didn’t understand how I was part of it. Maybe that’s why I never shared any of it with my friends. I was worried that they’d ask questions and I’d have nothing to show them other than my wide nostrils and pictures of my family. I have never referred to myself simply as ‘half-English’. Not once. Even when we visited Hong Kong, I was half-Chinese. That isn’t to say that I have never said it, though. When people enquire, I give them the complete formal answer; that I am half-Chinese, half-English, the way an owner might state their dog’s breed to ensure that the person bothering them won’t ask any more questions. Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Not just a spaniel. Not just mixedrace. Not just half-Chinese. Giving the full answer feels fraudulent though. I understand British slang words like ‘peng’ or ‘minging’, but I can’t tell you that I play the piano in Cantonese. I don’t know how to be a sentient half-Chinese person. I just exist in facts. When I was a teenager, my uncle gave my dad a cheap second car. It had the same familiar, musty smell of my uncle’s house and all of the Chinese paraphernalia within it. There were wooden beaded seat covers in the front and sheets of thick, opaque plastic moulded to the seats in the back. The car was beige and precariously balanced upon four wheels. It had two doors and the whole body was made up of trapezoid-shaped sheets of metal. I had never seen this car model before. My siblings and I referred to it as ‘crap car’, predominantly for its
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H O W T O BE T HI S performance (or lack thereof) and, in our immaturity, its appearance, too. It was noticeably different to most cars on the road at that time. It wasn’t quite right. Not a Robin Reliant or a Fiat Uno. It was visible. Whenever my dad pulled up against the curb at school, we would slide our shoulders down the slippery seats, hoping we couldn’t be seen. Looking back, I wonder what we were really hiding from. Being seen in the crap car, or seeing ourselves? It was not a coming of age, but more like a coming of ethnicity. Perhaps it was a racially charged time in politics or the news. I don’t remember, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it happened. I was no longer willing to sit at home and ruminate over grainy photos of my family, trying and failing to stem the constant stream of my inadequacies. I was just going to do it. I was going to learn how to be half-Chinese. It began rumbling within me a few years ago, when I found myself wandering London’s Chinatown on a regular basis. I longed to hear the unapologetic, singsong voices that I had understood only as background noise around a dinner table. I shuffled into Chinese supermarkets and wondered if I should think of them as just supermarkets and not Chinese supermarkets. Would that be disrespectful to my British roots? Or had I bathed in enough Britishness that it was ok? This pendulum, fully fuelled by confusion and embarrassment, swung me all the way to Hong Kong. It was time to find a way to be both. To be this.
5. My uncertainty as to whether I’m allowed to consider myself as a person of colour 6. That I don’t know how to be a Chinese person anywhere The swaying never stops. I am putting my all into being half-Chinese, whatever that means. I force out Cantonese words with an artificial confidence to convince myself, if not others, that I know what I’m doing. I walk confidently, sometimes even sauntering, to show that I am comfortable with the shoes I walk in. The other day, a Chinese man on the train shot me a quizzical look when, in Cantonese, I asked a young woman if I could get past. The woman barely acknowledged me, simply inching forward to make room. But the man looked at me, and continued to look at me. He craned his neck to peer up at my face, and then his gaze dropped all the way down to my feet to see if I was wearing heeled shoes. He assessed my clothes and the way I folded my arms. He wore a puzzled expression, but I wore one of relief. His inability to ‘place’ me was a glorious summary of my being, the kind of solid definition I had longed for amid the clumsy labels I gave myself that never felt right. There, with his furrowed brow, he saw me exactly as I was.
Here’s a list of things that embarrass me now : 1. Telling people I am learning how to speak Cantonese. (No, I wasn’t taught as a child. Yes, I am taking classes. No, I don’t want to say anything in Cantonese to you right now.) 2. Feeling embarrassed about being embarrassed for all of those years 3. Knowing I let anyone and everyone shame me for my ethnicity 4. That I am not a balanced mixed-race person and therefore am nothing like those strong, sussed people who write online articles about owning their identities