I am writing an article about travelling in Bangladesh, which reminds me a little story. Bangladeshis are very curious. Everywhere we went, people asked us which country we were from. At point, May, my older daughter, aged at 14 (but going on 18) replied without thinking: “We are from England.” I immediately contracted her: “I am from China and my daughters are half-Chinese.” Later I pulled May aside and asked: “You were born in China; you spent 10 out of 14 years in China and you are living in China. How does it qualify you as ‘English’?” May blinked her big round eyes. “Well, if I tell people I am Chinese, people wouldn’t believe me.”

True, May doesn’t look very Chinese, with her fair skin and brown air, especially the way she carries herself. My younger daughter Kirsty, who has darker complexion and more delicate facial features, looks a little more oriental. Yet they both identify themselves as British, culturally, even though they describe themselves as “half-Chinese and half-British”. They go to British School in Beijing and almost all of their friends are English-speaking.

It’s been a battle to inject the Chinese part of the culture into them. I speak Chinese to them and they often reply in English. For half of the time they stay with me (they spend another half with their father, my ex-husband) I try to ask them to write a few characters or I read them a story in Chinese. They see this as a task, a burden and a bargaining tool to get their pocket money instead of “an amazing opportunity that will open doors for them in the future”. They like Chinese food but prefer western food.

I don’t really worry about my children’s identity. New researches have contradicted earlier belief that mixed race children will likely to have cultural identity problem. Such people simply have a more fluid sense of identity than conventionally defined. And the sheer number of them – multiracial people are the fastest-growing demographic group in many parts of the western world – also makes it less a problem.

What concerns me is the fact that my children seem to think the western culture is superior – though they may not make such statement. If they describe something, for example, someone’s outfit, hairstyle or manner, as ‘very Chinese’, it usually contains negative connotation.

Their attitude is common among the children of western-Chinese families. I know a lovely half-Australian and half-Chinese girl of my daughter’s age, who speaks natural Chinese: she was sent to a Chinese school before being transferred to a western school in Beijing. During her first school trip, she pretended that she didn’t know any Chinese and asked a classmate with poorer Chinese to interpret for her!

What can we do to make the children like them to think speaking Chinese is cool and the Chinese culture is cool? They may change their view as they grow older. And will China’s rising position in the world help? What can the schools do to address the issue?

At home, I can see the cultural battle will wage on for some time to come. Alas, maybe I should try to turn myself more of a tiger mother!

15 thoughts on “identity

  1. Tiger mom is the way to go! I’ve heard stories similar to yours. Could it be because teenage girls are rebellious and therefore would do anything opposite to what their Chinese parents tell them to (i.e. speak Chinese!) just to be difficult and get on their nerves? Plus, “Chinese mom” has a reputation for being strict to their children. Who would want to admit that they are the obedient children of their tiger moms?! So darn uncool.

  2. I was directed to your blog by my sister, Sarah Bickers. Her daughter, Amy was at school with May when you were in England. I’ve been living in Beijing with my husband for almost a year now, and have enjoyed reading your blog. It’s good to get an insight from someone who has inside knowledge. We both love living in Beijing – we have another 3 years here, and will look forward to reading more of your insights into life. Don’t worry too much about your children – they have a habit of not doing things when you want them to, then doing them when you least expect it. They will see your passion for China and all the culture it has to offer, and will embrace it when they are ready to.

  3. Excellent, thought provoking – but you are not alone. Let the children decide what they feel comfortable with. Afterall it’s their lives.

    Aren’t we all the children of the same mother earth?


    PS: Please write on your Bangladesh visit – I would like to share that with other friends.

  4. This story reminds me my life. I was born in Uzbekistan, which was the part of Soviet Union, and when in the school somebody asked my nationality I usually answered Russian. But nobody was Russian in my family, my father was Uzbek and my mother Bashkir, but we all could speak Russian.

    You have very lovely daughters. It is a nice shot.

    Keep in touch

  5. In science and genetics (nothing political at all) there have been studies that if someone has European derived genes in some % of another those genes will mix and takeover whatever else racial genes there are (Whether Caucasoid (European), Mongoloid, or Negroid). You can Google this and this partly explains history.

    This includes the possible + or – depending on your viewpoint of blond hair and eyelids.

    BTW your children are *VERY BEAUTIFUL*! *@*.

    Anyways back to the point, I believe a balanced approach is needed. They are smart enough to decide for themselves what they believe it right in their righteousness place in the world. You can only parent them to grow up and decide for themselves. There are pluses and minuses in both cultures.

  6. NO, you cannot force them. I love your daughters. They really echo your looks especially their delicate mouths.

    I liked Chinese culture because of Hong Kong films spoken in my Cantonese dialect and because I had early attractive Chinese role models before I was exiled to a working class Irish American town. I find it hard to believe that anyone would prefer Western food to Chinese food regardless of their ethnicity. Maybe they need to spend time in an easier more fashionable city like Hong Kong or Taipei where they will come to respect the achievements and talent and wittiness of cosmopolitan Chinese.

    I didn’t feel negatively towards Beijing locals who through no fault of their own are less well-off than American Me. I still admired them and found them charming but maybe your daughters are not seeing the same things. Maybe they will change their opinion when they are older and spend time with college-age Beijingers.

    Anyway, there is no use to be angry at the Joy Luck Club behavior of Westernized children. It’s a waste of time and energy. As long as they are moral and respectful, everything will work out.

  7. An interesting and vexing question. We are coming from the other side: two half Chinese boys (12 and 14) who grew up in Australia, but prefer to speak Chinese when it suits them (ie when they are naughty and get sympathy from their Chinese mum or Popo). They love to speak Chinese because it is their “Get out of jail free” card and also their Hongbao.

  8. Lijia, This story may help:
    Sarah Tsien, a PlaNet Finance colleague who worked with Olivier Allais in China and myself, based in London, grew up in California of Chinese parents. She said she also was reluctant to learn Chinese while growing up, did go to Saturday classes. Later, as head of PlaNet Finance China, she threw herself into learning Mandarin, wished she had taken it more seriously when younger, also grateful she had learnt French.

    So you could tell your daughters this story about Sarah and ask them what they think about her experience. As a successful woman entrepreneur said recently at a conference, ‘Nothing you learn is ever wasted. It just may come in handy someday.’

  9. I have the same problem excpet my daughters are only 9 or 8. They started to hate theh saturday Chinese class now as they are not as fun as the English schools or girl guides. And the language is difficult for them, teachers are too strict etc. My wife (who is german) is actually thinking of other drastic measures. But I said we have no alternatives, just get by and hopefully one day they will know it is a good thing

  10. I have a question: don’t your children have to take Chinese classes in their international school in Beijing? Or is it all in English? If so I think that is a great pity. They should learn both languages properly. It will be useful as well as give them a sense of their Chinese identity.

    Unfortunately international school environments have their drawbacks: you get no experience in dealing with anyone from an ordinary non-affluent background, and you don’t really get a sense of being rooted in any single culture. I went to one myself so I know. Of course they have their advantages too.

    Since the kids are spending most of their lives in China, I think it is good they should get a proper feel of what being Chinese means. They cannot become “British” in China anyway, at most they can learn to identify only with other people who’ve grown up in international environments.

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