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!