Chinese culture fails to make the grade for today’s mixed-race children
Lijia Zhang recounts her struggle to instil pride and love of all things Chinese in her daughters
PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 September, 2014, 3:46am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 September, 2014, 10:34am
A mechanical horse-dragon made for a French show to be presented in Beijing this year. China may be the second-largest economy in the world but it lags behind the West in may aspects, pop culture for one. Photo: AFP
May, my 17-year-old elder daughter, told me the results of her school exams by phone. When there was a pause, she asked: "Are you disappointed?" I shouldn’t have been. Three As and a B were good results.
But the problem was that she got the B in Chinese. And she is half Chinese.
I see it partly as my fault in failing to speak Chinese consistently at home, at least for the time May and her younger sister, Kirsty, spend at my house. The truth is that she’s really interested in the language and, indeed, the Chinese part of her cultural heritage.
A few years back, I took the girls to Bangladesh for a holiday. As soon as we were out of my friend’s guarded complex, we were surrounded by curious locals.
"Where are you from?" they asked the girls. May, the spokeswoman of the two, replied without hesitation: "We are from England."
After we had settled down in a rickshaw, I said to May: "You were born in Beijing. Save for four years in London, you grew up in China. How does it qualify you as ‘English’?" May blinked her big round eyes. "Well, if I tell people I am Chinese, they wouldn’t believe me."
True, May doesn’t look very Chinese, with her fair skin and brown hair, especially the way she carries herself. Kirsty, who has a darker complexion and more delicate facial features, looks a little more oriental.
Yet they both fundamentally identify themselves as British, even though they do sometimes describe themselves as "half Chinese and half British".
They go to the British School in Beijing, they spend half their time with their British father, and all their friends are English-speaking international kids.
It’s been an uphill battle to inject the Chinese part of the culture into them. They like Chinese food but much prefer Western food. I speak Chinese to them and they often reply in English. I used to ask them to write a few characters every day or read them a story in Chinese. They saw 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.
As we grew busier and their interest remained low, we gave up this drill. There’s little wonder that May obtained "only" a B.
She actually speaks Chinese fluently (her sister less so), but to master the characters demands a lot of time and effort.
Eurasian children fare differently in their Chinese exams, likely better than average; the top students usually have a tiger mother at home, enforcing extra Chinese lessons.
I don’t really worry about my children’s identity.
Research contradicts the earlier belief that mixed-race children were likely to have cultural identity problems.
In her 1987 book, Mixed Race Children: A Study of Identity, British sociologist Anne Wilson documented many children of black and white parents and discovered most of them to be well-grounded in their identity. Since Wilson’s findings, the multiracial population is more visible as they have become one of the fastest-growing demographic groups in the US, and other parts of the world. The sheer number of them also makes it less of a problem; they simply have a more fluid sense of identity than the conventional definition.
What concerns me is the fact that my girls seem to think that Western culture is superior – though they may not say as much. If they describe something, for example, someone’s outfit, hairstyle or manner, as "very Chinese", it usually contains negative connotations.
Their attitude is common among children of Western-Chinese families. I know one half-Australian, half-Chinese girl who speaks Chinese fluently after attending a local school. After moving to an international school in Beijing, during her first school trip, she pretended not to know any Chinese and asked a classmate with poorer Chinese to interpret for her.
There are no doubt many reasons why these mixed blood children more readily identify themselves with Western culture. China may be the second-largest economy in the world but it still lags behind the West in many aspects, and the government may not be the most popular in the world. Western pop culture, for one thing, is extremely influential among the youngsters.
Will China’s fast-growing economy and rising position in the world change the equation? It may take a long time. These children may change their views as they grow older.
For now, how can we entice them to embrace Chinese culture, to see speaking Chinese as cool and take some pride in being half Chinese?
I’d be the first to admit that I’ve not tried hard enough and that I’ve failed rather miserably. But I wonder just how it’s possible to succeed, other than by transforming myself into a tiger mother.
Lijia Zhang is a writer, journalist and social commentator