So it’s finally general election day (again!) and in the build up you’d think that local canvassers would be hungry to win over voters on the doorstep wouldn’t you?
Sadly not if you are Asian. This week, I experienced yet again the “Mistaken for the Cleaner” scenario. Here’s what happened:
Door bell rings.
I answer it.
The canvasser looks at me and gives me a flyer (for the party that I support) and asks me to give it to the resident voter.
I am taken aback, because I would like to have a chat about the candidate that I am going to vote for, but the canvasser has already turned his back and is already exiting the gate.
I finally find my tongue.
“I live here. I’m a voter too you know? Aren’t you going to talk to me?”
Cue awkward back-tracking by canvasser on the hot foot.
*sigh* “Did you think I was the cleaner?”
“No, no, of course not, we get doors answered by all sorts of people, you know friends and so on.”
I’m not really buying this. REALLY? Someone opens the front door and the first thing you think is: this person is a ‘friend’ of the resident…??!!
“Do you want to know about our policies.”
“Don’t worry. I’m good.”
This is not a unique scenario. Not too long ago I laughed out loud along with the rest of the world when the images of Professor Kelly’s report on South Korea was unexpectedly hijacked by his kids. Yet the initial hilarity and empathy with Professor Kelly’s clip soon became soured by the comments that flowed beneath the video. If there ever was a hero of the piece, it was his Korean wife that sped in to save the day and heroically crawled back in on all fours to close the door to allow peace to descend. I immediately warmed to her as her casual wear and practical pony tail looked just like my own. My own response to such an eventuality with my own children would have been instinctively identical.
Why then was she presumed by many to be the Nanny/ Maid, and worse still, why were her actions defined as being “submissive” and “fearful”? What would the “proper”/ “non-submissive” response from a wife and mother have been? To walk in and wave at the camera? To leave her husband to battle it out with the children on-screen?
Whatever people may say to try to justify their gut reactions, I am without a doubt that the “nanny-assumption”, just as the canvasser’s “cleaner assumption” was based on our ethnicity. How can I be so sure? Because it happens to me (and I’m sure other Asian/ Latino women) all the time. Here are a few of my highlights:
• When I first started dating my husband (a 6 foot 2 white South African), many people expressed surprise, questioning “You are a strange couple. What do you have in common?” I soon realised this was a bit of code for “He’s tall, white and handsome and should be going out with a leggy blonde not a short bespectacled Chinese woman”. This line of thought was later confirmed by a sozzled old bufty we had the misfortune to sit next to at a wedding once who stated the quandry more precisely due to inebriated state: “How did you two ever get together? He has round eyes and you have slitty eyes.”
• My husband had invited some of his new, white, male colleagues over for dinner. At 5 minutes to specified guest arrival time, I’m still in my tracksuit pants doing the last minute hoover and cushion plumping because in London with the ineffectiveness of the transport links and the relaxed attitude to time-keeping, I’m figuring I’ve still got 20 minutes to get changed and slap on some lippy. But what-ho? There’s the door-bell! The damn husband had failed to mention that his new colleagues had meticulous talent for punctuality. Never mind, I do my hostess duties diligently: offering to take coats and taking orders for drinks. The guests are genial and I show them into the dining room, where I start to serve the food that my husband has prepared. Here I figure that since they have caught me in my casual garb that it would be affected to disappear upstairs and re-emerge tarted up, so I don’t bother with that pretence. It is only when I plonk myself down at the table amongst the gathering that I notice the strange looks from my fellow diners. There is a definite note of initial surprise that “the brazen cleaner/ house-help is joining us for dinner”, followed by a tinge of embarrassment when they finally clock that I am the wife.
• When I was on maternity leave and started being in my house in the day time, I couldn’t help but notice that each morning a troupe of Asian ladies would come up the road, disappear into various houses and then leave in the evenings. I could see them through windows dusting and polishing in various houses. I realised that I looked more like them than my actual neighbours. It was no surprise then that when unexpected callers came to the door (the gas man, electricity man, charity door-stoppers, election campaigners, the police) they would ask to speak to the owner of the property when they were faced with me. After a few times of indignant proclamations of “I am the owner of this property”; I realised that it was much more fun and expedient to actually pretend to be the Cleaner and this works fantastically well to get rid of a lot of people that I don’t have the time for. I don’t even need to speak. I just put on a puzzled look, shake my head and shrug my shoulders like I can’t understand English.
• One time on maternity leave I went to the Royal Academy of Art with my baby and a friend with her twin babies. I had access to the Friends’ room so we ventured in there to have a snack, but the tables were all full, so we were kindly invited to join a table that was already occupied by a sweet elderly couple. This was a blessing as we had 3 babies between us. As my daughter was asleep, I helped out my friend with one of her twins by rocking her in my arms, and my friend chatted amiably to the elderly couple. When along comes a posh old dame who comes over babbling with delight about how wonderful it is to see families enjoying a day out at the RA. She talked at length about her own daughter who “also had triplets”. At this point I clocked things from her perspective. Here was a family of white grandparents, white daughter and triplets. That left me, the Nanny.
• Add to this the countless times I have had to have my passport doubly scrutinised at airports (apparently because there are Chinese gangs providing all manner of people with fake British passports) or if I am with my children, all our passports doubly scrutinised (because of Chinese gangs child trafficking). Strangely enough, if I travel with my husband, or if he travels alone with the children, this never happens. The addition of a “jolly fine white chap” somehow legitimises the rest of us.
Like for Jung-a Kim, Professor Kelly’s lovely wife, none of the above particularly bothers me. The reason being that for most non-white females, we have acclimatised and adapted to these day to day occurrences. I believe that these days we are to refer to them as “micro-aggressions”, but in my day, they were just things we ignored/ laughed at or put up with. Annoying, petty stereotyping is not the preserve of non-white females. Although I have witnessed a myriad of advantages that my husband gets purely by being a “tall, white, male”: aeroplane upgrades, hotel upgrades, many, many people-that-ignored-me smiling and offering to help him, people hanging on to his every word (when he is actually spouting my rhetoric which would have been ignored if it were coming out of my mouth); I have also witnessed my tall, white-male husband frequently mistaken for a Bullingdon club posh toff/ arrogant Apartheid supporting South African/ Countryside Alliance fox-hunter/ Trust Fund elite just because of the way he looks – which I imagine can also be tiresome.
“What are you doing going out with him?” my Socialist Worker reading friend asked.
But scratch beneath the colour of our skins and you will see that we:
• Are both the youngest of 3 children
• Are both from close knit families
• Are both immigrants to the U.K.
• Are both originally from pariah nations (South Africa due to Apartheid; Taiwan due to Chinese diplomacy)
• Both have direct experience of the effects of racism and inequality
• Both have an interest in opening our minds and hearts to new people, new places and new experiences
• Are both happy with who we are
So where it matters, we are immensely similar.
And so, in conclusion I think that we should all do a bit more of looking beyond stereotypes. I have no problem with being mistaken for a Nanny/ Maid/ Cleaner, because consider the alternative: I absolutely hated travelling with my husband to Thailand/ Indonesia and other developing Asian countries in my youth, because if we ever got in a cab, went for a nice meal or checked into a fancy hotel; I was clearly always “The Hooker”.
Since Amy Chua’s book on tiger parenting exposed the prevalent Chinese ethos in parenting, life has been hard. It’s impossible for a Chinese parent to have a child play well at a music concert without arched eyebrows from other parents thinking “Well, she must make them practice till all hours” and a good class report cannot go by without mutterings of “Well, her children must be tutored beyond belief”. Indeed, parents have come up to me in the school playground specifically to ask my advice about tutors, when anyone who reads my blog knows, I am anti professional tuition and am resisting the pressure to get a tutor and certainly know no tutors (although I reserve the right to crumble to the tutor fad closer to 11+!). Come parents evening, I generally nod obediently and keep my mouth shut, cowering behind Banker and poke him into action to ask the questions that we want answered lest the teacher labels me as “That typical Chinese tiger mother”. Banker, being Caucasian is allowed to ask questions about the children’s education without prejudice.
It was a surprise then that I recently encountered where the Caucasian Tiger Mothers are.
Big Sis recently sat a ballet exam. I am ambivalent on the issue of ballet. I have to confess that I did arrange for Big Sis to start ballet at age 3 years as who can resist the cuteness of little dumpling girls toddling about in pink tutus? I presumed that by age 7 years, she would have grown out of it as the discipline, the classical music and the strictness, didn’t seem to me to be overtly appealing to children. I thought she may have asked to change to drama or street dance, which are probably my preferences and were alternative options that I have muted each year. But no, Madam loves ballet. So I dutifully send her each week and give her due encouragement, and I attend the ballet shows and clap enthusiastically, but all the while thinking to myself: when will she get fed up of this as I don’t want her pursuing ballet seriously and developing an eating disorder in adolescence. It’s a prejudice I know, but for me ballet and eating disorders are just linked in my brain, and given a preference I’d like to think that Big Sis would’ve said “yes” to rocking out with the Skater Boy rather than ruefully going to his concert in years to come.
Big Sis and I ran like a pair of insane loons to this ballet exam, as typically we were LATE. Big Sis had her hair in a pony-tail, only by now, it was all tumbling out and her face was sweating like a pig from having been told to run like a madman or face a telling off by a stern Russian for tardiness. Big Sis was wearing white school socks instead of tights as it was a baking hot day and who wants to wear tights in the heat? Big Sis and I had just stuffed our faces with chocolate digestives because we were a bit peckish and crumbs tumbled from pink taffeta as we barreled in through the doors huffing and puffing.
When we arrived, we were met by the other girls and parents. 90% of the girls were tall, blond and with thigh girth smaller than my arms. Every girl without exception had their hair neatly pulled back into a perfect bun. Gel, wax and constellations of Kirby grips took a vice like hold on hair lest a strand fall out of place. Most of the girls had a full face of make-up on; they all wore tights not crumbs. Oops, was there a memo I missed about a dress code or were we to have intuited this? Parents fussed about and guided the girls as they dutifully underwent elaborate warm up stretches in the corridor. Meanwhile Big Sis stood in the corner fanning her sweaty nose.
“Phew” I said. “They’re running late so we haven’t missed it. We were running, now we are sweating like pigs.” I attempted to explain to another parent.
Arched eyebrows at my disorganization and pitying smiles from other parents, and I got the sense that I had not correctly judged the seriousness of this ballet exam. Then, what I hadn’t anticipated. The Spanish inquisition:
“So when did Big Sis move into this ballet class?”
“Are you sure she is at the correct exam? Some of her class mates were being examined in the earlier exam.”
“My daughter is doing ballet 3 times a week. How many times a week is Big Sis doing ballet?”
And so on.
As I muttered “I dunno. We came at the time we were told”, I started to feel perplexed about this excessive interest into what I felt to be an irrelevant extra-curricular activity that I was forced to enthuse about because my kid found it fun. Then I began to feel a strange sense of familiarity at the questions I was being asked. These questions were recognizable and I and others I know have asked these questions before. They were just like the questions Chinese parents ask each other about maths and English exams!
“So how long has your child been at Kumon?”
“Which grade piano is your child taking this year?”
“How many times a week do you set them extra maths homework?”
If and when my kids are required to sit for academic exams, you can bet that we would be early, sitting outside the exam hall probably swotting up on home-made exam cards of some description.
So this is where the white Tiger Mothers hang out.
It’s sort of cool to feel vindication and that it is not just the Chinese that are a tad pushy after all. It’s just that for the Chinese the focus of achievement is on academics and music, whilst for Westerners it’s sport. Banker recalls similar parents at swim meets when he swam in junior national swim teams in South Africa. Many of his team mates rebelled against their ambitious parents and refused to continue swimming in adolescence because of it. It’s funny that I am sure that Judy Murray (and any parent of a top athlete) did her fair share of threatening, cajoling and bribing her sons to get out of bed and get to training for long hours when they didn’t want to, yet she is a national treasure, whilst a parent that used similar parenting practices to target academic achievement would be vilified.
Having initially felt intimidated and antagonized, I felt serenely at one with these other parents. Still, as a Chinese parent I can’t for the life of me understand why ballet should be the target of such efforts. At least with academics, half-hearted success at maths will still land your child a decent job, whilst even the top students in a ballet (or any sports) class are unlikely to make a career of it…
Each to their own I guess.
I’VE BEEN MENTIONED IN THE FINANCIAL TIMES!
In Simon Kuper’s article in the Financial Times October 24th 2014 “Confessions of a white Oxbridge male” he mentions me in his concluding paragraph:
“We [white Oxbridge males] have expanded our caste a little. We now recruit some non-whites (preferably Oxbridge men). We’ve even begun admitting Oxbridge women. We just sideline them professionally the moment they make the mistake of giving birth.”
OK, not quite a name-check, but I’m one of the women he is talking about. Since he has given his career confessional (which he says included an easy ride into Oxbridge and journalism); I thought I’d give a view from the other side. No one may be interested, as who wants to hear a BME (black/ minority ethnic) females’ voice when they can hear the voice of the white male, but it saves me a lot of money in therapy.
Unlike Simon’s dad, my dad was no Cambridge educated establishment figure. He was born son to a peasant farmer in 1940s Taiwan. Taiwan in the 1940s bears no resemblance to the bustling developed country it is today, and had a predominantly agricultural economy. Life for a subsistence farmer was hard and tied to the will of the weather. Growing up, we were forever regaled with my father’s hard-luck story. If we ever complained about having to go to school, we would get lectured about “You’re so lucky you can go to school. When I was young I had to plead with my mother to go to school, then I had to walk 10 miles round trip to school barefoot wearing my father’s cut off trousers, feet calloused and bleeding.” We would then mercilessly make fun of it in the manner of the Monty Python 4 Yorkshire-men skit by adding “That’s nothing, when I was a lad, I had to crawl naked on my hands and knees through dark underground tunnels to get to school”, etc. etc.
At the heart of it though, and particularly in adulthood, I truly respect the climb he made to give us, his children a better life. He was the 5th of 11 children. None of his preceding siblings had completed primary school education, and they were forced to enter child labour at a nearby factory where they were physically and verbally abused on a daily basis. On finding that he was to suffer the same fate, he cried until a neighbour took pity on him. This neighbour, having heard from her daughter that my father was the brightest child in the class, persuaded my grandmother to allow him to enrol for secondary education, just for a year at least. The pattern continued with ever more cycles of crying and pleading “Just one more year of school”, until my grandmother eventually realised that all this crying and intellectual sentimentality probably made him too soft for factory work. So they let him continue with education and work in the evenings and holidays in repayment for not shouldering the family’s load. In term time, as his school was far away, he sofa-surfed and freeloaded on classmates from richer families to get by until eventually, he made his way up to University to study civil engineering. On graduation he landed a job as a hydraulic engineer in one of Taiwan’s harbours thus having successfully climbed out of manual labour into the professional class through hard-won education.
Having worked 10 years as an engineer and saved hard, he followed his dream: he applied for a PhD in civil engineering at Swansea University in the UK. That’s how my family immigrated to the UK. I was 3 years old at the time. Compared to the life that my father had, my life has been charmed. A family of 5 was frugally but happily fed and watered on a PhD stipend. My sisters and I had no toys but made chess sets from the cardboard of a cereal packet. We avidly read Enid Blyton books and cuddled bears purchased from the second hand stall at the school fete. We begged our friends to share their penny sweets and chocolates with us. We learnt that material things did not matter, we had the most important gift of all: A LOVING FAMILY.
My father whose life experience was of class discrimination in Taiwan and racial discrimination in the UK also passed on another life lesson: you will face discrimination, but if you work twice as hard as the others, you will succeed, don’t let anyone stop you. We took his advice, and for a while, nothing stopped me.
With this work-ethic instilled, school was a breeze; we went to the local state primary schools as my parents couldn’t afford anything else. Without the seemingly now obligatory tuition, my sisters and I all waltzed into the local Grammar school which saw 1000 girls sitting for 90 places. A clean sweep of As (A* was not around at that time) in 10 GCSEs, 1 AS-level and 3 A-levels, saw me arrive at Cambridge University to study medicine. Whad’ya know? My dad was right – unstoppable.
A funny thing happened at Cambridge. As soon as I arrived, the porters and students all commented on my good English. Initially, I took great offence at this: how else did they think I got all those As at A-level to get here? Later I realised that in my college undergraduate intake of 120 that year, I was the only BME girl who was not a foreign student. Everyone just presumed that I was a foreign student and were hence surprised at my grasp of the English language. Russell Group Universities routinely bump up their atrocious record on BME admissions by admitting BME fee-paying foreign students. These same “cash cows” that aid University BME stats are also paraded in all University promotional material. One of my best friends, a mixed race foreign student who was the only black student in my college year, always made it front and centre in the college prospectus.
This memory came back to me as I read Simon Kuper’s article and I began to do some research in this area. For the period covering my time at Cambridge in the mid-90s, statistics show that of Home students (non-foreign students) 50% of admissions came from state schools, 40% were female and 5% were ethnic minority. If you do the maths, this makes me one of the 1% of the Home University students that was a BME, state school female; or to really put this in perspective, I was 1 of 30 in the entire year at the University *. If only I was lesbian, then I would have been one of three!
Thankfully in my day, there were no tuition fees. Even so, although my parents were now earning good incomes, their income was such that I was still eligible for means-tested hardship funds at Cambridge and I took these as well as student loans. Although I did not work in term time (which is forbidden at Cambridge due to the rigour of the courses), I worked every Christmas and summer holiday; initially for minimum wage at a dry cleaners, and then realising that I had more potential than this, at twice minimum wage as a medical secretary. This afforded me the extravagance of May Balls and to travel myself interesting (Eastern Europe, New York, San Francisco, Cape Town).
Despite being accused at times of “only having been accepted at Cambridge because I was a BME female” a cheap jibe from the threatened, I knew that my grades matched those of the privately educated white males, and I graduated with a 2:1, the same as the majority of the white males. I took a University academic prize with me and took up employment at the best clinical and academic centre in Europe for my medical specialty.
Interestingly, having Cambridge on my CV suddenly meant that people assumed I had a privileged upbringing. A senior colleague once told me to accept a colleague’s arrogance by saying “you can’t be too hard on him because he came from a poor background, he had to work through medical school, he didn’t come from a privileged background like us”. I didn’t think it appropriate to buy sympathy and bring up my summers and winters sorting out the shirts of Japanese business men. At a dinner party with a Professor of Economics at a leading University, he bemoaned the number of foreign Chinese PhD students at his University who came from rich families and expected to be “spoon-fed” their degrees. He asked how my family came to the UK, and I said “My Dad came to do a PhD”. He immediately gave me a scornful look that said “Oh – you are the spawn of one of them”. It didn’t seem apt to say – “but he got there through sheer hard work having worked 10 years to support himself to get a place there”. At an appraisal, I was once told that I “had a reputation for being forthright and assertive”. I meant to cry out “Do you think that people wait with baited breath to listen to what a BME female has to say?” but I didn’t. He followed it up with “We British don’t like it.” I presumed he was excluding me from being British due to some sort of apartheid era definition where “Britishness” was coded in skin colour, as my family and I have lived in Britain and held British passports for 30 years. I meant to respond, but I didn’t.
People that didn’t know I had been to Cambridge continued to mistake me for the nanny/ maid/ cleaner. I mean to correct them, but I don’t.
The reason being that this stuff is like water off a duck’s back. Over years, the BME state school woman develops a skin as thick as a rhino. From the braying “Ching Chong China Man”, “Go back to your own country” taunts from the playground to the assumptions in the workplace that the reason you have made it is because you paid your way or were promoted in an affirmative action. It may have knocked me back but it has never stopped me going where I wanted to go.
What did stop me?
Wanting to work part-time**.
Apparently, this is impossible.
Not only in medicine, but my female Oxbridge friends in law, media, finance and other competitive jobs say the same thing. As much as I hate to admit it, a white Oxbridge male is right again, and by the time we’ve had the second child, we’re well and truly side-lined. While I doubt it is beyond the wit of man to operationalise part-time/ flexible working in high income jobs, it is currently beyond the will of man: the white Oxbridge man.
So I set a challenge for my husband, a white Oxbridge male, my friends and former classmates who will inevitably inherit the mantle of white Oxbridge male power: use your power to effect change and equality for the women in your organisation – if not for your wives then for your daughters. For if your daughters become trapped in domesticity in later life; then they need only look in their white Oxbridge fathers’ eyes for culpability.
Statistics from House of Commons report on “Oxbridge “elitism”” by Paul Bolton. http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/sn00616.pdf
*this rough calculation is based on an approximate number of 3000 home admissions a year and on the distribution of females and state school candidates being similar within the BME admissions as within the University overall which may not necessarily be assumed.
**by part-time I really mean less than 4 days a week, as everyone knows employers are happy to negotiate a 4-day week where you subsume a full-time role for part-time pay.
Race and skin colour is a tricky thing to talk about with kids, even in London where probably all 110 Pantone skin shades (yes this actually exists) are covered. I had my own (albeit mild) experiences of racism as an immigrant to the UK, and my fair share of ponderings regarding racial identity. I wanted my children to avoid that if possible, and thought I knew how to facilitate that. As with all things with children, things don’t always turn out as you plan!
It is natural that any parent uses their own experiences of childhood as a point of reference in parenting, both in how to do things and how not to do things. Having emigrated from Taiwan to the UK with my family at the age of 3 years, my race had at times been an issue for me growing up. It is well known that immigration has strong associations with mental health due to the stress both of leaving behind a social network and of feeling like an outsider, or “not belonging/ being accepted” in the new country. The stress of leaving behind family was more of a problem for my parents, but I certainly sometimes experienced the “not belonging/ being accepted” feelings. Although I was largely Anglicised; my outward appearance was clearly Chinese and this bothered me for a long time. I remember one instance when I was ten; I closed my eyes tight and wished very hard that when I opened my eyes again, I would have white skin. I didn’t want to change who I was, or my family, just the colour of my skin. It wasn’t the taunts of “Ching Chong Chinaman” or mock martial arts moves, which were easily dispelled by sharp tongue, but the pervasive stereotyping. Rightly or wrongly, I felt it was grossly unfair that all “Chinese people” (which actually included any East Asian ethnicity) were regarded as what I referred to as “book nerds”. Every teacher and every employer I have ever had has described me as “conscientious”. Why not “efficient”, “competent” or indeed “supremely talented” (ha ha) – which imply the same without the connotations of hard-working?
Because: only white kids were “naturally clever”, Chinese kids “worked hard, did nothing but work and were definitely uncool”…hmmm.
It’s definitely better now than in the past. Susie Bubble, Jemma Chan, Alexa Chung, Gok Kwan, Mylene Klass, Lucy Lui, Devon Aoki and even my old friend Ching He Huang are regularly on T.V. rocking the Asian cool. I don’t think that I would have had such an issue with being “Chinese” if I was growing up in London today, but I grew up in the era where Chinese people on T.V. were represented by Peter Sellers in fancy dress. An Indian friend described a similar stereotyping problem saying how “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” was his most hated film, as he was forever being mocked about eating monkeys’ heads at his school, Eton. Funnily enough, it was also in the most privileged of environments, Cambridge University, where I experienced the most ignorant petty racial stereotyping. Frequently people commented on how good my English was and questioned where my Chinese accent was from, to which I responded “Norf London”. Others commented on my keenness for shepherd’s pie, remarking “I thought Chinese people only liked rice”. I am seriously not making this up! My poor Etonian friend fared no better. He went back-packing around Nepal with his friend, and on return was told by his friend that his family had mistaken him in the photos of the trip for “the hired native that carried the bags”.
I remember being acutely jealous of a Romanian friend of mine, who despite also being an immigrant to the country managed to pass herself off as the quintessential English rose by virtue of white skin, blonde hair and European name. She was never asked about Romania, Communism, “Why her English was so good?” or treated to random stories about “I met a Romanian once…”, unless she brought it up herself. It struck me that skin colour is important here, as whilst second generation Eastern European immigrants could be fully accepted as British, my children and grandchildren may not.
This thought was on my mind at the point of naming Big Sis and Lil Bro. I was acutely conscious that I wanted to give them the gift of racial anonymity. Being mixed race, they are a skin colour of “ambiguous” ethnicity. I wanted them to be taken for who they were, not what their name or skin colour represented. They were given mainstream European names and took my husband’s European surname, such that unless they chose to divulge their Chinese middle names, on paper, no one would be able to tell that they were not fully European. This was a fully conscious decision, because even though we live in much enlightened times, even in a cosmopolitan city like London, I think race and skin colour still mean something.
That said; I take instilling cultural pride and identity seriously. I definitely don’t want them to pretend that they are “European” and reject their cultural identity. They need to be proud of who they are and where they come from. My children are dutifully sent to mandarin classes to learn the language and culture, despite my own poor grasp of the language. My children are told that they are Taiwanese, and pitch up proudly on cultural days at school in Chinese costumes and brandishing the Taiwanese flag. They regularly eat Chinese food, they have visited Taiwan and spend regular time with their Taiwanese grandparents in London. They identify with being Chinese and in fact, when asked “Where are you from?” Lil Bro will declare he is “Chinese”, whilst the better informed Big Sis will explain how she is “From Taiwan, South Africa and England”.
Great hey? My plan was working. Strong knowledge, awareness and pride in ethnic roots and identity, but not being judged on ethnicity from the outset.
What happened next, was rather unexpected then.
It started with a discussion of Disney Princesses:
Me: Which is your favourite Disney Princess?
Big Sis: Sleeping Beauty. Or maybe Cinderella. They are the prettiest.
Me: I like Jasmine.
Big Sis: I don’t like Jasmine.
Big Sis: She wears trousers.
Me [Phew, this is related to fashion rather than race]: OK, then, what about Mulan, you look most like Mulan.
Big Sis: No I don’t.
Me: Yes you do.
Big Sis: No I don’t.
Me: You have black hair and so does Mulan.
Big Sis: No I don’t, I have yellow hair.
This wasn’t a one off; this sort of thing continued. At the end of Reception, Big Sis’s Year 6 partner gave her a Chinese looking Barbie doll.
Me: That’s nice; she’s given you a Chinese Barbie.
Big Sis: How did she know I was Chinese?
Me: Because you look Chinese.
Big Sis: No I don’t.
Me: You have black hair.
Big Sis: No I don’t.
Me: You have yellowish, brownish skin.
Big Sis: No I don’t, I have light skin.
Me [What the hell?]: silence.
It was not a surprise then that when I bought Big Sis’s Year 1 tea towel with each child in her class’s self-portraits printed on it that I saw that she had depicted herself with “yellow” hair. What I didn’t expect and was relieved to see was that her blonde best friends, drew themselves with black hair, and another European child with dark brown hair also drew herself with “yellow” hair.
Maybe this is not about race then, but something deeper about identity and about wanting to belong. Wanting to be the same as your friends. It struck me that I could learn from this, that difference is in the eye of the beholder and where we seek to find similarity not difference, we can find it – however improbable.