#Augvocacy2019: Growing up British-Chinese & Finding Representation in Mixed-Race Characters

To introduce myself, I’m Debbie and I’m biracial (or mixed-race/ethnicity) — Chinese and British. With two immigrant parents (kind of) — my mum being from Hong Kong and my Dad from Scotland (hence the kind of). Over the last few months I’ve seen influencers on various platforms talk about their Eastern Asian heritage and how it’s influenced their upbringing. However, it has mostly been from completely Asian influences (as in full Chinese/Korean/etc rather than mixed), so I was inspired to do the same but from the perspective of someone who’s mixed-race. In addition, I want to detail my past relationship with my heritage — why I ultimately love it — and also media representation of mixed-race characters.

As a disclaimer, I live in London and have done so all my life — meaning that I’ve been raised in a diverse culture, so racism isn’t quite so prevalent compared to other cities/areas. This means that, for obvious reasons, my experiences will differ a lot from other people; however, I’m sure there’ll be a lot of crossover which I’m going to touch on.

When I was really young, before nursery, my Cantonese (the Chinese dialect used in Hong Kong) was pretty good — potentially even better than my English — because my mum looked after me a lot and spoke to me using the language as she wanted me to learn it. However, as I started nursery, the imbalance shifted the other way as all the kids and teachers around me talked in English, and as a result, it became my primary language. Whilst my mum continued to try to talk to me in Cantonese, I apparently wasn’t having any of it and refused to use it, resulting in a decreased ability in the language.

Similar to many other Chinese children, I went to Chinese school on the weekend — in my case, every Saturday afternoon — and simply put, I detested it (or at least the majority). This was mainly because the assumption (incorrectly made in my case) was that all the kids attending were already well-versed in Cantonese from speaking the language at home, meaning that the teaching focused on reading and writing. Due to this, I wasn’t able to understand and get the benefit of the parts of the lessons which weren’t taught in English.

As the years went on and the lessons were taught in near-complete Cantonese, my comprehension of what was going on decreased and, unsurprisingly, my enjoyment plummeted in tandem with it. I managed to get by and pass each year, but it wasn’t without its challenges. For one, I had to recap the chapters and topics we’d gone over in class that I didn’t understand because it was taught in Chinese, as well as preparing for each class so the former wouldn’t be so time-consuming and I could get more out of it. If you don’t know already, spoken Chinese has tones – with Cantonese having 6 (compared to having the simplified 4 in Mandarin) – and they can sound extremely similar to one another, especially in fast-paced conversation. So, my out of practice ears, whilst not completely redundant, had to spend extra time learning the new vocab each week, as well as regularly forgetting previous words due to a lack of exposure of the language outside of class. Then, in addition to all of that, my homework (for obvious reasons) took a longer time compared to my peers, so all in all, I sort of wasn’t having the time of my life.

Throughout Chinese school, I felt a significant feeling of inadequacy. Halfway through my time there, I had to repeat a year because my mum thought it better for me to use the newer textbooks (as they only started using them from the year below me), which meant that I was in a brand new class of nearly all unfamiliar faces. I was definitely shy as a kid and pretty bad at making new friends and talking to strangers, so this compounded the already present feeling of inferiority.

I want to make it clear that this sense of inferiority and not being good enough wasn’t a result of any purposeful actions from anyone else. Instead, a lot of it was down to me not understanding what they were talking or joking about during class, which caused me to feel a sense of isolation and separation from the group. I did have a few friends there, so wasn’t completely alone; however, the general feeling was there.

After a decade of suffering I got pulled out of Chinese school around the age of 14 for two reasons. The first being that I was about to enter my first year of GSCEs; the second was that whilst my reading and writing abilities were good, my speaking and listening were below what they needed to be for me to move onto the next year (i.e. I failed those exams).

Needless to say I wasn’t exactly distraught by the decision and was excited to actually be able to meet up with friends and have a relaxing weekend for once during the school year; however, it did mean that my fluency (as small as it already was) began to decrease.

Although this didn’t affect me on a daily basis, as we talk in English at home, it did affect my interactions with some of my relatives. For example, I have never been able to properly engage in conversation with my Chinese grandparents, who only speak their native language, due to the language barrier. Whilst this has always mildly upset me, I never gave the thought complete consideration until my granddad, the only full (as opposed to step-) grandparent I’ve ever met and known, passed away early last year. Needless to say, it affected me in a multitude of ways, but the fact that I’d never been able to talk to him was something I took to heart, especially since it was something I could have acted on and improved.

This language barrier is ever-present with my step-grandma and my relatives living in Hong Kong and China, as well as when my family converses in Cantonese when we meet up. My lack of speaking ability also reflects poorly on my mum and, despite my opinion of this being otherwise — considering the many hours she’s spent helping me do my homework and revise for Saturday school — it remains to be the opinion of others nonetheless. So recently, in attempt to overcome this barrier, I’ve begun to try to get back into studying the language, and whilst it’s still far from where it once was and even further than fluency, it’s a start.

Similar to (although not as extreme as) not being able to speak in Cantonese, I do occasionally feel disengaged with Chinese culture. A lot of the time, this comes in the form of not knowing certain rules or customs, as well as not always being connected to what’s going on in Hong Kong and China. If you’ve watched Crazy Rich Asians (which I saw last week and would highly recommend), compare it to when Rachel meets Nick’s family and has no idea how to behave with all the traditional customs and values — in short, it can be “fish out of water” kind of experience.

However, my lack of knowledge in this area is something I’ve come to terms with. As someone with little exposure to Chinese culture – I live in a very Westernised household with only a few Chinese friends – it’s not something I should put pressure on myself to know. Instead, I’ve decided to continue to learn and pick these customs up as I go along and remember that it doesn’t make me a lesser or worse Asian.

I think at this point, it’s easy to tell that I’ve gone through periods of feeling out of place as a result of my mixed heritage — feeling much more like two halves rather than one whole — especially on my Chinese side. Since I live in England, I don’t feel any real inferiority in terms of my British-ness. Whilst I’m Scottish/Irish rather than English, the culture and way of life of the countries is rather similar (I’m tempted to say nearly identical but I know my Dad would disagree). When I visit my relatives in Scotland, there are no barriers whatsoever, the food is pretty much the same — apart from eating more Scottish sausages and haggis — and it’s not as though anyone speaks, let alone knows, Scottish Gaelic. In short, I’ve only ever felt insecure about my Asian heritage. However, despite these periods, it is something I’ve always thought to be rather cool.

For one, I now think of it as two for the price of one – being exposed to two vastly different cultures which each have their own values, culture, festivals and (saving the best ’til last) food. To ironically (and quite cringe-ily) quote Hannah Montana, it really is the best of both worlds. Whilst I do wish I knew more about each side (both Chinese and Scottish/Irish), I’ve realised that, similar to everything else in life, I’m not going to know it all and have it all figured out right from the get-go — it’s a process and I have to treat it as such.

Ethnicity/Race should be something you can embrace wholeheartedly, and of course, this applies to absolutely everyone. Being in the minority isn’t something that’s generally easy, regardless of what type that minority is. However, loving it — and yourself because of it — will undoubtedly improve the situation each time.

Linking to representation in books and media (i.e. me finally getting onto the subject of Augvocacy ~1500 words later), there was a complete lack of characters I could relate to growing up. This didn’t necessarily pose a direct problem to me at the time, as instead I generally identified with both White and Asian characters. But, in hindsight, I think having biracial or mixed-raced representation portrayed would have helped with my related insecurities. In my primary school, there were relatively few other biracial kids and I don’t think any Chinese/British kids (apart from my brother but he doesn’t count); and until now, I’ve only ever met a few Chinese/British people (or at least people I’ve known to be so), so having biracial characters in the media would have given me the rare chance to see others like myself.

Biracial characters seem to make up an even smaller percentage of people portrayed in the media compared to full-Asians (impressive I know). In fact, when I was drafting up this post there were none that came to mind at all.

Since taking to the internet, my assumption of there being relatively few mixed-raced characters was confirmed. In TV/Film, there’s Hiro and Tadashi Hamada from the movie Big Hero 6 (which I still haven’t seen) who are half-Japanese, half-Caucasian (these two are also voiced by Asian-American actors so bonus points) and Marinette Dupain-Cheng from Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Chat Noir who’s half-French, half-Japanese. In books, there’s Park from Eleanor & Park who’s half-Korean and I know there’s also a few mixed-race characters in comics as well, with a bigger name being Miles Morales, one of the characters under the Spider-Man alias, who’s Afro-Latino.

Whilst general representation is good, what I find helpful and great to see is characters discussing their mixed heritage. Funnily enough, the only characters who I’ve seen doing so aren’t mixed-race characters, but rather mixed-species. For me, the character who I’ve been able to relate to is Steven from Steven Universe — a half-gem, half-human who struggles to deal with his mixed identity as being the only known hybrid of his type, in addition to his mother not being around. He struggles to activate his gem without the lack of guidance and, on the other side of things, gets frustrated when the gems don’t understand his human interests yet also is inexperienced when playing and interacting with other human kids his age. In short, he represents some of the difficulties experienced by mixed-race people, especially during childhood.

In a similar way, Spock from Star Trek is a character who I know resonates with a lot of people and is probably one of the pioneering mixed-race characters as he’s half-human, half-Vulcan and goes through alienation (excuse the pun) as a result.

Biracial or mixed-race representation is improving but, to be honest, it’s so minute you can barely tell. In my opinion, it’s not so much on the casting of actors (as in the past casting mixed-race actors has been done as a form of white-washing), but the writing of biracial characters into mainstream media – be it books, TV, film or otherwise – and seeing these characters confront their heritage in a meaningful way, rather than throwing in diversity for the sake of it or to tick a box.

In our increasingly globalised world, being biracial is becoming more common, so it seems only fair that we begin to see media do the same.

Augvocate for the Day

Deborah is a student who possesses an unhealthy tea habit, alongside prejudices and strong opinions on the drink. When not reading, she likes to pretend she’s grown out of her 11 year-old interests, such as Pokemon, as well as watching Howl’s Moving Castle and Love, Rosie for the millionth time. She also is the baker of the best brownies you will ever eat in your life (and can unfortunately cook pretty much nothing else).

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Augvocacy 2019

This guest post is part of a month-long collaborative series called Augvocacy, which is shorthand for August with an advocacy. Essentially, this project aims to bring together like-minded individuals — be it bloggers, authors, or readers — in actively forwarding a particular advocacy. All contributors to this project are referred to as Augvocates — and each Augvocate will share their thoughts on my blog from the 1st day of August until the 28th. Find the rest of the Augvocacy 2019 posts here.

For this year, Augvocacy hopes to discuss and encourage the importance of amplifying Asian voices in books and in media. While this particular call brings attention to the oftentimes-ignored demand for more authentic Asian representation, it also aims to debunk the bigoted view that Asian cultures are a monolith and to shed light on the nuances of struggle, privilege, and identity within and across our own communities. Learn more about Augvocacy 2019 in this post.

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I’d love to hear from you!

🌻 Do you agree with Debbie’s opinion that there’s still a huge lack of biracial or mixed-race representation in media, such as, books, film, and television?

🌻 In what ways can the media portrayal of biracial/multiracial identities be improved?

🌻 Personally, I would never ever recommend Eleanor & Park for its horribly problematic Korean representation. You can find some of my recommended biracial/multiracial books here. Have you picked up a good biracial/multiracial book lately?


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10 thoughts on “#Augvocacy2019: Growing up British-Chinese & Finding Representation in Mixed-Race Characters

  1. There’s definitely a lack of biracial representation in media and I’m so glad that people are talking about it. We definitely need as much as biracial rep as the rep needed for other minorities. I hope that we get more such characters in media in the future!

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  2. Awwww it was really neat to read Debbie’s experience with her Chinese heritage! I’m learning Korean but I also quite love Mandarin even though I don’t think I could ever pick it up let alone Cantonese! I can see why you would enjoy reading books with more mixed heritage characters where they talk about their concerns and fears and difficulties. ❤️

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  3. See, I’m so glad that you did this. I know I couldn’t have written something like this so eloquently and comprehensive, but I’m glad I get to read all of these posts.
    I feel like mixed representation is so rare! Biracial or mixed, since some people can have multiple ethnicities like me and don’t want to be singled out to just the two they have the most of, or the two they look the most of (if that makes sense). Like I think one of the characters that I actually read about that was biracial was Maia in Fate of Flames, but that doesn’t really get talked about as much. But it was mentioned. If there were more biracial or mixed representation in books, then more kids that are mixed or biracial could finally see a little bit of themselves in books.

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    1. That’s so sweet of you, thanks! Don’t worry it does make sense and yeah, I definitely think mixed representation is ridiculously low and also don’t think the issue is given as much volume/thought as it should be.

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  4. Oh, I think it’s a super interesting point that a lot of the “mixed-race” discussion is found more commonly in mixed-species characters rather than mixed-race humans. That’s actually kind of sad that there’s more representation for half-alien people than actual people who are biracial or multiracial?

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    1. I know right! I feel as though part of the reason is that it seems to be more common for mixed-species characters to have their heritage used as a plot device to make them more “interesting” as such – if that’s the correct way to phrase it?

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  5. I love this post! So much of this hit home for me being biracial as well–speaking Chinese better as a child and then loosing it as I went to English speaking school, not being able to communicate with Chinese relatives and feeling inadequate, and feeling like a serious fish out of water when visiting Asia 😦 So happy to see that I’m not the only halfie feeling like this haha, and yess biracial rep is super lacking and super important–the first time I ever in my life read a book with a biracial character was when I was 16 with TATBILB and I was shocked like… wait, people like me exist in the media?

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    1. I’m so glad you can relate, as seemingly all the Chinese people I know are fluent and barely know any mixed. I’m actually visiting HK later this year so communicating there will be a bit of a struggle-bus saga but we’ll see how it goes.

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