On being biracial in Beijing – by Amy Hawkins
“Mixed blood” is not a term I thought I’d ever take too kindly to, resonant as it is of eugenics, segregation and Harry Potter’s “mudbloods”. But just as the past is a foreign country, so too are, well, foreign countries.
Tourists in China often return home with tales of being asked to take hundreds of photographs with locals, who marvel at their white or black or brown skin, their height, and their willingness to walk through the dusty streets without wearing a mask. Living in Beijing, an international city like Shanghai, I have mostly avoided becoming such a curiosity. Reveal that I am half Chinese, however, and the questions come flooding in.
It is always a reveal. In the UK my foreignness is evident, and I field everything from friendly enquiries to Oriental-themed street harassment (“Are you mixed race?” “Do your legs go east and west?” “I love Asian women.” “Hello, Mulan!”) In China, it’s always a surprise. Perhaps it’s because my Chinese language skills are still pretty poor, or because my hair is dyed blonde, or because I carry myself in what I see as a Western way (inelegant, careless, apologetic). Whatever it is, when I’m inevitably told that “my Chinese is good for a foreigner” and I tell them I have a Chinese parent, they all call me “hunxie” – mixed blood – and I smile uncomfortably.
The experience of being mixed race in the UK and China is as different as the terms of description are. Growing up with a Chinese mother and an English father, I always knew I wasn’t like my peers – whether it was being the nub of playground taunts, my lack of knowledge about anywhere outside of the M25, or my mother asking me how to spell basic words. As I grew older, my London upbringing became a part of me, and I felt indistinguishable from the mélange of different cultures and backgrounds that the capital is so celebrated for. I’ve always had a British passport, and no-one has ever questioned my right to one. My mother guards hers with her life, “because I couldn’t just walk into an embassy, tell them I’m a British citizen and have them believe me.”
Racial identity is about who you are on some abstract, spiritual level. Passports are about who you are on a very physical, printed one. You are either of this country, or you’re not. For Giada Liu, a friend in Beijing who was born just a month after me to Italian and Chinese parents, but was raised and schooled in Beijing, her passport as well as her mixed blood has differentiated her from her peers.
“Every year I have to renew my visa for China, even though I’ve lived here my whole life,” she says. “It’s a constant reminder that I don’t really belong here. My local friends have always accepted me, even though they call me a ‘mixie’, but to the government I am a foreigner.”
There are both positives and negatives that come with living on the racial border. Giada is trilingual (Chinese, Italian, English), and has insight into more cultures than most. At the same time, while we have a common experience of being mixed race in our home countries, Giada’s home doesn’t match her passport, and her legal identity isn’t her home. “I have an Italian passport and I was born there, but I don’t feel part of it,” she tells me. “I’m so glad my mother sent me to a local school in China, because otherwise I wouldn’t really know China either.” (Most of her foreign-born peers in Beijing went to international schools.) Still, she says, “a Chinese guy who was born and raised in America could come here and be accepted as Chinese, while I still am not, just because I look a bit different.”
This isn’t always as good a thing as Giada imagines. Lu-Hai Liang, a Chinese-born journalist who was raised in the UK and holds a British passport, has written about the racial discrimination he has faced in China, compared to his white friends. Schools invariably prefer to hire white teachers, and nightclubs sometimes charge higher entrance fees to Chinese people in an attempt to promote a more ‘international flavour’.
Passing as white, and with an English name, I can generally slip under the radar, enjoying the same benefits of other white expats here. But while my broken Chinese is initially met with applause, the knowledge that I have Chinese blood turns this warmth into scepticism. “Oh, but you don’t speak Chinese?” “Does your mother not speak Chinese?” “Why don’t you speak Chinese at home?” I have heard all of these questions in the UK, but it smarts more coming from those people whose culture I appear to have abandoned. Still, it beats the “learn our language or go home” attitude that my mother and countless other immigrants have faced back home.
By ‘home’, I still mean London – and I think I always will. Chinese culture is famously welcoming, and any foreigner who has made a friend here will know about the constant offers of help and the insatiable hospitality. But guests are always guests. To come back to the dry, administrative, essential matter of passports: foreigners in China don’t get them. Less than 2000 foreigners per year receive Chinese green cards, compared to the over 100,000 per year who are granted UK citizenship, and all the healthcare and education benefits that go with it. Chinese identity is for people who are ethnically Chinese, and no-one else. Being half-Chinese, I’m not sure where I fit in.
Before I came to China, I flippantly dismissed any notions of being ‘British’. Patriotism is for xenophobes, was my snobbish instinct – the people who voted Leave in the EU referendum. The rise in hate crimes and anti-immigrant sentiment in post-Brexit Britain has made me and many others feel the opposite of national pride. But in coming to China, the country of half my bloodline, I realise how lucky I have been to be raised somewhere where multiculturalism is the norm. I’m different at home – but in London, so are most people. It’s only here in China that I truly stand out. My blood is mixed, but cut me and I bleed British.
Amy Hawkins is a freelance journalist based in Beijing. You can follow her on Twitter @DHawkins93
Pictures courtesy of Amy, from her Chinese new year with family