My roots are rather diverse. If I go back just two generations, the taboos were nicely shattered by a marriage between my maternal grandparents – a Scotsman marrying a Japanese lady on one side (grandfather); a Eurasian marrying another Eurasian (grandmother).
Scottish, Japanese + Italian, French, Cambodian (Annamite back in the day), and smidgeons of other bloods.
One generation ago, my mother married a 100% Chinese fellow. Add Chinese to the mix.
My mother’s sister married a 100% Scotsman. Their brother married an Australian woman (originally English). We bring into the genetic pool, blonde and blue/green eyed first cousins. Family photos are like an advert for The United Colours of Benetton.
Growing up in a small town, we were the only FOREIGNERS. Well, visibly foreign, I should say. My parents were well-known in Malvern, being restauranteurs of the first and only Chinese restaurant in the area. One couldn’t really miss my father. He rather stood out amongst the white folk. My mother could blend in – though she did have a penchant for colouring her hair jet black. Why, I have no idea, given she was born a blonde, then a natural redhead (more titian than ginger)…then finally chose black. Perhaps to keep my father company. Who knows.
I look the most Chinese of my siblings. My sister is fairer in colouring and complexion, more representative of the Japanese side. My brother is slap bang centre.
My mother tells me a story of how I came home from kindergarten one day and set about furiously scrubbing my eyes with a flannel. Someone had called me Slitty Eyes. I don’t recall that at all, probably a good thing, but it makes me smile. I can remember one boy calling me a Chinese Sausage and pulling his eyes. I couldn’t have been older than 7 or 8. Children can be so unfiltered, so cruel!
I was never bullied at school. I had friends from all over the world. The most I had to deal with in terms of my ethnicity was the fact that I wasn’t like the stereotypical Chinese girl. Maths? Nope. Science? Nope. Computing? Nope. I silently rejoiced that I wasn’t the dorky girl from Hong Kong with the funny accent from being bilingual in Cantonese/Mandarin and English (now I regret that I can only converse in English and Spanglish). I was relieved that I wasn’t a maths/science nerd with glasses and awkward social skills (how I wish I could do my own accounting or not freak out when I’m given a calculator to use THAT HAS THE SYMBOLS IN DIFFERENT PLACES).
I refused to learn Chinese. I didn’t want anything to do with that side of my heritage. I told my mother that I’d never again answer her if she called me by my Chinese name. I fully embraced my school life where I was anonymous. I was Elaine.
My father used to get irate when I’d call myself British. Not English or Chinese. Just plain British – I have a British passport, therefore I’m a Brit. That was my way of avoiding the Chinese way. Whatever your father is, that’s what you are. The mother and her bloodlines don’t count. I didn’t like that. I felt it was rude, unfair and downright ridiculous to discount one entire side of the family. It was also my way of pissing off my father. He couldn’t argue with the facts which in turn angered him all the more.
For a time during my childhood, I hated looking different. I was resentful that my mother, brother and sister could get away with looking “normal”. I couldn’t, no matter how I tried. My eyes were a total giveaway. I loathed them. When I was 16, I considered saving up enough money to have surgery to change the shape of my eyes.
One incident that haunted me for many years, and which I couldn’t talk about for even longer, happened when I was about 21. I was in the local pub with friends and my then boyfriend. I’d made eye contact with a girl, and because I must have given her my Resting Bitch Face look (ie looking gormless), she launched into a verbal attack – out of nowhere, loudly and aggressively. She called me all the racist names under the sun and then threatened to punch me in the face. I stood there, deer in the headlights, completely dumbfounded. My charming boyfriend apologised to her for whatever I’d done to upset her (huh?) and then offered to buy her and her friends a round of drinks. He told me later that it was to settle the situation and prevent it escalating. Wanker. Funnily enough, the threat of being punched in the face wasn’t the most upsetting part for me.
To be called a racist name, to be verbally assaulted because of the colour of one’s skin or shape of one’s eyes – it’s a million times worse and basically incomparable to being called fat or ugly. One can lose weight and fix ugly. One cannot fix their ethnicity. It was a stomach punch that almost floored me. If I could have disappeared off the face of the earth right there and then, I would have. It knocked my confidence, my self esteem and made me question everything about myself.
However, when I became an adult, things slowly changed. In very small ways. I was living in DC and a London friend was arranging for one of her friends to meet me for the first time. I was to meet Philip by the Washington Monument at 6pm to watch Screen on the Green. Along with 500 other people. The place was packed. I’d know him purely by the fact only a Brit wears a jumper around the shoulders in 99 degree heat. How would he recognise me? Katherine told me “I told him you are around 5’7, shoulder-length brown hair, probably the only one wearing heels on the grass”. I laughed. She hadn’t told him to look for a Chinese looking girl. It hadn’t crossed her mind. A small and silly story but it was huge for me. Katherine, one of my oldest and dearest friends from school, saw ME. The outside stuff was irrelevant.
In recent years (I’m now 40), I’ve become comfortable in my own skin, with what I look like, with my “ethnicity”. I find amusement rather than shame when someone says an ignorant remark…there have been so many and almost always from seemingly educated and intelligent adults.
I’ve become proud of my father’s heritage and culture. It’s only taken me nigh on 20 years…
I married a Mexican/Spaniard. Our boy looks likes me and my husband, a nice mix. Basically, we’ve added yet another “look” to the family. I’m proud and delighted that he looks different. I hope we’ll do a good job of bringing him up to celebrate and be proud of his Heinz 57 pedigree. He speaks Spanish and English fluently, has a little Arnold Schwartznegger accent, goes golden brown just looking at the sun, is blessed with the eyelashes of a camel and has the temperament of a rebel. He’s already different and it’s bloody wonderful.