Episode Thirty Six: Challenge / Response

by danhon

Robin Sloan challenged me to write three consecutive newsletter episodes that had nothing to do with technology or the culture/economy thereof. Flatteringly, he compared it to “one of those runs in X-Men comics where Professor X is in a coma or something, so someone else has to lead the team for a while, and it was always interesting to see what happened ;-)”
Now, on the one hand it’s nice, I think, to be compared to Professor X because that’s also an implied comparison to Sir Patrick Stewart who is also Captain Jean-Luc Picard, but on the other, my first reaction to Sloan’s challenge was: that feels like *work*. The thing about writing about technology and its effect on culture and the economy is that it feels like it kind of just dribbles out of my brain through my fingers into a keyboard and into some TEXTAREA, laps at the shores of the internet and then makes its way into the Giant Content Ocean. I don’t have to think *hard* about it, it just kind of happens. Writing about other things? Well, that would involve Thinking.

On the third hand, perhaps that’s a useful exercise. So, in full knowledge that this might cause a drop-off in subscribers (which I must remind myself: I’m not *completely* doing this for you, it is still mostly for myself), here I go: I hereby accept Sloan’s challenge.

1. Different

I like to think I have the self-awareness to not make this feel like some sort of worst-case parody Thought Catalog or Medium piece where a wide-eyed twentysomething talks about what they’ve learned about the world and their struggle in defining themselves. But, in the year that I turn thirty five I figure that I’ve lived for at least an appreciable amount of time, and lived in enough places, to have some semblance of an idea as to who I am, and how I feel about that. And, obviously, to realise that identity is complicated to everyone. And that some might be more complicated than others.

I’ve never really felt like I fit in. I don’t think that most people do, at least on some level. Especially when we’re growing up, and especially (said without any deep insight) through the tumult that is secondary school and the teenage years. And there are so many ways now for people to *not* fit in with each other.

All of this introspection has been brought home to me all the more with the birth of my son in America, where I’m an immigrant, but where my wife is at home – such as you can be at home in America, where I’m learning that sometimes, moving from one state to another can be as different a cultural shock as moving from one country to another. So I find myself wondering: how is he going to fit in? And is he going to know who he is?

I was born in Bath, England, in 1979, the first child to Hong-Kong Chinese parents who had emigrated to the UK in the mid 70s. Both of my parents were, and are, academics – my father now a professor of manufacturing engineering and my mother with a PhD in Child Psychology who was a teacher in Hong Kong.

It’s clear that most people find growing up difficult as they struggle to define themselves. But growing up as a first-generation, British-born Chinese immigrant, I *really* felt like I didn’t fit in because hey: for starters, everyone around you doesn’t look like you. They don’t eat rice for dinner every night. They have things like fish fingers and chips and have tea. We didn’t call dinner tea. And it’s not even that I necessarily felt like I wasn’t accepted, because hey: I went round to friends’ houses and had tea and fishfingers and sleepovers and all of that stuff. But again, and through no fault of your own, you’re growing up in a culture that’s different to the one your parents grew up with. As different as it is for them, it’s different again for their children.

This is what it felt like growing up. I remember being younger than seven years old, in primary school in Birmingham. *To this day*, I remember when a girl in our class was playing kiss-chase in the playground with everyone and when it came to my turn, wouldn’t, because I was a “darkie.” And I don’t know if it’s through the haze of post-rationalisation or twenty-five odd years worth of memories, but I think I was confused. Because I didn’t feel any different than anyone else, I thought. I was just another kid. I didn’t understand what skin colour had to do with anything, and I certainly don’t feel like I understood what a darkie was.

The word darkie, though, brings with it its own can of worms. What’s difficult for me is that it doesn’t feel like I encountered institutional racism of any kind. My parents looked after me, I went to good – state, public – schools and had a thoroughly middle-class upbringing. I feel more middle-class than I do Chinese, most of the time. My parents, in an effort to make sure that my brother and I would fit in, made sure not to push us to go to Chinese school at the weekends in the way that they saw their friends doing.

So I only feel different when I’m reminded that I’m different. Most of the time, that can be when I look in the mirror: I clearly don’t see a white or anglo-saxon person staring back at me. Rarely, though, it’s when it’s forcibly pointed out to me – and that can be in a bad way, when walking back from lectures in Cambridge someone would shout “Chink!” at me. Because I certainly don’t feel culturally Chinese. It can also be in a good way, when on one of our early dates, my now-wife surprised me with tickets to a taping of The Daily Show and I got singled out by the warm-up guy who proceeded to be amusingly *freaked the fuck out* by me, an asian-looking person, who he presumed to have an American accent instead having a British one.

I honestly don’t feel like I can say I’ve been subjected to racism. I don’t feel like I’m a victim of profiling. I never get pulled aside at TSA checkpoints every time I fly, and I fly a fair amount.

That doesn’t stop me from feeling other, though.

The Chinese have a term for people like me: bananas. Yellow on the outside, white on the inside – superficially Chinese, but lacking any of the cultural upbringing and even lacking knowledge of the language. Only I don’t feel white on the inside, because I didn’t have enough white growing up. And I have to be clear: I don’t and can’t blame my parents for that. At times it might have been easier to, but with the benefit of hindsight and, well, just plain growing up, I can see that they were just trying, by leaving Hong Kong and heading for Britain, that they were trying for a better, different future for their family and surely it was a difficult one, leaving their own parents. And over time, I learned that it was also potentially their parents who pushed them away to emigrate, in a particularly Chinese vision of achievement and wanting success for their children.

So my relationship with my cultural heritage is easily described as “it’s complicated.” With well-meaning parents who placed priority on integration with British culture, I don’t feel like I particularly understand my culturally Chinese roots other than remembering to call my parents at Chinese New Year to wish them gung hay fat choy or to remember to give my son a packet of red lai see at Christmas. It would take the dinner ladies at school to remind me of Chinese New Year, that’s how aware I am. In Portland, there’s a Chinese Garden that I appreciate as an outsider. I take my son to Cantonese story time where, to be frank, I’m learning more Cantonese than he is, and honestly take an innocent joy at being read children’s storybooks and learning the words for different colours and singing nursery rhymes. When I read articles about how Cantonese will inevitably die out due to Hong Kong having reverted back to China, it makes me sad, because I can understand it but not speak it (my parents frequently speak Cantonese at home, but allowed us to respond in English) and it’s hard if not impossible to find schools teaching it.

The perversity to me is that in a box ticking exercise, I’m “ethnic”, despite, in the absolute long-run, being Han Chinese and therefore part of the largest contiguous ethnic group on the planet. The ethnic majority, if you will, once all the pot-mixing and lifting-out-of-poverty is all said and done. My socio-economic status and educational background pretty much place me as someone not needing any help at all: and yet at university, I qualified for a Fast-Track Civil Service internship designed for ethnic minorities. But then, I always wonder: was I accepted to Cambridge because I was ethnically Chinese? Was that a factor? Or was it just because I was smart enough? Or did the combination of being an ethnic minority that was monitored for, combined with a state school education, sway the admissions process?

But I don’t feel white, and I don’t feel Chinese. I don’t feel British, despite the efforts of successive governments promoting multi-culturalism, despite having an opinion about the weather and worshipping public transport and being protective of the ideals of the NHS and the BBC and tearing up at Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, despite finally, finally, *finally* being able to witness a British winner of Wimbledon – I don’t feel like I can properly claim to be or be accepted as British.

And now that I live in America, I don’t feel American: I have not tailgated. I have not inner-tubed. I have not been on family road trips to National Parks. The Superbowl is a relatively new phenomenon to me. I have only done Black Friday a few times and never again.

On the other hand, perhaps that’s why I was drawn to America in the first place: give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses. I may be none of those, but I was looking for a place to belong, and America has always projected in its rhetoric its arms open. Despite my experiences with its visa programme. And what more could I ask for a country that birthed itself for those who felt they had no home?

My wife, who I should listen to more, tries to remind me that this in-betweenness I feel although a source of pain is simultaneously a source of strength and individuality. It may well be something that I find difficult, but the way I feel about myself – trapped between cultures, countries, the liberal arts and the sciences, working in advertising but not from advertising, hanging out with friends who make stuff on the internet and yet not actually making stuff on the internet, is only now something I’m beginning to see not just as a weakness and the reason for a sad yearning to belong properly and to be accepted but as something that makes me wholly unique and valuable as a person (as if any person would ever not be valuable). Being between things enables me to see and feel things that might not be possible from either side.

It is not always a comfort, though.

My son, at just over a year old, constantly surprises me and fills me with an unprickable, unburstable balloon of pride and happiness just because of how amazed and delighted he is with the world. And while I can relate to him how I felt, the child of immigrant parents in Britain, he is now the child of a mixed-race couple in a historical melting pot of a country. And when I see his smile and innocence, I don’t want him to have to encounter with confusion and a lack of confidence what I did when growing up looking different. Maybe things have changed in the last twenty five years, and that won’t happen. I am not so optimistic, even living in crunchy Portland. I don’t want his world to fall down, as it feels like it did for me, when I was called a darkie in the playground.

I want him to be okay with being himself.

Tomorrow, another very special episode, wherein I complete part two of Robin Sloan’s challenge.

As ever, I appreciate all of your notes, whether they’re short, long or even just an emoticon. (I have not received just an emoticon, yet).