Made In China
Cultural identity, in very basic terms, is a feeling of belonging: it’s different and extremely personal for everyone. It can be a mixture of how you perceive yourself, your nationality, ethnicity, the way you look, how you were raised, your experiences and interactions with society
Holly, Kat and Marcia are all Eurasian.
Holly is technically 87.5 percent Chinese: her father is 75 percent, her mother is 100 percent.
Kat is 25 percent Vietnamese and 25 percent Korean.
Marcia is 50 percent Chinese.
Percentages aside, all three of them have experienced, in various ways, the ways in which others try to gauge how ‘authentically’ Asian they are.
When did your family move to Australia?
Holly: My grandparents moved here in the 1940s.
Kat: My mother moved here in the late 90s, but my father was born here.
Marcia: My mother’s grandparents migrated here, but my father’s family has lived here for generations.
What determines cultural identity for you?
Holly: I guess … it’s just what you feel and believe yourself to be?
Kat: I think family plays a large role in influencing cultural identity as well as language.
Marcia: I think it’s a mixture of how you were raised. Maybe a little bit of how you look as well.
Has your journey of cultural and self-identity been confusing in any way? And in what way does learning a language(s) impact that?
Holly: Oh, for sure! I’ve questioned myself countless of times. Chinese has always been a strange concept to me: I can’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin even though my parents can. Ever since I can remember, people have always approached me asking what mix I am because of the way I look, others perceive me as Asian.
I also look more mixed than my siblings so I always feel as though I should be more aware of my Chinese side. I guess the expectation is that I should know the language. I’m fluent in Danish and I think by being bilingual has increased my cultural awareness, but I feel bereft no matter where I go. In Denmark, people think I’m a tourist – which I guess makes sense as you couldn’t expect a European person to understand Chinese when visiting China.
In Australia, people still ask me where I’m from, then they’ll ask where my parents are from. They’re finally satisfied when I answer that my grandparents immigrated here – it’s like some people feel more satisfied if they can place you in a box – even though they are aware of the changing policies that allow immigration and celebrate diversity in Australia.
Kat: It has been tremendously confusing. My father is half Vietnamese, and my mother is half Korean. I can’t speak Vietnamese, but I’m fluent in Korean. Even though I’m equal amounts Korean and Vietnamese, it’s hard not to feel more Korean as I can speak the language. My mother’s side celebrates Korean traditions more as well. We were studying the Vietnam War in high school, and I just feel an overwhelming sadness that I don’t know my ancestry.
Marcia: I guess there’s been a period in my life where I have questioned myself on whether I am more Chinese or more Australian, but I think I am an equal mixture of both. My mother has taught us Mandarin, and we celebrate Chinese traditions and customs. I guess in both Australia and China I do feel a little like a foreigner, but I do go back to China quite regularly. Once they realise I can communicate with them, I’m welcomed with open arms. It’s funny; I always get complimented on my skin in China! Fair or pale skin is considered extremely beautiful, and the different standards of beauty and the acceptance of pale skin makes me feel more inclined towards my Chinese side.
Have you been told you shouldn’t feel a part of a culture you identify with?
Holly: I’ve been told I shouldn’t feel Danish because of the way I look, and that I’m not Chinese as I can’t speak the language. It’s so dehumanising to be told from strangers and even friends that you’re not a part of a culture you identify with because of certain specifications.
Kat: Yes! It is tremendously dehumanising to be told you’re not a part of a culture you identify with, just because of certain specifications.
All three have told me that people from all sides of their cultural background make a conscious effort to realise they’re different – whether, in a positive or negative way, they’ve all had their genealogy pondered and questioned. There is a feeling they all had in common: at some point in their life they have all felt like they were a half step in and a half step out.