By: Alicia Lukman
“I’m not Chinese.”
This simple phrase has been the frontline of my arsenal against trivial comments regarding my nationality. Despite being pronounced with plenty of bitterness, it has far-too-often fallen onto deaf ears: Uber drivers, university staff and catcalling strangers all immediately follow up with the ubiquitous “but you look Chinese.” No one thinks that this is not a normal comment in any exchange of pleasantries. Pointing out someone’s ethnicity may be a conversation starter for some, but the question “Are you from China?” – or the more assumption-laden “which part of China are you from?” – makes my skin crawl.
At first, I see my response simply as a way of defending my own nationality, as some manner of elucidating the fact that not all Asians are Chinese. Although my ancestors fled southern China, I was born and raised in Indonesia, and so are all of my immediate and extended family. I do not have much of a cultural or linguistic attachment to the country: my inability to use chopsticks properly, my lack of knowledge of traditional Chinese family customs, and my spotty Mandarin haunts me still.
Upon further introspection, however, I realised that my rejection is not merely towards comments assuming my nationality, but comments correctly identifying my ethnicity. I am still ethnically Chinese, regardless of the environment I was raised in. However, during my childhood, my perception towards mainland China were thoroughly negative. China’s earlier stages of economic development certainly has a dubious record on workers’ rights and product quality. My exposure to the nation were limited to ‘Made in China’ products, which were almost synonymous with bad quality at the time, and Chinese films with unpolished storylines and coarse CGI. As a result, I actively attempted to hide my ethnicity, refusing to speak Mandarin, or god forbid, visit the ‘cultural backwater’.
Instead, I immersed myself in what my childhood self perceived to be ‘Western’ culture: I was too young to understand that the Hollywood portrayal of white saviours are nothing more than a façade for centuries of colonial injustice. The West was civilized, I thought. It was a liberal, free-thinking, diverse community where I could finally express my opinions freely – it was meritocratic heaven. I was determined to move there.
To no one’s surprise but my own, I was wrong. There is no way that I could become white, no matter how much I deluded myself into thinking that this was a community where I could finally be accepted in. Countless times, my contributions have been brushed off in favour of someone else’s.
Someone who is more confident about their identity.
Someone who did not have to deal with questions interrogating their credibility to take up space in an academic environment.
Someone who did not have to maintain a careful balance between being outspoken enough and overstepping your allowances to exist in the same space as your peers.
My experiences in a reputable higher education institution, espousing a large international student population, are definitely not reflective of the assurance university prospectuses give you about being a student in a foreign country. “You’ll fit right in,” they said. “Our student body is comprised of 170 nationalities,” boasted the advertisements.
There was no space for me. I am not an acceptable feature of this university. I am merely another international student, granted a place simply in virtue of my parents’ finances rather than my own academic ability. I cannot speak English, so the university staff had to kindheartedly repeat their question in a patronizing tone. I am tired of internalizing this stereotype. I deserve to be here as much as anyone else.
There was no space for me, so I carved out my own.
I ran for various society elections. I took up every opportunity there is to get involved with my academic department. I sat in every talk, and made conscious attempts to ask questions afterwards. I engaged my tutors in conversations that might make them take an interest in me. I had to overachieve in order to receive some semblance of proof that I do deserve to be here. It is an exhausting enterprise, but this is the only way that I could get my voice heard. At least for now.
Some of those in similar situations may seek comfort in retreating into cultural pockets. After all, being surrounded with people from similar nationalities helps remind us of the comforts of home. However, staying within your circles further perpetuates the idea that Asians are unable, or rather unwilling, to assimilate in a white-centric society.
Is assimilation the key? No. But consciously limiting exposure to people outside our comfort zone restricts our ability to claim our rights to be listened to – a right that is still left mostly unaddressed. I still cannot justifiably claim that I am Chinese (strictly by nationality), but I would like to take part in the effort to pave the path for Asians in academia in years to come. Join the fight.
Alicia Lukman is a Philosophy, Politics and Economics undergraduate at the University of Warwick.