I avoided writing about my experience growing up mixed race in the past simply because I’d prefer to write about something or someone else. Thinking about yourself too much is a headf**k in the first place, summarising it for a third party is another. But I’ve learnt that when you look at other people long enough, whether through language or a lens, you inadvertently get a good hard look at yourself too. Now, with the world mixing more than ever, I’d like to contribute to the discussion on cultural identity. When we try to understand and share our own experiences and are willing to listen to those of others, we contribute towards a smarter, more compassionate society.
My mother is Korean; my father is English and was born in El Salvador, living there and Guatemala in his early years. I was born in London, but raised in China and Singapore.
Growing up mixed race, trying to locate a sense of belonging when you don’t feel like you really fit in anywhere, can be a perplexing and emotional thing. For me, that truth has been further solidified through speaking to mixed race peers about their experiences. What’s clear is that there is a very real sense of fractured self that comes with not being able to fully identify with either parent race.
To get it out the way: I’m proud of my biracial status, and comfortable with who I am generally. This is sort of an extension of the first point: at the end of the day, there’s a world of mixed race experiences out there and mine is just one of them. I personally feel that early exposure to different cultural values and viewpoints in a multi-ethnic, multilingual household made me a better person. I juggled what both Mum and Dad brought to the table and gained a sense of cultural awareness and empathy that proved useful later in life, as I found myself projecting these contrasting perspectives on to a wide range of situations at work, home, and society as a whole. I don’t feel estranged from either side of my heritage and embrace both.
But that hasn’t always been the case. Growing up I certainly felt a great deal of tension between my two halves. It always seemed easier to wear one rather than two at once, and yet I never really felt like I could fully grab onto either. Moving between continents, with a constant rotation of friends, schools, and routines, complicated things further.
In hindsight, it’s disheartening to realise how early prejudice is engrained. There were the girls at primary school who pulled up the corners of their eyes and taunted me with “ching chong” noises in the playground; a chorus of “ew, what’s that, it stinks” that demonised my lunchbox. We would have been five or six. Without understanding what it meant, I remember how it felt.
At that stage in my life I was defined by the half of me that was most foreign to the people I was hanging out with. Since I was the only part ethnic kid in an entirely white school, I became known as ‘the Asian kid’. Of course it was never said aloud to me, but it didn’t need to be. It was known and understood without being spoken.
Given the above you probably would have expected things to go the opposite way, but in my formative years I actually clung closer to my Korean identity. It was shelter; no one taunted me there. Every return trip came with a sense of relief and homecoming.
This is partly because it was never hard to be half white. In Asia, I was celebrated. In the western world, I was just Asian. I understand white privilege because I receive it, sometimes.
Later, when I moved to Shanghai and then Singapore, there were enough children with dual heritage in the expat community for that to be the new norm. Still, there were tiny cracks. Life continued on either side of the family and I became increasingly aware that I was missing out on it. There was the insurmountable guilt of not having returned to either Korea or England in years. Contact with either family reduced. With that, my sense of exile from both cultures. I heard stories here and there of what was going on. Snatches of information about a Korean cousin getting married, babies becoming toddlers becoming kids who hadn’t met me at all, a young relative forgetting who I was entirely. I started to resent even going back to England because it reminded me that I hadn’t grown up there. I felt far away from everything, and in turn somehow lacking.
Returning to the UK was an overwhelming process of catching up. Pop culture. Festivals I hadn’t been to. TV shows I hadn’t seen. Places I didn’t know. It was uber drivers eyeballing the unidentifiable object that had just landed in their back seat, complimenting my English and asking where I was from. Me explaining that I was half English, with gaping holes in my colloquial knowledge of England. But – being half English, after all – I quickly caught up to speed. Now, having lived here as an adult, I feel equally balanced in my identity across two cultures but would enjoy more visits to Korea.
There is something vague about the term “mixed race”. It’s imprecise, not always useful. Mixed race kids aren’t just one homogenous group of people, after all.
But the vagueness of my whereabouts? That’s something I’ve always enjoyed, and still do. I suppose moving isn’t a problem when you don’t feel rooted in any one place in particular. It bodes well for my nomadic spirit, although I’d say my proclivity for solo travel is equal parts nature and nurture. As a young child I was never disturbed by the prospect of uprooting and moving abroad. While other kids threw tantrums and begged not to leave, I, perhaps unusually, not once considered leaving my friends a sad affair but a rite of passage. On the one hand I’ve simply never known any other way; home was always characteristically impermanent, not a fixed place but something deep within. On the other hand I was always wired a little differently from many of my peers at school anyways. I grew up without siblings and my head in a book, as comfortable alone as I was in a group.
I’m always intrigued by my friends who use phrases like ‘friends back home’, or feel an obligation to a particular place. I wouldn’t know how to miss that because I’ve never had it. In fact, what with the high turnover rate of people in my childhood, I wouldn’t say I’ve got any close friends I’ve known for more than 5 years. There is no local pub, or neighbourhood, or family friend I’ve known forever. My friendships are based on depth of connection, which has nothing to do with longevity.
I find this freeing, not limiting. Not feeling like I belong to one place means I’m happy to drift and throw the anchor down anywhere. It’ll never be quite the same as the ‘home home’ some people have, but it’s different in a good way that works for me. I’m reminded of the song lyric from ‘Places’: “I can go anywhere, anywhere is home. I can go anywhere, and never feel alone.”
Cultural identity crises can result in feelings of exile and confusion. But rather than seeing yourself as not belonging somewhere, why not see yourself as part of everywhere? I think this is true and helpful not just for those of mixed backgrounds but humanity as a whole. A shift in perspective may be all it takes to transform a sense of exile into a sense of wider belonging. I’ve had positive and negative experiences like everyone else, and I can’t quarantine them from each other because they’re all part of who I am today. I know that while heritage can be an integral part of identity overall, it’s never the whole thing, just one aspect. Identity is a big, juicy, colourful, multi-faceted thing, and it’s cool to remember it’s that way for everyone.