A personal essay exploring the complexities and duality of diaspora, from the perspective of a Han Chinese diasporic experience.
By Daisy Haywood
If the past 22 months haven’t been perplexing enough, try living your entire 22 years of existence befuddled by the convoluted nature of your own cultural identity. For my whole life, I have felt displaced, never truly understanding where I belong. Perhaps this stems from an ingrained ideology that we must fit into a box - a specific categorisation that labels us within society. There have been instances I can recall where I’ve been ridiculed, considered too white-washed and not a part of Chinese culture. But here in the West, where I’m not white enough, my Otherness feels overt.
Over time, the matter of defining identity has come to infer multiple different meanings and provoked countless debates and discussions. Whilst we do have some agency over how we choose to identify ourselves, some of us encounter more turbulent paths towards self-discovery. For me, this disruption has been fuelled by the hybridity of my diasporic belonging. To those unknowing of the concept of diaspora, it refers to the communities of dispersion (those displaced from the homeland/country of origin) that have historically been regarded as exiled groups. This is why belonging to the diaspora can be confusing at times. When a person can ultimately be identifiable in multiple categorisations, it complicates and eradicates the concept of a fixed, singular identity. Definitions and attitudes towards diasporic communities have evolved and developed new meanings over the course of time, but it is ever apparent that the diaspora are still marginalised communities within greater societal constructs. The diasporic experience, then, is one that is both unique and subjective to each individual and their inherent culture(s). But, it is also an experience which often shares common threads - issues with identity, establishing a sense of belonging and, at times, isolation.
"When a person can ultimately be identifiable in multiple categorisations, it complicates and eradicates the concept of a fixed, singular identity."
My diasporic experience is specific to that of the Han Chinese - a diaspora compromising one of the most wide-spread ethnic groups, contributing to 19% of the world’s population. Considering this figure, it’s hard to fathom why I’ve grown up without the presence of any Chinese people around me, or even any other East Asians. Put simply, it's because this ethnic group is so wide-spread. We reside in many different cities and countries across the globe, without a specific nexus that we predominantly inhabit outside of the homeland. As a result of this displacement, I have never belonged to a community of other Chinese diasporic individuals.
Over the years, I’ve questioned which part of me I am, or should be, cognitively or emotionally associating with - where I should consider “home”. It’s often triggered by a recurring question, “Where are you from?”. I never know the answer someone is seeking. Do they mean where I live in the present moment, where I was born, or what my ethnicity is? I am left in an anxious state of not knowing how to identify. An ancient concept derived from individuals belonging to the Chinese diaspora describes this feeling well through the analogy of a banana - yellow on the outside, white on the inside.
"An ancient concept derived from individuals belonging to the Chinese diaspora describes this feeling well through the analogy of a banana - yellow on the outside, white on the inside."
The dispersion of Chinese people began when our ancestors were sold by the mythology of the so-called ‘American Dream’. They were encouraged to flee an economic crisis in China to try their hand at an American fortune. In reality though, they were baited to the US for a source of cheap labour. The migration of Chinese citizens, from the homeland to the United States, primarily took place in the mid-nineteenth century and has since rapidly escalated, growing more than six-fold since 1980. It’s even been estimated by the New Census projections (2020) that by the year 2050, white people could become a minority in America, owing to such a fast-paced migration. With the Chinese diaspora so globally dispersed, transnational identities have been conceived, which has further perpetuated the complexities of withholding discovery of an affective dual identity. For some, this idea of a dual identity has associated them more closely with their ‘Chineseness’, whilst for others it has done the opposite.
The complexity of hybridity has made some want to disassociate from their ethnocultural identity entirely, and instead try to be regarded as just a fellow nationalist of their inhabited country. Our perception of Americanness/Britishness has always been linked to the idea of Whiteness. We make causal assumptions about who belongs in this society and who is an outsider. Due to the still prevalent classist and hierarchical structures in both Britain and America, diasporic people fall into the minority of minorities. If you identify as the more western part of you, you are still not pure, and thus you are cast aside, constituting the ‘Other’. It is then expected that in western countries, people of the Chinese diaspora will feel inclined to mute their Chineseness. This is predominantly due to fears of being ostracised, because of how the globalised media chooses to portray and glamourise western ideals and isolate the ‘Other’. Though, in today’s society, it seems that the white supremacist philosophy that has prevailed throughout history is now weakening.
"Due to the still prevalent classist and hierarchical structures in both Britain and America, diasporic people fall into the minority of minorities. If you identify as the more western part of you, you are still not pure, and thus you are cast aside, constituting the ‘Other’."
In layman's terms, hybridity is the combination of ethnicity, race and culture. The 21st Century post-modern dynamic surrounding diaspora and hybridity has created fundamental changes in the wider societal construct, by unifying people on the premise that difference is to be celebrated and expressed. But, because of the complex nature of hybridity, it is habitually one’s innate desire to identify with one culture more than the other, a notion which can have negative repercussions on the individual through a muddied understanding of their metaphorical place of belonging. During my own personal discovery of identity, I reached a point of acceptance - I am British and Chinese, I do not need to be one or the other. My whole life, I’ve felt ostracised within a wider societal context, for not understanding where I ‘fit in’. But, finally, I no longer care. Self realisation has allowed me to see beyond imagined categorisations, and I’ve stopped trying to fit into a box. It has been somewhat of a beautiful and cathartic spiritual journey - it’s allowed me to connect with myself more deeply, understand who I am, and, most importantly, fully accept myself.
"Self realisation has allowed me to see beyond imagined categorisations, and I’ve stopped trying to fit into a box. It has been somewhat of a beautiful and cathartic spiritual journey - it’s allowed me to connect with myself more deeply, understand who I am, and, most importantly, fully accept myself."
According to the 2020 National Statistics, the Chinese diaspora who currently inhabit Britain only account for 0.7% of the British population; there is much less representation in Britain for Chinese people, as opposed to somewhere like America. Consequently, I (and many others too) was never part of a Chinese community while I was growing up. So, I’ve sought other ways of connecting to my Chinese culture - primarily through food, visual arts, music, and fashion, with food being the most poignant in the discovery of my ethnocultural self. Learning how to cook various traditional dishes such as wonton soup, dumplings, egg fried rice and kung pao chicken, to name a few, has allowed me to feel more closely associated with my Chineseness, even though I have never visited China.
Filtering to appease a western audience, the media has always focused on the more negative and shocking aspects of Chinese culture rather than showing it any admiration. For example, villainizing China for eating certain foods that are not deemed acceptable in the West. Hereby, food extends beyond a celebration of culture, becoming an education for the non-Chinese audience. A taste of the diasporic cuisine can allow you to see the beauty of the culture, moving in a nonverbal form of communication beyond the stereotypes and archaic narratives that overshadow it. For people of the Chinese diaspora, including myself, food has allowed the opportunity to become more in touch with heritage and culture, and to feel proud of a transnational Chinese diasporic identity whilst in their inhabited country. Something as simple as cultural food breaks us free from the shackles and pressures of conforming to and pleasing a western community.