Stories from second generation Chinese

Benina Hu, a screenshot from A distant place, 2021.

My personal story

Except for the occasional messages to family members or the photo dumps in our group chat, I barely open up WeChat. News, updates on my friends’ lives and stalking strangers usually happens on a multitude of other non-Chinese platforms. So to be honest I don’t know why I decided to type those Chinese characters in the search box. What was I looking for? I knew I wouldn’t be able to read 90% of the articles, but still I went on looking for any trace of him.

Your first impression might be: an easy-going, happy girl who looks Chinese but speaks perfectly Dutch. When she explains the subject of her work and her fascination for the Chinese culture, it’s met by a look of ‘ah yes, because she is Chinese.’

In a way it is true, but I find this observation is missing the actual core of my reasoning. It’s still not completely clear to me why I’m so fixated on reconnecting with my Chinese heritage, but what I do know is that it’s something rooted much deeper.
The photo above, is a screenshot of a video I recently made about my father. He left Belgium 8 years ago and ever since then, I see him once a year when I visit him in Shanghai. For a very long time I’ve neglected the feelings I’ve had about his sudden and unexplained departure. Only during our last reunion, I noticed something was off. I was getting more easily frustrated with him, bursts of anger would erupt and just as soon, they would dwindle again. Only a lingering sadness would remain.
No catching up on all the missed out talks while happy smiles cracked our faces. In truth, conversations were getting staler and misunderstandings happened more frequently. With time and distance my feelings of anger slowly turned into something that looked like guilt. If I can go off the occasional ‘I miss you’ messages, I think this has also been the case for my dad.
Yet, I often still find myself lost in this complicated web of thoughts. It has left my mind wandering towards an evermore aching question:

Why?

Through a quick WeChat search, I found an article on my father’s guest house, which I think is one of the main reasons why he went back. The interview dates back from 2018 and consists of a nicely written introduction, beautiful photographs and even a video Q&A.
It struck a cord in me. Watching the videos, translating the characters and finally grasping the meaning behind his words.

I took this interview as one of the starting points for my project. With my work, I try to reconnect with my roots, family and in a way, also with myself.
“It’s really brave that you made this, but be careful with these very personal stories.
“It’s really beautiful and interesting these Chinese characters, but it can easily become something ‘exotic’.”
Comments I received from an ‘established’ art photographer during a workshop I attended at my university. Even though it’s been weeks since I last spoke to him, and he has probably already forgotten about our interaction, his words have never really left my mind. It made me question whether this project is worth making in the first place. Is my story too personal? Too exotic? Am I the only one experiencing these feelings?

In search for answers

At school, in my friend circle and in the media that surround me, blank faces stare back at me. Are they going to tell me the same thing? When I told my childhood friend about the hesitation I was feeling, she mentioned a student association where I might find solutions. The association is called ‘Asian Student Association Leuven‘, in short ASA, and is basically made up of people just like me. People born and raised in Belgium but with one or both Asian parents. In an attempt to fight the doubts and find answers to the questions I was having, I decided to reach out to them. In their Facebook group I introduced myself and my project and I asked if some of them would be willing to meet me for a conversation. Surprisingly enough, it didn’t take long till positive responses reached my inbox. I’m so grateful to have had the chance to speak to five ASA members and to have connected with them through our shared experiences. To step out of my own head and to listen to their stories brought me a much needed, refreshing change of perspective.

In this article I’ll be talking about topics like identity, culture and racism and through personal anecdotes, I will be sharing my takeaways on our conversations.

Thank you Cheng-Hung, Julia, Thomas, Jia and Vincent for sharing your time and stories with me and thank you to the ASA community for your warm reactions.

Insights from my conversations with second generation Chinese

1. It’s not because of you

An uphill slope marked the start of our stories.

Out of our talks, I’ve realized the remarks, looks and jokes were experiences we all shared. From the day we started going to school, we have been the exception to the norm and from a young age it has compelled us to blend in. We’ve found ways to hide, ‘shrug it off’ and laugh along. Instances we’ve labeled as day to day ‘annoyances’, moments we’ve stored away in the dark corners of our minds, left to be forgotten. But how much we may try, either by bringing ‘normal’ lunch to school or by faking a smile in response to another joke, our dark hair and droplet shaped eyes will remain the same. Whatever we do, the gatekeepers stand unyielding in front of a closed door. Our kind, intelligent and funny personalities hide in the shadows of our superficial differences.

We dress, talk and act the same, but heads still turn when the word ‘China’ gets mentioned in geography class. Your stern expression and piercing silence show your clear discontent, but still, you’re expected to play the role of Psy during the school play. No matter how often you remind him, your teacher still mistakes you for that other Asian girl in school, even though you look nothing alike.

When you’re constantly reminded that you’re different. When you’re surrounded by people whom you can’t seem to relate with, both externally and internally. You will start searching for an explanation elsewhere. You will start convincing yourself that’s it must be because of me, when it is all but the opposite.

2. It may seem ‘innocent’, but it still doesn’t justify the harm

Yes, these occurrences aren’t as bad as the assaults and shootings we hear of in the news. Maybe that’s why we like to rub them off as if they were nothing. The media only portrays the most extreme forms of racism and unconsciously it has shaped our perception of what discrimination and racism actually is.

If we can’t see it happening, it must be because it doesn’t exist.

I’d like to argue that it is exactly these small, persistent and invisible actions that can be the most harmful. Actions disguised as humorous puns, children’s songs, a downgrading look or yet another innocent question about dogs and bats.
We try to push away who we are, we try to blend in and discard as much of the hurtful remarks as we can. But to be honest, I wished it weren’t always us who had to ‘get the joke’ and instead, that ignorance wouldn’t be so blind.

3. You are worthy of being acknowledged

At our proclamation, we excitedly gaze over the smiling faces to meet the ones of our parents’. Instead, we are met by a pang of disappointment once we realize they didn’t make it.
During conversations about Flemish TV-shows and the latest gossips of the BV’s, laughs and gasps follow each other in rapid succession. Without a trace, we drift off to the sidelines, shrouded in our silence.
While fireworks light up the skies and loud noises seep into our rooms, we are left alone. Friends are celebrating at home and our parents are busy at work.

Whether or not you can relate with some of these stories, I’m convinced all of us have experienced childhood hardships in some way or capacity. It doesn’t matter how small or big, every moment where you have felt even the slightest bit misunderstood, left-out or hurt, is worth acknowledging.

4. Don’t try to ‘fit in’, instead be unapologetically you

On several aspects, the stories of Cheng Hung, Julia, Thomas, Vincent and Jia overlapped, but there are also a distinctions to be made. The area each of them grew up in, the relationship with their parents, the amount they were exposed to the Chinese culture and how many strong friendships they have with other Asians all varied. As a result, this has affected the way they look at their cultural heritage. Some experienced grave acts of racism and discrimination, while others had to deal with the occasional remarks. Some have a strong knowledge of the Chinese language and culture, while others know just enough to communicate their basic needs. Despite the differences, all of them have come to a chapter in their lives of self-acceptation. We are not neither Belgian nor Chinese. Rather, we are both, yet at the same time uniquely us. This self-realization has made us actively reach out to our Chinese culture in our own ways. Either by improving our language skills, choosing an exchange program in Asia, by being more compassionate with our parents or by finding representation through the world of Asian pop culture.

When you know you’re connected to another population of 1,5 billion people, you can’t help but be fascinated.

Feelings of wariness and shame might have shaped our primary and high school years. But it seems like moving out of town and claiming our new-found freedom in the form of university life, has helped us shift our perspectives. Is it the accepting new friends we’ve found that made us kinder to ourselves? Is it the independence we’ve gained by moving out that made us more confident? Or is it simply the process of growing up that has made us recognize the beauty in our roots?

5. Surround yourself with a loving and accepting community

While some have found peace in their ambiguity, others are still in the midst of an inner quest. For me, it sometimes seems like I’m embarking this journey all on my own. However, the discovery of the ASA community and the interesting talks have proved the opposite.
One of the stories that has stayed with me is that of Julia’s. She mentioned how she was able to find new Asian friends since starting university, and I was curious how these friendships differed from her Belgian friendships since I never experienced this before. The way she talked so fondly of her friends (regardless whether Belgian or Asian) made me understand an important aspect I had before overlooked.

I don’t think I get along better with one friend group over another. Rather, spending time with my Asian friends has given me the space and confidence to talk about all the facets that make up me. Before I would hide my love for anime and keep our Chinese traditions at home. But now I don’t feel shame to openly talk about my interests and I love sharing my Chinese culture with my Belgian friends. It turned out many of my Belgian friends also like watching anime! I even invited my entire high school class for hot pot once and to my surprise, they all loved it. So, even though I get along equally well with both friend groups, my Asian friend group has made me more confident and open up in both environments.

I find it inspiring how Julia’s friends were the instigator to her new-found self-acceptance. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying all of us have to go out there and make some Asian buddies in order to overcome our inner struggles. And in reality, not everyone will be as welcoming as you’d want them to be, but I believe Julia’s story illustrates an important notion. It shows how important it is to surround yourself with a loving and accepting community.
The ones who don’t accept you for who you are, will leave. But the people who stay, are the ones who truly matter. They give you the feeling like you belong and they are the ones who you don’t have to put on an act for.
It doesn’t necessarily need to be people from the same ethnicity, it is simply a place where you can come as you are and be who you are, unconditionally.

Some parting words

Some might say it is a naive dream of mine, to write down these words and to imagine this world a more wholesome place. Yet, whatever people might say, all of us deserve to be here. Not despite our differences, but because of them. Our unique position as second generation Chinese might seem like an issue of deprivation. Dispersed in between two cultures, we often feel like we don’t belong. However, I’d like to invite you to view it from a different perspective, not one of deprivation, but rather one of enrichment.

It is in our roots that we find the strength to stand firm and tall.
Learn to trust that the wind will carry our voices,
and you will see,
echoes will answer never too far off.

Benina Hu, an excerpt from Visual diary, 2020.

Thank you again to the entire ASA community for giving me the warm reassurance I didn’t know I needed.

And thank you dear reader for getting all the way to the end.
Let me know if you enjoyed this piece and feel free to give it a share 🙂

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