Annabel Nugent discusses growing up half Chinese, rejecting Asian stereotypes, and internalised racism.
‘Which one are you?’ Mum asked, scanning the scribbly faces of my childhood drawings. In response I pointed to a badly-drawn stick figure who did not have my black hair or my dark eyes; she was always blonde and blue eyed. It’s the earliest memory I have of wanting to be someone else.
The lack of any meaningful Asian representation on television or in my tween magazine taught millions of young Asian* girls like myself that we were not special, pretty, or interesting enough. Not even Mulan could convince me; she was different, she dressed like a man and was not meant to be pretty. Now she is a beautiful badass babe, but my tiny childhood brain had been conditioned to think of a woman’s value in terms of her attractiveness to men, and I believed that her bravery and honour couldn’t make up for her ‘failings’ as a woman. As a woman I had to be beautiful, but as an Asian woman I never could be.
Growing up in Australia, the Asian girls I saw on television were exaggerated caricatures, ‘nerds’ with no interest in friends or boys. As I was uninterested in school and especially interested in boys, I couldn’t recognise myself in them. I began to distance myself from that part of me that’s Asian.
My mixed heritage also caused some internal confusion over my sense of self. Moving to Indonesia ironically made it easier to dissociate myself from my Asian heritage. Overnight I had become white-passing and I welcomed the privileges that came with this new racial identity. I beamed at ‘compliments’ from Indonesians telling me how white I looked, how big my eyes were, and how Western I seemed. Language became a way for me to reject my Indonesian-ness; I resented my school’s compulsory bahasa Indonesia lessons and although my mum spoke to me in Indonesian, I refused to reply in my mother-tongue. When my family would go on holidays, I was embarrassed of my mum speaking to us in Indonesian – I distinctly remember her once crying in a shopping mall because she knew my sister and I were ashamed of her language, ashamed of her Asian-ness, and ashamed of our own.
Moving to England came with its own set of difficulties that went beyond the usual anxiety that accompanies starting university, let alone in a new country. During Freshers’ Week I met boys that told me that Asians were their type, that they had a thing for ‘half-half girls’, that they liked that I was ‘different’ and of course the standard ‘exotic’. I quickly came to terms with my new racial identity here in England. Strangers told me over and over that my English was really good (to which I bit my tongue); I was asked what my ‘real Oriental name’ was when I said my name was Annabel. I felt more Asian than ever and it may sound strange but it was a complete shock to the system. I felt like my whole perception of self had been refracted. I was no longer surrounded by my multicultural peers in my international school but instead by people of whom the majority were white, born and bred in England. I began to feel like an outsider, but more than that I felt like an imposter who had been wearing a mask for the past seventeen years. I was feeling that familiar childhood pull towards one or the other; white or Asian.
There has been no poignant moment of realisation and self-love, but instead it’s a continual process of re-education, surrounding myself with loved ones, and policing my own internalised racism. Although I no longer want to be that blonde blue-eyed stick figure, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still struggle with my racial identity. I love being Asian, but after all those years of racial denial, I find it difficult even to claim my own Asian-ness. I am told everyday that I am definitely not white, but it has become apparent that I am certainly not ‘really’ Asian either. Peers of mine tell me they often ‘forget’ I’m Asian, that I don’t ‘seem’ Asian at all. These comments which are intended as compliments instead tell me I’m inadequate; I can be neither white nor Asian. My capacity to be Asian and my legitimacy as an Asian is continually being judged against the same stereotypes and caricatures that I saw on tv as a child.
I am hyper-aware of my actions. Throughout the day I think, ‘Did they do that because I’m Asian?’, ‘Would the same thing have happened if I were white?’ or ‘If I do this thing, am I a bad Asian?’ I go through what millions of women of colour have experienced before me and will sadly experience after me: something that infects us until we come to believe we are less than; and makes us rethink all of our actions and our thoughts. It’s a disease which calls into question our entire identity.
* I am mixed race, my mum is Chinese Indonesian and my dad is an English expat.
This article was originally printed in Issue 12. Illustration by Rivka Cocker.