Introducing Bella and Maymay – two women from two different generations. We are grateful to Bella and Maymay for writing about their experiences and struggles meshing together the different cultural influences in their lives and finding a true sense of community. We are proud that the London Chinese Community Centre could act as as a bridge and help them as we do for so many. We often talk about “services” and “events” and tangible results but it can be hard to express how important the sense of belonging and community one can find in our centre can be. Hopefully Bella and Maymay’s words will do just that.
My name is Bella and I’m 19 years old. I’m from a small, tight knit community which is really lovely to grow up in. Most of the time it’s very quiet and safe, nothing really happens. But having moved out to halls at the University of Nottingham I’ve noticed one distinct factor – there is almost no diversity. I was shocked to come to Nottingham and see that half my peers in tutorials and seminars were not white, this is quite unusual to me. Back home there were a handful of BAME families including myself and my cousins.
My name is Maymay. I’m Bella’s Auntie and I’m 40 years old so I grew up in a completely different generation to Bella and have completely different experiences of growing up Chinese in Britain. Like most British Born Chinese of my generation, my family and I lived above the takeaway. When I was in primary school, I remember my sister having a birthday party during the day, at the front of the shop with all her friends and instead of sandwiches and crisps, there was chips and prawn crackers. I really didn’t think there was anything different about it until like Bella, I got a little bit older. We’re a very close family and my best friend in secondary school was also Chinese. It was helpful to me when I was growing up to have people close to me that understood what it was like to be Chinese growing up in a British community to share my experiences and provide that support. That’s why I think the London Chinese Community Centre is such an important facility to British Born Chinese people in the UK as it provides Chinese people with the opportunity to support each other.
I was born and raised in England, as was my mother, but her parents both came over from Hong Kong. My father came over from Vietnam when he was 13. One of the first memories I have is Chinese school. In our house my parents have always tried to speak Cantonese to us and have us learn that way, but for a brief time, when I was maybe 6 or 7, I was taken to a Chinese school about half an hour away to learn to speak and write Chinese at the weekends. I’ll be honest, I really didn’t enjoy it. I struggled to make friends because I couldn’t speak Cantonese like the rest of the children, I could barely write my name. Looking back I guess I just felt alienated, too English for the Chinese kids, too Chinese for the English kids.
Unlike Bella, I have spoken Cantonese since birth and learnt both English and Cantonese at the same time. I remember in primary school getting some words mixed up because of it. Now that I’m older, I appreciate having a skill that makes me stand out and actually enjoy speaking Cantonese but can feel myself getting rusty as I don’t get to use it enough. Like any other skill such as running, playing the piano, it requires practice. In work, at home, with friends, I use English more and more. I want to make sure I can still speak Cantonese because that is me and I would feel if I stopped being able to speak Cantonese that I lose a part of myself. That’s one of the reasons why I started helping the London Chinese Community Centre. It’s an opportunity for me to speak Cantonese with more people and continue to broaden my vocabulary.
Bella and I grew up in different generations, however, our experiences of being British Born Chinese are the same – we’ve both encountered racism, having to stand up for yourself and wanting to hold onto our Chinese identity but not being ‘too different’ from our friends. In my day, we relied on word of mouth and seeing your Chinese friends on Sunday at Yum Cha or at Chinese school. But in Bella’s generation, the magic of social media has enabled the London Chinese Community Centre to be able to reach more and more people growing that community virtually and supporting more and more people. You can help the London Chinese Community Centre help more people by following their Instagram and Facebook pages. Sharing or commenting on their posts or just following for the latest updates on events.
I wouldn’t say I was ever bullied because of my race, I got quite lucky in that respect but I am aware that other people will have very different experiences of racism in schools. Some of the main things from primary which I remember was the differences in my appearance that kids would pick up on. ‘Why’s your nose so big?’ or ‘Why are your eyes like that?’ are questions that made me quite upset as a child. There was a phase in primary when the kids would sing a little rhyme ‘Chinese, Japanese, Hong Kong, gone wrong’ and move their eyes to look like mine. As you can imagine that made me really uncomfortable but I didn’t really understand why at the time. Now I realise how weirdly normalised it was for kids to act like that. I think that’s a running theme with my experiences, not the worst but sucks that it even happened in the first place. The next memory is still very clear in my mind. I was fishing in a neighbouring town with my dad and he left me alone for a bit. I saw a group of 3 teenagers, so a few years older than me, fishing on the opposite side and I remember one of the boys yelling across the lake ‘Would you like some chopsticks with your rice?’ I took this really badly; I’d started to know to stand up for myself at this point and I remember the anger I had towards them. Luckily for us all my dad came back before things got out of hand. I think I remember him going around to talk to them but I don’t remember what else happened because of how angry I was at the time.
The most recent experience is the worst I’ve gone through, even though it’s nothing compared to what others have had. I was in year 11 at high school and a girl had cut into the lunch queue. Me being me I got annoyed and called her out for it. A few days later one of my friends had told me about a racist message she’d sent to them after that incident. I’ll be honest, when I heard it at first it didn’t mean much to me. But after my best friend explained that the word she had used was as bad as the n word, then I realised the magnitude of what happened. After I confronted her about it she apologised and since then I’ve been fortunate enough not to experience anything else. Having moved into such a diverse university such as Nottingham I’m hopeful that I won’t experience anything else like this.