A Chinese British Guy

October 29, 2009

This isn’t going to be one of my "deeper" posts.

Last night, I was doing a language exchange with a company that sets you up (for free) with language partners and self-guided language lessons (so I get paired up with a native Chinese speaker who wants to learn English; we spend one hour all in Mandarin, to help me practice; then the next hour is all in English, to help them). It’s a pretty good deal, and I had some interesting conversation about being "hunxue’er" with my language partner. However, that’s not the focus of this post.

Upon leaving, I shared an elevator ride with this Chinese guy. One look at him, and I could tell he obviously wasn’t a "born-in-China" Chinese guy, so I assumed he must be American. But, before I could speak, he started up some idle chit-chat . . . and he had a British accent!

And I should be the last person in the world who should be all amazed or surprised by a Chinese guy with a British accent, but I am sorry to say that I was. I was flat-out shocked. And intrigued. I just kept wanting to talk to this guy, so I could continue to have this jarring experience of speaking to a Chinese guy (from outside of London) with a clipped British accent. I found myself thinking, "that would be cool to have a British Chinese friend . . ."

And in those few minutes, from my own personal reactions, I can understand exactly why this guy (he can’t be that old) has lived in China for the past 6 years-plus. If I had that internal response, I can only imagine what kind of external responses this guy has had to put up with all of his life.

Which then begs the question: if stereotypes and media representations are so powerful that I still had this reaction to a Chinese British guy, after all my years of examining race, and representations, and identity, and "being the other other," how can we defeat it? What kind of massive movement is necessary to ever convince people that this Chinese dude having a British accent isn’t "exotic" or interesting on a "parlour-trick" level? What would it take?

I have no idea. Because the worst thing about all of this is that – even after thinking about all of this and writing this post – my mind is still saying, "A Chinese British guy . . . cool!"

Aiyaaaa . . . the battle never ends.

chinese oath 350x460



  1. Growing up, one of my best friend was a guy from Hong Kong.
    It was always odd to hear a Chinese kid speak with a British accent.
    Everyone always thought he was joking around.

    • Uglyblackjohn – I bet your friend probably got pretty damn frustrated that his natural speech was regularly taken for a joke, or a “fake” accent . . .

      Which brings me to,

      Fromthetropics – I think I may be misunderstanding your comment, so I want to clarify. “What’s cool is cool” if it means you’re celebrating the background of your friends, who have had some very interesting lives and experiences, I am sure. *That* is cool. However, when you say “And I brag about them everywhere I go,” it makes me think more of the “parlour-trick” “cool” that I mentioned in my post, which is then taking the person and their actual, human experience, and turning them into an interesting anecdote or “fun to have around” because of their “exotic” nature, as opposed to just enjoying them as human beings. Now, from the experiences you’ve shared previously, I would assume that that isn’t what you meant, but – just in case – I want to make sure I’ve been clear on where I’m coming from and why a certain kind of “that’s cool” feeling isn’t okay. Just like uglyblackjohn’s friend (and probably the guy I met), if everybody thinks how you talk and is “cool” or a “joke,” and you constantly have to explain your background, it’s going to start getting tiresome, at best.

      Trust me, I know that one from experience.

      • > Trust me, I know that one from experience.

        Yes, I know from experience too. Identity has been a 24/7 issue for me for most of my life. But for me it depends on who’s asking, or why they’re asking. If they’re genuinely interested, then I’m more than happy to explain and, in fact, enjoy their interest in me. But if they’re not, or if they don’t believe what I say, or if all they want to do is safely box me up as ‘Asian’ or something else and dump whatever stereotypes they have on me (i.e. fail to get past my appearance to see me as an individual), then it annoys the heck out of me.

        Same goes with the difference between ‘cool’ and ‘parlor-trick cool/exotic’. Perhaps it’s easier to use myself as an example. (“And I brag about them everywhere I go,” – ‘brag’ and ‘everywhere’ is an exaggeration, but I’ll stick to those vocab for now.) (Cool): Some friends ‘brag’ to their friends about my background. Or rather, tell them about my background when introducing me because they find it interesting. Besides, it’s often a good conversation starter. These friends can certainly see me as an individual. So I don’t have a problem with it. This usually happens in Southeast Asia where people are used to all sorts of ethnicities mingling around big time, or in places where I’m able to blend in because I have the language skills to do so. (Parlor-trick cool or exotic): But there are some who think of my background as either something ‘exotic’ (usually happens in advanced Western countries for me), or ‘not interesting enough to talk to’ (e.g. when I’m considered part of a minority culture that is looked down on – again, usually happens in Western countries for me), or something to be prized/worshipped (this happened in China – ‘She speaks English, let’s be her friend’ type thing), then it’s annoying when they tell others about my background because that person and the others they’re telling it to don’t usually have the ability to see me as an individual.

        And I was of course referring to the former in my previous comment, though I probably didn’t express it too well 🙂

  2. Well, I still think of the following guy: I was in Canada. We were introduced at a resto. I assumed he was Chinese Canadian. Then out comes perfect English but with a thick Indian accent.
    Confused me: Why do you have an Indian accent? (Thinking he was fooling around.)
    Guy: I’m from India
    Me: But you look Chinese…And so you’re not Canadian?
    Guy: Yeah, I am. I’m Chinese Canadian.
    Me: But you said you’re from India.
    Guy: Yeah, I’m originally from India.
    Me (getting progressively confused): But you said you’re Chinese.
    Guy: I’m Chinese Indian.
    Me: But you said you’re Canadian…???
    Guy: I’m an overseas Chinese, born and raised in India but migrated to Canada.
    Me: Oooohhh…(After I confirmed and digested the notion that there’s an overseas Chinese population in India)…That’s so cooooool.

    And oh, then there was a Chinese French guy (not mixed) and the Vietnamese French guy, both native speakers of French…and yeah, it’s cool…and I’m not feeling all that guilty about feeling that way. I also have friends who’s accent changes completely depending on who they talk to or where they’re living at the moment. And I brag about them everywhere I go. What is cool, is cool. :p

  3. You know, I had a conversation like this with one of my friends a few months back, when she said it was always surprising to hear a black man speak with a British accent. This annoyed the CRAP out of me, because it insinuated that in her mind, black people= slave-descendant Americans, and that’s the beginning and end of what it means to be black in the world.

    • Dee- The instance you’re describing is even more annoying in light of the fact that modern media actually does portray black folks from various non-African countries (Britain and France, specifically) on a somewhat regular basis. Either way, these situations are frustrating. As far as “foreign-born” Chinese go, I believe they (we?) are the most widely-spread group of people in the world, maybe second to Jewish folks, so there is almost no accent or birth-nation that Chinese people *don’t* have . . .

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