I’m excited to feature the first part of The Bothness Series here on this blog. The Bothness Series is a collaboration between me and Jason S.C. Fung, author of “Beyond Eurasian and Hapa: Bridging a Chinese-Western identity”. In the series, Jason and I will talk about identities, examine the term bothness, and look at similar topics from different angles.
Today’s part is an author interview with Jason. We talk about his background, the concept of “bothness” and his book which will be released this upcoming spring. Enjoy!
- Can you talk a little about your background?
I’m 34. I’m a father, husband, brother, and son. I’m a first time author. I’ve worked in residential real estate. I’ve failed as a software entrepreneur (but haven’t given up). I like taking photographs. I do impressions. And I’ve been to seven continents.
- Your mother is from the US, your father from Hong Kong. How did your parents meet?
My late maternal grandfather worked for a long time in Indonesia. He was a petroleum engineer. His fieldwork would take him to some very austere places, all over the archipelago; consequently, Grandpa decided to base his family in Singapore, from which he would commute to and from. Mom went to an International high school in Singapore. Singapore and Hong Kong was a bridge easily crossed then as it is now, and they eventually met through mutual friends.
- Where do both of your parents live now and how often do you get to see them?
My father lives in Hong Kong. My mother lives in California. As I live in Hong Kong, luckily I get to see a lot of my dad. Mom I don’t get to see as much and of course I miss Mom.
- When did you first start thinking about identities?
I guess I’ve always thought about culture—and the contradictions inherent in culture. Identity might have come a little bit later. Mom had her way of doing things and Dad had his way. For whatever reason, I never looked at their preferences and modes of doing things as limited to them as individuals—to me my parents represented discrete cultural worlds, each with a different coda of behavior. Dad’s belief system didn’t ever let him bat an eye burping in public (why would you cast aspersions on a natural bodily function?), whereas Mom’s was horrified at the thought (gross!). From an early age I was aware of the idea that of course “I’m me,” but “me” is also made up of a lot of contradictions, a lot of ideas that contend with each other. I’ve come to believe identity is tension, the set of ropes I can use to pull those contradictions to heel.
- You have an 11-month old son. Your wife is also mixed (Western/Chinese). What role do both your mixed backgrounds play in the upbringing of your son?
Well, for one we sometimes wonder if in fact he counts as mixed. In some ways, he’s homogenous because his parents are essentially the same as him culturally and ethnically.
There is a lot to this question. This is a subject I would like to write another book on, i.e. applied bothness.
Language is a straightforward place to start, and the research overwhelmingly supports that bilingualism/multilingualism is possible and that it is good (for cognitive development) and that additional languages needn’t come at any expense of fluency in a “mother tongue.”
But there is so much more.
As for the role my mixed background plays in the upbringing of my son, well, I have walked the walk myself. Over the course of writing my book too I’ve met and interviewed a number of couples with mixed children. All told, the level of parental interest in the topic of being mixed ranged from comically indifferent (i.e. “my son is British, full stop!”) to irritably fretful. If your take is “she’s just British,” or “he’s just Korean,” then all the power to you. Seriously. There are parents who would steer their kids toward one thing, one direction, and less mixedness (or at least a lopsided mixedness where one is avowedly one thing albeit with lip-service to another thing), and there very well may be good reasons for that.
But if you want to be mixed, and I do, well, then what are you supposed to do? If you want to give your daughter or son that chance, to be mixed, where are you supposed to begin? The irritably fretful parents, who worry about how their mixed kids will adapt and assimilate, worry about this. And my experience tells me not to advocate a generalized “hapa” to my son as a framework to think of his identity. What his parents will advocate is simultaneous, side-by-side groundings in both Chinese and Western values and letters. I’m sure there will be times where he’ll hate me for it, but he will have to learn the Chinese lexicon, ideograph by ideograph, no questions asked. He’ll be challenged to be self-reliant. He’ll be challenged to be a team player. In fact, I believe the tug-of-war between Chinese and Western is actually the true pay dirt. Somewhere in that substrate is his unique mixed identity. Nevertheless, if he has a solid grasp of Chinese and Western, he can always choose to identify with/as “hapa” later in his life; but the reverse isn’t true—if all he knows is “hapa,” he won’t be able to go back to “Chinese,” for example.
- In which language/s do you communicate with your wife and son?
My wife and I communicate in English. I know they say “one language per parent” and we try to stick to that to some degree, but for better or worse we clog the airwaves with plenty of “Cantorin,” and varying degrees of Chinglish.
- You live in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is often labeled as a very international and multicultural city. How international and multicultural is it really?
On one account Hong Kong is rather homogenous. It is 93% ethnic Chinese after all. But Hong Kong is indeed very international and multicultural. The 7% non-Chinese Hong Kong is a classic “fat tail,” in that contained in a mere 7% is literally a whole world of diversity. It is not just Western expats mind you. Russians, Brazilians, and more and more Africans fill the ranks of non-Chinese residents. Shucks, I even have a Venezuelan Spanish teacher here, and he claims he is never going back to Caracas. Then there are the long established Indian and Pakistani Hong Kong communities. Long time Japanese and Korean residents have their own schools, community centers, clubs, and so forth. The Filipino, Nepali and Indonesian communities too are diverse, complex, and much more sophisticated than meets the eye. Mind you, this does not at all account for the immense intra-Chinese diversity in Hong Kong.
- How did you get the idea for writing your book “Beyond Eurasian and Hapa: Bridging a Chinese-Western Identity”?
I wrote this book because I believed I had to. “Eurasian” is a word that carries with it a lot of colonial baggage. If you are from the line of Portuguese Conquistadors who took Macau, “Eurasian” is apt, sure. Remember, “Eurasian” refers to historical groups of people, the mixed people of Colonial India, Ceylon, Malacca, Macau for example. It makes sense if you trace such a lineage. But if you are an everyday mixed person, “Eurasian “ can get you into trouble as it harkens backwards to a colonial past. I’d rather look to the future. I needed something better than “Eurasian.”
“Hapa” is a charming word. I tried my best to find something of value in “Hapa.” But it never sung to me. “Hapa” tried so hard to be something for everyone that it continually failed me—on concrete, particular stuff, when things really counted, when things would go down between “Chinese” and “Western,” the mix that I ultimately care most about. “Hapa” wants me to obscure my Chineseness into a Pan-Asianness. That may appeal to some people. But not to me. I don’t need many acquaintances at the expense of a few, really close friends. I needed something better. And I basically had to write the book to figure out what that “better” was.
- How long did it take you to finish it?
I’m in the final stages of copyediting. Alas, a little longer than I expected. In total, it will have taken me three years.
- Your book is about “bothness”. Can you talk a little about this concept and what “bothness” means to you on a personal level?
“Bothness” means: 1) two things, not everything; 2) two things, as equals.
“Bothness” is an alternative concept to “Hapa” in that it suggests what matters is not the generalized, meta-mixed identity. What matters is you. What matters is what you are mixed of. What matters is confronting the tension between two things that don’t always agree. What matters is harvesting wisdom from that tension.
“Bothness” is an alternative concept to “Eurasian” in that it suggests the ultimate goal of being mixed is to find balance. “Eurasian” was a concept born in colonial times, for better or worse it was a response to those times, which were racist, hierarchical and to say the least, imbalanced. “Eurasian” was designed to be below “Western” yet above “Asian” on the totem pole; for better or worse “Eurasian” has always acceded to Western bias.
“Bothness” is designed for today, a world not without racism, but one with a vastly more relevant China. “Bothness” is timely as a concept because 1) there is increasing cultural parity between the West and China; and 2) the risk of tensions are increasing, thereby creating wholly new categories of incentives for those with skills in managing/addressing/making sense of cross-cultural tensions.
On a personal level “bothness” is the framework I’ve used to help me think about being mixed. It is a continuous work in progress.
- Who’s your main audience and what do you hope people will take away from your book?
My audience is a niche one. My structural editor suggested I could position the book as a “survival guide” of sorts, something meant to be broad enough to appeal to expatriates in Asia looking for portable multi-cultural tips. But I rewrote and rewrote. And I’m happy that I will have the book I wanted to publish: a book for mixed people of Chinese and Western backgrounds.
As for takeaways, I hope people might look into the assumptions underlying “Hapa” and “Eurasian.”
- Your book is written in English. Do you also plan to publish it in other languages?
Surely. I think the audience right now is mostly English-speaking. But again, this is my first time doing this (writing), and my first time taking the step to be public about a topic as personal as being mixed. I would love to connect with my audience. I would love to learn about where and how (and in what other languages) this content is relevant.
- Where can readers get a copy of your book?
- What are you working on at the moment? Do you have any other projects lined up?
I have two or three book ideas in the pipeline. In no way is “Beyond Eurasian and Hapa: Bridging a Chinese-Western Identity” an academic book, but I still see it as the “theory” book. By that I mean, I have to lay groundwork for the framework, “bothness.” As I mentioned earlier, I would love to write more on the applied side. When I started the book I was just married and it was just the two of us. Now we’re three, and of course the parenting angle is much, much discussed, and I have a lot of ideas as to how to introduce a perspective of “bothness” into the literature.
Thank you Jason for this interview.
I hope you enjoyed the first part of The Bothness Series, more to follow soon!
You can also follow Jason on Instagram @bothness.
Pictures courtesy of Jason S.C. Fung.