Talking about identity and going local vs. cosmopolitan – Dialogue with Jason S.C. Fung

The bothness series

Today’s dialogue is part of The Bothness Series, a collaboration between me and Jason S.C. Fung, author of the forthcoming book “Beyond Eurasian and Hapa: Bridging a Chinese-Western identity” that is now available for pre-order on Amazon. In the series we talk about identity and what it means to grow up or raise kids bridging cultures.

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R: “Welcome Jason. I’m happy to virtually sit down with you today and talk about identity, embracing who you are, and the question of going local versus cosmopolitan with your international family.”

 

J: Thank you so much for having me! I love your blog and read it keenly because you have a strong voice. Guten Tag und Ni Hao!

 

R: “Thanks! We’re going to specifically talk about the challenges of parenting in different cultural settings, the hopes and concerns I have as the parent of a mixed child, and your real-life experiences growing up as the child to an American mother and a Chinese father and as a father yourself.

 

As the parent of a mixed child, one thing I’m often wondering is how I can help my son embrace both of his parents’ cultures. I currently live in Northeast China with my husband and son, the in-laws living just around the corner. We have many children’s books in German, I converse with our son in German (most of the time at least) and take him back to Austria every once a while, but I’m not really sure how and when I should talk with him about his identity. I’m sure it’s a topic that will come up sooner or later, and no matter if we live in Austria or China, there will always be people who’ll point out that he is different from the more “homogenous-looking folk”.

 

Have your parents talked with you about identity while growing up?

 

J: Right. OK. So, this is a very important set of questions I’m sure a lot of parents, regardless of background, worry about.

 

From my experience, I had to manage a lot questions of identity on my own as a child. It’s not that my parents weren’t interested. I just don’t think they had the vocabulary to help me through some of the challenges I faced, culturally more than anything.

 

I should point out I think the starting point for this discussion is no parents would like to see their kids getting bullied. That’s the most basic principle.

 

Having said that, there are subsets of bullying which might be called “cultural discomfort” or maybe even “microaggressions,” to use the parlance of American popular speech these days. This is different from bullying, and in my opinion should be managed with a desire for magnanimity, e.g. should be subject to “give and take,” rather than declared war upon. Let me give you an example: maybe Asian men see it relatively more permissible than Western men do to openly speak of a woman’s weight. It can be awkward. And we can elaborate more on these types of subjects later/elsewhere, but the bottomline is when people are responding to legitimate cultural cues in engaging across cultural lines, as opposed to just being a jerk (bullying behavior) the responses should be adjusted, i.e. gentle for the first and unforgiving for the latter.

 

R: Can you explain that a little further?

 

J: I think there are mixed people who grew up, in my view, unnecessarily biased against one of their “sides,” because for example, they faced something like the example raised earlier, maybe a Chinese uncle who relentlessly talked about their weight in public, and for lack of “cultural empathy,” as I call it, lumped this uncle into the bullying category. Consequently, as adults they had unresolved issues against that particular “side,” leading to a search for identity that was troubled, or maybe because it was subject to denial or subject to withdrawal from those painful associations, one that was less than complete. In most egalitarian cities where expatriates congregate and where most mixed people are born and raised there are many safeguards against this. For one, mixed people often have some degree of safety in numbers – at least in places like Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, HK. But bullying, in all its forms (it’s hard to say ethnically oriented bullying is the worst, as overweight kids get it, and certainly special-needs kids) is as a general principle something to be vigilant about.

 

So, having said my piece about bullying, yes my parents did talk to me about identity.

 

R: How did they choose to talk about it?

 

J: My Mom liked the word “eurasian.” And she would suggest I fell under its aegis. I would ask her plenty of questions about what it meant to be “eurasian.” Mom tried really hard to answer me. But the truth is I never felt she convinced me why I was “eurasian” and why I should care about other people who called themselves (or were called by others) “eurasian.”

 

My father would at times say I’m Chinese. And at other times he would tell me I’m different. I have so much respect for my parents. They knew I struggled with identity and they tried to help me. I think my father really wanted to arm me with a tough skin. He wanted to encourage me that my Chineseness counts for something, a lot – but I also have an asterisk next to it.

 

R: This is all very interesting to me, because, honestly, I feel like there would definitely be some questions about our son’s identity I wouldn’t be able to answer for him.

 

You’re totally right that most parents wouldn’t like their kids to get bullied but it still happens to a lot of kids in lots of different forms.

The bothness series

I’m sure there are plenty of times where we can help our children deal with these situations as parents, but sometimes they’ll probably also need to work things out on their own. The best thing we can do as parents is probably to – like you mentioned in the interview – give our children the tools to choose for themselves how they want to identify. But this is also a big question mark for me – how can I give my son these tools? Maybe you can shed some light on this question by telling us how you are planning to talk about identity with your son.

 

J: I love these easy questions! Just kidding. Seriously, this is about as big a question as it gets 🙂

 

Since this is a really large question (really, a bundle of questions together), maybe the best way is for me to begin with an answer to the most obvious aspect(s) of it and you can follow up and/or redirect me.

 

Here is a mantra that I talk about in my book, which I will definitely tell my son: “you can be an asshole, but you can’t be a douchebag.”

 

Please forgive the colorful language! An “asshole” is someone who is unpleasant, but in the end he is honest with himself – he knows people don’t like him. A “douchebag,” on the other hand, thinks he is likeable. He may be just as unlikeable as the “asshole,” but the “douchebag” kids himself.

 

And the moral of the story is I think my son should be whoever he wants to be – but he must never be someone or something if that means he must lie to himself.

 

So, how am I going to talk about identity with my son?

 

I wouldn’t tell him he must be one or the other. There are parents who want to tell their kids you are “just British,” or just something or other for example. That’s not me.

 

I wouldn’t tell him he should try to pass. That he should be whatever “identity” is easiest wherever he goes. No.

 

In talking about identity, my wife and I would try our very best to keep things simple for him.

 

For example, just being mixed doesn’t mean he should have the burden of crusading for social justice. I don’t believe that his identity must necessarily be “anti-racist.” And here I make a major departure from the prevailing views of Hapa. People need a viable alternative to Hapa and I am ready to offer it.

 

I’m certainly not saying he should be a racist. But my point is that as his parents we have a responsibility to make sure he has all the basics of a good childhood, that he respects people, respects non-human animals, the earth and environment etc. It is not our job to give him specific anti-racist coaching. Being mixed doesn’t mean he is always “the other.” In fact, his experience may also be one of the “self” too; his experience will likely be engaged at times where he looks at things from the “majority” viewpoint as well as the “minority” viewpoint. He will likely be “white” and at times be alternatively “black.” He will likely be “fellow-sufferers” with the colonizer and the colonized, and see the world and himself through different lenses, sometimes simultaneously, and sometimes for no good reason at all.

 

For me to anoint him as part of an “underclass,” just wouldn’t be true to him. Yet, for me to anoint him as “elite” wouldn’t be true either. He needn’t be destined to taking on the anti-racist, social justice struggles of the world. At the same token I’ll be damned if he thinks he is a silk stocking.

 

This ambiguity might be difficult for some parents, and that is OK. But I believe I need to let him be him. For better or worse, he will be shrouded in both – in more ways than one and rather than diminish that in any way I should amplify it with him. Identity can be disorienting – just look at the Middle East right now. The antidote for disorientation, as we see unfolding right now in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, in Saudi, etc. is too often extremism. Yes, I understand “moderates are the first casualties in any revolution,” and places like Raqqa are just woefully blood-soaked and sectarian. But disorientation pops up in other, saner corners of the world too. And I say that allowing yourself a warm, fuzzy solace in fundamentalist answers, binary ones, where there is only right and wrong is absolutely the wrong way. For some of us, we embrace ambiguity – my experience shapes this, surely, but I also think this is the most prosperous space to be.

 

R: I really like how you’d tell your son he can be an asshole, but not a douchebag. While it might sound weird to tell your son he can be an asshole, I think it’s really to the point and encourages parents of mixed kids to let them develop their own sense of who they are. Whenever anyone would point out our son’s foreignness (in our case whenever Austrians would say he’s Chinese or Chinese would say he’s a foreigner), I always feel like defending him and telling them he’s both or that he’s just as Austrian or Chinese as they are, but listening to your explanations, I feel much more at ease to just let him choose for himself.

 

When we talked about some of these issues in the past, you mentioned that most parents of kids with mixed backgrounds wish that their children will feel at home in all their parents’ respective cultures. I’m 100% with you on this one, which is also why we’re embracing a what I call “go-local” approach, which is not always easy. It took me about a year after our son’s birth to be at peace with the fact that we’re planning to send our son to a Chinese kindergarten and Chinese primary school. We wouldn’t be able to afford an international one, but even if we’d be able to, we wouldn’t want him to attend an international school. We want him to make local friends here and get the chance to make experiences similar to his peers in whichever place we currently live at. It’s not as much about assimilation for us as it is about making him feel at home, like he has a place (or hopefully two) he belongs to and friends here he can visit in the summer holidays if we move back to Austria long-term. Of course that means – just like you said in your son’s case – that he’ll have to recite Tang poems by heart, that he’ll have to be able to recognize quite a few characters before starting primary school and be able to count to 100. What really appeased my skepticism was seeing my mother-in-law encourage him to learn numbers, Tang poems, Chinese songs and much more. I always thought that learning by heart means forcing things on the learner, but at the moment a little encouragement is all he needs. He really loves to learn and will often come up to his grandparents or dad with his Tang poems children’s book and have them recite poems with him.

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Having said all that, he’ll still have to learn German and we also celebrate Austrian holidays, so his reality will always be a little different from his local peers (but then, people who grow up in one culture and one place have different realities too).

 

J: I really don’t mean to swear, Ruth! It is just a distinction I’ve made, between assholes and douchebags. I guess, if he is rude, well that will be too bad. I could deal with him being rude but it would really bother me if he grew up to not be truthful to himself.

 

I think we are at a crossroads of mixed identity. In our generation, when Ruth, you and I were kids growing up, seeing mixed kids was a rarity no matter where you were in the world. But today in places like H.K. or Berlin or London or New York or Shanghai and other cosmopolitan cities around the world you can’t go to the shopping mall or the health clinic or the nursery school without tripping on mixed kids. When we mixed kids were invisible all we could do was be happy to spot someone like us and for a fleeting second remind ourselves we weren’t the only ones. But now we aren’t invisible.

 

So now that mixed people are visible, there is a fundamental question: do we want to be cosmopolitan or do we want to be local?

 

Most people will choose to be cosmopolitan.

 

Most people will choose the promise of everything, they like the idea they can be anything (hapa is effectively synonymous with cosmopolitan). They like the ease. They like the predictability, the connectivity and reliability and theoretical market size of cosmopolitan.

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But the reason I say we are at a crossroads is with this new visibility there is another strain, a much smaller group of mixed people. This group does not strive to be cosmopolitan. This minority elects a harder path, that of local – and we see this emerging slowly but surely – for example, you choose to not send your son to international school for reasons not strictly due to tuition fees. Instead of clean, local is messy. Instead of taking racism to be the raison d’etre, racism is taken to be a mere nuisance; think of it this way: if you are conditioned to strive for cosmopolitan racism threatens to collapse your entire “sameness” belief system; whereas, local is much more robust, it can take shocks of racism here and there and not be too fussed. Instead of standardized, local is irregular. Instead of easy, local is hard. Yet because this is mixed, it is a dual local. This bothness, which connects many points in-between, is, well, a cosmopolitan entirely of its own quality.

 

So, yes, to summarize: I choose local, i.e. double local, i.e. what I call bothness. It is a minority choice. But I think there is more purpose behind it. To use a chef metaphor, I’d rather be classically trained in Chinese cuisine and classically french-trained and call that fusion, there isn’t as much value (both in terms of meaning and practical value) in the other fusion, the easy one. The best cosmopolitan is the one that’s a byproduct of two or more locals. And for better or worse I believe mixed people, now that we are visible, have to choose either cosmopolitan or local, one or the other direction.

 

R: Thank you, Jason, for sharing your insights with us. This certainly gives me a lot to think about and my readers hopefully too. As the parent of a mixed child and having a partner with a different citizenship, location is definitely something we talk about often. Although we actively choose to send our child to a local kindergarten and school, living in my husband’s hometown of about 400,000 people was definitely not something we had planned for initially. But this is how life worked out and we actually enjoy living here now.

Make sure to pre-order your copy of “Beyond Eurasian and Hapa: Bridging a Chinese-Western identity” here (it will be available for kindle starting from July, 8th, 2016). 

If you have a mixed family, you’ve probably discussed location before. I’d love to read your thoughts on going cosmopolitan versus local in the comments.

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Hi, I'm Ruth, welcome to China Elevator Stories! I have been living in Kunming and Shenzhen in the past and am now staying in Northeast China with my Chinese husband and our baby and toddler son. Join us on our journey bridging worlds!

2 comments

  1. Thank you, Ruth, for an interesting discussion with Jason Fung. It seems from what each of you say that circumstances vary tremendously. In my case, my three Chinese/American daughters grew up in a third country, the Philippines. They attended an international school at which there was a good mix of children from all over the world, particularly from Asia, Europe, and the United States. In a mixed student body like that, there was little awareness of their heritage. We moved to the US when they were in high school. Although they went to a public high school, it was on the West Coast in an area with some immigrants.

    My daughters are grown now, but over the years I’ve talked to them about their identity and their dual heritage. About the only thing they have to say about it is that they appreciate the richness that their heritage and their time living abroad has brought to their lives. I think they’re a mixture of cosmopolitan and local, if I understand your definitions. Their natural self-confidence eased the path for them.

    • Yes, not saying that one is better than the other, but that some families have to choose one or the other and see if it works for them.

      International schools in the area we live in would probably be a bit different than those your daughters attended.

      Glad to hear that they are self-confident, that is really key in dealing with many issues.

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