I was born in Sydney, Australia but grew up in Hong Kong. My background is Hakka Chinese on my mum’s side and Anglo-Irish on my dad’s side. My dad’s family came from Ireland originally but have been in Australia for about five generations so for all intents and purposes, they are true-blue Aussie.
My mum’s family were originally from Guangdong Province in China but she was born in Hong Kong and some of her siblings were born in Mauritius. I am an Australian by passport but a citizen of the world in outlook.
There are times that I feel simultaneously a strong bond and foreignness towards each of my heritages.
I think both in part with looking more Asian than white and being closer to my mum’s relatives, I am generally more in touch with the Chinese side of my family. The only impediment is that I never learned my mum’s dialect, Hakka; or Cantonese, which is the dialect she spoke growing up in Hong Kong. She felt that Mandarin was a more useful language.
I am proficient in Mandarin but as my mum’s family generally speak Cantonese at home (they married non-Hakka speakers), I am working to improve my basic Cantonese as an adult. Not being able to speak the language of one of your parents leads to a degree of disconnect because with language comes cultural nuances.
In time, I would like to learn some Hakka as my mum is very proud of her heritage, even though she fears that the spoken language is dying out. Hakka people are known for being nomadic (the name means “guest families” – 客家) but they are also known for being the only group of Han Chinese people that never practised foot binding. They are also famous for their revolutionary leaders, including the father of modern China, Dr. Sun Yat-sen.
In all honesty, I was not always comfortable with identifying as ‘Hapa’ because when I was in primary school in Australia, there were not many others with that background. I went to a predominantly white school and while I had my group of friends, casual racism was not uncommon.
Being Hapa does help you understand cultures outside your own, I think in part because you are on the bridge between several different cultures yourself. Instead of seeing it as a curse of not belonging in any circle, which was the case when I was younger, I wouldn’t change the life experience it has given me as a result.
Although I have gotten to a stage where I am comfortable with who I am, I sometimes get my identity challenged by people who meet me for the first time.
Frequently I am told that I can’t be mixed because I “look too Asian.” When I go out one-on-one with my dad to places, people assume that I am his much younger Asian girlfriend — with all the predictable stereotypes that you can imagine flowing from that idea. People have told me that my parents are only together because my mother is a submissive Chinese lady (my parents met in law school and my mum is definitely not submissive). I often tell people that genetics don’t work like fractions. I don’t take these sort of ignorant statements too seriously any more, so the best weapon is humour!
I celebrate the main Chinese holidays (Chinese New Year, Mid Autumn Festival), Christmas, New Year, Easter and the national/public holidays of both Hong Kong and Australia. Knowing two cultures so intimately is definitely a blessing and I couldn’t imagine being any different.