Siyang Wei

I will start from the outset by tracing the limits of my experience. My parents moved here from China to study over thirty years ago, and since then have become British citizens; I was born in Manchester, and have always been so. In almost every way, then, I speak with the space of a certain privilege granted by security: through my class position, and particularly through my assumption of British citizenship as birthright. I speak also as someone who, having lived my formative years ensnarled in the psyche of this country, bear all the marks of its epistemic violence.

I first came to think about race and whiteness through a long-burning heat of desire. To follow the logic of citizenship to its end: why, if I belong to the nation, does it not belong to me? It was on the face of my slightly-older sister that I saw this desire manifest in its most explicit forms — in skin-lightening cream, hair-lightening dye, and an ill-fated foray into creative use of makeup to modify the shape of her eyes. Her mouth opening, saying how fortunate we were to have more ‘Western’ body types; commanding me to reassure her that she looked just a little bit ‘European,’ and less Chinese than me.

This was an unhappy experience, but at least I felt a little more liberated by comparison. I knew that the problem of racialised belonging did not originate in my body, and had long ago given up on being white, of the clear advantages and subtle dignities it afforded; I was unavoidably Chinese. Lucky for me, then, that talking about the diaspora is all the rage these days; that a flavour of the exotic can be transmuted into another form of cultural purchase; that a social, cultural, political space has opened up for the conditional possibility of being both ‘British’ and ‘Chinese.’ I turned towards a progressive politics of belonging, motivated by collective justice and still by secret desire: I envisioned a Britain that anyone could call home.

When I speak of bearing epistemic violence, however, I mean it in every sense - in pain, yes, but as a propagator too. Looking back on my insatiable desire for whiteness, then Britishness, then some shadowy form of belonging, I’m reminded of this excerpt from Said’s Orientalism: “In a quite constant way, Orientalism depends for its strategy on this flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand.”

I knew that the problem of racialised belonging did not originate in my body

I will illustrate what I mean with three stories; the first is about migration. On one hand, we have Britain’s cruel border regime and the anti-immigrant sentiment behind it. On the other, there is the progressive case that people should be allowed to come here for the opportunity of a better life — the UK and the West, of course, are the best places in the world to live. Living in the diaspora is hard because you’re caught at once between two places: a new place of settlement to which you desperately wish to belong, and a romanticised ‘homeland’ to which of course you bear no meaningful allegiance any more. And growing up, your liberty-loving, Westernised personhood struggles against your parents’ misplaced cultural strictures. It makes unfortunate sense; if migration is a trajectory from despotism to modernity, my parents were its primitive but hopeful beginnings. I am its first British fruit.

The second story may be less easily recognisable; it’s so familiar to me that I’ve only recently begun to think of it. In primary school, we were taught about China only once. When I was seven, every class from every year had a 20-minute lesson where we all sat on the carpet and, apropos of nothing, the teacher read an extract of Jung Chang’s Wild Swans. China was, is, and increasingly becomes the bogeyman; the stories you can tell about yourself once again come in pairs. There are the British Chinese, who experience racism but have by and large pulled up their bootstraps to bring new flavours to the British mainstream. There are also the strange, frightening Chinese, who are perversely not revolted by China itself, who somehow believe it isn’t by all truly important measures inferior to Britain, who must be at some level indoctrinated or under a spectral duress or else essentially dehumanised by the despotism of the Orient. Otherwise they would covet Britishness.

The third goes back to my family, and the sense of shame I’ve often felt but rarely been willing to acknowledge. Most obviously, it’s been the typical kind of embarrassment at being ‘different’ - but the diaspora cultural cachet helped with that somewhat. Most deeply, it has been a sort of ideological derision: my mum who wants someday to move back to China, my grandma who talks about 1949 like a project in which she still invests the deepest hope for humanity. I, in the rest of my life, prompted constantly to repudiate China, raised in the habit of automatic disavowal, unwilling to consider why any of that might be except for a deficiency of their upbringing as compared with mine.

I could be Chinese, yes, but British too. I cook Chinese food, can speak some Mandarin, wish I could read more so I could explore my culture in its native tongue; I am invested in anti-racism and decolonising the metropole, for all the misery wreaked on racialised minorities here. But it is a modern, British form of Chineseness, which at any point puts me in a whole series of possible relationships with China (and so with my family) without ever losing me the relative upper hand.

This doesn’t characterise every claim to Britishness. Especially for those confronted by the hostile environment in an immediate sense, for those who bear the violence of belonging in a literal as well as epistemic sense, there may be a necessity to it. For those whose heritage is also of the Commonwealth, who have been at the disposal of Britain by force, the resonance of belonging may strike a different chord. For me, however, letting go of my desire to be British has been the recognition of a pernicious superiority complex that has shaped my subconscious, and the beginning of a process of unrooting it.


READ MORE

Mountain View

Lunar New Year and diasporic afterlives

I’m not leaving this country. I have no other ‘home’ to go to — but if we’re talking about the solace of mutual recognition, nor do I think it can ever really be found except in small and dislocated pockets. I care about the injustices that happen here, about the injustices around the world of which we are at the centre — and this is perhaps where anything I do might have the greatest efficacy.

But I only want collective justice for everyone — which would necessarily involve transforming this country and its sense of national identity beyond recognition — and no longer really at all to belong here; it was always an impossible identity project, and subtly poisonous to myself and what I enacted on the world around me. And on a very basic level, when I’m asked if I’m a tourist, when I shock by speaking English, when I’m assumed to be foreign — it doesn’t bother me so much. What would be so bad about that?

Sponsored links