Speaking for Ourselves

I am myself. What changes is how others see me

I am myself. What changes is how others see me

Xiaoxia Yin

 Migrant Voice - I am myself. What changes is how others see me


Xiaoxia Yin was born in China, moving between Shenzhen and Hong Kong while her parents worked there, enrolled in a US college, took an internship in Hong Kong and last summer worked at Migrant Voice in London. Now she's in Japan for a term. “Though I feel I am always myself with the same identity,” she says, “I have realised that how others see me may change when I travel to different places.”

In this article she reflects on her experience of movement and migration.

Before I attended primary school, I never found myself different from my peers. I clearly remember the day my teacher checked some forms we had filled in and noticed my "ethnicity" declaration.

"Xiaoxia, are you a Hui?"

I was confused about why she asked me this question. I had paid little attention to the ethnicity column when providing my personal details. I simply copied what it said on my identity card, never thinking it would make any difference.

"You should have told me earlier! Then we could have ordered Hui food for you," my teacher said.

I was even more confused. What is "Hui food?" When I was growing up, my family's eating habits were no different from other families. Though both my mom and dad had their preferred foods, I had never heard of a category called "Hui food".

I immediately forgot about the teacher's questions because I was a kid who did not pay attention to subtle things. However, at noon when the children were collecting their lunches, my teacher put out a yellow lunch box for me rather than the blue box everyone else had. Specifically, the meat was different from that in the other lunchboxes. It was tasty, though my kid’s tongue could not tell what it was.

Things changed when other kids repeated the question: "Xiaoxia, are you a Hui?"
"I guess so,"
I replied, since that's what my identity card said.
"So you don't eat pork?"

That was the first time I had heard the association of "Hui" and "not eating pork". Since I did eat pork, I replied: "Yes, I eat pork."
"Wow, then you are a fake Hui."

When I got home, I asked my parents to explain. Since that day I have learned that the Hui are an ethnic minority in China which makes up no more than 1 per cent of the population. In contrast, the major ethnic group, the Han, make up more than 90 per cent. In fact, my dad is a Han, but since my parents believed in the importance of the mother's role in bringing a child into the world it was fair to pass on my mother's ethnic identity to me.  

"But what's the different between Hui and Han?" I asked.

My mom told me that most Hui are Muslims. That was the first time I became really aware of religion. My mom was a Muslim simply because all her family are Muslim. She married a non-Muslim, which her family opposed (the couple didn’t tell granny, but quietly registered the marriage), but is still Hui and keeps many Islamic practices, such us not eating pork, though that’s out of habit or for cultural rather than  religious reasons. 

That was the first time I became conscious of the idea of ethnicity. I felt fine being a non-Muslim Hui and a Han. I loved both the Muslim and non-Muslim parts of my family, and I attend family events respecting the traditions and cultures of both.

Chinese people who find out my ethnicity often make assumption about me based on stereotypes. But since there's little difference in appearance, most people assume that I am a Han and treat me 'normally'.

However, if they happen to find out that I'm a Hui, most change their way of talking, either becoming more careful as if they are afraid of offending me, or becoming rather aggressive by asking my opinions on controversial religious issues.

For example, a schoolfriend was astonished when she spotted my ethnicity on a form, and for a month repeatedly asked me about Islamic customs and traditions, though she knew that I wasn't religious. The way she and others acted gave me the feeling that declaring my ethnicity changed me into a different person in some people's eyes. But the fact is, no, I'm still myself, nothing has changed. My ethnic identity is an integral part of me, but it cannot decide who I am.

My battle over of ethnicity went to a different level when I came to college in the United States. My new ethnic tag changed to "Chinese" because most non-Chinese people do not care about whether you are a Han or Hui or anything else: most Americans have no clue about these ethnicities and the differences between them. Instead of questioning me about Islam or being a Muslim, people are likely to ask meabout Chinese politics and society.

I discovered in the US that people in other countries treat you differently and give you different ethnic tags, even though you remain the still the same person.
I felt a kind of easiness in the US because my ethnicity became 'visible' as Chinese and I no longer experienced the awkwardness of being found out as not being the ethnicity people had assumed.

Part of the change is that people expect me to feel angry when I'm being judged by stereotypes about Asians. For example, one day I was wearing a Japanese-style uniform when I went to university. Two students walked past and murmured:

"What's that outfit?"
"It's a Japanese-style uniform. She might be a Japanese student."

I'm not from Japan, but I was glad that someone knew about a Japanese-style uniform since it is not well-known in the US. I was in a rush to get to class so I did not explain to them that I'm Chinese, not Japanese. Later, I mentioned the experience to my Japanese teacher and classmates in a pleasant way, expecting they would be surprised by people recognising a Japanese-style uniform. However, their reaction was far from delight. One classmate said that I should immediately have told them that "not all the Asians look the same"; my Japanese teacher started to console me and said the two students should not have talked about me and my clothes as if I did not understand English. All the while I was aware that I had not taken it this way at all.

I started to realise that people may pay more attention to ethnicity than I do. Nevertheless, should I feel offended by cultural stereotypes, as society expects, or can I follow my heart and not let other people's words change my mood? Moreover, if I'm not angry or hurt by these "minor" matters, is it because I'm ignorant?

I love my identity, but I believe it's okay not to react when people have some misunderstanding of it - nobody has perfect knowledge of everything. More importantly for me, my ethnicity is not everything that makes me, and the other people's stereotypes cannot change me at all.

When I travelled to Hong Kong for an internship and was considered a "mainlander" rather than a Hui or a Chinese, and when I went to London with a group of US students and was asked how I felt about being the only Asian in the group, I delved deeper into the rules of the "war of ethnicity".

Firstly, no matter where I go, my ethnicity in other people’s eyes can never be the same due to the different concepts of ethnicity.  

Moreover, it is not just about ethnicity itself, but has more to do with where you are and how that guides what you look like in other people's eyes. For example, when talking about ethnicity in China, most people are termed Mongoloid and so will look into more specific divisions of Mongoloid. In the US, where the make-up of the population is more diverse, people have a more general idea of ethnicity and usually categorise people by race.

So the definition of ethnicity is changed by perspectives and places. But however the concept is defined, we should not differentiate simply on grounds of ethnicity. Unlike assembly line products, which can be differentiated only by their tags, human individuals have more aspects than nationality and ethnicity.

It's not OK to be ignorant  about the ethnicity of others, but seeing ethnicity as a way of classifying people will lead to an even more damaging extreme.

Similarly, if people cannot identify your ethnicity when they first meet you, don't get mad, because people's perceptions of "ethnicity" are limited by their experience, their countries and cultures.
Let's throw away our stereotypes. Let's stop focusing only on a person's ethnicity. I'm a Hui, a Chinese, and a mainlander, but I'm much more. I'm proud of my achievements made through my efforts rather than by attributes from my ancestors. Let's call a cease-fire in the ethnicity war, and embrace a more diverse and colourful world.


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