What is it like being biracial? Thomas Duffy shares his experience.
‘What are you?’
An all too familiar question with no winning answer, like a game show no one really wants to play. Being biracial can elicit emotions of curiosity, wonder, and perceptions of exoticism from our mono-racial peers. In many ways, they’re right to be amazed. Being biracial is fantastic. We get to be a bridge across cultures, globe-trotting polyglots, and have family in all corners of the world.
But this isn’t about how wonderful being biracial is. It’s about how we learn to balance our dual identities, and how we learn to belong. Biracial people are often assumed to either share the same issues as our mono-racial peers, or to be magically freed because of our lack of ‘wholeness’. We aren’t wholly Asian, or black, or Hispanic, so perhaps some people think we can’t share their problems. However, being biracial comes with a unique set of challenges, many of which are never properly discussed.
I am Eurasian, with an Irish father and a Hong Kong Chinese mother. Growing up, I didn’t really question what I was, I just was. When you’re young, you don’t really think about big questions of race and identity, but this changes when you start growing up and noticing people looking at you a little differently.When you start to notice the slight dismissiveness.When you’re forced to start identifying yourself on the basis of ethnicity and race, and to make a choice.This choice is dependent on innumerate factors, such as sociocultural context and expectations, the household context, and our external appearance.
The choice is a dichotomy I call “both but neither”, a paradox that manifests in two ways: when we personally don’t feel able to adequately identify with our dual heritage, and when our cultural self-identification doesn’t match how the external world views us. Being biracial means we are granted with an external appearance that pays tribute to our dual heritage. While they may not be a perfect 50/50 split, we wear it as a badge. However, sometimes our cultural self-identification doesn’t match how the external world views us. Growing up in Hong Kong, a city that is 90% ethnic Chinese, I developed a more Chinese-leaning cultural identity. Yet, in Hong Kong, I looked too white to be considered Chinese. This left me feeling as if I didn’t belong in the place where I was born and lived for 18 years. Conversely, in Ireland, I don’t really look white enough to be considered Irish. I’m always a little too ‘other’, whether in a supposedly-global city such as Hong Kong or in rural Ireland. The reality is that, despite our globalising world, much of society is still composed of a mix of mono-racial individuals, and to be biracial is sometimes even considered boundary-pushing.
When we start developing our sense of ethnic self, the most common way to do so is through our parents’ ethnic background. But when our parents are from two disparate backgrounds, such as Ireland and Hong Kong, it can be difficult to feel like you can adequately identify with and fulfil the cultural and linguistic aspects of both, leaving you in a strange middle ground. This middle ground can wreak havoc on our sense of self. Our inability to truly fulfil the cultural aspects of both of our identities can leave us with a resounding sense of disappointment and guilt, feeling as if we’ve let down our families, our ancestors, and ourselves. To this day, I’m still not sure I haven’t.
A resounding example is the pressure to be bilingual, to be able to adequately communicate with our family and dual societies. Raising a child in a bilingual environment can be difficult, as parents worry about excluding their partner from discussions in one language, or one language dominating. When a bilingual household isn’t achieved, miscommunication and a cultural disconnect can be created. I ended up not really being taught Cantonese, my maternal mother tongue, for which I am still playing catch-up. In Hong Kong, a society where speaking Cantonese is so intrinsic to identity, my lack of proficiency leaves me feeling like I am never good enough, never Chinese enough. As a result, I am constantly striving to achieve a sense of approval from other Hong Kongers. It has also impeded by ability to really connect with my family – my biggest regret. Losing family members is always hard. Losing family members without feeling like you made a true, familial connection is even harder; you’ve lost a member of your family, but you’ve also lost a font of wisdom, innumerable stories, and the ability to really know members of your family.
Sometimes issues extend even into the household. Chances are, if you’re biracial, your parents are monoracial, who have never lived this experience of biracialism. Having biracial children can definitely affect parents in unique ways, seeing as passersby may not think that a child and their parent are actually related. But crucially, they haven’t had the same heavily personal experience of a split cultural identity, and can fail to relate to and understand the issues faced by their biracial children. Essentially, a disconnect between half the family unit, the mono-racial parents and their biracial children is created, because they can’t relate to one another on this level.This also means that sibling bonds are likely to be strengthened, as your sibling has grown up in the same environment as you, and therefore share a similarly lived experience.
The key to these issues lies in acceptance of our unique racial and ethnic identities. Our strength is in the phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. Combining identities as an individual allows us to have a richer lived experience, and act as bridges between our societies. Being half-Chinese has given me a sense of societal responsibility, and to respect those that came before me and their experience – key values of Chinese culture. Being half-Irish has given me a sense of independence and pushed me to love my individualism, as well as the ability to drink large amounts. Balancing these and other cultural values of your dual heritage gives you a richer, more nuanced perspective on life.
So, what is left for us biracial people? Maybe we should go and create our own communities and cities where we all understand each other and can be proudly biracial. But that would do a great disservice. Our perspectives and world views enrich our lives and the lives of those around us, through our unique cultural experiences.
This article was originally published in Issue 722 of Pi Magazine.