With another Chinese New Year passed, the Chinese diaspora is once again highlighted with a sea of red celebrations across the UK.
It reminded me that when I grew up - the notion of 'who am I?' dogged my personality as a British Chinese for many years. I studied in various places in Europe, most of it in Milton Keynes and Bedford. I went to a school where I was one of the very few Chinese people there and I found myself really struggling with my identity. That became stronger when other friends began to date; it was so hard to ask girls out because I felt so 'different' which for a teenager, really killed my confidence. I thought having smaller eyes and a Chinese face was a disadvantage. I had few role models to tell me otherwise. It didn't help that between the age of 10 and 18 I didn't go to Hong Kong, where I was born, once. I remember even being harassed by the National Front, chased by punks wearing medieval chainmail with signs saying 'go back to China'. Ouch.
I found the best way to escape my dilemma was to throw myself into sport, which didn't distinguish success through appearances or background. I trained hard for a singular goal and hoped by the end I could prove to myself that I was a 'somebody' - and not some stereotype Jackie Chan or book nerd that the media likes to depicts us as. The by-products of training forged strong friendships through meritocracy and gave me a leadership position that grew my confidence. Being the first Chinese Captain of Rowing and winning a national gold medal gave me a solid foundation but I still longed to understand my background. I resolved to find my cultural identity at university.
Before I joined Durham University, I shunned at the notion of being with a Chinese groupie, I wanted to be as integrated as possible. Yet the moment I arrived - I was really drawn to them. I am not sure if it was the language, an opportunity to improve my very rusty Cantonese, or the fact that I had few Chinese friends - but like a bee to a flower, I wanted to explore further. However this journey made me even more confused as I didn't quite fit in with the (small) international student community, maybe given how westernised I was, and I found the experience in my first year, without my close school support network and family, really hard. It got so bad that I felt rather depressed and considered leaving university early.
Yet somehow, beginning with my (non Chinese) university friends asking me whether I would be their housemate, I managed to get out of that box of being defined as the Chinese guy and to be content with just being me. I filled myself with interesting hobbies instead and felt more free. Things really improved when I moved to the big city of London to start my career. Compared to the North East, or even the Home Counties, London was in a different league in terms of diversity.
I suddenly worked virtually next to Chinatown. For once in my life, aside from my own father, I met inspiring figures and remembered spending hours on my video application for the Diaspora Leadership programme led by Lord Wei. To be part of that community, alongside the Conservative Friends of the Chinese, had a big impact on my life. There were many in our diaspora that faced exactly the same challenges as I did.
In my career, I was still a somewhat novel figure but as I climbed up the ladder and especially when I started to run my own organisation, I noticed others seeking advice from me. It was a humble reminder of my responsibility as a role model for others going through similar identity questions.
I don't consciously feel burdened now by my heritage, indeed I am proud of it. I have friends who come from all walks of life and I love them equally. I joke a lot about being Chinese as I am now at ease with myself. I still, however, bristle strongly when I see UKIP being borderline/ totally racist or get frustrated when there are still so few British Chinese in politics, in the civil service, in the media and in the senior ranks of the military.
We are still not that visible, and we are certainly not taking advantage of our potential, just look at this Policy Exchange report on poor career progression for the Chinese. However, I know that with an increasingly strong community, we can ensure a British Chinese kid watching TV would see a successful person with a similar face to them and realise that if you just put your mind to it, regardless of background, you can make it.
Uncapping this talent pool will make the whole country stronger and we all have a responsibility to make that happen.Suggest a correction