Growing Up as a ‘Halfie’/‘Hapa’ Eurasian in China
This year will mark forty years since China’s economic reform gaigekaifang (改革开放) took effect and allowed the country to globalize. This policy prompted companies and businesses to cooperate internationally, which encouraged a massive influx of expats. It is in that same post-cultural revolution era that my mother flew to France to study and work, where she met my mostly-German father.
I was born at the start of the twenty-first century in Paris. Every summer of my childhood, I flew to Beijing to visit my Chinese grandparents. I spent most of my time in a Chinese kindergarten and even though I never felt like I was being treated differently by my peers and teachers, I was referred to as “法国丫丫 (Yaya from France)”: the nickname of one of my classmates was Yaya, hence the special suffix that was attributed to mine.
Outside of the kindergarten, in the real world, I felt like an oddity. People on the streets would point at me and call me a laowai (老外), Chinese slang for “foreigners”. The first decade of the 21st century in China was marked by speedy urbanizations in which many Chinese peasants moved to big Chinese cities to work, and the vast majority of them were seeing westerners for the first time.
I don’t specifically look like anyone in my family, but still am a mix of my parents’ features: my hair is thick like my mom’s and I inherited my dad’s curls. My skin is white with yellow undertones, lacks my dad’s freckles, and has my mom’s ability to tan. My eyes are harder to describe: they are double-lidded and brown but don’t conform to any standard eye shape.
I have found myself explaining my background to people countless times and have honestly never minded. It’s always been a common conversation to have, especially in China: taxi drivers get curious once they hear me speak fluent Mandarin to them, hairdressers wonder about my hair’s frizziness, and I have peaked the interest of peers who have overheard me speak in an unfamiliar language on the phone. As the Chinese like to say, I am hunxue’r (混血儿), a “mixed-blood child”.
My parents and I moved to Shanghai in my first year of middle school. By that time, the number of expats and urban dwellers had increased tremendously in China and laowai’s were becoming a norm. I attended schools with other third-culture kids like myself.
In the eighth grade, I began to struggle with self-identity: when asked where I came from, I wanted to relate to one single place, like the rest of my friends did. After all, although I’d grown up surrounded by my parents’ respective cultures, I was still born and raised in France. The French language and way of life were what I was most accustomed to. As soon as I started responding to “Where are you from?” with “Paris, France” instead of a longer narrative, some of the most common responses were:
“Where are you really from?”
“But how come your mom is Asian?”
“Do you even have the French nationality?”
These people always felt the need to label others, but to them, it seemed like there was no way to really put me in a box: I wasn’t “white enough”, nor was I “really Asian”. I didn’t know then that it would’ve been entirely valid for me to say I am both Asian and European.
It makes me morose today to think there was a time I felt ashamed of being Asian due to the casual racism a lot of international students — including a few “ABC’s (Americans Born Chinese)” — and adult expats around me allow themselves to express.
This can be notably seen with how some of these adult expats treat ayi’s (阿姨). Ayi’s are female Chinese housekeepers, cleaners, and bus monitors who usually come from smaller Chinese provinces and move to more urbanized areas to find jobs. To this day, I am outraged by how disrespectful a lot of foreigners behave towards them. Many have an automatic assumption of Chinese inferiority; it is a blatant case of white supremacy, where expatriates have the impertinence to throw insults at their Chinese counterparts with a brazen assurance. Not to mention there often is no effort on their part to learn Chinese and understand the culture despite having lived in the country for years.
Thankfully, I came to my senses soon enough and the shame I had felt about my lineage completely dissolved. I stopped caring about closed-minded people who tried getting to me with stereotypes of the “surly” French, the “meek” East Asian, and the “Nazi” German. I was proud of my identity again and noticed there actually are many people like me, around me and in the media (representation is important!). I will forever be thankful for the effort my parents put in for me to stay in touch with my roots. In fact, it is mostly thanks to them that I am multilingual today.
After high school began, I met even more Eurasians and became aware of slang terms that designate us: ‘halfies’ and ‘hapas’. In this new era of continual globalization, there is only going to be more of us! Being a “halfie” is a distinct culture in itself, and I have fully embraced my heritage. Never again will I try and pick one “part” of me over another.
By: Irène Schrader