I've been following Joséphine at Word Revel for ages, and so I'm excited to have her on the blog today to talk about what it's like living abroad and being of mixed ethnicity, and why this needs to be more visible in the books we read. It's a brilliant post, I'm sure you'll agree.
Being of Mixed Ethnic Descent
"What are you?" That is how the question goes practically every time I meet someone new. I used to be so offended by this as a child, I would snap, "Human," and turn away. Nowadays I answer with a wry, "Human," and proceed to explain my heritage. Often I receive a flustered response, "That’s not what I meant! What's your race?"
Even though I live in a multicultural society, rather than accept me for someone of mixed ethnicity, people are quick to ask what I am. Mixed marriages are on the rise but mixed children are still eyed with curiosity. We're not any less human just because others have difficulty reconciling that we're not actually made up of two distinct halves. Mixed race people are singularly functioning people. Take my word for it.
Living in a Foreign Country
What makes it more difficult for me is that my ethnic heritages are not local to the country I live in. I carry a different passport from everyone else. Though my friends accept me like a local, many view me as a foreigner, unless I simply tell them I'm Eurasian. Eurasians are an accepted racial group.
The term Eurasian doesn't sit well with me though. It dilutes the richness of our actual heritages. A Chinese-Dutch person experiences culture differently from a Malay-Portuguese person. The term Eurasian takes that away from us. Worse still are forms that require me to fill up my ethnicity. Ticking 'others' has never brought me joy.
Invisibility in Books
In any case, I'm a person of mixed ethnic descent living abroad. I'm not the only one. There might not be that many but I did meet some here in Singapore as well as in Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Australia and Germany. Yet in the world of books, we are an invisible group.
To be fair, I don't demand a book specifically about a French-Kenyan person living in Papua New Guinea. That specificity would demand a million books and we'd still be missing a book about an Argentinian-Japanese person living in Hawaii. But books don't acknowledge the reality of people like me.
A Step Beyond POCs
Even when we break this down into two parts, (1) mixed ethnic descent and (2) living in a different country, there hardly are books that address either category. When I read demands for books about POCs (people of colour), they tend to refer to books about people from homogeneous ethnic groups into the second or third generation.
They ask for books about a Mexican girl who never even lived in Mexico. They ask for books about a Chinese guy whose parents never even set foot in China. That's not the same as someone who has had to uproot their life as a child and move to a completely different country. Yes, these are important gaps to be filled but these don't go as far as speaking up for either of the categories that I raised.
Yearning for a Reflection in Books
What does this mean for me, not ever seeing myself reflected in books? It has made me wish for characters who understand me for who I am. Certainly, every book I've read and every character I encountered had an impact on me. I've related to musicians and athletes because I know music and I know sports. I have also related to gamers and artists. I call myself neither.
Importance of Representation in Books
I don't need all the books I read to be about people like me. But I do need some books to be about characters of mixed descent and/or about characters navigating foreign cultures in a bid to assimilate. Most of all, I need these books, so that people who are not like me might understand and will never again ask, "What are you?" Books help foster empathy and understanding required towards the invisible groups that I belong to.