At the end of last year, I went to see author Sreedhevi Iyer speak about her short story collection at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. A member of the audience asked Iyer, an Indian-Malaysian-Australian writer, if she felt she behaved differently according to the different countries or cultures she was active in. She said that she found herself unconsciously adapting a lot, and wanted to focus on consciously ‘un-adapting’ more.
While Iyer went on to give specific, personal examples, this general notion of auto-pilot adapting is a sentiment familiar to most people of mixed race. Adjusting is defined as: ‘becoming adjusted to new conditions’. But for those who belong to more than one race, adapting is a way of life, a survival strategy, not a temporary spell during which you acclimatise. Being mixed-race is not a condition, after all (although looking at the racial micro-aggressions — and maxi-aggressions — hurled at many mixed-race people, perhaps lots of folk think otherwise).
I’ve spent the majority of my life adapting. Nobody told me to, per se. I was not verbally instructed to wear the identity of the majority. But non-verbally, absolutely. Derogatory gestures, off-the-cuff comments and simply living alongside ‘the norm’ made it clear that I wasn’t the same. It seemed considerably less dangerous to be the same than to be different, so I, as Iyer later put it, performed myself. I was good, too.
But I had neglected the fact that it had to come to an end. That, what was was in my head was not reflected in the shape of my eyes, my surname or my DNA. It’s like wearing trousers and telling everyone that you’re wearing shorts, just like them. It wasn’t that my friendships weren’t genuine, that my interests didn’t mirror those of my peers, or even that the Britishness within me hadn’t grown organically, but I too eagerly struggled and shifted my body and words into unfamiliar shapes and held my breath, all for the mighty prize of fitting in. Soon, much like Iyer said, all of this became unconscious. Default.
There’s no mixed-race individual I know who, at some point in their life, has not embraced feeling like a mere thread in society’s tapestry, aspired to be the background brushstroke of a painting, inconspicuous and uninteresting. It’s devastating that this is the case for a lot of mixed-race children. It’s only now that I see how grateful and proud I should have felt, especially being a mixed-race child in Britain, not in spite of it.
It’s easy to counter that we want to be treated the same way as everyone else, not spotlighted like exotic breeds at a dog show. But if we (and I only speak on behalf of myself and those who have echoed these sentiments) had been acknowledged and celebrated as children, if that was the societal norm, the desperation to be entirely homogeneous wouldn’t have ruled our lives in any more prominent a way than it does for most teenagers, traversing the socially-treacherous marshes of puberty. We wouldn’t have felt like we had to publicly commit to one racial identity or like we were stuck in No Man’s Land. We wouldn’t have heard, many times over, that we ‘should go back to our country’, whichever one that was. Ultimately, our difference would not have been a strike against us.
Unsurprisingly, it’s not easy to consciously un-adapt. I am currently, perhaps compensatorily, eager to be a Hong Konger. But when I catch myself twisting or scrunching into any kind of mould in a (vain) attempt to validate my identity or put those around me at ease, I remember that my identity has never been, clear-cut, nor will it ever be. Writer Nicole Sprinkle once wrote of her mixed-race daughter, ‘My child doesn’t look quite like me (Caucasian) or her father (Colombian); she’s something new for both families.’ Something new. Maybe, in the future, something new won’t need to shape-shift, but instead, will be able to exist as the exact, undefined shape they are - and exhale.