German | Chinese
I am half German and half Chinese. My Mum is grew up in the Northern Chinese city of Harbin and moved to Beijing for her university degree. My Dad is from the North of Germany. During his Sinology degree, he spent time at Beijing University, where he met my Mother. They moved to Germany after they got married in 1995. I grew up on German and Mandarin, so it seemed normal to me to have ‘some China and some Germany’ in me. I probably only understood those two don’t just naturally come together once I got into kindergarten, because the other kids would call me Chinese.
As far as I remember there was one other kid with a Chinese background at my school – we only ever talked when we said hi to each other in Mandarin. I was lucky that my hometown in the suburbs of Hamburg is pretty liberal, so although my heritage made me somewhat different, it was mostly seen as a positive thing. My friends would come over for lunch to try Chinese food and ask questions about what China is like.
As I already said, my parents have always spoken to me in their native languages. It’s a big advantage that both of them are able to speak the other’s mother tongue as well, so nobody is ever excluded from conversations at the dinner table. I never went to Chinese school in Germany, and I often regret not learning more about Chinese history, culture and language when I was younger. But then again, I can’t imagine a cranky seven-year-old me could have really appreciated it. We’d visit China every other year, for family reasons rather than cultural education, but every time I’d get a bit of that, too.
Since there wasn’t really anyone else around with the Chinese part of my culture and the Chinese part of my looks, the only role models I saw for being a Chinese guy were Chinese guys in Hollywood: Jackie Chan and, well, nerds. There is nothing wrong with being either, it’s just a really narrow range of choices. So, especially during puberty, I neglected the fact that I was half Chinese a lot when it came to culture. Ironically, I got conscious of this when my friends started ‘teasing’ me at 15 with racist comments about Chinese (‘boys will be boys’) and began to take new pride in my mother’s side of the family.
I’m very open to trying new food, going to China a lot has definitely given me a sufficient dose of what seems ‘weird’ in Europe (jelly-fish, scorpions, etc.). Growing up bilingually has also killed the fear of learning new languages for me. Perhaps it also helps with pronouncing tones that don’t exist in German sometimes. My music and fashion taste are very ‘White’, because I never really got exposed to the pop-part of Chinese culture. This confused me a lot when it came to haircuts, because German barbershops aren’t that used to Asian hair. I rocked that short spiky look from grade 8, well, basically until I spent a year in China after graduating high school.
Every time I can bond with someone by chatting in Mandarin that puts a giant smile on my face. Often, it puts a smile on the other person’s face, too – but usually that’s a smile of surprise, because for some reason Chinese are convinced I look European while Europeans are convinced I look Chinese. Every time I can show someone either bits of German or Chinese culture (let’s be honest, it’s mostly about food) I get sparks of pride.
In my small hometown in Germany, most people have seen me before and don’t give me looks when they pass me. In China, that’s a bit different, there is some attention depending on how many foreigners live in that region, but it’s never hostile really. In Oxford, at least in Jesus College, it’s more the fact that I’m part German that affects how I blend in, not the fact that I’m mixed. Generally, for all of those places, I cannot say that I have ever felt an effect of how teachers, co-workers, students or tutors rated my effort. Sure, sometimes we’ve talked about China or Germany or being bilingual, etc., but never in an evaluative manner.
I didn’t have much of an idea about what Oxford was like before applying. Naively, I just thought it was a really good university. Of course, I knew how access to good education related to inequality, but I didn’t really do my research. Neither does the German public: The standard perception of Oxford is one-sidedly positive and admiring. Unsurprisingly, I was a bit shocked to see the class divisions and controversies involving racial/cultural insensitivity. I have not found any formal rules that are exclusionary. It is rather informal conventions and behaviour that either has put me off or that I could imagine deters people. For me, weirdly, trashings were a major issue. They seemed like total carelessness to me, both with your own finances and the environment. On reflection, I get that most UK students have spare suits etc. from their time at school. Still, this hasn’t made trashings less alien for me by much. This is just one example of something that isn’t just different from what someone is used to, but actually dips into the way they think about money and uni culture. I can imagine people taking (justified) issue with conventions that go along similar lines (black-tie receptions, expensive dinners that everyone goes to and you don’t want to miss out on). Although this paragraph focuses on the downsides of Oxford, I cannot stress enough how many great friends I’ve found here and how much I have profited intellectually from this university so far.
I realise more now that my half Chinese part is not just some special thing that I own and that sets me apart. It’s something that people other than me have a much better understanding of and that has been part of their community a lot more than for me. Most Asian events at Oxford have a focus on the original countries, and that’s totally fine for bonding. Similarly, in political discourse about minorities, both mixed-race people of all colours and Chinese people are not really being talked about specifically. That is also fine with me, as public attention cannot be centred on all issues at once, and other groups should be prioritised in the current climate.
I haven’t been to any Mixed Heritage events so far, but I intend to. I’ve spent a lot of time with GermanSoc, which feels like a second college community to me by now. For the next year, I’ll be co-president, and hope to get some more joint activities going among the foreign community.
If I had the opportunity to be reborn I would like to return with a larger Mandarin vocabulary. And fix my hair between age ten and eighteen.
In the context of the University of Oxford, we hope our names; faces and stories will emphasise that there is a place for everyone at Oxford. According to last year’s admissions data, 700 Oxford undergraduates identify as mixed. In 2016, BAME students accounted for 15.9% of the undergraduate intake. Oxford is diversifying, albeit slowly. We hope to empower mixed heritage students at Oxford and foster a community where they can safely share their own opinions, experiences and stories.