[Note: “East Asians” are the third largest “ethnic group” in the UK after firstly, “Asians” (in the UK, this word refers to those of Indian subcontinent descent), then Black. (If my choice of quotation marks seems inconsistent or puzzling to you, it’s due to the inherent difficulty in grouping people.)]
In the book, “The Good Immigrant”, I wrote something on how I feel about being yellow in the UK and about how I feel about being labelled “East Asian”. I explain why “yellow” is my word of choice when I think about “us” in the UK. As an actor I’m often representing other yellow people from various “yellow” countries or I’m placed publicly to play non-yellow people but I know that I’m viewed through a lens where my skin colour informs the audience about the personality and background of the character I’m playing. I also know that my skin colour often affects why I’m seen for a role in the first place. This is not always the case of course, but skin colour is one of the very first things I notice, alongside gender and size and able bodiedness.
But I didn’t write about being an actor in this piece (even though this job really does bring to the fore that I’m not white, which is not unuseful information.) I thought about what I could share and the I figured my starting point should be my own biases – we are all shaped by our environment and socialisation. Why do yellow people seem so invisible and silent in the UK? Is it because we’re having a right jolly time being fully integrated and successful, compared to darker skinned folk? Who and what do we think about when we see someone with “yellow” skin? When we hear the words “oriental”, “Chinese”, “Asian”, “East Asian”?
I wrote about being a Chinese woman from Malaysia, a multiracial, ex-colony country with its own specific racial issues. I thought about gender and Western perceptions of the sex lives of male and female yellow people. Sex relates to power, and somehow, we end up in a really tricky intersection of powerlessness.
Last year, I was shocked as, after 20+ years of blinkered living in the UK, I began to realise the violence and hatred experienced by yellow people across the UK.
Retrospectively, I find that violence as a theme emerges – yellow people are violent, we enjoy sexual violence, we receive violence silently.
I believe that humans categorise and label in order to understand the world and to secure ourselves in it. We make decisions about who relevant to us, about who we care about. We rank other human beings. What do we do then, if we know, WITHOUT A DOUBT that groups of people – beyond yellow folk, any marginalised or oppressed group – are kept down, overtly or via institutional bias? Which injustices do we push against if we can’t fight every single thing in the world? How do we live?
In Wallace Shawn’s “The Fever”, a complex, considered, beautifully crafted piece of performance, he considers his love of his privileged life and the comforts he enjoys – opera, good meals, beautiful clothes. He is aware of the people who die in droves, who die in torture chambers, and who die in order to produce the things he consumes. A question: how close does suffering have to be before I do feel or anything? Somewhere in Europe, if I’m in the UK? Being near Paris this week after the killings in Brussels really disturbed me, more so than if I’d been in London, I’m sure. Next door, so I can hear the cries? There is so much going on in the world and I know that we cannot realistically be upset about everything, so my general question is, again, how do we live? I am in no way guiltless.
“The Good Immigrant” is bound to contain content that provokes us. I’m looking forward with some trepidation, to reading the other essays, to find out more horrors about immigrant stories, to have more things to think about. I believe that it’s important to find out about narratives that are not our own, that are far away from our own experience, despite us living on the same small island.
You can preorder the book by following the link https://unbound.co.uk/books/the-good-immigrant. Scroll down for buying options (digital, hard copy, signed copy, etc.)