By Fiona Xiaojun Guo
‘Because love is the same language we all speak‘ (#TakeAStand)
This is my fourth year living as an ‘international’ in another country. Before coming to the Netherlands, I had been the ‘Chinese student’ in the American college campus. However, my experience as a foreigner in the Netherlands has been quite different from that in the United States. Somehow, with the addition of the three years I have spent in the States, people see me as not entirely ‘Chinese’. ‘No wonder your English is good’, or ‘I could tell ’cause you don’t look like the Chinese-Chinese’, is normally how people respond after learning about my heritage. I doubt if the three years in the States has really given me a sense of ‘American-ness’, yet it has come to distinguish me from other Chinese youths who have spent their entire lives in China.
My experience posed me with an interesting question: if spending three years in a culture different from one’s own could change a person, just as the American culture has subtly influenced me, then how does growing up in two cultures – the society’s mainstream culture and one’s own heritage culture – shape a person? I immediately thought of the Chinese-American friends I have made in the States who were born and raised in the States by their parents who had migrated from China. These ‘ABCs’, American-born-Chinese, as they are normally labeled by people from China, are viewed as living in the ‘grey area’ in-between the American and Chinese cultures. They speak perfect English while few know how to speak Chinese. They don’t seem to be fully integrated into the American society, yet they don’t feel they belong to the Chinese community either.
Since arriving in the Netherlands, I began to wonder about the lives of the second generation Chinese here. How did they grow up in both the mainstream Dutch culture and the Chinese culture at home? How do they identify themselves? How integrated are they into the Dutch culture, and how do they view their Chinese heritage?
Meeting (and eating with) second-generation Chinese
There are more than 80,000 people originating from China or people with at least one such parent in the Netherlands as of 2012, forming the fifth largest non-Western population group in the country, and one of the largest overseas Chinese populations in continental Europe (Gijsberts, Huijnk & Ross, 2011). The early labor migrants who began arriving in the early 1900s came from Hong Kong, the neighboring Guangdong Province, and Zhejiang Province. After the recession of the 1930s, the Chinese laborers who used to work as stokers and sailors found their own economic niche on the shore in the hospitality industry, opening restaurants in the Netherlands. In the 1960s and 1970s, the family and friends of restaurant owners and employees migrated to the Netherlands. Since the 1990s, a greater number of Chinese migrants came to the Netherlands from many other places, when asylum migration and family migration were introduced. The first-generation Chinese migrants are known to be isolated from the mainstream Dutch society. With little or even none Dutch or English language capability and strong ties with their country of origin, they tend to cling to their own ethnic community.
However, the picture of second-generation Chinese youths, who were born and raised in the Netherlands, is completely different. They are known to perform exceptionally well at school and many move on to higher education. They are also successful in the labor market with frequent high-status positions. Having grown up in the Netherlands has enabled them to better integrate into the Dutch society. Although many communicate with their parents in their mother tongue, they have native command of Dutch. As a matter of fact, a proportion of them have even lost their mother tongue entirely; one in five second-generation Chinese speak no Chinese at all (Gijsberts, 2011). As a unique group that is influenced by two cultures, the second-generation Chinese youths are forming their own identities, navigating through two different worlds. Some studies suggest they have emerged as a ‘highly educated, modern and cosmopolitan group’ different from both the first generation and the native Dutch society.
The purpose of my study is to understand how second-generation Chinese youths in the Netherlands experience their bicultural identity. My research was led by the following questions to probe into their worlds: What moments of consciousness or conflicts of identities do they experience as they navigate the different worlds of the Chinese and Dutch communities? What kind of agency do they have in dealing with their bicultural identity? To answer these questions, I conducted in-depth interviews with four second-generation Chinese youths, all college students. I also participated in an event of a local second-generation youth community in which one of my respondents was involved. At the start of my research, the second generation community seemed completely invisible to me. But gradually people I knew ‘snowballed’ until I gained a clearer picture of the community and their personal experiences, which proved to be much more complex than the success story often painted of them.
I had my first interview with Cynthia (for privacy reasons, all names are fictional), a 20-year-old student of International Business in Haarlem. After some Facebook messages she agreed to be interviewed so we met two days after. Before I met her at Amsterdam Central Station, I was a bit concerned about how the interview would turn out. It was my first time doing an interview like this, and I wasn’t sure if she would openly share her stories with me. Yet it proved to be a pleasant experience – Cynthia was an easy-going and open girl whom I shared a lot of commonalities with. We both enjoyed our conversation so much (and the food, of course, in Cynthia’s favorite Chinese restaurant in Amsterdam) that when we realized we had been sitting there for too long, we had already talked non-stop (or probably only paused for eating when the other was talking) for four hours. The interview with Cynthia gave me confidence in conducting future interviews, and helped me see things I didn’t realize when first drafting my research questions. Later on, I found much more than I had initially expected from the other interviews as well.
My second respondent, 23-year-old Jonathan, studies Public Administration and Government in, according to him, the best University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. On a lovely Thursday morning he came all the way from his hometown Heemskerk to Amsterdam to be interviewed by me, claiming that ‘I love sharing my stories’ and ‘I feel like it’s my duty and honor to show friends from abroad around in Amsterdam and/or Holland’. Our talk was carried over a traditional Surinamese lunch (because Jonathan wanted to introduce me to Surinamese food) and a walk around the Albert Cuyp market followed by some coffee at a gezellige (cosy) café.
The day after, I invited Jonathan to a jazz performance and he brought along his friend, Feng. He naturally became my third informant as I was then in the process of ‘breaking into’ the circle of second-generation Chinese, so I decided not to let the chance slip away. Feng is a 20-year-old medical student at the VU, a Christian University at the outskirts of Amsterdam-South, who lives near my neighborhood in Amsterdam-West. He suggested a nice Turkish restaurant nearby and I finally tried some traditional Turkish meal other than kebab for the first time.
Well, food seems to have always been my priority, even in an academic paper like this. But I believe that food set up a great basis for all my interviews and I’m glad all my respondents have good taste in food. So does my last informant, Peter, a 20-year-old medical student from Driebergen, who took me all the way to Amstelveen just to let me try the best Korean food around Amsterdam. Thanks to the good food, my interviews have all been pleasant and inspiring.
At the start of each interview, I asked my respondents to define how much, by percentage, they felt Dutch and how much they felt Chinese. The result was a decrease of ‘Dutch-ness’ and an increase of ‘Chinese-ness’ as the interviews progressed. Cynthia believed she was 70% Dutch and 30% Chinese, scoring the highest for her ‘Dutch-ness’, while Peter thought he had 75% Chinese-ness within himself, thus scoring the lowest in terms of Dutch-ness. Jonathan and Feng scored in the middle by both giving themselves a 50% to 50% ratio of Dutch-ness to Chinese-ness.
It was not surprising to discover that although they each defined themselves differently in terms of their bicultural identification, they all agreed on possessing a hybrid/hyphenated identity that encompasses both cultures. This concurs with the findings of Verkuyten and Kwa (1996) that the two dominant identity positions among Chinese in the Netherlands were ethnic and hyphenated positions. The main arguments my respondents used to account for their hybrid identities also fell into the discourse models provided by a study of Verkuyten and de Wolf (2002, in Belanger & Verkuyten, 2010: 145), about ‘being Chinese in the physical appearance that attests to a Chinese ancestry’; ‘feeling Chinese through socialization into Chinese families’; and ‘doing Chinese by possessing critical attributes of Chinese culture’.
Yet the differences in their level of hybridization demonstrate distinct individual acculturation processes that range from separation, to assimilation, integration, and marginalization (Berry, 2002). The different acculturation processes they experience play out in the ways they each position themselves within the Dutch society. In the following discussion I will trace some of these processes through the personal stories of my respondents, with regard to their upbringing and their experiences of uniqueness in difference, belonging vs. fitting in, and rediscovering difference.
To understand the differences of self-positioning and self-identification among the respondents, I dug deeper into their family background and traced back to how they grew up.
Cynthia’s parents were originally from Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province. Like many other Chinese migrants, they opened up a restaurant after they settled down. But unlike many others, they opened up a snack bar selling traditional Dutch snacks instead of Chinese food. Their business got so busy that Cynthia had to take care of her two younger siblings at home when her parents were working at the snack bar. She mentioned that this shaped her character.
Cynthia: ‘Because my family environment was relatively free and because I grew up taking care of my little brother and sister, I am independent. I have my own opinion.’
She stressed her ‘own opinion’ and that she was not purely Chinese as she didn’t agree with some of the Chinese values. For example:
Cynthia: ‘I don’t like how Chinese people teach their children.’
Cynthia: ‘Most Chinese people want to behave in front of other people to show their social status while they behave differently at home.’
Cynthia then talked about how traditional Chinese parents teach their children to say nice things about their families and behave nicely in front of other people, which sometimes differs from what they usually do privately. She disliked these Chinese attempts to impress others while socializing, and felt awkward when she was asked to behave so, like a nice Chinese girl.
Cynthia: ‘When I was little, my mom dressed me in fancy dresses to go to parties.’
I could imagine how Cynthia disliked this as she had grown to be an athletic girl, who wore a casual T-shirt and jeans and carried a skateboard when we first met. Skateboarding has become her hobby and she would often hang out with her fellow skateboarders on weekends to practice.
Cynthia grew up in IJmuiden in a Dutch neighborhood where their family were the only Asians around, and she went to a predominantly ‘white‘ Dutch school. She didn’t grow up with other Asian children; instead her best friend was a Dutch girl who lived in the same street. They had known each other since they were five years old and have been friends ever since. Until this day, Cynthia doesn’t have many Chinese-Dutch friends.
Cynthia: ‘I don’t really hang out with other Chinese-Dutch kids. I don’t like how they cling to their own circles without interacting with the Dutch culture.’
Cynthia’s living environment thus resulted in a Dutch socialization, which equipped her with Dutch critical attributes from a young age that contributed to her orientation toward the Dutch culture. It is also worth noting that Cynthia defined herself as distant from the Chinese culture by separating herself from the Chinese stereotypes. As Belanger and Verkuyten (2010: 144) have argued, ‘identities are relational such that people always define themselves in dialogue or in contrast with others’. Cynthia’s self-positioning within the Dutch culture was based on the ideological contrast she drew against the Chinese culture.
– Jonathan –
Jonathan’s parents came to the Netherlands from Hong Kong and they bore two children here, him and his six-year-older brother. Jonathan’s father passed away when he was only two years old. I was surprised that Jonathan told me about this within the first five minutes of our meeting when I hadn’t even started asking any questions – for a moment I was confused about the sudden revealing of his history and I didn’t know how to react. My uncle passed away when his son, my cousin, was only two so I knew exactly how the death of a father might affect a son. Yet there was Jonathan sitting in front of me, talking about something heavy in such a casual manner. Later into our conversation I discovered that all these years of growing up depending upon no one but himself had shaped him into who he was.
Jonathan’s mother ‘allowed him to do whatever he wanted’, which he stressed was unlike other conventional Chinese parenting styles. ‘I like the Dutch way of parenting because parents are like friends with their children.’ And he attributed his independent personality to his mother’s unconventional way of raising him.
Where he went to school there were mainly Dutch kids with only a few other Asian kids. However, he still chose to mingle mostly with Asians.
Jonathan: ‘When I was at school, I didn’t mingle with the Dutch kids, only with the Asian kids.’
Me: Why not?
Jonathan: ’I didn’t feel comfortable.’
Jonathan: ’I didn’t know how to socialize in their way.’
The early discomfort Jonathan experienced mainly came from the fact that his interests differed from those of the Dutch people. Apparently, although he admired the Dutch style of upbringing, he did not identify with the Dutch socialization and thus possessed fewer typically Dutch critical attributes than Cynthia did. Therefore he was more oriented toward the Chinese side, yet he reported to have separate friend circles of both Dutch and Asians now in college and he devoted the same amount of time mingling in each one. Later I learned it was a conscious choice that he made to maintain integrated in the Dutch community. But what about his best friend? ‘Definitely Feng.’
– Feng –
Feng’s parents came from Guangdong province. He has an eight-year-older sister who came to the Netherlands with their parents before Feng was born here. ‘Growing up was hard’, Feng kept saying,
Feng: ‘My childhood can be described as ‘falling behind’. At school, I was falling behind because I couldn’t speak Dutch. At home, I was falling behind because my Cantonese was always not good enough compared to my sister.’
To Feng, the difficulty of growing up did not only display itself in terms of languages. He recalled his ‘painful childhood’ to me as the only Asian kid in his school.
Feng: ’I grew up in the Turkish community, and because my parents wanted to send me to a local school since it’s convenient, I went to a school where there were mainly Turkish and Moroccan kids.’
Me: How did that feel?
Feng: ’Not good, of course. I was bullied, a lot.’
Me: Why? Because you are Chinese?
Feng: ’No, not because of I’m Chinese, but because I’m the minority.’
Me: How could you tell?
Feng: ’‘cause there was only one Dutch guy in my school, he was bullied as well.’
Me: Did you have friends?
Feng: ’Hmm… there was one guy I considered as friend, an Afghan guy, but I doubted if he took me as a friend. He was the one who bullied me the least.’
Feng said it all got better when he went to middle school and high school where there were more Dutch kids. Yet it was still hard to imagine how Feng managed to get through elementary school.
Me: Did your parents know that you were bullied at school?
Feng: ’They did. My mom used to work at my school.’
Me: Oh really! What did she do?
Feng: ’She prepared coffee for the teachers.’
Like most first-generation Chinese immigrants, Feng’s parents spoke not a word of Dutch or English and could only take up basic manual jobs like making coffee. While it was by no means easy for Feng’s mother to get a job at an elementary school when most Chinese immigrants opened up their own businesses or restaurants, imagine how hard it would be for her son who went to the same school.
Feng: ’I was broken into pieces at school every day. And when I got home, I was scolded and beaten by my dad because he thought I got bullied because I was weak…I had to get myself together every night.’
Me: Why? Where did you get the strength to do so?
Feng: ’Strength? I had no strength. I only knew if I didn’t, I would be broken into smaller pieces the next day.’
When Feng was ten, his parents divorced. Soon thereafter, his father left the Netherlands for China. Then Feng began to take on the responsibility as the only man in his family to take care of his mother and sister. And that has definitely had a significant impact on his personality and sense of belonging. It was hard for Feng to define his integration into the Dutch community. Although he said to have 50% Dutch identification and a circle of Dutch friends, he didn’t seem to see himself as a member of any community, not even the Chinese-Dutch community.
– Peter –
Same as Cynthia’s, Peter’s parents were also from Wenzhou. His father came to the Netherlands at the age of 18, ‘to make money’ according to Peter, later he married Peter’s mother who was also from Wenzhou and they had two children, Peter and his 25-year-old brother. Peter called his parents ‘stereotypical Chinese parents who have high expectations on their kids’. Growing up, he felt pressured being asked to learn the piano and get good grades at school.
Peter: ‘Sometimes their expectations get so high that’s impossible to achieve. Sometimes an eight is not good enough for them.’
He also went to a Dutch school where he was the only Chinese and the one other minority at school was a Turkish girl. Different from Feng, Peter didn’t recall any bullying or discrimination as the minority at his school. In fact, aside from school, he grew up surrounded by a huge Chinese community because of his family. Both of his parents are devout Christians so Peter grew up going to a Chinese church and hanging out with other second-generation Chinese children there. He also formed his social circle around religion. He was actively involved in a youth fellowship, JC (Christelijke Jongerenclub) for second- and third-generation Chinese youth Christians. He invited me to a JC activity once, and there I met many other second generations and, among them, Peter’s best friend, who was also an active member of JC. There I also found out that someone there actually knew Jonathan. Somehow they all could connect to each other as they kept telling me ‘the Chinese community here is a small circle’. It was then that I finally felt to have ‘broken into’ the community.
Since he was so involved in his own Chinese-Dutch community here, Peter didn’t hang out with Dutch people often.
Peter: ’I don’t like hanging out with Dutch people. It’s just not fun.’
Peter: ’I’ve been to their parties and hung out with them. But I don’t like drinking and partying. And someone would just start talking about last night’s party and how someone started throwing up… I have nothing to say.’
As a matter of fact, Peter was the only one among the four respondents who said he possessed a ‘Chinese’ identity while the other three all answered a hybrid identity as ‘Chinese-Dutch’. Interestingly, Peter said ‘I’m Chinese’ even though he was aware that he was, in fact, a Chinese-Dutch who held a Dutch passport and spoke Dutch better than any other languages.
Peter consciously chose to identify himself by his ethnic identity, which demonstrates a preference for separation, as suggested by Belanger and Verkuyten (2010). It seemed that even after all these years growing up in the Dutch society, Peter still felt more oriented toward his Chinese heritage characterized by high involvement in the Chinese community and low contact with the mainstream Dutch culture.
Uniqueness in difference
The most salient differences among the four respondents were their levels of acculturation into the Dutch society. At the root of the differences lay varying attitudes toward acculturation. As I explored how the four of them grew up, I was curious about finding out whether they were aware of their differences as an ethnic minority and how they dealt with the differences. It turned out that all of them were aware of their differences since a young age, yet they reacted differently toward the differences which accounts for all the difference in their respective process of hybridization and acculturation.
According to Cynthia, she first realized her difference when she went to Dutch parties dressed in fancy clothes while all the other people were wearing casual outfit. Later on, the identity conflict arose when she had to sacrifice time to hang out with friends to help out at her parents’ snack bar on special occasions like Queen’s Day.
Cynthia: ‘I always knew I was different. But I didn’t see the difference as a negative thing. That might be why I was able to get involved and accepted as a part of the Dutch culture. I think those Chinese-Dutch who cling to their own circles might be insecure about their difference, or they might have assumptions of their difference when they interact with the Dutch people.’
Cynthia held a positive attitude toward her difference and relatively less desire to maintain her Chinese culture. Contrary to the anxiety and insecurity felt by most Chinese descendants towards ‘not being Dutch’ without a claim of Dutch blood and ancestry, Cynthia still found her place in the Dutch society by ‘feeling’ and ‘doing’ Dutch, namely having Dutch socialization and Dutch critical attributes.
Unlike Cynthia’s version, the stories of Jonathan and Feng were quite different
Jonathan: ’“Allochtoon” [foreigner] and “autochtoon” [native] are used to divide the population of the country… “Allochtoon” has a negative vibe to it and is applied to non-white people.’
Me: Have you ever been called that?
Jonnathan: ’This guy that scolded me.’
Me: How old were you?
Jonathan: ’I don’t know… It was like when you make a mistake at the traffic, people scold at you, something like ‘asshole’, and other thing… ‘you are a dirty allochtoon’. But it’s really weird, usually [said by] ignorant people.’
Me: What’s your reaction?
Jonathan: ’Just walk along.’
Me: What’s your inside feeling?
Jonathan: ’Punch them.’
Among all the respondents, Jonathan was the only one who mentioned the two Dutch words representing ‘outsider’ in order to illustrate how discrimination exists in the daily lives of ethnic minorities in the Netherlands. And through our conversation, I noticed that Jonathan tended to provide answers generalizable to a larger Chinese-Dutch community instead of answers particularly relating to himself, even if I specifically asked for ‘your own experience’. Maybe his generalization implied that he believed his experiences echoed with the larger Chinese-Dutch community, or maybe his avoidance of speaking about himself could be a result of isolation from the external world given his family background.
Still, from Jonathan’s mentioning of ‘allochtoon’ and ‘autochtoon’, I could feel a strong self-consciousness about not ‘being’ Dutch in terms of having Dutch appearance and ancestry.
Jonathan: ’After high school, I construct my identity by choosing to have both Dutch and Asian circles.’
Me: Which circle is more comfortable to you?
Jonathan: ’The Asian circle.’
Me: Why would you mingle with the Dutch circle?
Jonathan: ’I felt I had to have both, in order to succeed in the society.’
Me: Was it hard for you, mingling with the Dutch?
Jonathan: ’Yes. At first I didn’t know what to say to them. But it was always helpful to start with sports.’
Me: Do you feel comfortable now?
Jonathan: ’The Asian circle is still my comfort zone. Mingling with the Dutch circle was my conscious decision.’
Contrary to Jonathan, Feng was surprisingly open about his past. Even though he refused to illustrate the details of how he was bullied, he was willing to share with me almost everything else. As he put it, ‘the first time I’ve told my story so thoroughly’.
Feng: ’I am used to the fact that I’m different. I got bullied because of the difference.’
Me: What was your reaction to the bullying?
Feng: ’It got to a point where I don’t care anymore… I used to be disturbed by the bullying so I went to a psychiatrist at the age of 12. But the psychiatrist started laughing at how I was bullied… So I was like, this is not going to work.’
Feng had a rapid grow-up. Struggling through both the Dutch world and the Chinese world at home has made him grow up faster than others. Second-generation youths have to face the social normative obligations in both mainstream and heritage cultures, while failing to fulfill these normative obligations can place youths in a position to experience psychological distress (Giguere, Lalonde & Lou, 2010). Suffering from social rejection, Feng tried to escape from the pressure from both worlds by hiding into his own space.
Me: You can speak so many languages, which one is your favorite?
Feng: ’I picked up English watching television when I was little. It was always fun. I like English because when I speak English, I am away from both school and home. I create my own space when I speak English.’
While Jonathan consciously chose to integrate into the mainstream even though he didn’t like being the ‘different’, Feng instead chose to create a space of his own to consciously isolate himself from both worlds that he was attached to. By doing so, Feng separates himself from the negative experiences of being different in both worlds. I guess when one is too young to make changes to his own surroundings, what he learns is to avoid the pressure by escaping from the reality.
Whereas Jonathan and Feng constructed their identities by consciously building their friend circles and creating their own space, Peter is satisfied with who he is and what he’s comfortable with.
Peter: ’I’m always aware of my difference, and I’m always proud of being a Chinese. I like hanging out with friends from JC. They are my family.’
All four of them have had the awareness of their difference from the mainstream society since a young age, yet they all possess uniqueness in their attitudes toward the difference. Some, like Cynthia and Peter, chose to embrace the difference and accept it the way it is. Cynthia didn’t think the difference would hinder her from integrating into the mainstream society, thus it turned out not to be a problem. And Peter was more prone to the Chinese side of himself, which he felt he identified more with and felt more comfortable with. Others, like Jonathan and Feng, were somewhat disturbed by the difference and experienced self-conscious difference more frequently.
Belonging vs. fitting in
The concepts of ‘belonging’ and ‘home’ were frequently mentioned in my interviews. For me, to answer the question of ‘where I belong’, or ‘where is home’ is easy. I don’t even need to think about it before giving an answer. However, when I asked my interviewees where they belong and where home is, some of them hesitated before giving an answer. Interestingly, their answers display different levels of integration to the mainstream Dutch culture. Cynthia and Peter provided quick and firm answers without much deliberation.
Cynthia: ’I feel I belong more here (the Netherlands). When I went to China, I only went because I was visiting my grandparents. I liked it there (China). I just didn’t feel home there.’
Peter: ’I belong to the second-generation Chinese community in the Netherlands.’
The belonging Cynthia and Peter experience concurs with the idea that ‘when being Dutch is defined ethnically, belonging as Dutch citizens for individuals of Chinese descent has to be asserted with other arguments, such as early socialization and the possession of critical attributes’ (Belanger & Verkuyten, 2010: 159). Jonathan and Feng gave me two different answers that had similar implications.
Jonathan: ’My friends say I’m “international”. I’m not really Chinese, and I’m not really Dutch. I don’t feel like home in Hong Kong, I don’t feel like home in the Netherlands either. But when I leave the Netherlands for some time, I miss it here.’
Me: What is it that you miss?
Jonathan: ’The public transportation, the language, the clean air… many things. It’s where I have spent my entire life.’
To Jonathan, the Netherlands is what he is familiar with. When away, he misses the familiarity associated with the Netherlands, yet just like he said, still he didn’t ‘feel home’ here. Feng also mentioned an interesting point:
Feng: ’I don’t think I belong anywhere. But I can fit in everywhere.’
According to Feng, he takes on different roles when interacting with different people. He called himself a ‘catalyst’, by which he meant he could empathize with people and help them make decisions and understand themselves better.
Feng: ’I take on different roles when I interact with people. So I think I can always “fit in” and get along with people well.’
Me: If you are always changing roles… what is the real you like?
Feng: ’Hmm… I haven’t thought about this before… The real me is the logical me, the rational me.’
The discovery that a person’s identity can become fragmented and even lost was astonishing to me. By trying hard to take on different roles to face the world out of the insecurity of one’s own identity, one might lose his or her authentic identity and true self. Or maybe the identity is only hidden instead of lost. In Feng’s case, I could feel his desire to position himself in the society and his frustration when he couldn’t find belonging. But still, he demonstrated his own agency by always keeping on trying.
If the ‘feeling of home’ is also defined as a sense of belonging, then what does ‘home’ mean to bicultural second generation youths? All four answered their own immediate family when I asked what ‘home’ meant to them. For them, ‘home’ is just a small space contained within the larger mainstream culture, where their differences no longer exist. They speak their parents’ native dialects at home and eat Chinese food (all of them have at least one Chinese meal every day at home). My assumption is that languages no longer carry cultural meanings to them. Instead they are merely tools for communication for the bicultural second-generation youths. Thus when they use the languages, they don’t feel culturally attached to them, neither to the Chinese side nor to the Dutch side.
All interviewees except for Peter experienced a shift of attitude toward the Chinese heritage while they were growing up. They all reported going to Chinese schools to learn Mandarin (Jonathan also went to another language school to learn Cantonese) during weekends since the age of 5 to 7. And they all stopped learning the language after around three or five years. The major reason of quitting was that they found it not useful in their daily lives; no one used Chinese at school, and at home local dialects were spoken. However, later they all came to regret to have stopped learning Chinese. But the reasons behind their regrets were different.
Cynthia, as a student majoring in International Business, believed it was necessary for her to have a command of Chinese since more and more international businesses have relations with China. In addition to that, during her visit to China last year, she found it upsetting when she couldn’t even communicate more with people she met beyond simple talks such as asking for directions.
Cynthia: ‘I now regret to have not learned Chinese well, when I realized how beautiful the country and its culture were when I was there last year. And I also regret to not have my Chinese name printed on my passport.‘
Cynthia’s Chinese first name is Hui, a character meaning wisdom and talent. When I told her the meaning (which she knew as ‘something beautiful’ but had forgotten its actual meaning), she said, ‘Exactly! I wished I could have it on my passport when I realized how unique it is.’
Cynthia also noticed a subtle change of behavior that even surprised herself. She had always pronounced her last name ‘Wu’ as ‘Vu’ in a Dutch way, while it was recently that she heard herself saying ‘I’m Cynthia Wu’, sounding in a Chinese way as ‘Woo’, when she was starting a class presentation. She was really surprised at the subconscious change, which she later attributed to an increased appreciation of her heritage culture.
For the young Jonathan, Dutch school on weekdays, Cantonese school on Saturdays, and Mandarin school on Sundays was too much, therefore he quit after five years of ‘suffering’. He said the first-generation Chinese immigrants were pretty strict about preserving Chinese culture on their children, but the second generation would much less have their children attend language schools. Speaking about himself, he did feel the need to pick up Mandarin again:
Jonathan: ‘If I want to succeed in both worlds, it will be better if I speak both languages.‘
Feng’s rediscovery of difference doesn’t merely lie in the appreciation of the Chinese language. His turning point was when he turned 15 years old; he realized he could actually use the knowledge of two cultures to his advantage.
Feng: ‘After realizing that I can make use of my bicultural knowledge to my advantage, I feel more like a bridge between the Dutch and the Chinese cultural groups. I can translate stuff from one group to another. I can help my mother with, for instance, reading letters from the gas company. I can also introduce cultures to each other, like, I always explain to my Dutch friends what they feel confused about when it comes to China.‘
As for Peter, even though he had always appreciated his cultural heritage, he still experienced a stage of dislike when he was pressured by his family to go to weekend language schools. His rediscovery occurred when he was applying for college; he wanted to get in the lottery for medical studies, but if he didn’t get in, he was prepared to go to China for a year just to learn Mandarin.
Peter: ‘I feel, as a Chinese, that I am obliged to learn the language.‘
Peter: ‘Because I want to pass the Chinese culture on to my kids, the third generation. And if I were to pass on the culture, it’s important for me to be able to speak the language to teach my kids.‘
As everyone experienced a rediscovery of their heritage language, Cynthia, Jonathan and Feng base their appreciation upon the practicality of knowing Mandarin, decoupled from its cultural aspect. Peter was the only one appreciating the language as a symbol of his heritage culture. Their appreciation of Mandarin highly correlates to the degree in which they identify with their Chinese heritage.
Four similar yet different life stories unfolded in front of me as my research progressed. Each of the respondents had such unique life experiences of their identities while they are categorized as the same second-generation Chinese in the Netherlands. Their stories brought me new perspectives in viewing second-generation Chinese youths, both in the Netherlands and in other parts of the world such as the United States. I realized that I had been taking things for granted and had been having many assumptions toward this ‘imagined community’ of second-generation Chinese that were mainly composed of stereotypes and prejudices. By knowing more about a community which I completely had no knowledge of, I realized how easily most people, including me, fall into drawing conclusions so easily. Thanks to this research, I began to really appreciate every individual instead of blind generalization.
While I’ve been trying to get answers, I found myself encountering more questions along the way. The rise of immigration in the past century has definitely been a result of globalization. However, does globalization also bring about inter-group understanding, or on the contrary, more stereotypes and prejudices? Despite of more inter-group interaction between the second-generation immigrants and the mainstream culture in which they live, the second generations also create their own community separated from either their heritage or the mainstream culture due to social discomfort from both. As it is uneasy for them to navigate through both worlds, what can we, as a global community, do to ease their anxiety and the dilemmas they face in dealing with their bicultural identities?
Most of the questions are those I couldn’t possibly answer with only a few months of research and observation. Yet I’m sure with a deeper understanding of them, we could gain a better idea of the impact of globalization and immigration in a transnational context.
(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)
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