By Chén Yántiān
Largely absent from the world of academia are studies of individuals who personally identify as a mixture of Chinese and Western. Present studies whose foci are centered on using the umbrella term Asian are certainly important. However, in using such a term, there is a tendency to refer to what Edward Said (1978) coins as Orientalism, the Western conception of the Eastern world, in which the East is always and only understood in relation to the West. The harmful effects of using the term Asian as such is the perpetuation of Orientalism – where the Eastern world is not only seen through the lens of the West, but understood as a homogenous body of peoples. In doing so, reductionist ideals inform and create paradigms of race, ethnicity, and history in the non-Western world, including the world of “Asian“ youth in the “West.“
Broadly speaking, people belonging to the Chinese diaspora are the proposed areas of interest and research. The motivation and rationale lies within academia, and personal ties. I hope to pay special attention specifically to the Chinese Dutch in a contemporary setting in upholding the ethics of academia. It is the responsibility of scholars to contribute meaningful research. Because literature on the Chinese Dutch is almost non-existent, I hope to fill the void present in the intersection between youth cultures, race, and Asian studies. In doing so, I wish to complicate the dialogue of Asian youth cultures by introducing nuances of pride in unique cultural practices.
Beyond the realm of academia lie dormant my own personal experiences as a Chinese American. My personal identification of Western and Chinese fusion has spilled into the field of research. By and large, I would describe the relationship between the two cultures as a war between resistance and assimilation. For my own personal growth, I hoped to collect narratives of tension, but also narratives of inner peace. In addition, I hoped that I will be able to open a safe space to explore conflicting identities because it hardly exists as an area of discussion.
Double Consciousness and Marginal Man
The origins of my scholarly perspective into conflicting identities lie within the works of scholars who do not necessarily describe a Chinese Western individual. Rather, my personal and academic interests of the Chinese diaspora are influenced by the work of W.E.B. DuBois (1990), and his theory of double consciousness. His theory focuses on the lives of African Americans who face a psychological issue in which they are of African descent, but live in a society with European influence. Although double consciousness is grounded in the African American experience, I do not see why it would not be applicable to the Chinese American experience, or the Chinese Dutch experience. The question is, then, how does one retain their heritage while facing new forms of “superior” thinking? DuBois himself does not propose an answer to such a question. However, he continues to highlight the struggle that African Americans find themselves in. They have a dual identity of being both African, and American. Similarly the concept should be applicable to the Chinese Dutch experience, especially in our contemporary global world, which faces forces of homogenization. The Chinese growing up in the Western world face a similar predicament. They are both Chinese and American, or Chinese and Dutch. However, they are not fully Chinese, or fully American or Dutch. Although living within two cultures provides this double consciousness, or double insight into two cultures, it may also be a source of pain. The source of this pain according to Robert Park’s (1929) theory of the Marginal Man lies within the fact that an individual with two cultural identities struggles in establishing a single identity.
These two theories are largely applicable to youth studies. Youth studies, which often struggles to define youth is largely focused on expressions of identity. Youth culture studies addresses the question of how identity is formed in this period labeled youth. The state of youth provides a transition in space and in time. In this stage of growth, youth face the rules of their parents to a lesser extent. However, they are not completely autonomous and independent individuals. This transition phase of relatively lax rules, and more freedom, provides youth with the space and time to establish their own identity. It becomes more difficult when thinking of Park and DuBois. How are youth affected by their double consciousness? They are in a position of power to decide how they wish to mediate the two conflicting cultures. They are in a position of power to decide who they are in relation to their heritage and their contemporary setting.
Moving forward, I hope to address the question of the ways in which Dutch Chinese youth manage their double consciousness. Are they Chinese? Are they Dutch? Or are they Dutch Chinese? Are there cultural practices, such as holidays, food, and language usage that ally their identity with one or the other? Or perhaps there is a mixing and blending occurring in the creation of an identity that is entirely new and distinct.
Participants in my research fall in the range of what Arnett (2004) coins as emerging adulthood. Arnett’s definition uses age to quantify the experience. The boundaries of emerging adulthood are determined as the late teens to the mid to late twenties. My population of interest will fall between the ages of 18 and 27. 18 fits into Arnett’s loosely termed late teens, and 27 also fits into what Arnett describes as late twenties. This period is especially important to my study as this is a period of independent exploration. This greater freedom is essential in the agency of identity discovery, and formation. It is the period in which individuals ideally have the freedom, independence, and agency to explore who they are, freer from the influence of parents and friends. That however, is not to say their identity is completely independent of parents and peers.
My methodology is focused on the qualitative method of interviewing participants who fit the description. I was able to meet with three individuals. For purposes of privacy on behalf of said participants, I will utilize pseudo-names. My first meeting was with Zhang Wei, an 18-year-old student studying economics. For my second interview, I met with Aaron Chan, a 22-year-old business student. Finally, the only female participant I met with was Li Xin, a 27-year-old law student. It is imperative to highlight that my small sample size does not, and cannot speak upon the entire experience of being Dutch Chinese. However, that is not to say that the sample is entirely invaluable. The interviews all lasted from 40-50 minutes, which provides rich detail into the lives of my participants. The participants involved in the study therefore provide valuable insights and experiences of what life may entail for the Dutch Chinese.
Living Life on the Margin
One component of my research was focused on the reflection of theoretical constructs in the lives of the Dutch Chinese.. The first concept that drew my interest was Robert Park’s Marginal Man. My interest lied within his analysis and conception of migrants who ultimately experience malaise throughout their life as the result of their migrant identity. According to Park (1929) key characteristics of his Marginal Man (or woman) include persons who seek more favorable conditions of life, experiencing release and freedom in which opinion becomes superior to tradition and custom. Eventually the breaking of home ties due to economic migration will lead to a social relationship of assimilation. Although this appears to be straightforward, Park believes that restlessness, inner turmoil, intense self-consciousness and ultimately, malaise are byproducts because of the fact that the obstacle to cultural assimilation lies within divergent physical traits, and not mental capabilities.
Furthermore, it is important to highlight that Park is focused on the direct migrant experience, not necessarily the experiences of migrant children. For this reason, I will focus on the experiences from parents of participants, as well as my own parents.. Furthermore, I will continue to focus on the participants of the study as an indirect continuation of Park’s Marginal Man because the story does not end with migrant parents. According to Zadie Smith (2000) these are “children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checks” (326).
With the narratives provided on a second hand account on the lives of participants’ parents, all have come seeking more favorable conditions of life. All participants have stated that their parents arrived in the Netherlands “for a better life.” Both Li Xin and Aaron Chan’s parents are involved in the restaurant business as a means of achieving a higher economic status. Interestingly, Zhang Wei had noted that many Chinese migrants arrived in the Netherlands for a better life, but many of them pursued such a route via the restaurant business. He identified his parents as “not like other Chinese,” a hierarchical theme to be explored in depth later. Wei’s parents sought more favorable conditions through corporations; his mother worked in an international company who sought out her multi-language abilities. Regardless of profession, all participants have cited their parents’ desire for more favorable conditions of life as a motivating factor for migration.
Furthermore, the distancing away from tradition is another criterion of the Marginal Individual. A reoccurring theme was absence of cultural holidays. With my own immigrant parents in mind, I was surprised to discover that Chinese New Year, or October 1st was not celebrated. All three individuals had reported that their families simply did not engage in any of the practices or activities associated with the two major holidays. However, I use the word distancing deliberately because a ruination of culture does not actually occur. Therein lies the restlessness and malaise, as tradition appears to be inferior, but not altogether absent. The participants’ parents all exhibit their own forms of agency manifested as resistance to complete assimilation. Their resistant agency towards cultural homogenization is expressed through everyday practices, in particular, language. Wei and Xin’s parents are incapable of speaking Dutch. Thus, the Chinese dialect of Wenzhounese remains as one of the primary forms of communication. Aaron’s parents are capable of speaking Dutch, however they continue to resist full assimilation, evident through their preference in language with Aaron. He cited that his parents ensured he learned various dialects of Chinese as a means of communication, and maybe more importantly, the reproduction of culture. In Aaron’s case specifically it is interesting to highlight that their initial economic motives of migration have led to a semi social assimilation through the use of Dutch language
In listening to the stories of my interviewees, I was reminded of my parents’ experiences, their similarities, and their differences. Indeed my parents’ migration was motivated by a desire for economic opportunity, not found in China at the time. My parents have lived in the United States for about thirty years, both gaining their citizenship. Even so, my mother experienced first hand the difficulties of moving up the socioeconomic ladder. Although opportunities presented themselves, there was no guarantee. My mother found herself living in the basement of an insurance company during her first three years in the States. Likewise, my father found it difficult to find a stable job. He started as a traffic officer for the New York Police Department before migrating to the restaurant business. Although both had come for a better life, the first decade was anything but as they finally moved into their exceedingly expensive one bedroom apartment raising two children.
But unlike the narratives of the Dutch Chinese, my parents were much more resistant to assimilation. For them, remaining Chinese was just as important as economic gain. They reinforced Chinese culture through language and practice. From a young age, they always told me that I was Chinese. I wasn’t American. And, although they struggled economically, there was one day in which they swam in wealth, Chinese New Year. They ensured a celebration every year. They ensured that there was always enough food, working overtime as everything was homemade. And unfathomably, they uncovered their stash of safety money in order to give their children hun bao, or red envelopes filled with an expressionless Benjamin Franklin. Ironically, their sacrifice wasn’t watching Benjamin Franklin leave their hands, but watching their son leave their hands in a futile attempt to imitate Benjamin Franklin.
The focus of attention must now be shifted to the original subject matter––Dutch Chinese Youth. There is large support that all these Dutch Chinese Youth have experienced the obstacle to cultural assimilation as a physical problem. Both male participants have mentioned instances in which they have felt excluded by bodies outside of their own, their peers. Growing up, and attending school, Wei and Aaron have described cases of social exclusion on the basis of their physical features. These features are typically associated with being Asian, and essentially then, markers of Otherness, and a lack of belonging. Wei has been a target where racial slurs have been directed at him. He has been called a chink, a Chinese pig, and slanted eye. These physical traits act as a barrier towards assimilation expressed on the ends of his peers. Even so, resistance does not act as a one-way street. Wei himself has resisted assimilation on the basis of physical traits. He has said to himself, “At first its like you look different. Everyone around me was white kids, so should I hang out with them, or not?” Similarly, Aaron recollected memories of his childhood; “sometimes you could feel that people were looking at you differently. I really hated that when I was young.”
The barriers to assimilation, and perhaps to a greater extent, homogenization lie within the conception of race as science, a phenotypic experience wherein identifiable physical traits often determine the line between belonging, and otherness. More importantly, the narrative does not end with physical barriers. The picture is incomplete without taking into account the various other anecdotes that the Dutch Chinese youth have provided in regards to a more social-psychological framing.
The Chinese Experience in a Non-Chinese World
Throughout the interviews, the participants have expressed often-confusing responses when asked about being involved with two cultures. At times, they responded in a manner that had denied culture. Wei has expressed that his mother raised him to be open-minded, and thus he is able to understand multiple cultures regardless of his upbringing. Even so, at other points he has expressed that he has grown up with Chinese values in a Western world, which leads to great inner conflict. Aaron tells a parallel story. He states that he is simply human, which allows him to understand other human beings. Unfortunately, the rationale of simply being human denies the existence of cultural diversity. Even so, Aaron has highlighted instances of culture clash. Growing up in a Chinese household undoubtedly has led to practices distinct from his Dutch counterparts. This was most easily identifiable in the school systems. Bourdieu (1970) sought the relationship between cultural reproduction and education. In short the education system allows for a physical space in which class based, or in this case, race based norms are established, and reestablished simply because norms are understood as just that, norms. Aaron recounted a situation in school where his teacher asked all the students to describe their daily activities. All the Dutch students had dinner with their families at a specific time: 5:30 pm. It was in this instance that Aaron had said he felt different, like an outsider. His family did not eat dinner so early, as his parents worked abnormal hours in the restaurant business. Xin, on the other hand, was more consistent with her responses. For Xin, her twoness has led to a lack of full identification with either culture. She stated she felt neither Chinese, nor Dutch.
Regardless of sometimes-inconsistent responses, there were moments in which a twoness and dichotomy created an understanding of who they are, and who they are not. Wei expressed this sentiment when discussing his parents. He said, “they care about the kids, but they never show it through actions. It’s not like a white family.” Here Wei has a clear understanding and division between the actions, or lack thereof between Chinese families, and white families. He draws a comparison with his Chinese parents, and the customs of what he believes belongs to white families. The comparisons continue; in fact, at a certain point, Wei sees the world, more specifically, himself, or his ethnic group through the eyes of others. When faced, with racial slurs, Wei noted that his agency was expressed through violence. He mentioned several instances in which violence was used in reaction to the micro-level racism. More importantly, the use of violence also signified agency in the sense that it made him distinct from other Chinese people. He said “that’s why mainstream views Chinese as more feminine.” Wei is able to see himself, and his people through the eyes of others; attached to this perception are the judgments. Violence then works as a double agency: the first in relation to racial slurs, and then in retaliation to the perceptions of Chinese.
In a similar fashion, Xin also experiences this twoness. For her, the duality manifests itself in attitude and action. She self aligned with what she believes to be the Chinese value of being humble. At the same time, her actions sometimes reflect what is believed to be distinctly Dutch. She recounts an experience in her class in which she felt that her group received a less than desired grade on their project. She immediately stood up and advocated directly, and bluntly for the grade they desired. Her group members were immediately startled, and told her that was very Dutch of her to be so straightforward.
Wei’s story was the most painful to hear because it reminded me so much of who I used to be. In elementary school, a lot of the other students did not look like me. Most of them were other people of color, but they were black. That is when I first began to understand the conception of race. I had believed that we were all the same; until one of my peers had highlighted that my skin was fairer, that my eyes were smaller, resembling chinks in the wall. It was in that moment that I began to understand myself in comparison to what I was not. Framing the question of who I am became a framing of who I am not. The other students had tormented me about my clothing, hand me downs that my parents could barely afford. Their words attacked me when they could not understand the food that I ate, and the language that I spoke. In their analysis, I could not be American because of these differences although I had been born here. To them the incomprehensible sounds combined with the aromas of subsistence that not only provided for my basic biological functions but for my soul lead to an inherent inferiority on my behalf. And that became a turning point in which I realized I was different. And that became a turning point in which I saw myself in the mirror through the eyes of everyone else, fiercely contemplating every decision I made. Before any choice, I asked myself, is this what an American would do? I denied Chinese as a language, focusing intensely on English in its proper, and its various vernaculars. I denied my food for believing it had led me to inferiority. I used the hun bao, the Chinese tradition to transform myself into an “American,” buying my way into belonging at the cost of my parents.
Who Am I?
Although the theoretical framework has been established as a legitimate force of explaining the lives of Dutch Chinese youth thus far, the frameworks act as structures. These structures then often intimately tie us down as individuals within the macro-level of society. As such, it can be argued that one’s agency is often subjected, but not to our own control. With that being said, the theoretical frames are somewhat lacking in answering the most pertinent question. Who am I? And who are we? These are questions often unresolved. However, that is not synonymous with complete hopelessness, and Park’s endless malaise. The Dutch Chinese youth express their agency in creating their own identity both consciously through reflection, and also subconsciously through everyday interactions.
When approached about how the Dutch Chinese wish to identify themselves, they were often uncertain. They all responded with answers such as “I don’t know.” “I’m in conflict with my identity.” “I don’t feel Chinese. But I don’t feel Dutch.” “I’m still trying to figure that out.” Regardless of such responses, their personal narratives often provided insight into their identity whether or not they realized it.
A fluid identity is not an entirely new concept. For the most part, two of the three participants embodied that their identity is a fluid one. Through their stories, the two males, Wei, and Aaron manifested the idea of being on the margin quite literally. For the most part, identity has been discussed as a personal perception of oneself. However, identity is also an expression understood by those external to the individual. Identity effectively contains two parts. Identity is also a function of belonging. Friend groups were an essential component in understanding the lives of Wei and Aaron. Furthermore, the friend groups facilitated this idea of a fluid identity, transitioning between two worlds due to their ability to view selves with two different sets of eyes.
Wei had divided his friends into two camps––almost diametrically opposed. His first set of friends, he described as Dutch, which were the majority of his friends. When discussing their activities, Wei said, “We just fuck around. You have energy drink, beer, cigarette, and then you just talk crap. You talk shit to people, that’s pretty much it. We walk around the city and talk crap. We usually hang out in coffee shops and sports bar.” On the other hand, Wei also has a friend group, which he described as international. His international friends were also Western as he had described, but they were also more diverse in terms of nationalities. They included the English, Americans, Canadians, and Indians. With this set of international friends, the activities differed. Wei hesitated in using the word nerd to describe these individuals, however he recognized that their activities might be labeled under the term. He noted that they simply played video games, a lot of FIFA. Furthermore, he stated that it was difficult to bridge both groups together. It is worthy to note several conclusions from Wei’s story. First is his labeling of his friends. They were either Dutch, or international. Each camp had different activities associated with them. Second, he used more normalized terms to describe his Dutch friends. “We just fuck around.” Third, although he did not use the term nerd to describe his international friends, he recognized that the term might be a legitimate one. Associated with nerd are often negative connotations, which suggests an informal hierarchy between friends. Finally, and most importantly, his identity often became fluid. He is located in this liminal, in-between space. That is not to say that he is trapped, as he has the ability to move and transition to and from said groups.
Aaron told a very similar story, separating his friends into two different camps. Again, like Wei, he had distinct associations for each respective camp. Aaron highlighted that his Dutch friends were more interested in sports, which he identified with. However, on the other hand, his friends who were people of color were more interested in playing video games, like Wei’s international friends. Even so, their respective narratives begin to diverge. Wei didn’t necessarily have negative things to say about his non-Dutch friends, but Aaron spoke of his non-Dutch friends much more highly. In Aaron’s words, “I felt like I understood them. We were both different. I started identifying myself with a lot of Turkish, Moroccan, and Egyptian. Anything with a little bit of color that isn’t totally white, I start identifying with them…I had the feeling I could understand them, they could understand me.” In Aaron’s case, the politics of identity is a function of belonging––in terms of commonality, and understanding.
Xin’s narrative differed somewhat from the males participating in the study, however not entirely anomalistic. Unlike Wei or Aaron, she did not divide her group of friends into two distinct camps with different activities and associations. She said that she only had one group of friends, her Asian friends. Even so, what she said about these Asian friends is crucial. “I felt like I belong. It feels like home.” Although Xin is native to the Netherlands, it is interesting to note her usage of the term home, associated with her race and ethnicity, and not a physical space. From what I gathered during the interview, it appeared that her identity was less fluid in comparison to Wei and Aaron. However, Xin’s narrative is important in reinforcing this idea of an imagined community. Her sense of belonging is not manifested in physical spaces, but rather with peoples.
In the final analysis then, one possible response to the question of who am I, is answered by answering the question whom do I belong with? All three individuals have understood their identity in relation to other people. Although it may appear that agency is entirely absent because they understand themselves as a function of others, this is not necessarily the case. For Xin at least, her decision is an active one in which she has the power to choose her associations. In Wei and Aaron’s case, their agency lies also in their ability to decide whom they wish to associate with. To a greater extent, their agency lies within the ability to move, to transition seamlessly between different camps.
Unlike Wei and Aaron, I did not find myself transitioning between two different groups of friends understood primarily in terms of race. This has much to do with the nuances in my narrative. After elementary school, I began to deny my culture and race as Chinese. I had denied my sense of belonging by turning away from my language, food, and family. In a certain sense, I faked it until I made it because I also managed to convince everyone that I was not Chinese. My metamorphosis was completed when members of my own community had no longer accepted me, and identified me as something not Chinese. Other Chinese students would tell me, “Daniel, you aren’t Chinese…like you hardly know the language, or even like know the culture. Like yes, you’re Chinese but there are many aspects of you that draws you away from being like 100% …like I’m Chinese.” A large part of this rationale was that I also did not have many other Chinese friends in an attempt to distance myself from anything associated with being Chinese. For this reason, my story differs from Wei and Aaron’s. I did not have the opportunity to transition between two camps because I always associated with one.
A Prideful Resistance
Throughout the three interviews, all participants had recollected feelings of conflict between the cultures. Even so, they all brought to my attention that the cultures were almost always established in a dualistic, dichotomous manner. Naturally, this was the source of their unease. But, they had also highlighted that the dichotomy was much more than a leveled spectrum with polar ends. Western culture, their Dutch counterpart was often seen at one end of a seesaw, the higher end. This then resulted in their Chinese culture at the Other, lower end. Again, with their ability to see themselves through the lens of an outsider, this was at least the mainstream perception. Leveling the playing field was not the result of some grand symbolic action. Rather, in order to establish a more equal dynamic, agency was expressed through everyday acts of resistance. Primarily resistance is understood as a mental state, their pride for the Chinese culture. Resistance is also expressed into everyday actions of retaining certain aspects of Chinese culture.
In reviewing the notes from my conversation with Xin, her parents spoke primarily their native Chinese dialect of Wenzhounese. Although they worked in the restaurant business, and therefore spoke Dutch with their customers, they primarily spoke Wenzhounese. In communicating within the family, they all spoke Chinese with one another, not Dutch. The resistance to speaking Dutch in universal interactions represents resilience in remaining Chinese. It is opposed to a globally homogenizing world of speaking English. In the more local context, it is about making a living in the Netherlands. And in the more private context of the family, it is about living in one’s past, and present. Not only did Xin’s family speak Chinese as the primary language, but Xin’s resistance to Dutch culture was very straightforward, and blunt in an ironical sense because Dutch culture has been noted for its directness. During our conversation in a Dutch café, she hovered closer to me, lowered her voice, observed her surroundings, and said, “Dutch food is shit.” Furthermore, she expressed feelings of pride in her Chinese culture. Xin expressed disdain for the understandings of Chinese, or Eastern cultures in general as uncivilized. She noted that positive traits were commonly associated with the West; however, these traits are also found in Asian cultures. For Xin, this was a source of pride, and resistance.
Aaron’s family history mimics that of Xin’s. When speaking about growing up within his family, he said that his parents made sure that he spoke Chinese. In fact, Aaron speaks three dialects of Chinese, Wenzhounese, Cantonese, and Mandarin. Although his parents also speak Dutch, they mostly communicate in the various forms of Chinese. Again, the use of one’s native tongue is a resistance to complete homogenization and assimilation into a new culture. Furthermore, Aaron felt pride when his mother talked about the success of his uncles. “I was really proud to be Chinese, I still am proud.”
Wei provided a more interesting narrative because it differed from the previous two. He maintained this idea of resistance by speaking Mandarin with his mother. He maintained this idea of resistance as the result of his mother instilling Chinese values. He maintained this idea of resistance through violence as a means to disprove inferiority through racial slurs. Yet, he also leaned more on the ends of homogenization through stratification. During our conversation on conflicts, he brought up a conflict not between Dutch culture, and Chinese culture. Instead it was between him and a “fob” student. Fob is an acronym for fresh off the boat. The conflict resulted in the problem of naming. Students at the school often confused Wei’s real surname with this fob student’s surname. Although Wei essentially didn’t mind anymore, the fob student remained upset. In fact, Wei had said to the fob student, and her friends, “if you come to Europe, don’t you want to speak better English? Don’t you want to practice? Don’t you want to get to know the Western culture more?” The fob student had stopped talking to Wei after she realized that his values differed greatly from those of her own.
Wei’s case provides a rich complex narrative. There exist practices of resistance towards homogenization, but there also exist practices, which lean towards homogenization. In talking to the fob student, he did in a way reinforce the seesaw structure of East and West dynamics. The use of the term fob to describe the other student suggests an Othering, and essentially a hierarchy. She is fresh off the boat, and therefore, not like everyone else. These fob’s students resistance to speak more English is an expression of their own agency and power against a homogenized body of peoples. Furthermore, Wei ended his anecdote with “you can’t blame society for having a bad view on Chinese people.”
Throughout middle school and high school, my mentality mirrored that of Wei’s. I found myself highly critical of the other Chinese students. I remember using the term fob negatively to describe other Chinese students who spoke primarily Chinese to one another. I sat on my high horse critiquing their choices, placing blame on them for their struggles to assimilate, or more accurately, homogenize. The formation of the term fob from my own mouth was always accompanied by disdain. I too became a guilty actor in reinforcing the imbalance between East and West. In the end, it is difficult to speak for the agency and resistance of all Dutch Chinese. A commonality throughout the stories is retaining the use of Chinese as a means to not integrate fully. It is a means of remembering one’s origins, and continuing such origins. The sentiments of pride weave through their lives. Even so, relationship dynamics are rarely ever as straightforward as we wish them to be. The nice confined understanding of agency as resistance to complete transformation is evident in my story along with Wei’s. I saw my body, my language, ane being through the eyes of another, as if I were truly another. At least in my perception of my identity internally, I was another.
Agents of Our Futures
The most consistent response throughout the interview sessions was the three words “I don’t know.” These words succeeded my question, “who are you, in terms of race and ethnicity?” Perhaps it had much to do with the question itself. It can be difficult to answer such a straightforward and ambiguous question. The participants hinted at how they identified themselves in response to different questions, but even so, their mixed responses were consistent altogether with the response I don’t know.
When discussing his relationship with his mother, Wei began by saying “I’m just a normal Dutch kid.” He continued later on by saying, “[I] look Chinese and have some Chinese part in [myself].” These two quotes together in a sense suggest that Wei doesn’t really know who he is. A similar story is heard in Aaron’s words. At first instinct he responds by saying that he’s Chinese. However, he stuttered and paused a bit afterwards, also noting that he was something else. Xin responded differently, although her response too was consistent with simply not knowing. Xin self identified as something else, however she did not exactly know what this something else was; she struggled to put into words her identity which was distinct from being singularly Chinese, or Dutch.
The narrative does not terminate itself in the present. All three participants had plans for their futures. The most important plan for them was finding the answer to the question of who am I? All three participants highlighted their desires to travel, each with their own nuanced interpretation of travel. The sentiment breathing in Wei’s desire to travel was one of hope, and human connection. He says, “me and my friend decided to travel the world…maybe if I travel, I find who I really am. Maybe I met a girl to help me.” At the moment Wei had no concrete plans, no concrete steps in place, but remained hopeful that a physical journey would translate to a psychological journey towards knowing. What separates Wei’s response from his counterparts is the inclusion of other people, his friend, and a girl he has yet to meet. This again suggests that one’s personal identity is a function of individuals beyond the self. Aaron’s vision of travel diverged slightly from Wei’s. It is very much about identity for Aaron, but the focus was not a racial, or ethnic identity in particular. Rather, the meaning of travel was understood as retaining his youthful identity. Aaron’s ideal future includes “everything but a 9 to 5 job.” He continued, “ I want to see a lot of the world without having any restrictions.” Consequently, travel has a particular significance in direct relation to youth studies. Travel is the manifestation of freedom for Aaron, the freedom from the 9 to 5 job. The 9 to 5 job is representative of a particular lifestyle, often spoken of in regards to confinement, responsibility, and from the perspective of youth, the dread of attaining adult status. Travel embodies the idea of youth, the liberty and energy in exploring uncertainties. This is dialectically opposed to the construction of adulthood as sedentary and settlement.
In several ways, Xin’s narrative was the most interesting. For Xin, travel was an activity she had already done, but also an activity she wishes to continue. Xin recounted several stories of traveling to Thailand. However, for her, the most important part of traveling was the journey itself, not the final destination. For her the journey was highly symbolic for her own personal freedom. This in large part is connected to her childhood. She described herself as an introvert growing up, remaining highly stagnant. There are several takeaways from Xin’s interpretation of travel. For her, travel was not only a physical escape from the Netherlands. It is not simply the crossing of borders, but the crossing over of her past into the present and future. Travel was representative of someone she wished to be, much different from someone she used to be. Furthermore, I had initially believed that female narratives would provide less instances of agency. To my surprise, Xin had much more agency compared to the male interviewees. Like many societies, Chinese culture is engaged in a long tradition of patriarchy, male favoritism, and ultimately, male privilege. For these reasons, I had assumed that Xin would have much less freedom to explore her identity, as fewer opportunities would present themselves. However, in a sense, Xin had the most freedom. Ultimately, then she may have had the most agency of the group, as she broke free from hierarchies keeping us fixed in position.
For many, spatial mobility is motivated by a desire for social mobility. However, these Dutch Chinese youth have other motives for spatial mobility. For them, it is not understood in relation to the material world. It is not necessarily a means of access to opportunity, and economic well-being. For the Dutch Chinese, there is the belief that spatial mobility will translate to identity mobility. For Wei, spatial mobility is believed to translate into discovering himself in relation to and with others. For Aaron, spatial mobility is believed to translate into immobility of his current identity, or the retaining ideal of youth. It is a means of continuing the excitement, uncertainty, and freedoms associated with the youth identity. For Xin, spatial mobility is believed to translate as a response to who she once was. Moving further from the Netherlands is also symbolic for moving away from a previous identity.
The future holds a great significance for me as well. Likewise, I do believe that the future presents itself countless opportunities to address the question, who am I? More importantly, the future offers a chance of redemption. When understood quite literally on an axis, it is the movement and distancing of one point from another. It offers me the chance at least to diverge from a period of self-loathing, and internalized inferiority. The future holds moments of understanding and realization that my language, my food, and my family are sources of pride, and not pain. The past has been a creation of what I desired previously, but the future manifests as the ability to create, and recreate. Like Wei, Aaron, and Xin, travel is a mechanism of distancing myself from a physical space where my identity was conceived. In doing so, we encounter new worlds, new people, and most importantly, new stories. These narratives are the most powerful forms of agency. They are the declarations of sensational experience, of being seen, and being heard. They are the declarations of whom I used to be, attached with feelings of pride or shame, but also the bold declarations of experiences to be actualized.
(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)
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Passerson, J. C., & Bourdieu, P. (1970). Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Smith, Z. (2000). White Teeth. United Kingdom: Hamish Hamilton.