Let me back down. Born in the United States to a Chinese mother and a white father, Gu often refers to herself as “a mixed child”, which I get as a mixed child.
Mixed? Biracial? Eurasian? Make your choice
For my part, I have always identified as “mestizo” rather than, say, “biracial” or “Eurasian”. The first seems too limiting and the second reminds me of Orwell’s 1984.
But last week, for the first time in my life, I came across the term “People of the Global Majority”, as in “Black, Brown, Indigenous and People of the Global Majority” and it spoke to me. In fact, I was totally unprepared for the emotions that followed.
There was a moment of recognition, that yes – we, the “minority” or the “marginalised”, were in fact the majority. It feels empowering in a way that terms like Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) or Black, Asian and Minority Ethnicity (BAME) fail to capture.
And it made me sad.
Gu said, “No part of me would ever hide my identity. It makes me unique and allows me to be more open to learning about new cultures.”
While that may be true for her, it took me years to reach that level of acceptance with myself. To be honest, I’m still unpacking.
White in Hong Kong, Chinese in England, but still just me
Growing up in colonial Hong Kong, whiteness was seen as an aspiration, and as a child I emphasized this aspect of my identity. Like Gu, my parents separated when I was young. My white father returned to England and my Chinese mother raised me on her own, sending me to a school run by missionaries to learn English.
When Gu says, “I’m American when I’m in the United States and Chinese when I’m in China,” I’m happy for her.
My experience, and that of many other PGMs, has been the opposite. I was never more aware of my whiteness than when I was living in Hong Kong after the handover and one of my cousins asked me, “Why are you still here?” Or when strangers spoke to me in English, assuming I didn’t understand Cantonese.
Once two waiters at a Chinese restaurant started gossiping about our table – I don’t remember what they said, only that it was dismissive. When they brought our dishes, I said in strong Cantonese, with a Hong Kong accent, “I can understand Chinese, you know.” Looking back, I was bratty.
The thing is, I never felt Chinese in Hong Kong. Sometimes it worked in my favor. In non-touristy areas, vendors marveled at my fluidity and offered me better service. Yet you still feel like an outsider when something as mundane as eating durian leads the locals around you to comment. “A white person who eats this?“ Yeah, and I don’t even find it stinky.
As a childhood treat, Mom fried bread and covered it with strawberry jam. It made me feel very English to eat toast. It wasn’t until we moved to England that I realized the English didn’t make their toast by frying bread in a wok.
By then, I had learned to minimize my Chinese heritage. I was too proud of my English surname and never used my Chinese name. I avoided words that I couldn’t pronounce, like “chips”.
At first, Mom insisted that I keep reading and writing, but copying Bible passages in Chinese is not what an eight-year-old wants to do. Soon I completely stopped speaking Cantonese. When I was sick I asked for dippy eggs and soldiers when I wanted char siu and rice.
Far from feeling English in England, I realized that I didn’t belong here either. In high school, my classmates called me Cho Chang, the name of a popular Asian character in the Harry Potter series. (You can see why I don’t like Harry Potter.)
When the minority is in fact the majority
Pop culture positions whiteness as the norm. The majority. Even until a few years ago, I thought mixed race meant white mixed with another, as if multiracial existence were drops of color that you could add to white paint. Whiteness is given, but you might get lighter shades of red and blue. It turns out that you can completely leave out white.
That’s why hearing the term PGM loosened something in me, a defensive attitude that I didn’t even know I had. It reminds us of who we were all along, before we learned to define the world in terms of whiteness.
As writer Daniel Lim has written, “The term ‘world majority people’ makes the identities of non-white people independent of whiteness. It is a term that not only decenters whiteness but makes it irrelevant. “
It took me a long time to understand how words can impact a person’s racial identity. When Gu recalls how upsetting it was to be called a “hunxue’er” (literally meaning, a child of mixed blood) by a taxi driver in Beijing, I know the feeling – that strange combination of being altered while making themselves feel special.
“Looking back, it was super lighthearted and most probably a compliment, but he said I looked different or whatever,” Gu told the South China Morning Post. “I got so angry that I cried and told my mom to ‘xia che’ [get out the car], that we had to leave because this guy was so disrespectful. My mom and the taxi driver were both laughing.”
An aside: while certainly the least of JK Rowling’s sins, I still recoil whenever Harry Potter fans say “half-blood” – no doubt a hangover from my years of being called a blood child -mixed.
Reclaim my identity on my own terms
The truth is, People of the Global Majority is a mouthful, and it’s hard to use even when abbreviated as PGM. I don’t really expect anyone to introduce themselves using that as their ID, but no one goes by the name BAME either. These are terms used for groups of people, and by necessity, they iron out our differences. They don’t take into account that a black person moves through the world differently than an indigenous, Asian, or mixed-race person.
When we talk about lived experiences, we must be precise. As a mixed-race woman, my sense of relief in the term PGM comes from the fact that I have spent my life answering questions like, “Is your father white?”
PGM changed my mindset. What would it be like to stop defining myself in fractions – half of this, half of that – and instead be a whole “something”? Maybe PGM isn’t the perfect term, but it’s on the right track. It gives me a feeling of kinship that is hard to find when no one in your extended family looks like you except your siblings.
For a moment, I feel like I’m part of something bigger. No longer a stranger. It’s like I quit trying out for the popular team and somehow ended up on the winning team instead. After all, there is safety — and comfort — in numbers.