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Growing Up Mixed Race in England's Home Counties Sucks

"I'm not sure why you're upset," said one teacher, after I was called a "chink." "You're basically white."
June 15, 2015, 4:02pm

The author (second from left) in Hertfordshire.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

The home counties are a gray space. Bring up photos of your specific home county on Google and outsiders will be unable to distinguish it from all the other green belt buffer zones surrounding London. They all blur into one another, a big grassy haven for city professionals tired of waking up to car alarms and the district line and perpetual, crushing bankruptcy.

Thirty years ago, that was my mom and dad. Sick of the city, they left to settle in the leafy suburbs of Hertfordshire. The children of Thatcher, they moved to an area seemingly built on the principles of austere 1980s Conservatism: rows of indistinguishable houses on indistinguishable roads, the imported kiwis and pineapples available in each mammoth Tesco providing the closest thing to esotericism you could reach without taking the overpriced train to King's Cross.

Like so many immigrants who moved to England in the mid 20th century, it was the picturesque fantasy of clipped lawns and pleasant middle-class neighbors fulfilled for my dad, who came here in 1965 as a refugee from Burma. And that's fine; I can't hate on my father for aspiring to something greater than what he'd had growing up. It also wasn't his fault that, growing up in white suburbia as someone who doesn't burn in 68-degree heat, I—like so many of my peers—was simply something many of my neighbors weren't all that familiar with: mixed race.

Being mixed race is a gray space—you're a neither-here-nor-there creation, balancing on the border of two communities, never fully integrated in either. In 2011, 1.25 million people in the UK identified as mixed, and it's cited as the fasted growing minority.

My mom's British and my dad is Asian. I have three siblings I look nothing like, and we're all half a foot taller than our dad, because genetics are a weird and magical thing. When I go out with my mom and she bumps into friends, they usually spend a good minute chatting with her before realizing the lanky oriental girl stood next to her is actually her genetic produce, to which their usual reaction is something along the lines of: "Oh gosh."

In short, being mixed race is lonely. No one really looks like you, even your siblings. My brother and I used to receive completely differing racial abuse, meaning we couldn't even find comfort in similar hatred. My mom will never be able to understand the racially-charged catcalls I would receive walking home from school, due to a) being an entirely different race to her daughter, and b) having no idea what hentai is.

What stuck the most, though, were the stories of her father. I never met him, but now and again she'd tell us how opposed to Asian products he'd been because of the war. At these moments, I'd pause and think, Following that logic, surely he'd be opposed to me, and my brother, and my dad. Yes, we'd be his family, but if you can still resent a packet of instant udon for the distant actions of strangers embroiled in a complicated global conflict, surely it's not too far of a stretch to think he might still harbor a little animosity toward us, too?

Growing up surrounded by neighbors of his generation, it was hard not to internalize all that and wonder how they too were perceiving my family.

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Relating to my dad wasn't much better; although I resembled him more than any other family member, my father's method of survival as an Asian in a white country was assimilation—moving to the home counties, voting Tory, developing a weird soft spot for the royal family. For him, England is the country in which he made his money: England is still the dream—he beat the odds and flourished here. For my siblings and me, England is the reason we felt like outsiders.

The weird thing about the residents of the home counties is their obsession with identity. Because of their grey area status, all those who reside there define themselves by the neighboring counties; in Hertfordshire, the working class aspired to be from Essex, and the middle class aspired to be from West London.

Teenagers went to Jack Wills to buy socks, just so they could use the bag to cloak their insecurity every time they shopped at New Look. It's all self curation—the need to fit in to something greater. And in fairness, it kind of makes sense when the most notable thing about your hometown is the disused playground and the two-for-one 6" inch sub deal in the high street Subway.

For those aspiring to this kind of thing, my family was confusing and, in some cases, an unwelcome intrusion. We'd turn up to summer street parties laden with pakoras, only to be met with side-eyes and polite refusal from the gathered crowds. When friends came over on a Sunday they'd question why we were having curry instead of a roast, yet every time I was called a "chink" or a "paki" at school, I was routinely asked by contemporaries and teachers to identify with the roots they had questioned.

"I'm not sure why you're upset," said one teacher. "You're basically white."

Another problematic part of the mixed race experience is being valued, by some, as somehow slightly superior than those from just one ethnic minority. Mixed race people are often referred to as the best of both, some perfect combination of two races that discards the "bad" elements of each other.

This is obviously offensive in its own right, but it also forms part of the fetishization of someone who exists on the outlier of two communities. Comments such as "You're not like them" only served to distance me from one of the communities I felt like I belonged to, furthering the isolation. I used to wish my dad didn't serve rice with every meal, or that my Asian aunts would buy me clothes from River Island just so it would be easier for me to pretend to be a part of the suburban furniture my white friends so easily inhabited. I remember, at the time, being unable to believe that an Asian community could exist in a British county or city. In Hertfordshire, residents were so desperate to integrate and be integrated into the faux London aesthetic that they sacrificed differences in their own identities for the ultimate goal.

While the confused identity of one middle class mixed race person might not be of pressing demand, this need to assimilate that I and others like me felt—and still feel—is reflected in the fact that we as a country are still unwelcoming to those we deem as outsiders, then complain when they don't "behave British." Continued hostility will lead to those from minority groups joining together in solidarity, away from persecution—so of course they're going to stick to what they know if they feel unwelcome elsewhere.

By the time I was in sixth form, my friendship group consisted of four other girls of mixed ethnicity and an eastern European girl. In a majority white school, all those who defined themselves as "other" had collected together in a silent solidarity. It's still something that resonates with me today—the feeling that to have some form of identity within white communities, I have to reject anything that made me individual and conform to the blanket idea of the outsider.

Escaping the home counties at 18 helped, but even in somewhere as comparatively diverse as London, you realize the need for a sense of belonging and a community to identify with. Today, I identify as Asian, not for the ease of others, but because after years of being treated as an other, it's my minority roots I connect with the most.

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