Friday, 15 January 2016

GUEST POST: On Living Abroad and Being of Mixed Ethnic Descent

I've been following Jos├ęphine at Word Revel for ages, and so I'm excited to have her on the blog today to talk about what it's like living abroad and being of mixed ethnicity, and why this needs to be more visible in the books we read. It's a brilliant post, I'm sure you'll agree.

Being of Mixed Ethnic Descent

"What are you?" That is how the question goes practically every time I meet someone new. I used to be so offended by this as a child, I would snap, "Human," and turn away. Nowadays I answer with a wry, "Human," and proceed to explain my heritage. Often I receive a flustered response, "That’s not what I meant! What's your race?"

Even though I live in a multicultural society, rather than accept me for someone of mixed ethnicity, people are quick to ask what I am. Mixed marriages are on the rise but mixed children are still eyed with curiosity. We're not any less human just because others have difficulty reconciling that we're not actually made up of two distinct halves. Mixed race people are singularly functioning people. Take my word for it.

Living in a Foreign Country

What makes it more difficult for me is that my ethnic heritages are not local to the country I live in. I carry a different passport from everyone else. Though my friends accept me like a local, many view me as a foreigner, unless I simply tell them I'm Eurasian. Eurasians are an accepted racial group.

The term Eurasian doesn't sit well with me though. It dilutes the richness of our actual heritages. A Chinese-Dutch person experiences culture differently from a Malay-Portuguese person. The term Eurasian takes that away from us. Worse still are forms that require me to fill up my ethnicity. Ticking 'others' has never brought me joy.

Invisibility in Books

In any case, I'm a person of mixed ethnic descent living abroad. I'm not the only one. There might not be that many but I did meet some here in Singapore as well as in Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Australia and Germany. Yet in the world of books, we are an invisible group.

To be fair, I don't demand a book specifically about a French-Kenyan person living in Papua New Guinea. That specificity would demand a million books and we'd still be missing a book about an Argentinian-Japanese person living in Hawaii. But books don't acknowledge the reality of people like me.

A Step Beyond POCs

Even when we break this down into two parts, (1) mixed ethnic descent and (2) living in a different country, there hardly are books that address either category. When I read demands for books about POCs (people of colour), they tend to refer to books about people from homogeneous ethnic groups into the second or third generation.

They ask for books about a Mexican girl who never even lived in Mexico. They ask for books about a Chinese guy whose parents never even set foot in China. That's not the same as someone who has had to uproot their life as a child and move to a completely different country. Yes, these are important gaps to be filled but these don't go as far as speaking up for either of the categories that I raised.

Yearning for a Reflection in Books

What does this mean for me, not ever seeing myself reflected in books? It has made me wish for characters who understand me for who I am. Certainly, every book I've read and every character I encountered had an impact on me. I've related to musicians and athletes because I know music and I know sports. I have also related to gamers and artists. I call myself neither.

Importance of Representation in Books

I don't need all the books I read to be about people like me. But I do need some books to be about characters of mixed descent and/or about characters navigating foreign cultures in a bid to assimilate. Most of all, I need these books, so that people who are not like me might understand and will never again ask, "What are you?" Books help foster empathy and understanding required towards the invisible groups that I belong to.

Jos├ęphine grew up with sort of an identity crisis due to her mixed ethnic heritage. It didn't help that she moved around a lot as a child until her parents plucked her from Europe and set up root in Southeast Asia. Today she is thankful for the richness of cultural diversity that has shaped her life and world view. When she isn't blogging or reading, she yields her camera, bakes or pursues competitive sports.


  1. very cool blog post :)

  2. I really enjoyed the read Jo! It's interesting what you have to go through with your identity when you have two cultures that you identify with.

  3. I really liked reading this guest post from Josephine, Amber. It's true! I've always wondered why there's less mixed ethnicities in books. Always hard for authors to adapt to the changes. Here's hoping the book community will change that and demand for more recognition.

  4. I know a bit what this is like! I'm biracial, adopted from Brazil by white parents, but they moved us back to America when I was 9 months old. I don't know Portuguese. I've only been back to Brazil a couple times. I don't know what my biological parents look like and my parents never met them, but we do know I'm mixed race (white/black but no further knowledge than that). I have over 12 biological siblings but I live as an only child. We tried to go back and find my biological family but they moved away and we have no way of finding them. I take quite a while to explain, as you can see! It's lucky for me that no one really asks, but I have to fill out a lot of forms for school/work and I am marked as a number of different things everywhere. On some forms I'm white (not my own decision, but my school's), on some I'm Hispanic (because I was born in Brazil), and on others I have had the fortune to mark Mixed/Other.
    It would be amazing to read more books about people with intricate backgrounds like ours. I guess that means we better get started writing books!

    1. Forms are the worst when you have to compartmentalise your race and it can't even be accurate! Legally I'm registered as European. Go figure what that even entails.

      Yes, we definitely need to fill that void! :)

  5. Thank you for having me, Amber, and for wanting to give a voice to this who usually aren't heard :)

  6. Really interesting! My friend is Chinese-Dutch and living in Germany. Maybe you'd like her web comic -

  7. Super interesting. Part of the solution is for publishers to publish more work by diverse people--but the other part is for those of us in the mainstream to remember to reflect the whole of our society in our writing. I think it's easy for us to pull the "color-blind" thing and write as if all our friends and neighbors are also white, straight, and able-bodied instead of remembering that EVEN WHITE STRAIGHT PEOPLE live in a world in which there are other people all around. I'm not a writer myself, but I'm sure that in my childhood, the characters in all my stories defaulted to people exactly like me (or like me with magical power and/or royal heritage). Then again, it's not the same as actually hearing from a diverse group of people.

    So much food for thought--thank you!