Disclaimer: this article only addresses international schools in China.
Halfie: a person who is of mixed race (slang).
Hapa: of mixed racial heritage with partial roots in Asian and/or Pacific Islander ancestry (slang).
Being born into a Hapa family comes with its advantages: inherent bilingualism and steady exposure to different cultures have both made me grateful for this facet of my identity today. However, in a world where many have yet to fully embrace people’s differences, growing up between cultures inevitably comes with tribulations—learning to navigate and take pride in a multiethnic identity, working twice as hard to stay connected with one’s roots, and formulating a very intricate definition of what “home” means, just to name a few.
When I moved to China, I became one of the lucky kids who spent the entirety of their secondary education in international schools. These institutions are known to have rigorous and well-rounded curricula that prepare their students to attend highly ranked universities. They are also generally believed to be immersive environments where kids grow up with peers of various backgrounds, getting to attain a unique level of cultural literacy and open-mindedness. This assumption is partly true: to this day, I appreciate the fact that I’ve met so many people from all over the globe and learned about histories and outlooks that I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. A, a fellow Indonesian and French Hapa, attests to this: “International schools allowed me to be immersed with many cultures, nationalities, and other mixed kids and it really allowed for a strong sense of belonging as well as exposure to international lifestyles. I also think attending an international school abroad helped me appreciate my cultures more, as I was away from them and actively had to upkeep them in my own way.”
But it’s important to note that international schools, specifically in China, represent intrinsic parts of expat bubbles that starkly separate themselves from their host country’s culture. In a country whose economy depends largely on providing residences and services for expats, the detachment between young international students and the locals is an expected result of this socio-geographical divide. At the international schools I attended, Chinese traditions were only visible through Chinese New Year celebrations, lantern festivals, dumpling-making workshops, and field trips. While these activities were fun, I found them more touristy than immersive; they often felt like superficial entertainment that made it look like just enough was being done for students to learn about the country they were in.
Taking into consideration this lack of effort makes some of the discrimination that happened at the schools I attended less surprising. In some of my classes, Western students and their ways of life were held in an obviously higher esteem. Some of my teachers, most of whom were American expats living in housing far away from local lives, weren’t afraid to show their beliefs by pushing certain stereotypes: Asians were assumed to be model students, to all “look the same” (it’s sad to admit that I’ve heard this one more times than I can count), and to have uniformly one-dimensional, shy personalities.
During my awkward pre-teen years, when I was barely starting to grow into myself, I was often made to feel like being part-white was a saving grace. As an impressionable middle-schooler, I suddenly felt ashamed of being Chinese and wanted to belong to a single culture—so as to feel like I wasn’t a watered-down version of either of my ethnicities. I distinctly remember that Eurocentric features were praised by my school’s student body. Whenever it was announced that a new person was going to join our class, it wasn’t rare for me to hear from others, “I hope it isn’t another Asian.” One of my friends at the time even told me not to worry because I wasn’t “one of them.” My friend C, who is South African and Chinese, especially noticed this point: “When I first started attending international schools, I was culturally very Chinese, not white-passing, and many people didn’t know I was half-white. As I grew older and my looks got more stereotypically ‘halfie,’ I could sense people’s behavior toward me changing and becoming more respectful.”
While I felt ashamed of being Asian, I also became hyper-aware of the privilege I had from being European, and felt secure knowing I could lean into it. My Western ethnicity was something I quickly understood to be generally perceived as good and sometimes even superior by those around me. C acknowledges that “there was a stereotype that half-white Asians were prettier,” and that “it made [her] feel different from Asian peers.” D, who is British and Taiwanese, says she “definitely leaned more into [her] whiteness in middle school, especially because most of the popular kids were white.” She admits having struggled with a lot of internalized racism against her own Asian heritage, and adds that “[her peers would make] fun of the local culture, and disproportionately disrespected Asian teachers and staff, which just legitimized [her] feelings.” At an age when self-image and confidence waver constantly, I often felt that the better I could hide my Asianness, the more respect I could get from my peers. As absurd as it may sound, this was a line of reasoning I’d developed solely from observing the environment around me. These feelings did die out with time, but I strongly believe they might not have been there in the first place had I gone to a school that was more in touch with its host country.
Another point to consider is that international schools sometimes actually put less pressure on students to fit in than public schools. A says, “As a mixed person, international schools really impacted the construction of my identity by allowing me to fit in an environment. I am half-French, half-Indonesian, and I know that if I had grown up in a local French or Indonesian school I would’ve felt weird being surrounded by fully French or Indonesian people.” Plus, B sees the former rejection of her Asian identity as a natural result of being around mostly white people who came from far-away places. She distinctly remembers feeling a “huge social divide between us as the foreigners and local Shanghainese people.”
In these discussions with my Hapa peers, two overarching themes kept coming up: our schools’ Western biases and the feeling of alienation from our cultural roots. Thankfully, it only seems natural for Hapa identities to become more normalized as more mixed children are born into our increasingly globalized world. Moreover, Halfie communities now have access to previously nonexistent conversations and resources to help them unravel much of their former identity crises. D says, “As I got older, there was less casual racism and I spoke more to my Asian friends about things that made me uncomfortable, and learned to accept and love the other half of me that I’d been ashamed of. “ Personally, the internet has been vital in my understanding of my own identity. I’ve gotten to learn about sociopolitical phenomena that weren’t addressed at my school, learning to better interpret problematic issues I’d faced as a teen.
Despite the positive experiences and important lessons that international schools offer, there’s still much to be said about the disconnect between international schools—especially in Asia—and their host countries. This separation distinctly encouraged an “us versus them” mentality among my peers, leading me to feel estranged from my own ethnic background. Perhaps a good way for these schools to further pursue their cultural sensitivity would be to consider the lives right outside their walls. Going beyond merely tolerating differences should be a given; I have yet to see how far international schools are willing to go to truly support them.
By Irène Schrader