When I was 14, I moved to Toronto from Hong Kong. I was assigned to a Canadian host family with my host father and my host mother who is Trinidadian. They have two daughters who became my host sisters. Moving into this household was an eye-opening experience, to say the least.
Living 7000 miles away from my homeland was already foreign, and thus my time with my host family was a complete shift from what I was used to. Instead of having phở or white rice for dinner, I had salted fish, mac and cheese pie, Trinidadian dumplings, fried plantains, and curry. Unlike the Japanese curry I had growing up, Caribbean curry is distinctly aromatic, full of hot spices. Instead of the sweet, creaminess of Japanese curry, the paprika, turmeric and cumin in Caribbean curry was a shock to my taste buds. The heavy bitterness was something I have never undergone before, yet captivating and memorable. When my host mum’s family visited during the holidays from Atlanta, I got to converse with them about the similarities in our cultural practices, such as strict parenting, intense scholastic expectations, and diligent mentalities towards work. I felt very included in their discussions, but also surprised by how I could relate to some of their upbringings despite the geographical distance between our childhood homes. Not to mention, as I am constantly surrounded by music that my host sisters would blast in the shower or at dinner, the upbeat and funk tunes of Afro beats and R&B became of most recent newfound appreciations. Seeing how these electric, vibrant rhythms got the family together, having fun, it showed me the strong familial values that were central to my host mum’s culture.
This may sound strange, but I am proud of myself for engaging in my host family’s culture. Being open to new cultural practices is not necessarily something I was taught at school in Hong Kong growing up. My parents certainly didn’t know to educate me on this, considering how I never got to apply these skills in such an ethnically homogenous environment. Though in retrospect, in my observations, the rhetoric surrounding Black individuals in my city was not positive to say the least. I have heard elders use derogatory language such as slurs, or use stereotyped descriptions such as “dirty”, or “violence-inciting”. On a systematic level, issues such as police aggression1 and misrepresentation often occurred. The demonization of dark skin in the media is common, such as when the local broadcaster TVB recently put out an episode on Come Home Love: Lo and Behold, with scenes of actors with blackface makeup on2. This does not even account for the instances where news channels disproportionately emphasize crimes with non-Chinese offenders or the underrepresentation of non-Chinese actors.
There are many reasons why such unfriendly sentiments against the Black community exist within Hong Kong, and why my Chinese culture seems to have a hard time embracing foreign ethnicities. Here are some reasons that I particularly resonate with growing up in my city, that I propose may be related to such a negative outlook of Black culture.
- Lack of contact with outside cultures
In Hong Kong, there are only around 3000 Africans3 living among the city’s 7.5 million population. Statistically speaking, it is pretty rare for a local to have the opportunity to be in contact with a person part of the community. Unlike children in America, children in Hong Kong could go on their whole lives not ever meeting a person who does not look like them. For many to grow up not being in touch with different types of people or cultures, the concept of diversity and acceptance of diversity can become foreign.
- Language barrier
Expanding on the last point, many of the members of the Black community living in Hong Kong are in fact foreigners. Many of them likely do not speak the local language of Cantonese, which may make locals who mainly converse in their native Cantonese, reluctant to interact with them based on difficulties in communication.
- Bad media representation
At least in my city, the only access to Black characters for most locals, is found on-screen in major blockbuster movies from America. When Hollywood portrays characters in certain ways, the audience is going to interpret it as a representation of real life, seeing their lack of face-to-face experiences with the Black population. We all know that Hollywood has a long track record of casting Black characters as stereotyped tropes such as the comic relief, or the thug. First of all, the frequency of such portrayal already minimizes access of local audiences to the diverse types of people in the community. Secondly, both types of stereotypical characters are not ones that have their own motivations in stories. They simply serve as the inferior helping hand of the mostly, main white characters. Thus, the unknowing Asian audience might only see the negative side of them, instead of the whole of their humanity which is characteristically multi-faceted.
- Strong values in culture
In Hong Kong culture, as well as in other parts of Asia, people strongly emphasize core values like hard work, respect for elders, and civil obedience. People are firm in alienating behaviors that go against those expectations. When Western media falsely represents the Black community in such menacing ways that go against those values, people are more prone to making assumptions about the entirety of the community, and alienating them in protection of their own values.
With globalization becoming more and more prominent, it is time to change the scene. Not only in Hong Kong, but many other countries in Asia are also seeing more people from outside cultures such as the Black community residing among locals. Many of the current residents, such as African migrants in Hong Kong, face many struggles with exclusion and discrimination on the daily. In this light, cultural exchanges can very positively impact the experiences of these non-local communities.
There have already been good outcomes of social exchanges among the Asian and Black communities. The oh-so-popular K-pop genre of music has long been influenced by Black musical genres such as R&B and rock5. Foods like curry in the Caribbean6 and Yaka Mein from the South7 have also had origins of Asian fusion. I too have benefited from reaching out of the comforts of my Asian upbringing. Learning about the social customs of the Caribbean from my host mum has given me a new perspective on how historical phenomena such as immigration, have brought our modern-day global networks together for the better, which turned out to also be very useful in my studies as an International Relations major. There is no reason to oppose such social change that can only uplift all aspects of the cultures.
Overall, the way I see how Asian cultures struggle with opening up to foreign interactions is more due to a lack of experience and knowledge. That being said, I would encourage my Hong Kong community, as well as other Asian communities to be more welcoming towards differences and to allow outsiders to feel safe enough to participate in our space. I also encourage Asians to participate in sharing their ways of living in order to cultivate conversational engagement with other communities. Building relationships with such individuals or institutions breeds proximity between differing traditions, bringing feelings of closeness and thereby, understanding of differences. I am hopeful that my community will step into cross-cultural bonding and diversify the life experiences of our coming generations. In the meantime, I will continue to ask my host sisters for R&B recommendations.
Burna Boy image, Hong Kong image, Blackpink for Rolling Stone
- “Asia’s world city? Hong Kong ethnic minorities feel targeted by police stop and search actions”
- Hong Kong TVB drama criticised for using blackface in scene
- What it’s like to be black and African in Hong Kong: ‘there is racism literally in every corner’
- “A BRIEF HISTORY OF K-POP”
- “From Pakistan to the Caribbean: Curry’s journey around the world”
- “Ms. Linda’s Original New Orleans Ya-Ka-Mein”
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