In the most recent Census, East and South East Asians were given two options only in the ethnicity section: ‘Asian Chinese’ or ‘Asian Other’. A whole group of diverse peoples and cultures are grouped as two, meaning that there is no real gauge as to how many East and South East Asians actually live in the UK. The British East Asian experience is one that is constantly evolving, and most certainly unrepresented.
In the early 2000s, Gok Wan was one of the few visible faces who represented British East Asian culture on television. Nearly twenty years later, East Asian invisibility in the British media remains prevalent, and unfortunately has been particularly noticeable due to the lack of coverage on absolutely disgusting racism directed towards East Asians in the past year. It has been quite disappointing to realise that it seems as though only people from the community are reporting and sharing stories, when what is essential is an open dialogue with peoples from different communities.
‘Being British East Asian: Sex, Beauty & Bodies’ was a short documentary series on BBC iPlayer that explored issues that many British East Asians face. I was particularly struck by how East Asian men are typically desexualised in the media, which starkly contrasts with the hypersexualisation of East Asian women that has stemmed from histories of Orientalism, fetishising and representation in porn. For both British East Asian women and men, these images perpetuate harmful stereotypes, which we must strive to change. Moreover, the show spoke to Oli London, a white British K-Pop star who underwent plastic surgery to look more stereotypically ‘Asian’ by wanting smaller eyes and monolids… Both London and the interviewed plastic surgeons failed to acknowledge the history of discrimiation towards the appearance of East Asians, and they failed to understand why the presenter of the show, Elaine Chong, was so upset at his perverse desires.
We all have our individual experiences within our culture(s) and our own levels of immersion. I am British East Asian but I’m mixed race (Japanese and White Australian), with both parents hailing from different countries so I have been able to distance myself from Britain, meaning that I do not fit perfectly into this image of being British East Asian. I noticed that at school, having been surrounded by European culture, I always considered myself and was considered by others to be Asian. But once I arrived at university, my perception of my Asian-ness shifted. Students from East Asia would say ‘You’re Asian?! I just thought you were just white’ – I couldn’t share the same culture with BBC (British-born Chinese) students, and yet Europeans thought that the fact that I was Asian was a no-brainer. On reflection, I suppose that these different perceptions from different people captured what it meant to be British East Asian: we belong to multiple, distinct cultures.
There now seems to be a substantial increase in interest towards East Asia. More and more non-Asians are lovers of bubble tea, K-Pop stans, devouring sushi, exploring Chinatown, or even venturing out to eat in New Malden. It is really amazing to see this sudden interest, and demonstrates that there is greater acknowledgement and appreciation of such diverse, rich cultures. Just like with any cultures we do not belong to or are not exposed to, I do really hope that people actually look at East Asian cultures in more depth, understand the differences between them and appreciate their nuances. Let’s continue to share and praise Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels, poetry by Sarah Howe, or Rina Sawayama’s music – but I hope to see and play a part in exhibiting British East Asian culture to wider audiences. it is time to see and support more, new British East Asians.