Personal Essay: UK humanities: a PoC's experience

[ID: A yin-yang symbol from Chinese culture. A closed book takes the place of the white dot in the black area, and an open book replaces the black dot in the white area, signifying how Aiden was unable to connect to references specific to white British culture.]

Essay & Art by Aiden Tsen

I used to hate humanities and arts subjects such as English. I realise how odd this sounds for someone who writes personal essays and poetry for an online magazine and keeps a personal blog, but hear me out.

I grew up in London in majority-white schools in the 2000s and 2010s. I was always keenly aware that I looked different from my classmates. I knew that a lot of them thought it was weird that I would use chopsticks to eat crisps (try it: your hands don’t get greasy) or even that I could use chopsticks at all. Although I’m completely Chinese by blood, I was born in Japan, so at one point my classmates and teachers convinced me that I must be Japanese! Even if I had gone to a standard London school where the student population had more closely represented the racial diversity in London, the curriculum still would’ve been focused on white history and voices.

I could never connect to History lessons because it was a lot of things about dead white people. Even the topics about the World Wars I found hard to relate to, though I’d long been aware that it was the impact of World War Two that led to my grandparents emigrating from China.

Funnily enough, my first forays into Chinese history didn’t come from History, or even Chinese class - it came from a Religious Studies GCSE task where we had to write about the causes of a war of our choosing. I chose the First Opium War, and it was like a new world opened up to me. I knew that Britain had been a colonial power: but suddenly I understood it when confronted with how the Opium Wars essentially triggered the collapse of the Chinese dynasty system, and how that would have affected my ancestors.

It was an isolated realisation - I did have ten other subjects to think about. However, I was fortunate to get the chance to build those links further during Chinese A-Level, where we needed to learn about Chinese history. My teachers explained everything from the Opium Wars in 1839 onward, even though for our exams we only had to know about the period from 1949 to 1976: the founding of the People’s Republic of China to Mao’s death. For that additional context, I will always be grateful to them.

I don’t remember when I realised that all my grandparents were racist towards Japanese people. Especially as a young child who loved to read manga and play Pok√©mon, and who was born in Japan, I didn’t understand their reasons. I didn’t even know that there could be reasons to hate someone from another country.

A history lesson in Chinese class on the Second Sino-Japanese War changed all of that. Learning about the Rape of Nanjing, where between 40,000 and 300,000+ people were killed in under a month, was shocking to me. Even three years later, I can still remember the feeling of my blood boiling and accompanying nausea. Given that my grandparents emigrated from China due to the results of the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War Two, I can only imagine how they feel about Japan still. It’s also helped me to understand the continued political tension between the Chinese and Japanese governments due to Japan’s unwillingness to admit to any war crimes and their role in World War Two.

Learning about Chinese history in more detail also enabled me to feel proud of my heritage. In the same way that I didn’t understand why my grandparents were racist towards Japanese people, I didn’t appreciate how much they had to sacrifice to emigrate to the West, anywhere near as much as I do now. Even my paternal grandfather, who I find difficult to handle at the best of times due to his difficulty with accepting LGBTQ+ people, is someone I have far more respect for now. Traditional Chinese culture and philosophy have withstood the test of time, including the Cultural Revolution from 1966–1976 that aimed to destroy it entirely. If that’s not something to be proud of, I don’t know what is. No one will convince me to disavow that I’m ethnically Chinese anymore.

In addition, I didn’t remotely appreciate what led so many people in the past and present to feel that emigration was their only option for a better life for themselves and future generations. I used to think that it was often just condemning yourself to a poor life in whatever country you’d moved to. Through understanding my personal history and grandparents’ reasoning more, I’ve been able to apply those same concepts to others and so become better able to empathise with other immigrants.

I can’t help but think what a shame it would be if I had never had the privilege to learn any Chinese history. I know that I would undoubtedly be more closed off to the full range of human experience.

In a more subtle way than History, secondary school also killed my enjoyment of English.

As a young child, I used to love reading and writing. Somewhere in the house, my mom still has my old sketchbooks, which are filled with both drawings and accompanying stories. An old family friend told me a couple of years ago that she’d always find me with my head in a book. Though this was probably (almost definitely) flattery rather than genuine praise, my Year 6 teacher told my mom that he thought I was a gifted writer and could probably publish a book one day.

The racism in my English class was more subtle because compared to History class, which was taught in a very segmented way and made it clear that you were learning about a specific group of people during a specific period of time, English often touted The Literary Greats™. Said greats just all happened to be white. I don’t think that there was a single novel or play that I studied that was by a person of colour.

I didn’t realise it at the time but that lack of ethnic representation contributed to me feeling that there was no place for or interest in my perspective. I didn’t even consider that perhaps the white monolith meant that if anything, there were more reasons I should try to create my own place to express my thoughts and feelings.

Only in Spring 2021 did I realise there was an utter lack of East Asian representation in my English classes growing up. I’ve only recently returned to any form of writing since dropping out of university. Now I seek work by other BIPOC writers, both of Asian and non-Asian descent. To my surprise, I find I can relate to a lot of the thoughts non-Asian BIPOC writers express, often more so than white writers. For better or worse (mostly worse), our shared experiences of racism unite us.

Writing made me reflect on my life and helped me realise how messed up my childhood and teen years were in many ways. It’s helped me to see the racism I experienced growing up, even in diverse 2000s and 2010s London. Before, it was like polluted London air to me: you know it’s there, yet you’re so accustomed to it that you can barely detect the stench. It’s only after taking a trip further out that you return and feel how bad it is for your lungs. Writing was that metaphorical countryside day trip for me.

Humanities curricula could only benefit from a wider variety of voices. I know it’s hard for overworked teachers to put in the effort to expand their range of references. And yet, it’s still a failing in the system.

Due to chance, I’m getting back into the arts. What would I be like if I hadn’t? I’m not half bad at it either, if this essay getting through to publication has anything to say about it. And now I understand that there’s no such thing as a unique experience, so there must be others who feel this way or did in the past. So how many others will have never discovered that interest or talent? How many others will in the future?