China Elevator Stories

the bothness series: interview with jason s.c. fung

I sit down with Jason S.C. Fung, virtually, to chat about what it’s like for kids to grow up between cultures.


Ruth Silbermayr-Song


Today’s dialogue is part 1 of The Bothness Series, a collaboration between me and Jason S.C. Fung, author of the book “Beyond Eurasian and Hapa: Bridging a Chinese-Western identity”. We talk about identity and what it means to grow up or raise kids bridging cultures.

Ruth: “Welcome Jason. I’m happy to sit down with you virtually today and talk about identity, embracing who you are, and the question of going local versus cosmopolitan with your international family.”

Jason: Thank you so much for having me! I love your blog and read it keenly because you have a strong voice. Guten Tag und Ni Hao!

Ruth: “Thanks! We’re going to specifically talk about the challenges of parenting in different cultural settings, the hopes and concerns I have as the parent of a mixed child, and your real-life experiences growing up as the child to an American mother and a Chinese father and as a father yourself.

As the parent of a mixed child, one thing I’m often wondering is how I can help my son embrace both of his parents’ cultures. I currently live in Northeast China with my husband and son, the in-laws living just around the corner. We have many children’s books in German, I converse with our son in German (most of the time at least) and take him back to Austria every once a while, but I’m not really sure how and when I should talk with him about his identity. I’m sure it’s a topic that will come up sooner or later, and no matter if we live in Austria or China, there will always be people who’ll point out that he is different from the more ‘homogenous-looking folk’.

Have your parents talked with you about identity while growing up?”

J: “Right. OK. So, this is a very important set of questions I’m sure a lot of parents, regardless of background, worry about.

From my experience, I had to manage a lot of questions of identity on my own as a child. It’s not that my parents weren’t interested. I just don’t think they had the vocabulary to help me through some of the challenges I faced, culturally more than anything.

I should point out I think the starting point for this discussion is no parents would like to see their kids getting bullied. That’s the most basic principle.

Having said that, there are subsets of bullying which might be called ‘cultural discomfort’ or maybe even ‘microaggressions’, to use the parlance of American popular speech these days. This is different from bullying, and in my opinion should be managed with a desire for magnanimity, e.g. should be subject to “give and take,” rather than declared war upon. Let me give you an example: maybe Asian men see it relatively more permissible than Western men do to openly speak of a woman’s weight. It can be awkward. And we can elaborate more on these types of subjects later/elsewhere, but the bottomline is when people are responding to legitimate cultural cues in engaging across cultural lines, as opposed to just being a jerk (bullying behavior) the responses should be adjusted, i.e. gentle for the first and unforgiving for the latter.”

R: “Can you expand on this?”

J: “I think there are mixed people who grew up, in my view, unnecessarily biased against one of their ‘sides’, because for example, they faced something like the example raised earlier, maybe a Chinese uncle who relentlessly talked about their weight in public, and for lack of ‘cultural empathy’, as I call it, lumped this uncle into the bullying category. Consequently, as adults they had unresolved issues against that particular ‘side’, leading to a search for identity that was troubled, or maybe because it was subject to denial or subject to withdrawal from those painful associations, one that was less than complete. In most egalitarian cities where expatriates congregate and where most mixed people are born and raised there are many safeguards against this. For one, mixed people often have some degree of safety in numbers – at least in places like Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, HK. But bullying, in all its forms (it’s hard to say ethnically oriented bullying is the worst, as overweight kids get it, and certainly special-needs kids) is as a general principle something to be vigilant about.

So, having said my piece about bullying, yes my parents did talk to me about identity.”

What are some of the challenges you have faced growing up between cultures?