R: What’s your experience been like as a BME woman in Cambridge, and how has it differed from wherever you were before?
S: Most people who come to Cambridge seem to have come from places that are quite diverse and are pretty good. My school was quite diverse but there were also a lot of racist people there. So my experience hasn’t really been that different, I guess. It was actually more intense in high school. We had a kind of battle in our year between me and some of my friends, and this clique of rich white girls. It was really intense. We had to do stuff like stop people from dressing up as Native American people, like three times. And they just never learned. It was actually too much. So coming to Cambridge, whilst I know that institutionally [racism] is a lot more steeped in its history, it’s big enough so you can avoid people you don’t want to talk to. You can cultivate a group of friends. People always talk about, like “your bubble, your bubble, you don’t talk to people who don’t agree with you.” But I think that’s fine, like I don’t want to talk to racists.
M: Do you think the college environment makes that more difficult for people to do, because some people might not feel as comfortable?
S: Yeah. I think most of the BME people I’ve met have been through FLY, or the BME Campaign, those kinds of things. So if you find it hard to go out to meet new people, it probably can be quite isolating to be in your college system. Especially because in your college, in your year, there might only be like one [sic]. I think as an East Asian person it’s maybe a bit easier. There are quite a few East Asian people. But also I haven’t met many East Asian people who like live in the UK. They also don’t tend to get that involved in politics.
R: That’s something I felt I wanted to ask you- I mean, we are obviously together in this, women of colour, or people of colour in general. But I found that as an East Asian woman, you’re not meant to be political. If you are, you’re almost resisted by white males, or the white community, and at the same time, you get resistance from what’s meant to be your own community?
S: I felt that too. I was talking to my mum and asking her, “Have you ever experienced racism?” and she was just like “No.” End of conversation. At the same time, she didn’t want me to study HSPS. We had a big argument about it. She said you know, as a Chinese person, you have to play to your strengths, learn Chinese, do a STEM subject. If you do HSPS, once you graduate, all the white employers will hire white people over you. And I was like, “Well, isn’t that racism? In a very clear example!” And then she talks about how she works in a university as a lecturer and how all the management people- loads of her colleagues are East Asian women- all the people in charge of them are white men. Even if they do have the same qualifications. But she’s still like, racism’s not a big problem. And she’s also like, “When I came over, I went with some Chinese people from my university, we all lived together but three of them left immediately because they hated it because everyone was racist to them.” And she’s like “It’s not a big problem though!”
But I also think there’s a problem with- BME is a very large umbrella, and we all experience different problems and as someone who is East Asian, I’m not white but I have relative privilege in certain cases. I’ve recently started [sic] with like other East Asian people and I think it’s good to do stuff for ourselves. Sometimes I hear people who are Asian complain that “Black people don’t care enough about us, or black people don’t talk about our issues.” And I think- let’s do stuff for ourselves, you know? We can’t always ask other people to campaign for our issues, then turn around and not help them when it comes to their issues. I feel that comes up quite a lot, because East Asian communities are not that political. But when it comes to an East Asian issue, we always rally around our own people. But we don’t usually come to tackle the problems that affect other people.
R: Do you feel extra responsibility, as a much more outspoken, political East Asian woman?
S: No. I just feel that it’s important that someone is there to talk about the issues. But if it’s not someone else, it has to be you. I think in Cambridge I’ve met a number of people who- I think last year there was the Trinity Hall movement, the June event. There were five or six people- Hanna Stephens, she just graduated, who really did quite a lot about that. There are people in Cambridge. It’s just something I feel that’s a general trend. But also because there’s not that many of you, it feels more important that you have to say something that’s really right.
R: We spoke to Micha just now, and she said sometimes it’s quite a lot of pressure- it’s quite stressful to have everything so politicised all the time. Do you ever feel that? Especially because of what we were just talking about?
S: It is, I guess. But it’s better than not, you know? Someone close to me was incredibly racially self-hating for ten years, and while I think it’s pretty shitty that I’m looking around and everything’s racist and terrible, it’s better than hating yourself. Like feeling the effects, but not discussing your problems.
R: Could you tell us about an instance when you’ve had blatant, aggressive racism, directed towards you? Or day-to-day microaggressions, and how you’re navigated those experiences?
S: I don’t think I’ve ever experienced aggressive racism, which is you know, nice for me [laughs]. The first time I spoke to my Director of Studies, we were going into matriculation and she was talking about how annoying the Japanese tourists were. And then later on, we had a Director of Studies meeting at Christmas, and she literally asked me, “Do you have any English blood in you?”, and I was like, “No, I don’t”. And then she went, “Then how did you come to have an English education?” and I said, “My parents moved here, I grew up here.” And I know that she knows that planes exist because she used to live in [what she called] “Rhodesia”. I didn’t really understand, but it was a bit weird. It was quite funny, but weird.
Also people being a bit tactless. I was doing this theatre thing, and we had this dinner, and there was this white guy next to me who was like, “I’ve seen this really funny video, this guy with a funny Asian accent”, and I was like, “ I’m literally here you can see me! You are talking to me!” When we did Teahouse last term, there was this older white man at the end- he was really keen about it. He wanted us to sign his programme. But then he asked to take pictures of us, like, just the East Asian women. And then after he took a photo of me, he said, “Excellent diction.”
M: Do you feel the need to call out people when they do these things?
S: Sometimes. I mean, when it was my DoS, I was like, no, she can ruin my life. Or when it was the white guy, I was just like, I’m not ever speaking to him again. But if it’s just a stranger, who likes East Asians- it’s really gross but I feel like in those situations it’s really hard to know what to do. Because he’s just there, in his mind he’s having a good time, appreciates our culture, “loves the people” and well-intentioned enjoying his time. It’s just [weird] that in his mind you’re some, like, Asian mystique, not a real person.
M: What do you think about, how in Cambridge you get a lot of academics who study a culture, and perceive some part of the world as some exotic place-
R: And some of them haven’t even travelled there!
M: Exactly! What do you think about that whole idea when people talk about oriental things-
S: It’s just gross, isn’t it? It’s like yesterday it was Chinese New Year, and the buttery menus are usually funny. But it was like, “taste the exotic flavours of the Orient” and then like it was like sweet and sour chicken. At least get some good exotic flavours of the Orient [laughs].
R: Yeah, my college did a Chinese New Year formal, and if you look at the menu online, the dessert is “Thai coconut pudding”. Like, do they know that Thai and Chinese people are not the same?
S: Hmmm, that’s interesting [laughs].
M: Yeah in our college we have the oriental spring roll.
S: Yeah, you know, they have to specify its oriental. Otherwise, it might be Occidental spring rolls.
M: Clare had a formal called the “Oriental Express”.
R: I would freak out.
M: Yeah, the thing is you know people talked about FLY girls when we spoke out against parties that were basically culturally appropriating our culture, what do you think about-
R: Yeah, especially with the whole Japan thing. It was really difficult especially because the Japanese society came out and essentially said we’d love to be have it.
S: It’s so annoying because people like to intellectualise everything, but at the same time they’re so unwilling to- it’s just bizarre. As someone who is not white, I feel quite cautious about touching anything that might be racist, because I know that white people would point to us and go, “Well they said it was okay! They were part of it!”
I was going to be in this musical, and I gave the script a read-through and I thought this is not for me, because it was just a little bit racist. But I was like, obviously all these white people don’t care, if someone later watches it and finds it really hurtful and they’re like this is racist and not okay. Maybe someone will end up pointing to me, and saying, “Well this person is not white, and they were in it and they thought it was fine.” And that would be the worst and most unproductive argument, but those kinds of arguments for some reason hold incredible sway because people think people of colour are all the same.
Mo: When you graduate, having taken what you’ve experienced in Cambridge, how do you feel you’re going to deal with it in the workplace?
S: It’s harder in the workplace, because it’s harder to curate the people you spend time with.
S: [laughs] I just make friends by going to cool things. You know, cool people go to cool things. Being in Cambridge has been a great exercise of surviving in a passively terrible place, sometimes actively terrible [laughs]. It really depends on the people you’re surrounded with. But with things like FLY, even if you’ve graduated, people still post stuff, looking for solidarity.