Understanding cultural cringe

When faced with the question, “Where are you from?”, I tell people that I come from Mauritius. However, Mauritians are themselves a product of generations and generations of immigrants from the UK, France, India, China, and Africa–much like any island colonized by the British and/or French. With that being said, I’m predominantly Chinese-Mauritian followed by Creole-Mauritian. It’s proven to be difficult having to explain my background due to its complex layers.

Although Mauritius prides itself for being diverse, the island is still unfortunately racist. I suffered from an identity crisis as soon as I began attending school in Mauritius. The racial intolerance was evident. Being the minority, I didn’t look like the other kids who were White with light hair, light eyes, and cool French names. If I remember correctly, there were only three Chinese-Mauritians in my class; feeling outnumbered, we all tried to be White despite our skin colour, almond shaped eyes, dark hair, and three part last names. The last names that we should have been proud to own were deconstructed and criticized by our Franco-Mauritian classmates because they deemed them unconventional and incomparable to theirs. I would be Donald Trump rich if someone paid me a dollar every time I heard ching chong coming out of a classmate’s mouth.

To anyone who finds it necessary to succumb to prejudices against Chinese people–you know exactly to which stereotypes I’m referring–because it’s amusing or allegedly accurate, you’re dismissing perseverance and courage, and you clearly don’t grasp the complexities a foreigner faces when they choose to call a strange place home.

As a victim of bullying motivated by generational xenophobic tendencies, I went to school feeling ashamed of my Chinese roots, and completely disregarded the journey my ancestors had put themselves through to get to where I was today–attending a French private school. In retrospect, I should have been grateful to my paternal grandfather for taking that leap of faith. I should have been grateful to my maternal great-grandfather for not only fleeing China by boat, but for building a life in Mauritius through poverty and determination. If it weren’t for these men and women, my family and I wouldn’t be where we are today; resilience is in our pedigree. It was a confusing time for me so much so that I began to turn my back on my own people. Revisiting these experiences has made me realize where my (racial) insecurities stem from.

The bullying destabilized my judgement, and perception of my culture. I was embarrassed to eat Chinese food, didn’t recognize the importance of celebrating Chinese New Year, and dreamt of a world in which my first name was Laure and my hair was châtain (Chestnut brown) so I could be socially accepted. Social anthropologists call it cultural cringe which occurs when one dismisses their own culture due to an inferiority complex. If there’s one thing I could tell my 8-year-old self, is this: your ancestors left a legacy of fortitude and wisdom. Watch Mulan a couple more times and you’ll eventually understand. If given the chance to go back in time, I wouldn’t take those Chinese New Year celebrations for granted, especially the lion dances (albeit absolutely terrified by said lions) and trips to the Buddhist temple.

This Chinese New Year, I’m celebrating my ancestors and the sacrifices they made for future generations. I’m celebrating a culture from which I once distanced myself, but that I now embrace wholeheartedly.

Gong hei fat choy!

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