Chinese experience in Ireland shows price of cultural integration
Immigrants face pressure to ignore tradition and become more Irish than Irish
Yomiko Chen Conway, from Dublin, with a Chinese dragon at the launch of the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
As two weeks of Chinese New Year celebrations draws to a close, I can’t help but wonder what it means to be Chinese in Ireland these days and the cost of integration to one’s culture, heritage and values.
When my parents came to Ireland in the early 1970s they were among the handful of individuals that made up the Chinese community at the time. As with all emigrants, they were drawn to familiarity and a sense of what they remembered as home, and that was how they met.
Even with no knowledge of the local language, integration into the community was a necessity: they knew they had to fit in to build a future, since even though they missed home dearly, returning there was not an option.
As the world talks about migration, people forget that no one really wants to leave their home unless they have to. Luckily for my parents, integration in Ireland back then was not too difficult: it was hard but not impossible. People found their ethnicity novel and accepted them as their own. There were elements of racism (their chip van got burned out) but nothing to deter them from making Ireland their own.
Rice and potatoes
Fast forward 20 years: as a teenager I grew up being taught all the traditional Chinese values and culture but English was my first language and I went to the Gaeltacht to prepare for honours Irish in my junior cert. My poor bean an tí was most upset when she discovered I hated rice but loved potatoes, since she had stocked up on a week’s worth of Uncle Ben’s when she heard she was having her first Chinese student staying.
I was, unfortunately for her, a second-generation cultural hybrid, an outsider who was not quite Chinese but not quite Irish either. Like my parents, I wanted to make sure I fitted in. For them it was born out of necessity, for me it was driven by fear: the fear of being an outsider, of not being accepted.
I was tired of the questions. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘How did you get here?’ Or the worst one: ‘Have you thought of going back home?’ I was home.
Integration comes at a cost, however: to fully integrate, one set of cultural values and traditions will inevitably be lost. The alternative is a compromise, which was what occurred in Ireland in the 1990s. The fusion of Irish-Chinese culture that gave birth to infamous standard-bearers such as the “three in one” (a distinctly un-Chinese dish of chips, curry sauce and fried rice), chicken balls and chicken chow mein are all results of such compromise. My generation was one of the “bananas”: yellow on the outside, white on the inside.
Chinatown in Dublin
Fast forward another 20 years and even though there are now more than 17,000 Chinese people living in Dublin (2011 CSO figures) the dilution of Chinese culture and values has progressed substantially. The “spice box” is considered the number-one Chinese dish, joss sticks for the deities are considered smelly incense and some Dublin city councillors wanted to brand Parnell Street as Chinatown, primarily for economic reasons. A brand and marketing exercise to increase footfall into the area.
Ironically, the idea, if successful, would increase rents in the area, which would tend to drive out Chinese traders. What has occurred is the disregard of Chinese traditions and culture by the Chinese and by the Irish. One could say the third generation of Irish-born Chinese and new immigrants are more Irish than the Irish themselves. I applaud the likes of the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival, which tries to bring Chinese culture into the city, but more needs to be done. As the Chinese become more Irish with each generation they will need to work to hold on to their values, heritage and traditions. Irish people, however, need to be more understanding of cultural differences and more accepting of the fact that you don’t need to be white to be Irish.
Hazel Chu is head of brand and corporate communications at Diageo Ireland and acting co-chair of Mná Glas in the Green Party