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Mixed Up: ‘The family dynamics have always been a bit weird’

Welcome to Mixed Up, a new series looking at the highs, lows and unique experiences of being mixed-race.

Mixed-race is the fastest-growing ethnic group in the UK. It means your parents hail from two (or more) different ethnicities, leaving you somewhere in the middle.

In 2001, when the ‘mixed’ categories were first introduced to the national census, mixed-race people made up 1.3% of the population. Fast-forward 10 years, and that figure almost doubles to 2.3%.

It’s a trajectory that’s unlikely to slow down.

Alongside the unique pleasures and benefits of being exposed to multiple cultures, being mixed comes with complexities, conflicts and innate contradictions.

For many, it’s about occupying two identities simultaneously, reconciling the differences and trying to carve out a space to exist between the two.

The mainstream understanding of being mixed-race most often refers to people who are white and black Caribbean, or white and black African. But the voices of the mixed-race diaspora extend far beyond this.

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Mixed Up is a new series that aims to elevate those voices, look deeper at the nuanced realities of being mixed-race and provide an insight into the inner workings of this rapidly growing ethnic group.

Austin Saturday is a marketing apprentice living in London. His Mum is Vietnamese and his Dad is from Essex.

Mixed Race People Pictured: Austin (Picture: Jerry Syder for Metro.co.uk)
(Picture: Jerry Syder for Metro.co.uk)

‘My English grandparents are both from Essex, and my Mum’s parents are both from Vietnam, but my Grandma is half French, so we all inherited slightly fairer skin from her,’ Austin tells Metro.co.uk.

‘I guess the family dynamics have always been a bit weird. All of my Vietnamese family are actually in the UK, most of them are in London.

‘But most of my family from Essex now live in Spain – they’re in places like Alicante, some of them have retired there. So it’s a weird dynamic in that way, especially at the Christmas holidays. Having roast duck with the family one day, and then going over to the Essex family for their Three Kings Day – these Spanish traditions that they’ve inherited.’

For Austin, the way he looks is completely at odds with his experience. He looks more Asian than he feels.

‘There’s a lot of expectations and stereotypes that go along with looking “oriental”,’ Austin explains. ‘I don’t speak Vietnamese, I don’t read or write in the language. My connection feels quite skin-deep I guess.

‘I feel like I grew up as a sort-of British/Asian – but I’m not part of any of the communities. Our Vietnamese family aren’t really in any of the communities either.

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‘There are plenty of reasons for that, but it does mean that I’ve sort of grown up without many other Asian friends or influences in my life.’

Austin has found that the few Asian influences he does have in his life aren’t the most welcoming. In fact, he says it’s near-impossible to infiltrate these groups if you don’t have direct connections.

‘I wish I had more of a connection with that side of my heritage. It’s definitely a weird point that comes up when I meet people from those communities – they’re very cliquey.

‘The Asian community is really not very open at all, If you can’t speak the language, if you don’t already know people, then you’re just sort of written off – and that’s why my family aren’t really involved with them.

‘That’s just my experience growing up, but it’s hard to see how I would be able to make those inroads into those worlds.’

The way Austin looks gives him an opening – he is allowed to enter these exclusive groups because he looks the part, but it never goes much further than that.

‘I feel like I might get away with it a bit, because I look sort-of Asian, but very quickly I get a, “not one of us” vibe from them, and you can’t help but feel that distance, that I’m not properly in their groups.

‘Most people I know are one thing or the other. But when I do find another mixed person, there’s like a weird understanding. I’ll just know that for both of us, things have been a bit weird growing up.’

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But it hasn’t been a consistent experience for Austin’s entire family. He says both his siblings have experienced their heritage in starkly different ways.

‘I’ve got a big sister and a little brother. They’ve got a lot of different opinions about what it means to be mixed-race. My little brother hasn’t had much of an issue – whereas my sister and I have always been much more aware of the complications.

‘Especially my sister. It’s different for a guy, sometimes I’ll get the wrong end of some Asian jokes, but for her – for an Asian woman, it’s much more intense.

‘I guess sometimes people are trying to be friendly, but she’s definitely experienced a lot of racism. And the whole dating side of things for her is really hard.’

It’s a difficult thing for Austin to acknowledge about his sister – but he’s talking about fetishization. The extreme sexualisation of Asian women by white men. It’s incredibly common and really belittling for the women to experience.

‘There are some guys who are just overly keen towards a specific type of skin colour and a specific type of look. It’s something my mum gets as well,’ Austin explains, carefully.

‘They call themselves “rice kings” apparently, or they say they have “yellow fever” – they have this whole thing for Asian women and it’s super creepy and just pretty offensive to be honest. And it’s something the women in my family come up against a lot.’

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And offensive sexual stereotypes aren’t the only problem when it comes to dating.

‘Within Asian communities, there are still a lot of people who are just really closed-minded about dating. They will say they’re only into people with the same background as them. There’s really not much in the way of branching out or mixing.’

Austin really wants to feel closer to his heritage, to understand more about what really makes him who he is. But he doesn’t think there’s an easy way to do it.

‘Rectifying the disconnect that I feel is something that I definitely want to do – particularly as I get older. But it’s difficult to understand what exactly I want out of it,’ he tells us.

‘What do I want beyond what I already have with my family?

‘But I do want to be able to say that I know a bit more about my heritage and where I come from. Because currently, my heritage is a bit of a mystery – we’re half from Vietnam, but there’s a lot about our background that is a bit muddled, that we don’t fully understand.

‘For example, we don’t know exactly where our grandparents really grew up – and we’re probably going to miss out on that information totally now, we will never find that out, we won’t be able to go and see where they grew up.

‘Asking about Vietnam is a touchy subject with my grandparents, because they fled as refugees during the war.’

And beyond the painful, political history, there’s also the practical barrier of lost or destroyed records. It’s hard to piece together your family history if nothing is written down.

‘A lot of those records are lost. My mum has two birthdays – because they translated from different calendars, so she doesn’t even know which is her real birthday. That happened with some of my aunties as well.

‘It’s not all bad – she celebrates both, and gets presents on both days, so that’s pretty cool.’

Despite the divisions in certain areas, Austin is close to his immediate family – he says it’s laughter that brings them together.

‘When you’re mixed you can get away with a lot of self-deprecating humour about your ethnicity – there’s a lot of that in my family, and we use it to bring us closer.

‘So my Uncle used to always make jokes about being a communist – he’s not, but he would do it just to really wind up my Granddad. It’s these jokes that help us feel like we can connect to other people who are Asian – it gives us a bit of common ground.

‘And there’s loads about the different cultures that I enjoy as well. Recently went as a family to the Lantern Festival, at this massive Thai temple in Wimbledon, it was a huge celebration and a really nice thing to do as a family. But then equally we do have more English traditions as well.

‘There are plenty of traditions and family moments that are unique to each side of my family. The huge Christmas stockings from my Dad’s side and the little red envelopes from my Mum’s side.

‘Living with my Mother’s side of the family, I learned a lot of different Vietnamese recipes. It’s the best food in the world, and, while I can also make a mean roast, nothing beats a good pot of rice with Thịt kho.’

Austin wants people to realise that his identity is more than how he looks. It’s a combination of factors that made him who he is, of which, ethnicity is only one.

‘Being mixed-race doesn’t completely define you as a person. What makes you is a lot about where you grow up, a lot about where you were raised – not just your ethnicity or skin colour.

‘Growing up in Britain, with a single mum, it was really quite different to the experience of growing up in a “regular” Asian household.

‘But then at the same time, we were never completely British, not like everybody else.’

These feelings of confusion have led to Austin avoiding the issue of race. He’s taken drastic action to try to limit the awkward conversations he has to have.

‘I’ve stopped using my second name, my Vietnamese name, and I go by one of my middle names instead. I don’t think either side of my heritage defines who I am, so I choose not to use my mother’s or father’s last names.

‘Using my Vietnamese name brings up a slightly different conversation, one that I’m basically tired of having. I usually do my best to navigate away from those conversations – it’s not usual for me to speak openly or candidly about race at all.

‘I just know much about it. Beyond the mind-numbing, “where are you from?” question, what can I actually say about my Vietnamese heritage?

‘Not much. And that’s quite a difficult thing, and I think that could be difficult for a lot of mixed people. If you grow up with one family and don’t know much about your other side – it can be really difficult when people make certain presumptions about you.

‘Mixed-race people face a variety of challenges that are unique to them. We slip into an ethnically ambiguous area that often comes with more questions than answers.’

MORE: Mixed Up: ‘Being Chinese and Jamaican isn’t as unusual as you might think’

MORE: My baby’s delivery was traumatic and I blame the strong black woman stereotype

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