Being Asian in a predominantly Anglo environment is often difficult enough, but for an Asian gay man the pressures of being accepted are even harsher. Arthur Chen shares his experience about being a double minority in London.
I moved to London three years ago to start a degree in medicine at the University of London's Imperial College. My father is the head surgeon at a Presbyterian hospital in Taiwan and, with my mother's collusion; he hadn't allowed me any option in my own career path. One of my earliest memories is of my father interrupting a game of doctors and nurses I was playing with my little sister to show me how to put her leg in a splint correctly. I'm now specializing in osteopathy.
Having been to a British school in Hong Kong, and with frequent church-related foreign guests in our house, I was assured of my international credentials, so I had no hesitation in accepting the place I was offered at Imperial College. Four years in London? No problem! My father arranged for me to stay with a distant cousin in Finchley, just a few stops on the London Underground from the college, gave me my own credit card, a round-trip ticket to London on British Airways, £5,000 in cash and sent me on my way. Sorted, as they say in the UK.
My first shock came when I landed at Heathrow airport. I had always found the British in Asia to be polite and well mannered, but the customs officers were brusque and almost sarcastic.
Going to university are we, sir?
Yes. To study medicine.
That's very expensive, sir. How do you plan to pay for it?
My father is paying for it.
Oh, really. I wish I could call on daddy to pay for my holidays.
It's not a holiday. I'm here to study. Look. The visa is a student visa.
I can read, sir.
There then followed a very lengthy ten minutes of intrusive questioning about my family and my background, with three appalling mispronunciations of my name, Taipei (tie-pie) and my cousin's name. I felt like a criminal and was physically shaking when the uniformed fascist finally let me go. All I could think was I had three months of his salary in my pocket as spending money and my watch probably cost as much as his car. How dare he question my financial background!
Thankfully the officer who searched my luggage was much more polite and even apologetic when he stopped me for questioning. My taxi driver was also very courteous and I calmed down on the journey from the airport. I did not really have any similar experiences except for once a few months later when I tried to get the guard at my local Underground station to replace a ticket that had been mangled by the ticket gate. He looked very pissed off and said: What the fuck do you want me to do about it?
I calmly asked for a replacement as the machine had made the ticket unusable. It was probably made in fucking China. Go on, get out of it, you cheatin' Chink bastard! I couldn't find anyone to complain to and threw the ticket at him in frustration.
You often hear the complaint from ex-pat Asians living in London is that the British are terribly racist. Apart from the Underground incident, I found that far from experiencing open and direct hostility, my biggest problem was being invisible. English eyes seemed to look right through me and not register my presence.
Often I would wait at the reception counter of a restaurant and wait for minutes before a waiter or waitress came to seat me, but when I noticed white people arriving after me, they seemed to get seated in record speed. Black Britons were seated just as quickly, and even gesticulating southern Europeans with incomprehensible accents. But when a group of four Japanese women came in chatting loudly and obviously admiring the décor, they also waited for a few minutes before they were noticed. Was this selective racism?
I asked some English friends at my university if they thought the English were racist. Mostly middle-class liberals, they were all of the opinion that they weren't but that the working classes, epitomized by the Sun-reader, the most popular tabloid newspaper in the UK, most definitely were. I wasn't convinced. These same open-minded middle-class English medical students didn't seem to have any black friends, and the Asians they knew had been to the same public school (England's very non-public upper class educational establishments). They had even asked me if my family ran a restaurant, but I can't blame them for that as most of the British Chinese I met did fall into that stereotype.
I decided to confront a guy I met in a bar on the same subject. We were in Soho on a Saturday afternoon and London's gay village was heaving with gorgeous men from around the globe.
In Compton's bar I had already seen three Thais, a couple of Indonesians, four Malays, and a group of half a dozen Taiwanese. A Japanese student had looked in briefly and moved on to another bar. I caught the eye of a muscular white man in a green bomber jacket. He had a blond crew cut, a Celtic tattoo on his neck and the most brilliant blue eyes.
I went over to him and struck up a conversation, eventually bringing him round to the topic of Asians. He had never slept with an Asian, had never had any interest, didn't know very many and was worried his friends wouldn't understand if he went with one.
You just don't see many Chinese blokes in London, he said.
But we're right beside Chinatown. You had to pass through it to get here, I said. The street signs round the corner were all in English and Chinese. There were tens of thousands of Chinese just a few hundred yards from the bar we were drinking in.
Yeah, but you never see them out, he replied.
I continue to be exasperated by this color-blindness in the UK. I regularly go to bars and clubs and see large groups of Asian guys, especially in G.A.Y. on Friday and Saturday nights. But I have to concede, in general we just don't fit in with their aesthetic. Italians, Spaniards, Greeks, Arabs and Scandinavians are pursued mercilessly round the dark corners of every club, but I stand there unnoticed, invisible but for my excellent taste in T-shirts. In the past it was a lack of exposure, we just weren't there. But with the greater numbers of Asians choosing London as a travel destination, when will we get more than a narrow bar and then only one half of the upper floor – near Charing Cross Station?
Unlike gay south Asians who have developed their own scene which is very distinct from the dominant white culture and I thoroughly recommend the gay banghra at Club Kali night if you are planning a trip to London the only distinct gay meeting place east and south-east Asians have is the appalling Long Yang club. This is a hunting ground for older white men to pick up young houseboys. I went once. As we start the third millennium, it's about time we had something better.
I am approaching the end of my time in London and have had a wonderful experience. The city offers an almost unrivalled choice of entertainment venues and cultural events. I have met people from more countries in the last week than I did in the first twenty years of my life. My only regret is that I didn't meet the man of my dreams and enhance my stay with some romance. But there's still time. I am taking up a resident's position in Sydney, Australia this autumn.
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