The Chinese Part *Is* The Jamaican Part

By Lauren Hardie

 
Lauren Hardie

Lauren Hardie

My brother texted me recently. “Our mix,” the message said, along with a screenshot of his DNA summary. I’ve heard mixed reviews (ha, pun) about these DNA tests, never mind the ethics and privacy concerns. Some friends have been wildly surprised by the results; others have been disappointed by how vague things seemed. A result like “30% Asian” could mean anything from Russia to Vietnam. I’ve heard that fewer Asians participate in these kinds of tests, and that might be why there’s a smaller pool of data to give a more detailed result. Who knows? Really, I believe these things raise more questions than answers. As was the case with my brother’s results.

According to his summary, we’re more Asian and less African than I thought.

See, I’m Chinese Jamaican. I always give people the less awkward, quick version — half-black, half-Chinese. (The complicated version is that both my parents are mixed, so technically I can’t really be half-anything because, math, right?) Most people figure that means my black parent is from Jamaica and my Chinese parent is from China. However, my mostly black parent was from Cuba, and my mostly Chinese parent is from Jamaica, where my Chinese heritage dates back to at least the 1850s. My Chinese grandma was born and raised in Kingston, didn’t speak Chinese, and had a thick Jamaican accent.

The Chinese part is the Jamaican part.

Here’s a quick, non-academic, totally-based-on-folklore-and-Google-searches-so-please-don’t-@-me backstory: Like many places throughout the Caribbean, there were waves of colonization and immigration. Chinese folks were among the droves of different people who went to Jamaica for indentured “work” (*cough* slavery) and who knows what else. Pre-internet records are a hot mess. People changed names all the time — sometimes aspirationally (probably Anglicized it), sometimes accidentally (the scribe couldn’t understand and said fuck it, you’re John now). I’d like to believe my ancestors were running from some nefarious past, hoping to clean up their act with this new name in this new land (a totally unlikely scenario — Jamaica was a hotbed for literal piracy, and possibly the inspiration for the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise). But Jamaica was exactly the kinda place where acts got sullied, and that might be why there was so much interracial activity at a time when it wasn’t acceptable elsewhere.

While yes, most Jamaicans are black, the stereotypes can be wildly inaccurate: Not all of us have dreadlocks, or smoke weed by the beach all day, or run fast. And, no, not everyone on the island is black. Jamaica’s motto is “Out of Many, One People,” and growing up, every Chinese person in my family would tell you they saw themselves as Jamaican first.

I’ve lived in the United States for most of my life now, and I still don’t know how to explain myself. Identity is such a nuanced thing -- saying that I’m Jamaican is never a satisfactory answer (I’ve been told things like, “Oh, you’re Jamaican? I thought you’d be darker.” Even on dates), and saying I’m Chinese Jamaican without attaching this essay only complicates things more. I don’t think I’m the only Hapa to experience this. I’m not enough of either ethnicity; I don’t want to be an accidental spokesperson for an entire group of people; and after a lifetime of hearing awkward comments about my skin or hair not aligning with their expectations, I still can’t answer the classic, complicated question: “What are you?”

So, about that DNA test. My brother’s results seemed to suggest that we’re closer to 45% Asian. I thought we were more like 35%, but apparently, we lean more toward Hapa than Quapa. Maybe I was doing the math wrong this whole time, or maybe someone in our past lied about their background (definitely). Learning about his results made me consider what really matters to me through a different lens. I realized that a test won’t redefine how I've experienced my culture and history. Regardless of the quantifiable/biological evidence, or people’s opinions of my appearance, I’m 100% sure that I’m Chinese Jamaican.

I asked a few of my Chinese Jamaican friends for their thoughts on their own heritage. Here’s how they responded.

 

Interviews


Brandon Nam

Brandon Nam, chemist

What makes you Hapa or Quapa?

My grandparents on my dad’s side are both perfectly half-Chinese. Some say that makes my dad half, and if that’s the case then I’m quarter (Quapa). But some say it makes him more than half, so sometimes I joke and say I’m 3/8ths -- a little more than a quarter, a little less than half. Complicated math: another side of Hapa life! On my mom’s side I’m black, but it’s Jamaican black, so there’s probably German in there somewhere.

How far back can you trace your Chinese heritage? Have you ever done a DNA test?

Both my dad's grandfathers are directly from China. His paternal granddad had children who stayed there when he left, and there are further generations still living there. An all-time goal of mine is to visit. I have never done DNA testing but I would do it to try to understand more about my heritage.

Where did you grow up, and what was it like being Chinese Jamaican there?

I grew up in Jamaica 1987-2005 before leaving for college in the U.S. I was exposed to a lot of the different Jamaican cultures (Afro, Chinese, Indian, European) along with heavy influence from the U.S. with things like TV and movies. Being Chinese Jamaican, I felt it was important to understand and take interest in different cultures and I realized I had so much to learn about my own cultures and figure out how to navigate life as this hybrid model human.

How did being part-Asian influence your identity?

My great-grandparents were directly from China and that culture has influenced me since I was a child. The food we ate, the ornaments in the house, and some of the celebrations we had. My great-grandfather, who passed when I turned 20, only spoke Mandarin. Growing up in a majority black nation (Jamaica) you stand out in some ways and those features draw comments that make you feel different from the majority. For me those differences made me feel proud to embrace that side. It made me feel special that I had an attachment to something specific. I wasn't just black, I wasn't just Chinese, I was both.

In Jamaica in the ’90s and 2000s there was a DJ group named Black Chiney, made up of Hapa DJs and their mixtapes were the rage at the time. Everyone who could relate to those guys felt proud that we were also "Black Chiney." Since then this is how I carry myself: at first glance, I am default black, at second glance, you might see something else and I will happily say I am Black Chiney.

In your family, do you celebrate any traditions that are probably different from what others around you celebrate?

My dad isn't very in touch with the traditions like that, so growing up I wasn't terribly aware of the different ones some may partake in. As I grew older and started to learn more I decided it was appropriate for me to celebrate Chinese New Year. I felt a sense of pride that this was also mine to celebrate. I dealt with frustration when I was outside of Jamaica and had to almost prove that I was part-Chinese and that it means a lot to me. Being the only black guy in a dim sum restaurant in Markham, Toronto, while I was with my more white Hapa cousins got me quite a few stares. People don’t expect me to go HAM on some dim sum the way I do.

Let's talk stereotypes -- what are some of the things you've heard?

Going for job interviews where the person I am meeting expects a more Asian-looking man (due to my last name) has always been interesting. They stare, they formulate questions, and they are thrown off. Some are bothered enough to ask, some just have a stupid look on their face which suggests disbelief or something doesn't fit. It quietly bothers me, but my pride in my Quapa-ness, my Chinese Jamaican-ness, BLACK CHINEY-ness (if ya nasty) was formed a long time ago so it’s not going away now. I just don't bring it up as much unless its relevant to conversation.

I've heard we are quite cute in general and I will perpetuate that ALL DAY. The hair is a fun topic because it could be anything and it’s just a problem for parents who are black or Chinese and don’t know what to do with their mixed kids’ hair.

In terms of dating and relationships, Asian and part-Asian women are often fetishized, while men are often emasculated. Do these stereotypes ring true for you?

Hapa and Asian women to me are fetishized and I'd be lying if I said I didn’t specifically think they are some of the most beautiful women on the planet. In personal life, being Chinese Jamaican has been advantageous for my dating.

In terms of your profession, do you feel that being Chinese Jamaican has helped or hurt you in any way?

I truly feel being Chinese Jamaican has not affected my work life in any way other than relating to certain coworkers of mine. Being Quapa gives me more people I can relate to culturally.

When you travel, how do people respond when they meet you? Where is your favorite place and why?

People generally greet me with a smile and some joy. I don’t think people are particularly bothered to hang out with or spend time with me. Favourite place (yes, I used the British favour) is still Jamaica in the hills. So quiet, so cool so mysterious. Nothing makes me happier than spending a night up there.

Where can people find out more about you?

@flexmasternam on Instagram


Daniel Lai

Daniel Lai, private chef

What makes you Hapa or Quapa?

I am Chinese and Jamaican. I identify as a Chinese Jamaican. My mom is half-Chinese and half-black and my dad is the same. I didn’t know what Hapa was until I googled it.

Where did you grow up, and what was it like being Chinese Jamaican there? What was it like for you growing up part-Asian?

I grew up in Miami, FL. Being Chinese and Jamaican growing up was cool. I had a lot of Chinese Jamaicans around me and I also grew up with a lot of Hispanic people, too. So I got along with pretty much everyone. It was different growing up, mostly because of what I ate growing up. A lot of my friends had never eaten foods like Chinese people. The way we cook and the flavors of our dishes were different from what they were used to. But they always enjoyed our pork buns.

In your family, do you celebrate any traditions that are probably different from what others around you celebrate?

We didn’t do too much celebrations or traditions. I really don’t know too much of the Chinese traditions but we mostly followed the Jamaican way and how Chinese Jamaicans were in Jamaica. We did celebrate Chinese New Year, Christmas, and Thanksgiving. I would say we modified our culture.

Let's talk stereotypes -- what are some of the things you've heard?

When they say you’re Jamaican you must smoke [weed], or you’re Chinese so you must eat dog.

Where can people find out more about you?

@Chefdaniellai on Instagram


Rachel+Young

Rachel Young, streaming service enthusiast

What makes you Hapa or Quapa?

I’d describe myself as black and Chinese. I did an ancestry test and I’m not biracial -- I’m like 30%. Like, a third Chinese and about two-thirds West African, with a very small amount of white. I acknowledge (know about) but don’t identify with the word “Hapa” because it isn’t a word that’s widely used in Jamaican culture. I didn’t grow up with it, and I’m not personally familiar with the history and context.

How far back can you trace your Chinese heritage?

I can personally trace back my Chinese heritage to my paternal grandfather, who was a Chinese immigrant (Hakka). But my aunts have traveled to my grandfather’s hometown and have access to lineage that extends further than my grandfather.

What was it like for you growing up part-Asian? Did it influence your identity?

Outside of Jamaica, very few people assume I’m part-Asian. Funnily enough, Blasians are quick to identify me as such but when I’m typically asked if I’m biracial or mixed, most folks are asking if I’m “white and black.” In Jamaica, it’s also not clear (until you see my surname) because I’m brown. Typically, Jamaicans ask me if I'm mixed with Indian or Chinese. So I don’t think it’s had a large effect on me in a macro-sense. Within the context of Jamaican identity (where colorism and socio-economic success and mobility are linked), it’s awarded me social privilege, especially as a female.

I’m genuinely proud of both sides of my heritage (African + Asian). I do wish I had access to my lineage in the way that other people have to theirs but my ancestors -- on both sides -- were slaves and indentured servants (at least, in the 19th century) so access to my history is quite limited.

Does your family celebrate any traditions that are probably different from what others around you celebrate?

No, we don’t. I think, especially in those times, culture was transmitted through a maternal influence and my grandmother was Jamaican. Also, English was not my grandfather’s first language. His patois was broken so according to my father and his sisters, he rarely spoke. My grandfather died when I was very young but his culture and influence are very much alive in my father and aunts. I can recall them telling stories of Chinese Sunday School, his forms of punishment, habits, spiritualism, etc., some of which were unique to him but some of which were cultural.

Let's talk stereotypes -- what are some of the things you've heard? Or what do people expect?

In Jamaica, though it was never explicitly said to me, it was clear there was an association between Asians and money. And in many ways, that association was and is currently a reality in terms of accessibility to the market. In the U.S., the stereotypes surrounding Asians are far more rampant across personality, sexuality, etc. but at the age I moved to the U.S., I had already been exposed to communities that did not fit those stereotypes so I didn’t digest much of those stereotypes (but I’m only human -- who knows what’s seeped in...). What’s tricky about the U.S. are the levels of diversity and nuance -- people carry stereotypes here for such a wide variety of reasons; my perception to-date is that stereotypes aren’t simply born, matured, and carried because of “home-culture” belief structure. It’s so much more complex, particularly for multi-ethnic/racial/cultural communities.

In terms of dating and relationships, Asian and part-Asian women are often fetishized, while men are often emasculated. Do these stereotypes ring true for you?

So I find these to be very American (+ perhaps global -- but I’m just not familiar with other global communities) stereotypes. And I personally tend to find, they’re stereotypes that live in communities whose gaze is very white. I’m not saying that they don’t live in other types of communities but the power structures at large in other American immigrant communities are different. Personally, in my Blasian community, the men weren’t emasculated. Yes, women were overly sexualized because… patriarchy… but the power dynamic that allows for fetishization is different in different contexts (locations).

Do you think being Chinese Jamaican has helped or hurt you in any way?

It adds more flavor to my life. In general, I think being multi-racial/cultural has allowed me to approach life as someone who is flexible; not in the sense that I have any desire to appropriate (or at least, I try not to gah!) but more in the sense that I find true joy in belonging to more than one community.

You’ve traveled all over the world. How do people respond when they meet you? Where is your favorite place and why?

How people respond to me depends on location, culture, race, gender, and intention. I’ve been told I look (or I am -- I just didn’t know it :) Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, Ethiopian, West African, Jamaican, Trinidadian, Middle Eastern -- people’s initial perceptions of me have literally changed from Western to Eastern based on whether or not I choose to straighten my hair. Honestly, most people see what they want to see. Regarding travel, I love to swim. My favorite places to travel are places with beautiful beaches + sun-warmed water.


Matthew Chinn

Matthew Chinn, entrepreneur and blogger

What makes you Hapa or Quapa?

I’m half-Chinese on my dad’s side and a bit of African and European on my mom’s side. I've always identified as half-Chinese so in a way, yes, Hapa, is how I identify, but I never had a terminology for it before. To be honest the first time I heard the word Hapa was for this article and quickly googled it so I'm not oblivious to what I write.

How far back can you trace your Chinese heritage? Have you ever done a DNA test?

My father’s parents came from China and they died before I was born, so I never got to know them, and I never had a traditional Chinese upbringing. My sister recently paid for a DNA test for me which concluded about 50% from Asia and the rest from about 10 different countries.

Where did you grow up, and what was it like being Chinese Jamaican there?

I grew up in Kingston, Jamaica. I didn’t feel any different being Chinese Jamaican. If anything, I feel like persons who are non-black are all kind of grouped into one category so if anything I felt different in that sense. Funnily, I have a lot of African heritage but because I don’t look that way nobody would think it.

How did growing up part-Asian influence your identity?

It was never something that was brought forward in my family. To be honest, my dad is the most Jamaican Chinese man you will probably ever meet. He didn’t spend that much time around us or cared to teach anything much about culture.

Do you have family traditions that are different from what others around you celebrate?

At Christmas sometimes my uncle would give us red envelopes but it definitely wasn't a staple. Nor was celebrating Chinese New Year a thing more so than going to CBA [Chinese Benevolent Association of Jamaica] like anyone else. The question brings a slight amount of sadness that none of these traditions were passed on to us. In fact, the one thing that was always a staple in my family was going to Chinese restaurants to celebrate any occasion. To be honest, I’m not sure I knew that other restaurants existed in Kingston until I was much older.

Let's talk stereotypes -- what are some of the things you've heard? Or what do people expect?

In Jamaica I think the automatic assumption is that I'm rich. I'm not sure how much of that has to do with being Chinese as opposed to being light-skinned. I wouldn't say there are other stereotypes imposed on me. I CAN DRIVE!

In terms of dating and relationships, Asian and part-Asian women are often fetishized, while men are often emasculated. Do these stereotypes ring true for you?

I've never felt like dating has been an issue for me in Jamaica or anywhere else to be honest. I believe most people have their preferences for a look or type and for some people that’s Asian or half-Asian. In my case, I believe my mixture has perhaps helped me in that aspect as I'm not identified to one race and that intrigues people.

Has being Chinese Jamaican helped or hurt your profession in any way?

I can’t say that being Chinese Jamaican has hurt or helped in any way. Owning and managing a gaming lounge and bar, people may think I know more than I do because I'm Asian. Or perhaps it helps with the authenticity as we named the lounge Macau (from the island off the coast of China). For sure a lot of our customer base is Chinese and as such we try to follow the customs and traditions such as Chinese New Years!

You’ve traveled all over the world. How do people respond when they meet you? Where is your favorite place and why?

Firstly NO ONE guesses that I'm half-Chinese OR Jamaican for that matter. The majority of times people approach me they’re speaking Spanish or Portuguese so that gives you an idea of what they’re thinking. It’s very strange to me that no one picks up on it because in Jamaica everyone can instantly tell that I'm Chinese and even call me Mr. Chin (without knowing that’s my actual name). My current favorite place (it changes from time to time) is Africa, and the main reason for that is the safari I took place in late last year. It was such a humbling and ethereal experience to be one with nature and the animals who surrounded me.

Where can people find out more about you?

@matteu312 on Instagram or jamaicantotheworld.com


Leah Smith

Leah Smith, 9-5er and moonlight entrepreneur

What makes you Hapa or Quapa?

My background was actually a bit of a mystery up until recent years. My grandfather on my mother's side (who was raised by his two Chinese parents) found out at age 10 that his Chinese mother was not his biological mother, making him not 100% Chinese. He never got a chance to meet his real mother, but based on DNA testing we believe she was black. That said, I am roughly 21% Chinese, about 60% black, and 19% white (give or take).

How far back can you trace your Chinese heritage?

I went down the deepest of rabbit holes on this when my grandpa was becoming increasingly ill in 2016. Having those conversations before he passed was very special and one of the highlights of my life. Details he shared helped me find records for my great-grandparents, but I didn't get much further than their travel records to Jamaica from China. Someday I’d love to try to find his family there. I didn’t get a chance to do an ancestry test before he passed, but I did it after.

Where did you grow up, and what was it like being Chinese Jamaican there?

I grew up in Kingston, Jamaica. For me, it felt like being "mixed" or Chinese Jamaican was just another thing. So many people are of mixed heritage there and honestly, the majority of us who are born and raised there just identify as being Jamaican. My mom is half-Chinese (mixed with black and white) and my dad is majority black (with some white) and so I think I look like the majority of what I am, which is black. As I'm sure others will share, the differences you experience in Jamaica surface through classism (which, yes, is deeply rooted in colorism but that's a whole notha discussion topic). We didn't grow up having to check specific racial identity "boxes" so to speak. That was something I learned when I moved to America at the age of 16.

How did being part-Asian influence your identity?

It definitely influenced me more than I realized. A lot our mannerisms and the way that we socialize among each other as family was heavily influenced by our Chinese heritage, though my mom's generation is also mixed. I think that influence contributed to the introverted aspects of my personality to be honest. And that's balanced by my dad's side which is extroverted. So I'm a bit of both.

My Chinese heritage may be the one I know the most about because my grandpa's memory and ability to share and tell stories was second to none. All that said though, I've never had any extreme emotions toward being part Chinese and I don't think deeply about what others assume me to be.

In your family, do you celebrate any traditions that are probably different from what others around you celebrate?

My family doesn't really celebrate much or stick to traditions in that sense, but there are dishes that are always prepared when we gather as a family. The top faves being Chinese roast chicken (my family's recipe), ham choy and pork, my mother's stir fry, chow mein, chop suey, and anything else that my family wants to cook, lol. (Literally salivating just typing this.)

Let's talk stereotypes -- what are some of the things you've heard?

I once had someone ask me if I enjoy eating rice by itself since I'm part Chinese. Also, ever so often there's other little commentary that ends in "since you're part Chinese." It happens. But I think humans have a "grouping" complex where they try to put things in boxes so they can understand things they don't know (/understand it how they want to understand it).

In America, a lot of folks do ask if I'm mixed or where I'm from, but the assumption is always that I'm from the Dominican Republic -- I get asked if I'm from the Dominican Republic at least twice a week and it just makes me want to perfect my Spanish, lol.

In terms of dating and relationships, Asian and part-Asian women are often fetishized, while men are often emasculated. Do these stereotypes ring true for you?

So I've never actually asked anyone how my being of mixed heritage affected their view or attraction toward me -- not sure I want to know the answer to this. However, I do think people have a way or boxing "other" whether you want that or not. And more so than being mixed race, being from "Jamaica" goes a long way in many conversations. People see the Caribbean as this super chill paradise-of-a-place, and I think there's something alluring about that. No shade to the rest of the islands, but I am speaking specifically about Jamaica here. It's certainly given me common ground in many a convo (personal and professional) as it's usually a place people want to visit, if they've never been.

In terms of your profession, do you feel that being Chinese Jamaican has helped or hurt you in any way?

It has probably both helped and hurt whether I know it or not. But I think the thing that's had the most direct impact on my work ethic and choice to pursue entrepreneurship, is being an immigrant. Coming to the States to pursue an education, dreams, a better life… is nooooo easy task. And leaving home to do so, in and of itself, is a very audacious thing because it means leaving your comfort zone and venturing into the unknown. I believe you take that with you in everything that you do from there on out, probably more subconsciously than consciously. And that's something that runs deep throughout the generations of my family, especially my Chinese side, since they had the opportunity to make an intentional choice in uprooting themselves and starting over, starting businesses, etc. like many of the Chinese families that migrated to Jamaica during the indentured labor era. Growing up with entrepreneurial grandparents and parents, meant trying my hand at starting my own business was inevitable. It's just what I know. That materialized into a startup --  www.PlanfullyEvents.com -- which I co-founded with my cousin Leanna (on my Chinese side!). We've both been heavily influenced by the entrepreneurs in our family, and supporting others like us -- minority women who are small business owners -- is something that's very important to us.

When you travel, how do people respond when they meet you?

As it relates to the physical and how I'm "seen," I don't give much thought to that and again, I honestly don't care deeply about what people think that I am. Since it's not so easy to tell what my heritage is from my appearance, being "Jamaican" always comes first and people love it. As long as they know I'm Jamaican, I'm good :). Yard and abroad.

I'd say my absolute favorite place that I've visited to date is Vietnam (Paris and Cambodia are also up there). Vietnam unexpectedly just had sooo much to offer which reminded me a lot of Jamaica; good food, beaches, caves, mountains, nightlife, and a bonus -- amazing tailors. Counting down the days until I can experience more of it.

Where can people find out more about you?

On Instagram -- @planfully.events (business) and @iamleahmonet (personal)


End of Interviews


 

Lauren

Lauren is a Jamaican-raised American who doesn’t consider herself “exotic” because she’s a writer/actor living in Brooklyn. She’s “really from” South Florida (yep, like, born there). Her “English is pretty good” for a person with an MA in journalism and a few years of copyediting experience at major news outlets. Aside from referencing silly things people have said about her otherness, Lauren enjoys talking about her unborn cryokids and playing with other people’s dogs. She’s lived in a bunch of places, but her favorite is @warlaur.