Identity Trouble: how stereotypes inform Chinese immigrant identification

My different names

When I moved to London two years ago, I lived in student accommodation. Communal spaces became a natural place to socialise. I usually use my English name with random strangers I meet first, as I prefer not to spend too much time dwelling on “awkward” pronunciations for those who are unfamiliar with Mandarin. Despite their sincere efforts, my name still is mispronounced most of the time. Once, upon hearing that I had an English name, a White male I encountered in the study room laughed flippantly and asked, what’s your REAL name? I was deeply shocked. I had never experienced such ignorance, especially as I was usually around my flatmates, most of whom had rich international experience.

For my generation (Post-95 or GenZ), it was not rare to have an English name from an early age, either for the purposes of the compulsory school English curriculum or after-school English classes, or simply based on personal preference. It is also a mark of how China has proactively embraced globalisation during the era I grew up in. I was not particularly bothered by what people referred to me as. My different names within different communities became different facets of me, which I embraced as part of my identity. When Caroline Humphrey was carrying out her research in Mongolia in 2009, she stated that names do not merely create a ‘relation’ with the person being named, but a triangulation, which takes place in the interactive space between the person who is named, the people who use the name, and the connotations of the name itself. 

“What’s your real name?”

The logic behind this question, posed to me in the study room, is pretty simple – you “should” have an “authentic” Chinese name if you are an “authentic” Chinese person. This assumption reveals such ignorance and laziness – it is an attempt to fit people of different nationalities and ethnicities into tightly constrained boxes without any willingness to understand the complexities inherent to our identities. Sadly, this logic expands itself into a network of stereotypes and is pervasive across our society.

Ethnic Chinese people’s multifaceted identities are often distilled into a vague, one-dimensional mask, sharing the same ideology, personality, and interests. Notwithstanding that defining ‘Chinese’ must interrogate the complicated history of migration and the tricky dynamics of political power, even pointing only to present-day China reveals huge diversity. As in any country, there is a myriad of complexities among communities and groups with diverse ethnic, religious, linguistic affiliations, economic and social backgrounds in China. 

As China has become an impossible economy to ignore, the prevailing image of Chinese immigrants in the UK has shifted from undocumented labourers in “low-skilled” industries, or survivors seeking political asylum, to “crazy rich” tourists and students splashing out on luxury goods and property. However, there are diverse layers between these two extremes. For some young Chinese immigrants, these stereotypical preconceptions and binaries restrict their potential to become part of various professional sectors in the global community.

“Chinese [people] are not creative enough, you guys are good executors”.

This was what Lin was constantly told by her White male supervisor when she started her first job as a content creator. Critical thinking and creativity are deemed to be values of Western education, and for Chinese people, these are labelled as skills that need to be acquired by studying abroad. Lin felt uncomfortable but had still internalised the idea, even though she had contributed core content to social media accounts with over 100,000 followers and was adored by many.

Lin was one of the interviewees for my MA dissertation, in which I explored the identification¹ and sense of belonging of young professionals from mainland China in London. Encountering such stereotypes and being restricted accordingly was unfortunately commonplace among the interlocutors. Other stories include professional translators specialising in linguistics, who have been limited in their career progression because they are not native English speakers. 

For these Han Chinese professionals in the UK, China has not disappeared from their lives just because they moved to another country. Many of them are leaning heavily towards ‘Chineseness’ for identification as it becomes their distinctive label under the gaze of the host country².

The reason behind this is that identification is an ongoing process. It depends on how we perceive ourselves, how others perceive us, and how we interpret those perceptions. In the workplace, even relatively privileged well-educated young professionals are still perceived as the Other within a set of Western ideals. In turn, being seen as different leads these people to internalise themselves as different. In other words, their awareness of being Chinese in London is a result of being perceived as Chinese first.

Lin’s story with her supervisor ends up having a dramatic twist. As he joined another company, Lin took over the team and after a few months, she found herself not only a good executor but also a good creator – a task which Chinese people supposedly could not have done well. The previous supervisor, however, still sent the group work of Lin’s team to a new client and claimed it was his work despite her grievances. Lin, who finally no longer had to put up with the workplace power dynamic of this male superior, voiced all her grievances over a phone call with him. However, Lin’s experience is perhaps fortunate in that there are still many interlocutors who are trapped in cycles of self-doubt, as a result of the labels that have been imposed on them by society. 

“…trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it”.

The title of this blog is inspired by the renowned feminist scholar Judith Butler’s book “Gender Trouble”. Butler’s idea was to challenge (or trouble) the binary view of sex, gender, and sexuality. Therefore, “Identity trouble” implies a willingness to question and disrupt societal norms and expectations associated with identity categories. 

As East and South East Asian Heritage Month draws to a close, it might be useful to think about the specific parts (cultures, ethnicities, and languages) that make up this complex conglomerate of East and South East Asia. Who has the authority to define our identities? Are we free to self-identify? What assumptions underlie these identity labels? Do these assumptions help us grow or restrict us? Perhaps, there is a need to dwell upon what labels offer, but also on what they take away.

¹I use the word identification to suggest that identity is a fluid concept, that it is constantly changing as the self interacts with itself and with the world, and that individuals have the agency to define their identities and explore who they are beyond the limitations imposed by labels.

²The Han Chinese community are a privileged majority in the People’s Republic of China. They hardly reflect on or think about their “Chineseness” in their daily lives. But in the UK they become a minority, and are seen as Chinese, and so they become more aware and conscious of their “Chineseness”. The “Chinese” label does not need to function as a primary identifier in China as it is structurally embedded within people’s identities, although many of them actually have aspirations to escape these nationalistic constraints.


Butler, J. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and Subversion of Identity. Routledge: New York.

Hall, S. 1989. Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation. Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, 36. Pp. 68-81.

Humphrey, C. 2009. On Being Named and Not Named: Authority, Persons and their Names in Mongolia. In The Anthropology of Names and Naming Ed. Gabrielle V.B. and Barbara, B. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Jenkins, R. (2008) Social identity. 3rd ed. London ; New York: Routledge (Key ideas).

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