Updated: Apr 22, 2021
Recently, the Asian diaspora in the US or Europe has reported an increasing anti-Asian sentiment, mostly because of the pandemic and the wrong association between the COVID-19 virus origin and the Asian population. Asian women especially have been the victims of acts of hatred, also due to the fetishisation of the Asian woman in the West. But it is also important to focus on the positive aspects of being a female member of the Asian diaspora, and how we can navigate elegantly between our Asian roots and Western culture.
Today, we speak with French born of Chinese-Vietnamese-Taiwanese descent, designer Sophie Thi, who spent a few years in China and is now based in Singapore.
1. Where were you born, where are your parents from?
My father is Chinese-Vietnamese; he left Vietnam in the late ’70s after the war to come to Europe. He and his family were all dispatched around the world as they could not choose to stay together. My mother is Taiwanese; her family left mainland China after the Civil War in the ’50s to join the exiled Kuomintang government. She migrated to France by herself as she was looking for a new life. So they both somehow carry the traumatic experience of the forced exile. France was their new hope and their new home; it’s where they met. I was born there, in Paris.
2. What brought you to Asia?
In my last year of Bachelor at University, I took an optional class of Mandarin language. It was the catalyst for a reconnection with my Chinese heritage as it then brought me to China, where I studied the language and discovered the culture. I then lived in Shanghai for five years.
3. How was your experience in China?
I cherish this time in China. Before my experience in China, I felt a part of me missing, almost like a nostalgia for my land of origin. Learning the language, observing the way people live, think, work gave meaning to my experience of being of Chinese descent.
4. What brought you to Singapore?
My husband and I lived in Shanghai, China, for a few years together. We both wanted a change and without planning it, the opportunity to come to Singapore presented itself to him; he moved first while I studied and I then joined him, three years ago.
5. What's your artistic background?
I am sort of an autodidact as I never went to art school. I think I always liked the arts and above all I always liked stories. I started working in an art gallery in Shanghai and observed how other artists used art to convey a message, an emotion. Then I made a slight detour and took a course in Fashion Design, which taught me a lot about the beauty of creating and the importance of presentation and storytelling. Today I work in Marketing for an Interior Design firm.
6. What inspires you most?
Crossroads - I like to see the connection between unexpected things.
7. How do you feel being a French “banana” in Singapore?
When I am in France, there is a bizarre feeling of belonging but not belonging at the same time. From a very early age, you understand that you look different from the ‘norm’. As an immigrant’s child, you also carry a history, you’re not totally from there. Here in Singapore, this feeling of not belonging is different, because it is not so ‘obvious’ that I am not local; I kind of blend in. I enjoy being ‘invisible’ somehow. It gives me a break from having to justify where I come from.
8. Did you experience any discrimination in France?
When I was younger, I remember receiving racist comments but it was always from a minority of people. I personally did not pay too much attention to it but what stayed with me the most is the racism my friends or my family faced, and the way they reacted to it. Some of my friends or one of my brothers for example, would choose to defend themselves and fight/talk back to the persons discriminating against them. On the other hand, my parents would be the stereotypes of Asians never talking back and avoiding any conflict. I also used to be quite sensitive to these social issues in the media and politics. Eventually, I think that France needs to evolve the way it regards its minorities, and the fight against racism should start in and through school. There are so many parts of history that are not in our history books. This is a form of ignorance, and ignorance often plays a role in discriminatory behaviours.
9. How would you define your identity?
My identity is fluid; it fluctuates overtimes, it also depends on where I am. It is a combination of many influences: the country and culture I was born and raised into and the countries and cultures where my parents are from. There are some aspects of the French culture I identify strongly with, like the ‘savoir-vivre’, the elegance, the love for debate and rich discussions, and others that I feel a distance with: for example, I do not feel much connected to the French history. Being multicultural is being from nowhere and being from anywhere, and this the beauty of it: the acceptance of an in-between.
10. Any advice, message to the Asian diaspora?
My advice would be to learn to be comfortable with one’s uniqueness, one’s multifaceted identity. I believe the capacity to navigate different cultural environments, different aspects of our identities is a chance. We can only know the future by understanding our past. Many people in the Asian diaspora, the generation of our parents and grandparents, have been through quite traumatic events; they have built a lot of wisdom and resilience from it. It is essential to deconstruct that baggage to appreciate our parents’ journey and somehow pay them tribute by not forgetting their stories.
Like Sophie, it is possible to embrace our muti-cultural heritage, be proud of being Asian in the West and reconcile with our kaleidoscopic identity.