The headline read: Who are the biggest Chinese philanthropists? What caught my attention, before even reading a line of the piece, was the accompanying photographs. Beside stock images of a smiling Li Ka Shing and Jack Ma Yun was the younger, prettier and decidedly different face of Priscilla Chan.
Apart from being, so the article claims, one of the three most generous Chinese philanthropists – a claim I would be cautious to make given generosity is to my mind not measured in absolute sums but in spirit – Priscilla Chan is the wife of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. She is also, like her husband, American.
I do not deny that Mrs Zuckerberg is a wealthy and generous woman, with an admirable desire to share a little of her fortune to make the lives of others in China and around the world a little better. But is it right to be labelling her a Chinese philanthropist?
Born and raised in Boston, she has never lived outside of the United States, let alone in China. She does not have a Chinese name nor hold Chinese citizenship; and has never publicly identified herself as Chinese, nor ever expressed a desire to do so.
And whilst I can not claim to know her, given the experience of many of my own “Asian American” cousins, who were also born and raised in Boston, are of a similar age and attended similar schools, I would consider it extremely unlikely that she could fairly be described as anything but culturally American. Meeting your future husband at a college fraternity party is hardly a “Chinese” thing to do.
So what exactly is her connection with China? Her parents, who came to the United States as refugees before she was born, are of Vietnamese Chinese descent. It may therefore be plausibly to describe her as Vietnamese as well as ethnically Chinese given her roots.
It should also be considered how identifying with being both Vietnamese and Chinese are today very different from what they would have meant to her parents as children growing up in Asia. There is a political edge to the label, that today meshes a national and racial identity with a type of politics from which her family were forced to flee. Given this a degree of sensitivity in labelling her as Chinese would be expected.
However, the true absurdity of stressing ethnicity is highlighted when we apply the same criteria to her husband.
What if I were to state that Mark Zuckerberg is the richest “German” alive, which would be accurate by such a ethnic criteria? How might readers respond?
How might people who identify with being German respond? Would they be able to relate to his American upbringing and context? Might they feel a need to question his obviously different cultural and linguistic heritage? And why not refer to him as Jewish, given his family roots and that this is the faith, and to a degree the culture, to which he was born? That he has rejected both these identification and is openly atheist is to such an imposition an irrelevance.
I would however have confidence that most readers would consider such labelling as absurd and rightly direct any opprobrium towards the author. Mark Zuckerberg is American, as is Priscilla Chan, because they personally identify with being so. And that is the point.
Our most fundamental right is to define our own identity, whether it be our gender, the culture and language we chose to adopt, or with whom or what we relate. Not only is it our individual and personal prerogative to choose with which nation, culture or people we identify, but it is also a personal decision as to how we relate to them if at all.
To impose an identity on others is a very personal form of oppression that undermine a most fundamental freedom. It is not an ideological freedom, but one core to our dignity. Much as when the religious declare their children as members of a faith, their is a presumption that there is an other for whom we owe our lives; that we belong to, and owe everything to, this other that defines us. This is absolute slavery.
Priscilla Chan is not only an American by context, but most importantly by her own identification. In choosing to cast her as “Chinese” alongside Li Ka Shing and Jack Ma Yun we violate a most fundamental right, and play to a false rational that underpins racism. For the racist, our individual and personal identification is subordinate to what they perceive as being our race – a perception as the concept of race has neither scientific nor cultural legitimacy.
So what was it about the photograph that caught my eye? If it is true that Priscilla Chan does looks ethnic Chinese, it must also be said that she does not look like someone who grew up in China. From that natural, exuberant smile, smooth yet fleshy beauty and well proportioned build, she looked to me a product of her upbringing. Chinese perhaps, but first and foremost, to me she looks American.