Second Youth

In the early 1990s, a wave of Chinese migrants born during and shortly after the Cultural Revolution came to the UK seeking a better life. They came on the back of PhD offers at British universities, and were amongst those who had been destined to become the academic elite of China. Instead, they became ‘British-Chinese’, adopting British citizenship but retaining the values of the China they left in the ’90s. They are one of the most successfully integrated groups in British society, and one of the least visible, representing only 0.72% of the population as of 2015.

They are middle class, with the majority of their children studying at Oxbridge, going on to qualify as doctors, lawyers, and actuaries, speaking English as their first language, and having to bridge the cultural divide between themselves and their parents. The Chinese parents remain, to a large extent, their own social group, with English colleagues but Chinese friends. They don’t have a reputation, or much of a stereotype. They pass through English culture inconspicuously - a group that rarely, if ever, makes the headlines. When they first arrived in the UK, many worked as kitchen hands, dishwashers, library assistants, supermarket workers, to support themselves and their families. They had enough English skills to pass the TOEFL exams to gain entry to the country, but fluency of language and culture remained far off and provide significant but often overlooked barriers to complete settlement in a foreign country.

“When we first came here we insured our car with a Scottish company,” says one Chinese man. “But when the car broke down and we called them, we couldn’t understand the accent. So the next time, we had to go for someone else, even though they were more expensive.” “My first interview was for a care home job,” says a Chinese woman, “They asked me ‘If you were making a meeting agenda, what might you include?’ but I had never heard of an ‘agenda’ before, and didn’t know what it was.”

Over the years, this group has been fortunate and diligent enough to have attained the standard of life they desired. They are entering their pre-retirement years, and - having achieved their dreams of gaining professional employment and stability - now devote themselves to the organising of elaborate social gatherings that play out like a re-enactment of a youth they never had. When asked what they want now, most of them simply say “To live a happy life.”