chinese family in mexico

A Chinese and Mexican identity formed in a restaurant

chinese mexican

Roberto Cai Wu

蔡东愉

Born: Hermosillo, Mexico
Raised: Hermosillo, Mexico

If I told you that Mexico could offer a better quality of life than China in 1991, would you believe it?

That line of thought led Roberto Cai’s parents to move to Hermosillo, Mexico.

At this point, China has gone through its economic reformation for about 40 years. Back in 1991, Deng Xiaoping’s had already implemented that country’s strides towards Reform and Opening Up, and perhaps, Deng’s “let some get rich first” might not have benefitted the Cai family.

Finances have always been a very strong theme in Chinese migration patterns and especially poignant during Roberto’s interview. He mentioned that his father moved to Mexico first to work in a relative’s restaurant, before his family moved piecemeal.

Separation between family members is a very common theme in Chinese families overseas. Typically, the man in the family would move overseas to act as a breadwinner. They would remit money back to their families in China and with any luck, they would be able to bring their families over.

Coincidentally enough, I wrote about a Chinese Canadian man who experienced 15 years of separation from his father who moved to Canada for financial reasons, but he couldn’t come to Canada as a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Luckily for Roberto, that didn’t happen. His father, his brother and his mother all moved to Hermosillo, Mexico, where he was born and grew up.

Building a Mexican identity around a Chinese restaurant

While my journey to understanding Chinese minorities worldwide is still young, I am noticing that the family-run Chinese restaurant playing a crucial role as the nexus to all these stories.

Roberto’s parents worked in textiles in Taishan, Guangdong province in China, and eventual ly moved to Mexico because his uncle’s Chinese restaurant needed help. The better pay attracted Roberto’s parents all the way across the Pacific, where they still live.

Frying up wantons wreaked wanton havoc on the Cai family’s ability to handle childcare.

“Their Spanish was not very good,” Roberto said. “They would struggle and they would not have enough time to take care of me, because at the same time, they had to take care of the restaurant.”

chinese mexican family
Roberto, third from right, stands between his father and mother. Besides his mother is his neighbour who took care of him after school. The couple of the left is his brother and his wife — a relationship that initially caused controversy.

Luckily for Roberto, a Mexican family residing next to the restaurant took care of him since he was three-months old. This arrangement continued until he was in his late teens.

After school, he had to go to his parents’ restaurant as they didn’t want him to be alone at home. So he would head next door because he had nothing to do, and he would interact with the family. A woman mostly took care of him, and he hung out with her two sons and daughter. They would even organize birthday parties for him.

“They were kind of my second family,” he said. “After school, I would go to their house, spend time with them, eat. Sometimes I would eat lunch with them or have dinner with them, so my time with a Mexican family was considerable.”

“And if you asked me for example, do you identify as a Mexican or a Chinese? I would say I identify myself as a Mexican more than a Chinese because I grew in such an environment that fostered more Mexican culture.”

Roberto names some Mexican events which he celebrates including The Grito, where he would cook a Mexican meal up and Dia de Muertos. He said he doesn’t celeberate Dia de Reyes but says it’s a good excuse to invite friends over.

From doce uvas to gong xi fa cai

There’s always two aspects when it comes to race. How one perceives themselves and how others perceive them. Let’s talk about the latter.

After making the statement that he identified more as a Mexican than a Chinese person, Roberto talked about his Chinese identity.

It only seemed natural. Roberto had two Chinese parents and his name, following Hispanic conventions, proves it — his father has the surname “Cai” and his mother the surname “Wu.”

The good thing about being a bi-cultural person is that Roberto has many more opportunities and excuses to have a party. Chinese New Year?

“We usually have a big dinner party,” he said, adding that there would be 40 to 50 people in his family restaurant. It’s a pity that he doesn’t get any red packets (hong bao) from his friends.

What about Mid-Autumn Festival?

“I try to go to an Asian store and look for mooncakes even though they are expensive as hell and try to invite friends and have some mooncakes,” he said.

Naturally, having two Chinese parents made his upbringing very similar to Eva Wong’s, my first guest. When he was growing up, Roberto said his parents had one main expectation from him, which is to ensure that he did well in school, and maybe to help out in their restaurant once in a while.

Besides growing up with the expectation of getting full marks on every exam, Roberto also grew up with the suggestion that he should marry another Chinese girl.

This came from both his grandmother and his parents. The bad thing is that when Roberto speaks with his grandmother, he cannot really respond properly because his Taishanese isn’t very good. He describes it as a one-way conversation.

Luckily for him and his parents, they can communicate using a mix of Taishanese and Spanish, and he once declared that he will never marry a Chinese person. Apparently, that shut them up.

Roberto expects that his brother’s marriage to a Mexican would doubly shut them up.

“They did oppose it at the beginning but she grew into my parents and now it’s just part of the family. She’s welcome,” Roberto said. “I think now that my brother married a Mexican, I wouldn’t expect them to expect me to marry a Chinese girl.”

Upon asking why his parents wanted him to marry a Chinese girl, he struggled to find an answer, hypothetically pinning it to his parents’ upbringing.

chinese in mexico university
Roberto speaks at a panel at his alma mater Universidad del Valle de México, with other graduates. The talk was about their work experiences and what current students should expect and how to be prepared.

Interacting with Mexico as a chino

Roberto now lives in Bonn, Germany where he has been since 2016. He studied for his masters degree there.

I thought this would be a good place to start the conversation because having different experiences often leads to a better understanding of oneself.

Roberto described him being “just some random person” in Germany, whereas in the city centre of Hermosillo, he would get stared at.

When Roberto was about 14, he started noticing people calling him “chino.” It became even more prevalent when he attended university in Hermosillo. Roberto does not interpret these instances as racism. He gave the example of how university was a more impersonal place where a student wouldn’t know a lot of people intimately and so people would call him with his most obvious trait.

“I don’t normally take offence,” he said.

Roberto believes that going to private school helped him avoid racism. He believes that going to school with people from a wealthier stratum of Mexican society “tend to be more open to other people, not just Chinese but even people from within Mexico.”

Curiously, Roberto mentioned that he benefited from being Chinese. He pointed to stereotypes of Chinese people where Mexican society thought of us as intelligent and very dedicated to school.

“I got several job offers because of that, I think, and I actually started working before I finished my engineering [degree],” he said. “I didn’t feel that I had barriers in terms of ‘I couldn’t get something because of my race.’ “

A life in the New World

Proximity still plays a great part in our relationships. I know that when I move from one place to somewhere really far away, my connection to that group of friends change drastically.

It turns out that this rings true for Roberto too. He has cousins in the U.S. as well as two more in China, and the quality of connection between the former group and the latter group is best represented by the distance that separates them. Akin to the size of the Pacific versus the Rio Grande.

Roberto says he is much closer to his cousins in the United States but has minimal contact with his cousins in China. It helps that his cousins in the U.S. lived in Mexico for a few years, then moved north, giving Roberto an opportunity to build a connection with that group of cousins.

He mentioned a cousin who came to Mexico from China when she was about 18, but after about five years, didn’t like living in Mexico and went back to China. He mentioned that she faced an issue of integration into Mexican society and only interacted with her family members.

Roberto has tried learning Mandarin a few years ago but “I was not very dedicated,” he said, nor did he go to Chinese school when he was growing up. I would also posit that it’s quite difficult to learn Chinese in a place where Chinese people are “rare” as Roberto puts it.

One of the last things I asked Roberto to do is to write his Chinese name. He typed it in Simplified Chinese and the corollary to that is that he would know how to type Chinese, probably in pinyin.

But if my understanding of migration is telling, the place one grew up informs one’s identity much more than race. By this logic, I think Roberto (and myself) will consistently be using the Latin alphabet much more than Chinese characters.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *