Lord Nat Wei's story
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( LORD NAT WEI )

Nat Wei is a member of the House of Lords, and currently the youngest active sitting Peer. Nat grew up in Milton Keynes, speaking Cantonese at home and surrounded by Chinese culture. As his interest in politics grew, he stepped away from his Chinese heritage as he became more deeply involved in British society. Now as the only active British-Chinese Member of Parliament, he has taken on a more active role representing British Born Chinese politically as the community begins to shape a more influential presence in British society.

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INTERVIEW AUDIO EXCERPTS

THE ABRIDGED INTERVIEW ( Full Interview )

THE FULL INTERVIEW ( Abridged Interview )

My name is Lord Nat Wei, I was born in Watford in 1977 and I work in the House of Lords.

Nat, do you think you could tell us a bit about your background and your family?

My grandfather, and originally my ancestors, came from China in the Guangdong province, a place called Zhuhai, which is about an hour West by boat of Hong Kong. My grandfather moved to Hong Kong, and my parents grew up there. Then in the ‘60s and ‘70s my father came over to the UK to study, and then brought my mother over in the ‘70s. I grew up in and around London and in Milton Keynes during my teenage years, very much as a British Born Chinese.

"As the only active Chinese Peer, I do feel a huge weight, being potentially able to champion certain causes that are closer to Chinese people. But I think it’s very important avoid being boxed as ‘the Chinese Peer’ and only talk about things relating to China, as then your impact may not be as great as it could be."

What was it like growing up for you? Did you identify with the Chinese portion of your identity, the British portion, or both?

I’d say both. The organisation my father worked with when I was growing up had a lot of people who had worked in China but who were British, and I was sort of the first child of my generation, so actually a lot of my friends when I was growing up were older British people. I had an English babysitter while my parents worked, so that gave me a lot of insight and grounding in British culture and society. But growing up, through Church and other ways, I was very much surrounded by Chinese people of different kinds, so it was always a mix. At home we always spoke in English and Cantonese – and still do.

Can you tell us a bit about the work that you do in the House of Lords and also whether you feel some sort of responsibility, being a British Born Chinese and a Peer as well?

I’m here almost every day working as a legislator: the work that we do here is mainly about debating and revising legislation that the government’s producing, and voting where there are amendments. But I also have a whole range of activities around my work here as a working Peer, which includes balancing philanthropic interests, policy work and obviously private interests as well. It’s a bit like juggling! As the only active Chinese Peer, I do feel a huge weight in this unique position of being potentially able to bridge both East and West and perhaps champion certain causes that are closer to the heart of Chinese people. But I think it’s very important that whether you’re Chinese or not, you play your role and on one level avoid being boxed as ‘the Chinese Peer’ as then people only expect you to talk about things relating to China or Chinese people, then your impact may not be as great as it could be.

Do you also feel that there are certain values maybe in your upbringing that have helped you in your career?

I always remember, as a Chinese growing up, that work ethic of just working hard and keeping your head down and you know, just doing well in school and so on. I think that’s a strong cultural and quite well documented aspect that comes from being Chinese. I’m quite entrepreneurial too; I really enjoy starting initiatives, starting companies, starting social ventures. And I think that probably comes from my Chinese background too, heritage: making do with limited resources and getting going.

"As China rises, I think all that wealth and opportunity creates an opportunity for those who have grown up here but who have that British-Chinese identity, to help to bridge the local Chinese and the wider British population."

I’d also say one thing that characterises many in the Chinese community is we can be quite modest; stay out of the limelight, not really make a fuss. Which is on one level great because it means Chinese in Britain are often great citizens and generally very responsible, but on other level it means you can be quite invisible and you perhaps don’t have as much prominence, certainly compared to some of the other ethnic groups that are here. I think certainly for BBC’s and second or third generation Chinese, there’s an opportunity there to be a bit more - not raucous, not sort of shouting all the time, protesting or anything - but just being a bit more assertive and a bit more visible in society. And I think that’s important: people have to know who you are, what you stand for, and it may be a bit tricky as it’s not something we’re really used to, but if we don’t do it we’ll lose out.

Could you tell us a little about how you see, or how you would like to see, the future of the British Chinese community in the UK?

Obviously right now there’s a lot of change in the British-Chinese community and a lot of challenges: we’ve got an ageing population, we’ve got different ethnic groups, and different groupings that identify themselves as Chinese, and as a community we probably don’t have as much of a voice because we’re quite dispersed. So there are all kinds of issues. And it could be very easy at a time like this to get quite negative and inward looking. But I actually think because of China’s rise, there’s a massive opportunity; actually we could say we could be the bridge here - we can be between East and West. As China rises, all that wealth and opportunity creates an opportunity for those living here, who have grown up here but who have that British-Chinese identity, to help to bridge both with the first generation, who have a lot of the networks in the grassroots activities, but also within the second and third generation, many of whom are professionals and who have skills to bring. If you could combine all of those elements, actually I think you could do something powerful - not just for the local Chinese but for the wider British population.

My name is Lord Nat Wei, I was born in Watford in 1977 and I work in the House of Lords.

Nat, do you think you could tell us a bit about your background and your family?

My grandfather, and originally my ancestors, came from China in the Guangdong province, a place called Zhuhai, which is about an hour West by boat of Hong Kong. My grandfather moved to Hong Kong, and my parents grew up there. Then in the ‘60s and ‘70s my father came over to the UK to study, and then brought my mother over in the ‘70s. I grew up in and around London and in Milton Keynes during my teenage years, very much as a British Born Chinese.

"As the only active Chinese Peer, I do feel a huge weight, being potentially able to champion certain causes which are closer to Chinese people. But I think it’s very important avoid being boxed as ‘the Chinese Peer’ and only talk about things relating to China, as then your impact may not be as great as it could be."

What was it like growing up for you? Did you identify with the Chinese portion of your identity, the British portion, or both?

I’d say both. The organisation my father worked with when I was growing up had a lot of people who had worked in China but who were British, and I was sort of the first child of my generation, so actually a lot of my friends when I was growing up were older British people. I had an English babysitter while my parents worked, so that gave me a lot of insight and grounding in British culture and society. But growing up, through church and other ways, I was very much surrounded by Chinese people of different kinds, so it was always a mix. At home we always spoke - and still do - in English and Cantonese. It wasn’t really until university that I got much more deeply involved in British society and in a sense stepped away from being heavily involved in the Chinese community, all the way until really most recently coming to the House of Lords and discovering that I’m the only Chinese active Member of Parliament.

While growing up, was there was any conflict between what was expected from you and how you wanted to live your life?

Yes and no. I think my parents, particularly my father, had already had some exposure to British society: he did his A-Levels and his degree here. So compared to some Chinese, I guess, they were very happy for me to pursue interests and a career that wasn’t necessarily, say, the traditional career that a lot of first and second generation Chinese want their kids to pursue. I think in the wider Chinese community that I grew up in, it was perhaps a bit more challenging because you grew up understanding British culture, British habits, and yet sometimes the behaviour that’s expected of you conforms more to Chinese culture. So you’re always having to work out, okay, do I have to behave in a more Chinese way? Perhaps when you’re growing up, eating meals, not saying that much and just respecting the elders and so on, or are you to behave in a more Western way, and pursue interests, perhaps be a bit more individualist and less communal. So it’s probably more in that side of things where there’s a little bit of tension, but I wouldn’t say it was huge. I think others in the Chinese community that I have come across growing up have had many more challenges in terms of reconciling both their family and community expectations to their own kind of identity and interests in the West.

Can you tell us a bit about the work that you do in the House of Lords and also whether you feel some sort of responsibility, being a British Born Chinese and a Peer as well?

I’m here almost every day working as a legislator: the work that we do here is mainly about debating and revising legislation that the government’s producing, and voting where there are amendments. But I also have a whole range of activities around my work here as a working Peer, which includes balancing philanthropic interests, policy work and obviously private interests as well. It’s a bit like juggling! As the only active Chinese Peer - probably, I was told, one of the most senior Chinese politicians in Europe - you do feel a huge weight. Now obviously I came in less because I’m Chinese and more because of the work I’d done in areas such as social enterprise and that kind of thing, but then you find yourself in this unique position of being potentially able to bridge both East and West and perhaps champion certain issues and causes which are closer to the heart of Chinese people. But where I come from, I think it’s very important that whether you’re Chinese or not, you play your role and on one level avoid being boxed, whether Chinese or, in my case, young - I’m also the youngest member of the House of Lords as well. If you just get boxed as ‘the Chinese Peer’ and people only expect you to talk about things relating to China or Chinese people, then your impact may not be as great as it could be.

Do you also feel that there are certain values maybe in your upbringing that have helped you in your career?

I always remember, as a Chinese growing up, that work ethic of just working hard and keeping your head down and you know, just doing well in school and so on. I think that’s a strong cultural and quite well documented aspect that comes from being Chinese. I’m quite entrepreneurial too; I really enjoy starting initiatives, starting companies, starting social ventures. And I think that probably comes from my Chinese background too, heritage: making do with limited resources and getting going.

"As China rises, I think all that wealth and opportunity creates an opportunity for those who have grown up here but who have that British-Chinese identity, to help to bridge the local Chinese and the wider British population."

I’d also say one thing that characterises many in the Chinese community, and probably an area where we may need to just work a bit harder and adapt, is we can be quite modest; stay out of the limelight, not really make a fuss. Which is on one level great because it means Chinese in Britain are often great citizens and generally very responsible, but on other level it means you can be quite invisible and you perhaps don’t have as much prominence, certainly compared to some of the other ethnic groups that are here. I think certainly for BBC’s and second or third generation Chinese, there’s an opportunity there to be a bit more - not raucous, not sort of shouting all the time, protesting or anything - but just being a bit more assertive and a bit more visible in society. And I think that’s important: people have to know who you are, what you stand for, and it may be a bit tricky as it’s not something we’re really used to, but if we don’t do it we’ll lose out.

Could you tell us a little about how you see, or how you would like to see, the future of the British Chinese community in the UK?

Obviously right now there’s a lot of change in the British-Chinese community and a lot of challenges: we’ve got an ageing population, we’ve got different ethnic groups, and different groupings that identify themselves as Chinese, and as a community we probably don’t have as much of a voice because we’re quite dispersed. So there are all kinds of issues. And it could be very easy at a time like this to get quite negative and inward looking and perhaps just sort of ‘decline’ as it were.

But I actually think, partly and largely because of China’s rise, there’s a massive opportunity to look at it differently; rather than being on the back foot and managing decline, actually we could say we could be the bridge here - we can be between East and West. As China rises, all that wealth and opportunity creates an opportunity for those living here, who have grown up here but who have that British-Chinese identity, to help to build ties and to bridge both with the first generation, who have a lot of the networks in the grassroots activities, but also within the second and third generation, many of whom are professionals and who have skills to bring. If you could combine all of those elements, actually I think you could do something powerful - not just for the local Chinese but for the wider British population - and really take its rightful place as one of the larger ethnic groups in mainstream British society. And that’s what I’m really passionate about championing, moving forwards.

Could you tell us a bit about your children? What would you like to pass on, to equip them for a future as part of the British and also the British-Chinese community?

In terms of the way I’d like to raise my kids, I think its probably saying take the best of both cultures. There are so many great things you get from British culture: the creativity, the love of the arts and culture, and aspects that perhaps aren’t always as emphasised if you’re historically relying on the Chinese heritage. But also I actually do want them to learn Chinese, particularly Mandarin, so that’s a process that we’re beginning with them. My wife also speaks Cantonese with them; I speak English, which is apparently a proven way educationally for kids to become bilingual. And we encourage them to write, to discover their heritage, to go back to the village, learn about our genealogy - which stretches back 8-900 years actually, which is amazing.

I want them to learn all of that, as well as take their rightful place and be involved and contribute to mainstream British society, so that they can really be like a bridge between two cultures. I think that even for my generation, and others who grew up here, that learning both about where you came from in China as well as being more involved in British society – I don’t think it needs to be an either/or anymore. I predict that in maybe five, ten years time, those of us who grew up here who don’t know Mandarin, we may find many of our colleagues where we work are translating – English people will have learned Mandarin and will be translating for us, which is kind of a bit embarrassing. It’s probably about time we caught up and got to know our roots a bit, without having, in the process of doing that, in any way giving up all that we’ve gained from British society as well.