I was recently invited to give a talk at Kurunjang Secondary College on what it means to be “different”, an Asian Australian living in a predominantly white Australia.
As I walked to the front of the Year 12 class on a crisp winter morning, I noticed about twenty odd Caucasian and Asian students staring back at me from behind their desks. Some of them had Melbourne lawyer/writer Alice Pung’s Growing Up Asian In Australia in front of them, one of the texts they were studying for their upcoming final high school English exams.
The teacher shook my hand and I introduced myself to the class. I launched into a story about how as a kid living in the eastern suburbs, I rarely felt part of a group; all my Caucasian classmates refused to share their Shapes with me during lunch and my mum refused to buy these biscuits for me as I, according to her, was supposed to “eat Asian food”.
“What do you think are some of the challenges of being Asian Australian?” I asked.
“Belonging?” one girl on my left timidly asked.
“Yes. What else?”
Another bout of silence. Someone said, “Bullying.”
“Juggling two identities.”
“Exactly,” I encouraged. Impressive answers from a bunch of young people.
An Asian student at the back of the classroom put his hand up. “What’s your opinion on stereotypes? Do you think it’s more worthwhile for someone like you to conform to Asian stereotypes, or act more ‘Australian’?”
The subject of stereotypes is one mind-boggling topic of discussion. “It would be silly to say that stereotypes aren’t relevant today,” I offered. “Some of us do value longstanding Asian values and traditions. It’s a matter of juggling both identities.”
Someone hurled another question at me. “Did you experience racism growing up?”
“You can say that my classmates were racist towards me for not taking an interest in the fried rice I brought to school for lunch,” I joked. “A few years ago when I just moved back to Melbourne, I was standing on the street, and some Caucasian guy driving by in a car with the windows rolled down yelled at me, ‘Go home! Go back to your country!”.
“How did you overcome racism?” a student asked.
Can we ever combat racism? “This incident made me scared of Caucasians. But I started volunteering in the community and met many white Australians whom I call friends today.”
A few murmurs went around the room. Someone on my right piped up shyly, softly. She looked me straight in the eye. “But not all of us are, well, not all of us are like that. I mean, racist. We’re not all racists. A lot of my friends are non-white and we get along perfectly fine.
“There are some of us, who, you know, respect different cultures.”
* * *
It was incredibly heartening to see the class studying Pung’s humourous Asian Australian text, thinking and discussing how different ethnicities have a place in Australia – educating young people about this topic in school potentially encourages them to take notice of and embrace the cultural diversity around us. Judging by the smattering of questions both the Caucasian and Asian students asked me in rapid succession about being Asian Australian (way more than I recounted above), this is indeed so.
Some take offense at being called “Caucasian” or “Asian” as sometimes they don’t feel they fit stereotypical moulds. The students showed no sign of this when I threw these two segregational words around quite a bit in my talk, instead showing much interest in stimulating a youthfully rich discussion on the topic of being Asian in Australia.
They also never questioned if I was really Australian when I identified myself as Asian Australian in my slightly Singapore/Malaysian tinged accent at the beginning. A sign some young Australians are truly accepting of their culturally and linguistically diverse mates.
My favourite part of my short trip to Kurunjang Secondary College was seeing both Caucasian and Asian students here chiming into the conversation about cultural difference, feeding off my stories about being an Asian Australian kid. I was so enthused by their honest opinions on diversity that last week, I went out and bought Growing Up Asian In Australia. Less than two chapters in so far, I feel reconnected to my Asian heritage and am determined to finish this book once and for all.
I inspired them. And they inspired me. As Australians whom we all are.
Do you have trouble communicating with your fellow Australians/Americans/Malaysians etc. and if so, see them as less Australian/American/Malysian etc.?
I like that photo. It has got the ‘classroom’ kind of feel and you look so cute. I thought you were one of the students. 🙂 I always enjoyed reading your posts.
Thank you for the compliments Little Borneo Girl. I always get mistaken for a high school kid, not that I mind. But I don’t know if I’m cute…how old do you think I look in the photo? 😉
Thank you, another compliment 🙂
My thoughts as I was reading this post was how brave people have to be to face high school classes in the first place! 😉
Really enjoyed this post – it’s always so much more valuable to open up discussion about these issues than present them in ways that shut down honest reflections. I find that in academia, much of the bias is ‘dressed’ differently conversation, whereas I’d imagine school students would have an unfiltered directness to their questions/responses. I’m thinking I prefer the unfilteredness…!
Standing in front of a high school class, I reckon often you get a bunch of students who are either really quiet or really noisy and cheeky.
I suppose in classrooms students are encouraged to think very much out of the box – they are very young and naive. Teachers who love to teach would generally guide them to be open and receptive to new ideas…and sometimes let the cheeky ones get away with obnoxious and crude questions 🙂
Sounds like being Asian in Australia is much nicer than it was where I grew up. Next time I get adopted I will request there. -_-
Hmmm. From my personal experience, being Asian in Australia has a lot of challenges, from racism to never fitting in. But I’ve come to realise that all of us have our differences, and difference makes the world a lot more interesting.
Couldn’t of been as rough as growing up in an all black city…
Or perhaps just different. I have heard great things though from Asians that grew up in Australia. Is the racism centered in a particular area?
I don’t think racism is centered in a particular area, though I’ve passed through predominantly white towns in Australia and felt that shopkeepers and waiters look right through me when I ask for something. Then there are predominantly Asian towns here (e.g. Richmond, Footscray) and passing through them, you feel that Australia is a multicultural place. Maybe times are a-changing today and Asian Australians are growing up in a more welcoming environment today, but also maybe not.
Interesting I learned something! That sounds cool though if their are at least areas of acceptance!
hmm…the guy said black people but anyway…being a white person going to places where east-asians are the majority eg. eastwood i also feel like im being looked through and people are rude to me…
It’s good to know that there are some lessons for young generation in schools to raise awareness of different cultures. Teach them young to help them grow up understanding others. For me, no matter what our nationality, we are human beings. We don’t have to love or agree with others living their lives but we should certainly respect, accept and understand the difference.
Thank you for sharing this.
I love how you say we ‘don’t have to love or agree with others living their lives’ but respect them. For example, we might not approve of other’s late-night partying, food choices or doing things at the last minute, but at the very least we can do to show respect towards them as another human being is to avoid overly criticising and steer away from putting down their ideas and lifestyle. Who knows, they might have something to teach us one day or we can learn from them. Thanks for reading!
You comment about your friends not taking an interest in your fried rice was interesting to me because, in my experience, it was both insignificant and significant. I say it is significant because I was not aware of any racism against Asians in Australia until I took a strong interest in Asian cultures and found myself suffering some prejudice for that. For example, I did an art course and used some Asian techniques and philosophies. Instead of being open to my experimentation, the teachers and classmates expressed derogatory views of them. They said I was a copyist, unimaginative and an appropriator. Later one teacher said that landscape painting was invented by the Dutch in the 17th century and that not even the ancient Greeks had painted landscapes. I asked if she thought the Europeans could have been influenced by Chinese landscape painters who had painted landscapes of thousands of years. She realised her mistake but held a grudge for me pointing it out. Then I started hearing negative comments about Asian teaching methods and was told that my teachers “would never teach like hierarchical Asians.” The teachers didn’t believe themselves to be racist, but they didn’t have respect for Asian culture and didn’t like seeing someone like myself being semi-Asianised. I think they were more comfortable with Asian students acting Asian because the presumption was that they would assimilate and were not therefore rejecting “western” methods.
I also became more aware of subtle racism when I started having Japanese and Chinese girlfriends. Basically, I felt I fought against stereotypes that the Asian women were inferior to the “feisty, self-assured, intelligent” Caucasian women. In regards to the Japanese girlfriends, I encountered some hostility from Caucasian women who stereotyped Japanese women as passive and compliant towards men and used those stereotypes to explain why Caucasian men found them attractive. I found their comments to be ignorant considering that since they had not had relationships with Japanese women they were not in a position to judge.
In regards to Chinese women, I encountered beliefs that a relationship between between a Caucasian man and Asian woman was a form of prostitution because they stereotyped Chinese women as wanting to improve their socio-economic position. Ironically, the thing that I found most attractive about Chinese women, as a culture, was a greater percentage of women with vocational ambition. In comparison, I found that many Australian women didn’t really have an education, didn’t have a career ambition and many of the women who did have an education and career ambition ended up working part time or becoming house wives once they had children. I just didn’t find that type of woman to be attractive and that was always a fear of mine when I had Caucasian Australians. I suppose that fear itself was a form of prejudice in that I was letting social stereotypes influence my interaction with individuals, but I had just seen it too many times not to be concerned.
Overall, I tend to think that cultures are concerned by individuals within their cultures embracing aspects of foreign cultures (be it food, styles or relationship partners ) because it is interpreted as a rejection of one’s own culture and therefore an insult to it. This is not something confined to Australia, it is also strong elsewhere, especially in China and Japan. Australia’s attitude to racial harmony is certainly not perfect but then I am not perfect myself.
Like you, I didn’t really didn’t see there was much racism towards Asians in Australia (didn’t even realise kids/people were being racist to me) up until a couple of years ago until I started reading more about Asian Australian identities and multiculturalism. I sympathise with you, didn’t seem rational of the teacher to put down your Asian-inspired creativities without looking at the intriguing story behind it. Time and time again, I’ve pitched opinion stories written from an Asian perspective to editors, only to receive back revised drafts saying I should include more prominent notable “white” Asian figures/conceptions popular/familiar with a Caucasian audience. Never really enjoyed twisting my words to suit their publications, so that’s one reason I started this blog.
It’s quite interesting to hear you mention that some Caucasian women don’t have much ambition career-wise. Having worked in a bunch of different places from suffocating offices to outdoor events, I see that a lot of Caucasian women are happy to do repetitive admin tasks day in and day out. Quite often, I hear them say they are unsure about what they want to do in life and it’s not uncommon to find that they have studied a number of unrelated degrees. In contrast, many Asian women are very much driven to complete degrees – especially outside of their countries – and stick with their chosen career paths. Which could really be put down to the traditional Asian mentality of “studying and work to earn money”.
I agree with you that there are some individuals who turn their noses down at those of the same race who embrace foreign cultures and habits. Personally, I see embracing foreign cultures are something exciting – it’s something new to try and think about. I like to eat Western food sometimes, but my mum doesn’t really like it. When I see her catch me eating chips or Maccas, I always see a “Caucasianised girl” glint in her eyes.
Great to see people really thinking about racism, culture, the blending of cultures, etc. Sadly, I don’t think we’ll ever rid the whole world of racism. But we can try to fight it off one person at a time… If I refuse to be racist, I can impact others, who will then impact others, who will then impact others… In the end we are all individuals and deserve to be treated as such, for who we are, rather than from where we came from.
And, yes, impressive responses from high schoolers. And good for you for speaking to a classroom of kids! You now have me wondering what your accent sounds like. Every time I talk to my Vietnamese friend who lives in Adelaide, I am taken aback when he says “mate” and uses other wonderful Australian phrases.
True but sad that racism will seemingly be a part of this world. There’s always bound to be some of us that just can’t see the beauty in other cultures for one reason or another. I like your train of thought – if we refuse to judge others based on race, we’re only sharing the beauty of diversity with others who are open-minded and desire to learn.
Honestly, to me public speaking is nerve-wrecking. My accent? It’s one of a kind, I suppose. I rarely use “mate” or the other awesome Australian phrases when I speak, but am more likely to throw in a few English words the way South East Asians typical say them. Australians think I sound like a foreigner and people from Asia tell me I sound Australian 🙂
You seem like you would be a little shy speaking up front. But it’s good you did it anyway! And I know you were great. Kids are actually a good audience to talk in front of… Well maybe someday… someday… I’ll make it to Australia and be able to hear your accent for myself! Hope you have a great weekend! 🙂
You read me well, Jess. I am a shy person who doesn’t say much most of the time. I think the kids enjoyed my presence, thanks for being so encouraging. Maybe I’ll pop over to your end of the world someday!
I want to do study in aust…i am indian.i am know in 11th class.i want to complete my 12 in aust and i am the small player of badminton…u can help me..
Nice to hear you are interested in studying in Australia. Perhaps you could look up where you want to study in Australia (Google!) and take it from there, talk to schools and teachers via email/phone? All the best!
Unfortunately, we are so quick to give away our culture. I now ask myself, what does it mean to be a white Australian? What an absurd statement???? There is no confusion, to me, it’ll always be our efforts during the world wars and the brave men who gave their lives. Something you, or countless generations of Asian Australians to come will NEVER be able to relate to. It doesn’t matter really, we’re over run any way.
That is very true, Ian. As Asian Australians, it is hard for us to relate to what it feels like or what it means to fight in the previous wars. But it is definitely something that we can read about, and talk to those who fought in the wars to understand and learn more about it – and to understand what it means to be a Caucasian Australian or an Australian of Anglo descent.
There are plenty of Asians who experienced the second world war, it’s just they experienced it outside of Australia and their stories have been passed on to younger generations.
There seems to be a debate in Australia about what it is to be a true Aussie and if someone isn’t in that mold then they are ‘unaustralian’ which seems to be a popular term. As an outsider to most of this all Australians are immigrants or descended from immigrants. Even aboriginals came from outside Australia if you go back in history long enough.
Since the 70’s larger scale immigration especially from Asia into Australia has happened which has changed the country. I believe that all communities in Australia can do something to make the country better rather than some trying to isolate themselves from each other or making little effort to join in with a larger society or moan that society itself is racist and do nothing to foster better relationships and make things better.
Interesting that the mother refuses to buy ‘Australian’ food and insists the daughter is supposed to ‘eat Asian food’!! You could be forgiven for thinking, the mother maybe racially elitist or at the very least not accepting of her host country and it’s people. Either way – not helpful for herself or her family. 😦
There are migrants here who do not want to integrate unfortunately.
Imagine if a white Australian said this, living in Asia.