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.?