Two Seconds Of Caucasian Fame

I always found myself in so-called “celebrity famous” situations while growing up as an Asian Australian in Asia. When I was seven, I went to a private primary school in Malaysia. Half of my classmates were Chinese-Malaysian. The other half were Caucasian, their parents expatriates hailing from the States and Australia. Everyone was fluent in English and we all understood one another even though we spoke with different accents.

When there are so many pairs of eyes on you, sometimes you feel famous. But sometimes this is just unwanted attention. Photo: Mabel Kwong

When there are so many pairs of eyes on you, sometimes you feel famous. But sometimes this is just unwanted attention. Photo: Mabel Kwong

I was Miss Popular among my Chinese classmates. Popular not because I had a blemish-free, pale Asian face, the funkiest hair accessories or a Gameboy, or was one of the high achievers in class, but because I was from Australia.

I was popular because I was Australian. Not Chinese-Australian, but just Australian.

During recess, my Chinese classmates would clamour for my attention as I sat in the zinc-roofed school canteen eating Mamee Monster noodle snacks. They pushed and shoved one another trying to sit right next to me. Sometimes they grabbed me by the arm and dragged me off to their favourite corner of the playground. They always said things like, “I want Mabel to be my friend. She’s from Australia!” and “She’s Australian. She’s my best friend. She does not want to be friends with you!”.

This very childish and culturally shallow behaviour lasted until I left Malaysia to study in Singapore three years later. At that time, I was very confused about the way I was treated and thought, “What’s the fuss about being Australian?” I was Chinese just as much as my Chinese-Malaysian classmates: dark hair, slant brown eyes, broad nose and had overprotective parents who drove us home after school every day. I barely spoke with an Australian accent but rather a Malaysian one and celebrated the Lunar New Year just like they did.

Even while studying in Singapore, my Singaporean secondary school classmates called me “Aussie girl” all the time. They weren’t as clingy as those in Malaysia but they did open their mouths in awe of hearing my flowery English language phrases whenever the teacher read aloud one of my essays in English class – and they put my English grammatical prowess down to being an “Aussie girl”. Up until this day, they still refer to me as the “girl from Aussie-land”.

I guess my classmates thought that since I had lived in Australia for a number of years, I’ve mingled with Caucasians, ate lots of Western food, strolled through scenic suburban towns and basically had lived a fascinating, attractive life so different from theirs. There is much truth to this. I was teased by white kids about my razor straight China-doll bangs alongside happily eating sugary lamingtons and fairy bread as a pre-schooler in Melbourne. On the other hand, having razor straight bangs and being forced to drink herbal soups are part and parcel of growing up Chinese-Malaysian in Malaysia. I do have skin as fair as the typical Caucasian Australian’s, so maybe because of my alleged “Caucasian looks” ” coupled with hearing about my Down Under fun times, my tanned classmates were convinced I was truly an Aussie and looked at me with much esteem.

Apart from feeling confused, I felt quite overwhelmed by everyone’s eyes on me in school. I was a very shy kid. In all honestly, I never felt I deserved all the attention from my classmates.

I’m Australian. I have Chinese-Malaysian blood in me. But really, I was just another student in Malaysia.

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12 thoughts on “Two Seconds Of Caucasian Fame

  1. Great post, Mabel. It’s so funny how we are, in many ways, judged for where we come from… In Taiwan I felt so funny. “I’m just a girl like any other girl…” But to them, I was something special because I was a white girl from the States. It’s just interesting to me how so often we are judged for things we have no control over… It’s funny, too, to think of shy you being mobbed by other kids! I can see how that would have been uncomfortable. At some point we all just want to feel like we belong, and not in a way that makes us stand out.

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    • The feeling of belonging is an interesting one. In Japan and China I sometimes got a bit irritated by being stared at because I looked different. On the positive side, in China I ended up being cast in commercials and acting in a children’s game show simply because I was a foreigner.

      I liked being ordinary in Singapore though. Long term, I always thought it was a place I could be quite happy living in (provided I could come to terms living in an apartment the size of a sardine can.)

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      • Haha! I guess “sticking out” can be both good and bad. And I know what you mean about small apartments. I lucked out in Taiwan because I lived outside of the big city, but in the city (and in Tokyo, when I visited), the apartments were tiny!

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    • Thanks, Jess. You are always right in saying that I’m shy 😉 When the kids mobbed and talked excitedly to me, I never really said anything. Most of the time, I just gave very short answers or just let them climb over me. I’m sure when people in Taiwan approached you, you handled it with much more grace than when people approached me! I agree with you. Sometimes we just want to blend in and be the same as everyone else – attention on us individually can be awfully distracting.

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  2. I’ve seen that as well. In east Asia, there seems to be a huge interest in people from “western” cultures, irrespective of whether they have Asian or Caucasian heritage. I always explained it as stemming from an interest in the exotic and unknown. In Australia, I don’t think the same interest in foreigners exists because we have so many migrants that people from other cultures are not exotic or unknown.

    In Singapore, I didn’t feel there was any interest in me because I was foreign the way there was in Japan and China. I thought that was because most Singaporeans are migrants or descendants of migrants and have had a lot of exposure to people passing through.

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    • Very true that Singapore is made up of migrants. It’s a country that you can call, well, cosmopolitan (I don’t like this word much though). Although public housing flats makes up the bulk of residential living, there are private condominium residences increasingly scattered in the city and outer-city areas of the tiny island – and a lot of Caucasians are clustered here. I do think such condos are designed to attract Westerners from overseas to live in Singapore: big swimming pools, lush green palm trees, modern decor, gym etc.. I think the locals have gotten to used to this “Western presence” over the past couple of decades and so don’t pay too much attention to Caucasians as much as the locals in Japan and China. Westernisation or presence of Western ideals ain’t too common outside of the CBDs of Japan and China.

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  3. Growing up in the States being Asian was a completely different experience for me. In fact, being a part of an ethnic group that few Americans knew of (you got any Chiu Chow friends?) was even more difficult. It was one thing to be made fun of, but then there were Caucasian kids that said I wasn’t Chinese because I didn’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese. My childhood was filled with confusion to say the least, but now in the end I’m quite proud of where I came from after I had a chance to explore my roots overseas.

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    • Growing up Asian in a Western country can definitely be difficult and I emphatise with you. I never really was that popular as a six-year old in Australia. The Caucasian kids at school teased my slanty eyes and basically called me a freak. Sometimes you wonder – are these classmates intentionally being cruel or are they being playful? Most of the time I think they are just naive and don’t have that much exposure to diverse cultures, so you can’t really blame their undesirable attitudes. I have scheduled a post this week on the topic of not speaking Mandarin or Cantonese, that might interest you. Thanks for reading, BLT.

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      • may i ask if u r currently staying in Aus or spore now? i am a malaysian chinese as well, just came back from Perth and Melb australia after a one year working holiday visa. could we get in touch and perhaps we could exchange ideas about living in Aus and stuff. i too have my fair shares of stories to share too .Whats ur email add?

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        • I am based in Melbourne at the moment. Sounds like you have spent some time a few places – traveling always opens up one’s mind and perspective. You can send me an email via my “Contact” page. Thanks for stopping by!

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