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.
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.