As an Asian Australian girl who has lived Melbourne for nearly a decade, I’ve had quite a few local Caucasian guys hit on me.
These encounters are amusing and annoying. They give me the impression some Caucasian guys are attracted to me because of my ethnicity (maybe some have yellow fever). These moments also remind me of what it means to be Asian Australian, an Asian person living in Australia.
On a recent winter’s weekday afternoon, I had one of those random encounters in the city. Two hands plunged in the pockets of my grey Target jacket, I settled down on one of the empty benches along the glass panelled sky bridge linking the Melbourne Central and Emporium shopping malls. Tired from window shopping, I gazed at the traffic on the roads below, and sensed someone sit down beside me on the bench.
“Do you do meditation? You’re sitting very straight.”
I turned to my left and found myself looking into a set of light brown eyes. Eyes the property of a tall, slim built Caucasian guy with ginger hair and a matching-coloured short boxed beard. Yellow jumper, brown pants and a long green anorak jacket. Bulging backpack over his shoulders. Looks like a uni student. Maybe he wants to hook up with a chick? Or maybe he just wants to talk? “No. I don’t meditate. But I sit up straight when I’m at my desk at work. Good posture.”
“What are you doing today?” he asked, eyes locked on mine.
“Just walking around. Day off from work. What are you doing?”
“I just quit my job,” he goes on. “My mum is going to be so pissed. This sounds weird, but have you ever felt you were meant to…do something?”
“Oh yes,” I said. “I write in my spare time because it’s something I want to do.”
“I quit my job so I can go into meditation.” He paused. “Honestly, I came over because I thought…you looked very pretty.”
Sounds like one of those guys who tries to impress girls by showing off street-smarts and flattering them. “Everyone’s beautiful in their own way.”
Many of us Asian Australians grew up with Western and Eastern influences around us: watching children’s educational program PlaySchool presented in the Aussie accent on TV, seeing Chinese New Year celebrations with our parents in Chinatown, eating Fairy Bread at birthday parties, helping our parents run their Asian restaurant business after school and so on. Chances are we learnt to respect both cultures when we were young and treat others regardless of race how we want to be treated. Unfortunately, no matter how nice we may be, we don’t always get the same kind of respect back when we meet some Australians of other races.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“I’m from Australia. Melbourne.”
“But…you know. You’re…Asian.”
The thudding sounds of shoppers’ footwear hitting the tiled floor filled my ears. Of course I know. I am Asian. Chinese-Malaysian, to be exact. But I am also a person with a personality. “I’ve heard that question many, many times. But that’s also a very innocent question. You’re curious about the person you’ve just met.”
“Exactly!” he exclaimed. “You know what? The other day I was watching this video that showed a white guy and a Korean girl talking about relationships. We’re having the same conversation that they had in the video!” Are we a couple already in your head?
As Asian Australians, we’re more than just our heritage. We are Australian. We have lives in Australia. We’re familiar with shopping at Woolies, familiar with riding the trains and trams. We’re students, workers, parents, mentors and so much more every day in Australia. That “somewhere” we’re from is Australia. Multicultural Australia.
As Asian Australians, at times we get judged by our ethnicity and thought of nothing more than fetishised objects to be looked at. “Exotic” is not a compliment; many Asian Australians and people of colour don’t think the word is a compliment (neither is “Oriental”). “Exotic” has quite a few meanings: foreigness, the Other, different, unusual, mysterious, striking, beautiful.
However, “exotic” arguably isn’t an insult or a racist remark. Every race is unique. Every race has its typical set of physical features (think skin, hair, eyes), beliefs, cultural attire and customs. If we’re Chinese, a Caucasian person might strike us as culturally different, and vice-versa. So in this sense every race is arguably exotic – it’s a matter of perspective.
“Where are you from?” I threw the question back at him.
“Well,” he said in a tone that gave the impression the answer was obvious. “I’m from…here. I live in Box Hill.”
“That’s far out east.” Box Hill, the suburb that has one of the largest Chinese populations in the country. “I live in the city.”
“Let’s go to your place!”
Only the sounds of footwear hitting the tiled floor filled my ears again. We only started talking five minutes ago. Do you want to relax in a cozy house or get lucky? “I live at home.”
“Oh. That sucks.”
“I don’t mind living at home. Roof over my head. Could be worse.”
Not every Asian Australian girl jumps at the chance to go home with a Caucasian guy after a few minutes of pleasant conversation. Not all of us Asian Australian girls fit the usual Asian stereotypes; not all of us are “easy” or submissive. A lot of us are lucky to get an education and learn to voice our opinions at school and work in Australia. So some of us can be insistent on sticking to our personal choices instead of going with other suggestions.
“Do you want to go bowling?”
“No. I’m going home soon to write.”
“You don’t look happy,” He stood up, his tall frame towering over me. “You didn’t look happy when I was approaching. C’mon. Let’s go bowling.”
“No.” I said the word calmly. Politely.
“You could die tomorrow. C’mon.”
Shoppers streamed past, none of them batting an eyelid at the two of us. As he looked down at me, I realised I was alone and at 148 centimetres tall, was tiny in size compared to him. There was my small self, a quiet Asian girl not speaking much. But at the same time, there I was, a determined Asian girl looking up and standing up for herself.
“Let’s go.” He sounded uncertain now.
Being Asian Australian means challenging and sticking to stereotypes. In the 1850s gold rush era, Chinese immigrants constructed Chinese arches in Melbourne’s Little Bourke Street, and these still stand side-by-side modern arcades that are home to countless Asian stores today. In the 1980s, a wave of Vietnamese migrants set up small businesses in Richmond and Springvale, suburbs where Asian dialects are spoken alongside broken English today. Australia is, has always been, a nation of migrants, migrants who bring with them their cultures and languages to this country. Our heritage is always right in front of us, and many of us are proud of being Asian. Hands still plunged in my jacket’s pockets, my eyes lingered on him until he walked out of sight.
There are times when what others say makes us Asian Australians feel like we don’t belong in this country that we call home. Maybe this is partly our fault: maybe we let ourselves feel different in the cultural sense? After all, we can choose to brush off such comments and learn to be comfortable with who we are and where we come from. Then again, there are always cultural lessons to be taught and learnt from these remarks.
It can be hard to tell if someone has yellow fever, which is often thought of as a sexual obsession towards Asians and being obsessed with qualities one assumes all Asians have (Anna Akana). It’s a fine line between loving and respecting, and being infatuated over stereotypical Asian traits. Personally, I hold no grudges against Caucasian guys who hit on me, preferring to think they mean well. As Anne Frank said, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
Two weeks later, I’m eating a salad alone at the dimly lit ground floor food court in Melbourne Central. An Asian girl wearing black glasses is seated alone at the table right beside me, eating an omelette wrap and fiddling with her phone at the same time. I sensed someone towering over her. “Do you need a friend? I see we’re eating the same food.”
I glanced up. The same guy who tried to pick me up not too long ago was standing beside and looking down at her, omelette wrap in hand. I stopped chewing. What are the odds of seeing him again?
Do you like getting hit on, and romantic attention?