Barely Asian

My kids can’t understand why I get so passionate about diversity and representation. When I try to explain to them that it’s a deeply personal matter for me, they grin and say, “But you’re barely Asian, Mum.” Grinning, because they know how to rile me up.

I try to explain that when I was little, I was super-Asian! Because Queensland was super-White. Like, I was the only Asian-looking person at my school dances. And I was actually teased and called “Ching-Chong” at my primary school!

Preschool 1983 – That’s me in the circle.
Aww, look at all those 70’s clothing leftovers.

I try to explain that, sure, I’m not full 100% Asian like the people who work at Chinatown and prefer to speak Chinese to English.

I’m not even like the ABC (Australian Born Chinese) kids at school. Who look fully Asian on the outside but can’t speak their heritage language.

Eurasian

For one thing, I’m not full 100% Asian. Growing up, my mother called me Eurasian. Which is now called mixed-race or biracial or half-half, depending on where you’re from. It used to be called half-caste, but that had fallen out of favour by the 80’s when I was a child. Bitsa, mongrel, half-a. Those are ironic terms of endearment in Australia. A new favourite of mine is hafu, a Japanese term.

Being Eurasian is no big deal now. I remember reading a statistic that most of the Australian population by the middle of this century will be Eurasian.

But in the 80’s, it was a big deal. Especially in 80’s Queensland, which is where I was born and raised. The Premier was Joe Bjelke-Peterson, who was like an early “innocent”, bumbling Donald Trump. He stood against labour unions, moral hedonism and a rise in Asian immigration. There were only two other Asian kids in our school of 600 – the Chinese restaurant kids.

When I moved to Brisbane in 1989, there were six Asian kids in my year. The naughty boy who was a Vietnamese refugee. The good girl who was a Vietnamese refugee and my friend. The Indonesian girl. The Malaysian girl. The Chinese girl whose name was the same as my nickname. And the Taiwanese boy whose first words learned on the playground were swear words. This suburb was incredibly multicultural at that time (it’s still like a suburban Chinatown). Our year also had an Indian girl, a Portuguese boy, a Dutch boy, a Greek girl… I loved it!

…in danger of being swamped by Asians

Pauline Hanson

Then I went to high school. There were a handful of Asian girls in our year of 200. That would have changed substantially now. Pauline Hanson’s popularity in 1996 was tied with her speaking up for common Australians “in danger of being swamped by Asians.”

Finally, I went to uni in Sydney and landed in a class of mainly Asian and Indian students. With a handful of white students. Some of the Asian students were international students, but many had been born here or migrated as young children. The entry requirement to Medicine at that time was purely academic, so it seemed to prove the stereotype of pushy Asian parents. Or parents who had made a tremendous sacrifice and passed on the value of education to their children, depending on how you looked at it.

Representation

There was one Asian character in a book. Claudia Kishi was the token Asian girl across all of commercial children’s books at that time. Surely one was enough for every Asian girl in the Western world to relate to!

It was in Sydney that I first saw an Asian model on an advertising banner. It was an ad for Sportsgirl. At Broadway shopping centre, near Chinatown and Sydney Uni. I was in 3rd year, so it must have been 1999. The first Asian model I had ever seen – in all my years of perusing Girlfriend and Dolly cover-to-cover and window-shopping at Sportsgirl and Portmans – made quite an impression.

After uni, patients, especially in rural placements and posh suburbs, would look surprised and comment on my excellent English when I introduced myself. They still do! It’s quite amazing how Asian you can be when you’re barely Asian.

And I’m still mistaken for a full Asian woman in my writing group, even though we look nothing alike.

#SorryWrongAsian

So even though I’m “barely Asian”, I do know what it’s like to be teased and vilified. I could feel the tide of anti-Asian feeling rising at the start of 2020 when taxi drivers gave me malevolent looks that signalled, “Don’t you dare come into my taxi.” I didn’t care. I didn’t need them!

Was I being paranoid when I noticed that I was the only girl in my group of friends who hadn’t been asked to dance? I wasn’t hideous. Was it because I was Asian? My friend said if it was, I was lucky. She might end up dating a guy for ages before realising he was a racist.

Ivan in Med 3 charmingly informed me that I was in between two cultures. Didn’t I worry that a White family would never accept me as an in-law? Neither would a Chinese family. He, for one, would never be able to take me home to his mother. Thanks, Ivan, for illuminating the loneliness of my in-between status. And for unintentionally making it more bearable. I wouldn’t want to meet your mother. So there!

Barely Asian? I can just barely bear it.

Here are some books about the multi-racial experience. Please let me know of any others you know of in the comments below:

Based on the true story of the 1967 court case where the Lovings fought against the state of Virginia’s ban against interracial marriage.
Looking forward to reading this debut book by Malaysian-Maltese Australian author.
I related to the essay by Cath Moore about being mixed race in Canberra – especially having a white mother.

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