“Why aren’t you white?” she asked.
I sat stiff-backed as the German woman casually sipped her coffee.
It was a good question – why wasn’t I white like the last Australian exchange student she’d met?
My conception of what it means to be Australian as an Asian is ever evolving. There’s something that messes you up a bit by being told to ‘go back to your country’ in primary school. It makes you feel like you don’t belong in Australia and are not Australian.
Second generation Asian Australians, as good at math as the average person, have a fairly difficult time reconciling the Asian and Western parts of our identities. Australia is not simply a multicultural place where everyone exists peacefully as The ANU Marketing Department would like us to think. It’s a very personal, internal, perpetual clashing of cultures – in my case that of the East and West.
There is a dichotomy of expectations between the Asian and Western part of the Asian-Australian experience. The Asian household expects self-sacrifice for the greater good of the family unit. You forgo personal relationships, opportunities and pleasures to uphold the instruction of your elders. Yet the everyday Australian experience celebrates individualism, passion and doing what you feel is best for you. Finding the balance between these two spheres is unique for every Asian-Australian.
When I was younger, I always had trouble associating with those who weren’t Asian. I had grown up speaking Mandarin before English, lived in an Asian-centric suburb, 95% of my family friends were Chinese, I played the piano and violin and went to a selective school. I ticked just about every box of the Asian stereotype.
I think it’s quite clear why I felt alienated around non-Asians. I had grown up in a microculture that made anyone but Asians foreign. I had been socialised in an environment that, ironically, wasn’t multicultural. This, in conjunction with a sprinkling of racist comments, created a murky perception of ‘how Australian’ I was.
So, returning back to the coffee sipping German woman. I explained to her that my parents had migrated to Australia, that I was born in Australia and was Australian. That went down a treat. Who would’ve thought that is was that easy?! The construct in my mind that I was somehow different as an Asian-Australian was not so cement as I had thought.
This was a defining moment for me. Bigoted racists exist, but their sentiments do not represent the majority of those around me, including foreigners. Racists didn’t need to affect my self-perception as an Australian. I didn’t have be the stereotyped sun-kissed-surfing-stunning-beautiful-blonde-babe in order to be Australian. My tumultuous relationship with Eastern and Western cultures did not exclude me from being Australian. What it means to be Australian is different for everyone. It’s an ever-changing perception, I know that now, and I know that I need my own declaration, and that alone, to be Australian.