I was told in grade nine I shouldn't bother trying out for the lead of our school play, The Wizard of Oz, because there's no way Dorothy would be Asian.
I was told this by my supposed best friend. She had two neat blond plaits and wanted to be the lead in the play herself.
Though I had no intention of trying out for the play, the fact that she told me not to bother made me arc up. The reason she gave — my incongruous Asianness — made me feel angry and ashamed. Angry because it was stupid and unfair. Ashamed because it felt somehow like it was my fault for not being white enough.
This is the first time I've ever shared this story of high school marginalisation publicly. I almost submitted it as part of a non-fiction story for Growing up Asian in Australia (2008), edited by Alice Pung, when the call for contributions surfaced. I was so excited that an anthology like that was coming together.
My experience of stories or characters I could relate to through my schooling in Australia from year two to 12 was minimal. I think there may have been a silent Chinese cook in A. B. Facey's A Fortunate Life, but reflections of the Australian communities I recognised were nonexistent. So, I started writing the story, had covered ten pages of my notebook with it, then I stopped.
I felt like it had all been said before. It felt like my small stories of not belonging, or being on the outside, were so common. I'd researched in the area of Asian Australian narratives for many years by that stage. Along the way, I'd also read many novels, short stories, and other literature from Asian Canadians and Asian Americans. Many of them included signal moments of stereotyping, racial abuse, and bullying.
What did I have to say that was new? This feeling stopped me for many years from writing about my personal experiences as an Asian Australian. I told myself I didn't need to — others were doing it, after all — and I was researching and publishing in Asian Australian Studies and had been for more than ten years. My personal story was irrelevant.
Then I pulled my head out of the academic bubble it was in and realised that these stories and their nuances were not at all common in broader public sphere or in the minds of those who did not live as racial minorities in our society. These stories need telling and re-telling, not only so our literature and public culture has as much representation and diversity of perspectives as it can get, but also because reading and hearing these stories is important for the cultural communities themselves.
"Their stories were not always ones I could relate to but they unfolded for me more layers of what it means to be Asian Australian."
These communities may not always hear these stories, or they may actively dismiss them. Though they are the targets of stereotyping and abuse, the attitude of just getting on with it and not causing a fuss, or 'proving' the racists wrong through attaining measures of success, is pervasive. It can feel like a case of not talking about the hurt or damage that is done as this would show weakness, or make you seem ungrateful.
When Pung's anthology came out, eight years ago now, I devoured it cover to cover. Many of the contributors were known to me, and many more I'd never read or met before. Their stories were not always ones I could relate to but they unfolded for me more layers of what it means to be Asian Australian. Just reading Pung's original introduction (not published with the anthology) will show you what I mean. The anthology is now widely embraced and on the school curriculum, and many who wrote for it have gone on to develop or continue their creative careers in Australia.
All these cultural infusions have wide-ranging effects, a key one being that they create space for conversations about different ways of being Asian Australian rather than fighting to have such an identity even recognised.
Tseen Khoo is a lecturer at La Trobe University and founder/convenor of the Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN), a network for academics, community researchers, and cultural workers who are interested in the area of Asian Australian Studies. She tweets as @tseenster.
Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.
13 June 2017
I live in an aged care facility. I am Anglo Australian. Most of the staff are Asian or African. Racism is rife. Management - all white - deny racism! Of course they do. They are in the perpetrator group, and have never experienced racism. Many residents are uncomfortable- don't want - intimate care from a person of colour. Some even say so, and nothing happens if they voice their attitude. Non-white staff who are victims just keep quiet. Complaints lead to subtle "punishment", like reduction in the availability of shifts. There is nobody in authority for them to complain to. I talk to them when I can, and they tell me that racism occurs daily. Multiple times daily.
I am old. Disabled. Just a resident. Talking to Managers leads nowhere. What can I do?
13 June 2017
It's awful that this happened to you Tseen. It also happened to a friend of mine who was half Korean going to school in Korea. The full blooded kids decided he was dumb because of his whiteness. Equally an Aussie-Greek friend, whose mum was Anglo - she and her brother were completely ostracised by the kids at Sunday school for not being fully Greek. I'd be curious to know in which country this sort of prejudice doesn't happen in schools. On a personal level, I witnessed my own brother - who wore a prosthetic leg - get called 'peg-leg' regularly. Still I'm not sure that qualifies Australians as a nation of 'disabll-ists'. None of this seeks to justify your treatment, your story deserves telling - but the heading assumes a special status for Australians - principally white Australians - like the ones with neat blonde plaits. The Merry Old Land of Oz - signals one racial group out as being flawed. I'd be surprised if that sort of characterisation doesn't sound familiar to you? In any case I genuinely do hope adult life is Australia is kinder to you.
13 June 2017
Thank you, Tseen, for articulating why your story of not belonging should be told.
I migrated to Australia when I was in my late twenties, and I do have stories of not belonging to tell, yet unwritten. Perhaps I will write them down some day soon!
13 June 2017
I was a Chinese (female) Joseph in a Nativity Play in Grade 8 . . way back about 1953 - I guess that was thanks to the dear nun who chose the roles. My fellow students thought it was quite hilarious - in a not unkind way!
14 June 2017
I am grateful you told your story well and without any trace of the maudlin, Tseen. In regard to stereotyping, I believe the great Morgan Freeman, who still lives in Mississippi, once objected to a television interviewer dubbing him 'a black American'. Like many Americans of non-white ancestry he just wants to be considered 'American'. I remember, growing up in Melbourne in the 50s and 60s, the White Australia policy and its mindset were well and truly alive. I think Australia is in a transitional stage from that mindset to, hopefully, something like Hawaii, which is, as far as I am aware, the only really tolerant, vibrant multiracial society around. It is often forgotten that Barack Obama is, in fact, a multiracial Hawaiian. I believe he had to 'discover' his 'blackness' at Occidental College in California. The Australia of today is, thankfully, a far cry from the rather backward place it was in my youth where all the real intelligentsia like Clive James; Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer couldn't wait to get to England and its vibrant cultural life. A lot has changed since then. Thank God!
14 June 2017
As readers contemplate Hester’s experience they might care to juxtapose her story with recent demands from the prime minister and the immigration minister of this country that “migrants seeking to become Australian citizens should be required to demonstrate their patriotism and a capacity to integrate.”
Does anyone anymore believe that these two have any empathy at all with the situation of migrants from anywhere other than Europe? Hester’s account is not unique, it rings very true for me as I regularly mix with refugees and their stories of boorish rejection, and worse, by Anglo Australians fill me with rage. Do these people understand the harm they inflict on those who come seeking a safe place among us? After such treatment, why would any migrant or refugee want to integrate with us? In any organisation those at the bottom take their cue from those at the top and there is no doubt in my mind that, in large part, Hester’s managers and my informants’ tormentors are prompted by political leaders who demand that migrants integrate while wilfully ignoring the cruel reality of an Anglo dominant society.
15 June 2017
You are not alone, Tseen Khoo.
Ten years ago, I happened upon a young Asian girl by the name of Natalie Tran who maintained communitychannel on youtube and she published this: https://youtu.be/YAXy9o2GuO8
[With her Australian accent, she really didn't have to justify anything, it was self-evident].
Roy Chen Yee
16 June 2017
If each culture possesses its own genius while participating also in a universal moral resemblance, the rays of Truth as spoken about by the Church, not only might Dorothy be Chinese but the odyssey itself should be re-dramatised under the forms of a Chinese culture, a Japanese culture, an Ethiopian culture, an Aboriginal culture and so on (with all the appropriate verisimilitude to the culture in character and plot), just as the universal theme of maternity under struggle has seen the Virgin Mary and child portrayed as Aboriginal, Chinese, Japanese, Ethiopian and so on.
Roy Chen Yee
16 June 2017
If each culture possesses its own genius while participating also in a universal moral resemblance, similar to the rays of Truth spoken of by the Church that appear in different religions, not only might Dorothy be Chinese but the odyssey itself should be re-dramatised under the forms of a Chinese culture, a Japanese culture, an Ethiopian culture, an Aboriginal culture and so on (with all the appropriate verisimilitude to the culture in character and plot), without fear of cultural appropriation. Shakespeare is performed everywhere because of his universal themes. Somebody even made a space movie based on The Tempest. If the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus can be portrayed under different ethnic appearances because they belong to everybody, so, too, can Dorothy and her idiosyncratic friends, pilgrims on the search like the rest of us.
19 June 2017
Your friend wasn't nice but isn't racism the school preventing someone from trying out for the school play because of their race or even worse not allowing them to go to school? Writing new stores reflecting the diversity is important but just because older stories reflect a mainly white society, which is was, is not racist. We are one in community with Christ focusing too much on our differences makes community more difficult.