IT'S A BLESSING AND A CURSE BEING A(N) (ASIAN) SECOND-GENERATION IMMIGRANT
Scrolling through Instagram this morning, I came across a beautiful photo of a European town. I double-tapped on the image and then scanned over the caption. “XYZ location is such a beautiful town to visit although it was swarming with (Asian) tourists.” It made me undo my double tap.
All of a sudden, I was full of rage. Just the one word – Asian. In brackets. I wanted to angrily type a response to the Instagrammer – why do you feel the need to distinctively highlight the tourists as “Asian”? Would you have said the exact same thing if the location was swarming with British or American tourists or white people in general? I have no idea of the Instagrammer’s thought process when they were typing this caption and I know it was no direct insult to me personally. Yet, I still felt angry and hurt; similar feelings I’ve felt in the past. And it made me reflect on several of my past experiences, how these encounters have made me feel over time and how I’ve come to deal with it as I get older.
Do we still live in a world where we continue to define or emphasise stereotypes in the media? Unfortunately, yes. History has shaped social conceptions and misconceptions of race. The rituals and traditions of cultures and sub-cultures are more globally exposed thus positive and negative stereotypes have become more prominent and pervasive. Society exacerbates these stereotypes in the media, in films and in the news. I don’t believe that all representations are intentional, whether accurate or inaccurate, complimentary or belittling. H&M recently received public backlash for an advert showing a black child in a green hoodie bearing the slogan “Coolest monkey in the jungle”. The retailer publicly apologized and withdrew the images. The beauty and the ugliness of language and imagery allows opportunity for semantics and insinuations where one can tread a fine line between a careless insult and deliberate racial abuse.
I am Asian. There’s no doubt about it. I have a Chinese name, my family hand out red packets during celebratory occasions, we burn paper money at our ancestors’ graves and boy, do we know how to eat! But I’m also Australian. An identity and culture which I more strongly identify with than with my Asian heritage. I live for days spent at the beach in my ‘cozzie’, playing beer pong with my mates and eating Vegemite on toast. I’ll devour smashed avo at brunch and I’m a down right snob about my flat white.
I’m a second-generation immigrant. My parents are Chinese, as are my grandparents who fled Mao’s reign in the 1950s for the warm shores of Fiji. My parents were born and raised in Fiji but immigrated to Australia in the mid-1980s. My parents’ families speak different dialects. English is their third language and they speak, read and write it fluently. When my parents met, they communicated in English as this was their common language. My brothers and I were born and raised in Australia. English is our first language.
I’m often asked whether I speak any Chinese. Unfortunately it’s only a handful of Cantonese words that hardly appease my maternal grandmother. A while ago, I asked my mother why she didn’t send my brothers and I to Chinese school when we were kids. She simply replied, “They wouldn’t take you. Unless you had a basic speaking level, they wouldn’t accept you at the school”. My parents’ reasoning was that if we were to live in Australia, assimilation would be easier if we could speak the official language of their adopted country.
At primary school and high school, I didn’t have any Asian friends. We lived in an area predominantly occupied by Anglo-Saxons. My childhood included piano lessons, playing netball and participating in Little Athletics under the Aussie sun. I’ve never dated Asian boys. Not because I was actively avoiding them but because I genuinely didn’t know any. My Oriental social circle was certainly lacking until my corporate career when Asian colleagues would comment “Jasmine, you can hardly call yourself Asian!”
I’ve referred to myself as a banana; yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Perhaps a mild form of self-deprecation, this analogy speaks truth for myself and perhaps my second-generation Asian immigrant peers. I oscillate between exhaustion and bemusement at strangers’ fascination of my distinct lack of Chinese language skills despite my appearance. I’ve learned to choose my battles and to pointedly ignore snide remarks.
Negative stereotypes are the ones that always seem to stick in our minds and once there, it’s difficult to remove or alter. Asians make cheap products. Asians are dirty polluters. Asians take photos of their food. Asians travel in large groups and flood large tourist cities. Asians are bad drivers. Asians make peace signs in all their photos. Asian parents are strict and make their kids study all the time. Asians slurp their food.
Admittedly, there are times when I cringe at the sight of a fellow Asian fuelling a negative stereotype. Is this hypocritical? Of course it is. Can one be racist of their own race? I would argue yes, particularly if one actively fights the stereotypes attached to their race because they themselves don’t want to be associated with such characteristics. Dealing with ignorant people who attach stereotypes to you and who have the temerity to mock you based on how you look is demoralising and tiresome.
Boys pulled their eyes sideways and wagged their heads at me in the playground. Friends have defended me from racial slurs at band camp. I’ve had my Australian citizenship and visa eligibility questioned at a scroungy pub in Bristol. I get tired of hagglers in foreign cities crying “Ni Hao!”. I’ve been handed a Japanese landing card on board a Jetstar flight and a Korean tourist information brochure was stuffed into my hand upon arrival in Zagreb. Recently, I was yelled at in the streets of Amsterdam, “Fuck off China bitch! Leave here and die!”. I do think the man was drunk (let’s give him the benefit of the doubt) but drunkenness is never an acceptable reason nor an excuse for racism. If anything, when a person is sozzled, their true feelings and opinions are voiced.
I’d be one of the first to raise my hand and admit to a lack of general knowledge of my Asian peers, the health of its economy or of our history spanning thousands of years and countless traditions and customs. What you may or may not know is that the invention of gunpowder is attributed to the Chinese. Asians gave us dumplings, fried rice and sushi. Chinese tourists currently contribute approximately AUD $9 billion to Australia’s national economy, with this figure set to increase to around AUD $13 billion by 2020. There are now 637 Asian billionaires, outnumbering fellow billionaires in the United States and Europe. Asia produced Jack Ma and Alibaba and China’s potential as the world’s next major superpower has been long debated.
Yes, it now sounds that I’m leaping to the defence of my Eastern counterparts but how can one not take a stand after years of bearing the brunt of stereotypes irrevocably tied to me based on how I look? Just because I have slanty eyes and take pictures of my food doesn’t mean that I automatically like eating chicken feet and drinking bubble tea (I don’t like chicken feet or bubble tea).
There have been times where I have tried to downplay my “Asian-ness” and other moments when I have staunchly defended it. Accepting my background and figuring out who I am, my identity and how I fit in has been and continues to be a steep learning curve. Despite there being arguable gaps in my Chinese-icity and my past encounters with racist behaviour, I consider myself blessed to feel an affinity to two cultures. I celebrate Chinese New Year and Australia Day. I’ll happily feast on char siu bao, siu mei and wonton one day and carve up a steak with a schooner the next. I’ll always be exasperated when assumptions are made about me based on certain Asian stereotypes but I also roll my eyes when native English speakers in adulthood (still) don’t know the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ as well as ‘their’ and ‘they’re’. And don’t even get me started on the use of the apostrophe.
Nowadays, almost everything is on social media. Every move, every photo, every word is scrutinised. If you’re going to share your opinion, that’s fine. You’re well within your rights. I just ask that you take a pinch of compassion, a few spoons of empathy, a cup of respect and a dose of common sense (this ingredient may be a bit harder to source) before stirring with some objectivity and clicking ‘Share’. If you choose not to follow this method, no doubt people will tell you anyhow whether they like your recipe or not.
The one thing I am most grateful for in life is my education. I can never thank my parents enough for granting me the privilege of an education in a first-world economy. But it wasn’t just the opportunity to learn how to read and to write. They also gifted me with the courage to embrace my Chinese ethnicity and the strength to fly the nest and take on the world. They never tried to deny or squash out the Asian-ness and have led by example. There will always be haters in the world but you need to pick yourself up and forge ahead. Don’t feel malevolent towards those who consciously or unconsciously speak or act in a prejudiced manner. Don’t wish them ill-fortune but wish for them to learn empathy and compassion.
This world is not perfect and neither am I. I am grateful to have been born in an era whereby societal norms, attitudes, views and expectations have rapidly progressed in the realms of gender equality, feminism and the legalization of gay marriage. I’m thankful to live in a time in which multiculturalism, diversity and globalization is on the rise. There are more cross-cultural relationships, flexible working arrangements are not unheard of, and fathers can be stay-at-home dads. Racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice will always exist. The exposure to biased news, propaganda or the influence of another’s views and beliefs can incite fear and ignorance. But if modern day society has proven anything, it has demonstrated that governments and institutions can affect change. People can affect change. Views and attitudes can shift but there also needs to be a willingness to be open-minded and accepting of difference.
When I eventually visit my homeland, I endeavour to take an open mind with me. I hope to fully embrace my origins and immerse myself in Chinese culture, without forsaking my ties to Australian culture. I feel sad knowing that many Chinese traditions and customs will die with my generation. It’s likely that my children will be half-Chinese and they will know even less than me. But should they be subject to even half the intolerance and ill-will that I have endured, I hope that they will be imbued with the strength, courage and tenacity to deal with the stereotypes and labels attached to being a (half-Asian) third-generation immigrant.