Open your eyes

Her beautiful eyes
Her beautiful eyes

I am a banana. Someone white inside and yellow outside. This is a mildly pejorative slur used by the Chinese for someone of Asian descent that has been white washed. I take no offense in it as it describes who I am. I’m a product of assimilation; an Australian born Chinese that has shunned her heritage to fit into Australian society.

Assimilate

As a child growing up in the 80’s, I had no other choice but to blend in or be ready to be ridiculed and ostracized for being different. I made cheese and vegemite sandwiches for school and tossed out the BBQ pork buns. I told my Aussies friends that I wasn’t up to much on the weekend when our family was preparing a feast to celebrate Chinese New Year; the biggest event in the Chinese Calendar.

Our sinks would be filled with live seafood, tables scattered with exotic candied fruit and sticky moon cakes. The fridges were stocked with pork, ducks, chickens and containers of dried unusual foods rehydrating like slippery fungus and pungent dried oysters. There would be incense burning, red lanterns hanging, and throughout the house red diamond-shaped Chinese “good fortune” characters were traditionally hung upside down.

Is Australia racist? We burned joss paper as gold offering to our ancestors. Image: Keith Avery, Flickr CC
We burned joss paper as gold offerings to our ancestors – really weird. Image: Keith Avery, Flickr CC

Our extended family would eat until their bellies were full. Sounds of Chinese crackers filled the air with celebration as kids were gifted with red envelopes filled with cold hard cash. My siblings and cousins received intricately crafted metal wire and multicoloured cellophane lanterns. We would run around the backyard with dragons and lotus flowers glimmering in the night. However, this joy was not shared amongst my mostly white friends as it wasn’t a typical Aussie experience or one that they could relate to.

I tried sharing traditions with my friends. At one time, my dad almost set the house on fire when burning Chinese offerings on the anniversary of my Grandfather’s death. It was meant to be funny, that the joss paper ingots we were burning for our dead Grandpa in the underworld caught wind and set a patch of lawn on fire, but it turned into something unusual and shameful, met with perplexed looks on friends faces. “That’s just weird”, mocked a friend.

I wish I could better explain that the custom was in remembrance of a man deeply admired and missed by my parents. I wanted to tell my friends the happiness in my dad’s eyes as he laughed and painted an imaginary picture of our Grandpa shouting his mates Yum Cha in the afterlife, flooded with gold, silver, clothes and money which we express delivered through our makeshift backyard incinerator. I later realised I would blend better by leaving the Chinese culture at home, drawing as little attention to my background as possible.

Ching Chong and so on

Sometimes fitting in is not easy and I’m unexpectedly reminded that I stand out. A group of Caucasian teenagers once surrounded my father and I as we were walking down a deserted mall in Western Sydney. “Hey Chinaman, you have money, give us your money!” My dad smiled and with his palms held out replied “Sorry.”

As we continued walking, I buried my head into the side of my dad’s body, wrapping my 7-year-old arms around his skinny leg. He put a protective arm around me and we marched on as they closed in . “You no speak Engrish, gimme money Chink!”  Snarled a teen. There were more words I had never heard before like Nip, Ching Chong, Gook, Slanty mixed in with profanities. Then came the pushing and shoving and we couldn’t break free. My dad pulled out his wallet and offered the balance of his meagre salary, leaving us alone.

Is Australia racist? The kids at the Chinese restaurant we once owned.
Bittersweet moment with the kids standing where I was told to “open my eyes!”

Growing up in a small country town in Victoria, with a population of 6000 and my family being the only Asian’s in the town further cemented my identification with a white Australian society.

I remember the first day we arrived into Stawell, my parents insisted on photos to proudly record the day we started our new family business. As if blending in wasn’t hard enough, we decided to run the local Chinese restaurant. My folks might as well have tattooed Chinese on my forehead.  On that day, they obliviously clicked away as my brother and I awkwardly stood there with the jeers from a few older kids and the support of their parents in the distance. There they took it in turns to make slanty-eyed faces and hiss “Open your eyes!”

F#CK OFF! we’re full

Along the way I’ve picked up coping mechanisms to deal with the harsh reality that Australia is not as multicultural and open as the tourism board wants visitors to think. There is an underlying level of resentment that surfaces every now and again. In 2005 the Sydney race riots made international headlines and revealed the shocking level of intolerance in Australia.

There are more subtle plays of racism in Australia. There’s a certain casual open racism that’s inherent in Aussie culture, digs at the dirty Wog referring to the Mediterranean immigrants who arrived after the abolishment of the White Australia Policy. There are jokes at Indians that are Fresh of the Boat (FOB) or the bad Asian driver stereotype, all masked as Aussies having a laugh. Having travelled extensively abroad, I have found that the thinly veiled racist humour is uniquely Australian.

Is Australia racist?
“Fuck Off We’re Full” Image by Newtown Grafitti, CC

In my home state of Queensland, I occasionally come across rednecks in cars with “F#CK Off We’re Full” stickers proudly displayed. It wasn’t long ago that Queenslander Pauline Hanson was voted into Parliament, made famous for her far right anti-multicultural views unashamedly stating “I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians…” When I asked a Sri Lankan taxi driver how we are doing as a society about tolerance, he responded back that “Australians as a whole are not racist, but that doesn’t stop me from being racially abused each week.”

I never know when I will be verbally abused because of the way I look. On a sun-drenched day in the multicultural city of Brisbane, I was returning to my office when I passed a man on the busy street, he spat at my feet and with hatred in his eyes shouted “F#ck off back to your country!” I stopped, but the coward kept on walking. The strangers that were within earshot glanced the other way.  Who is he to make me feel like I don’t belong in my own beloved country?

Racism in heavenly Norway

Racism is not only in Australia. It is prevalent around the world and can even occur in places that can be best described as heavenly. It once happened on a scenic journey aboard the Flam Railway in Norway, where spectacular lake vistas, tumbling waterfalls and snow-draped mountains framed each carriage window; it was one of those moments in time where I felt absurdly happy with my travel partner, now husband.

As we pulled into a postcard perfect train station, a group of teens waiting on the platform, noticed me against the window. One peered in and started tapping the window, laughing, pulling at their eyes and hurling abuse with the others following suit. You needn’t have been Norwegian to understand that their taunts were unfriendly and racially charged. Shane stood up ready to pummel the misfits to the ground. There’s a part of me that would have gladly seen that happen although it was better that I blocked his way and pushed him back into his seat, repeating “It’s not worth it” until the train pulled away from the station. I can’t recall looking out of the window after that, but I clearly remember the silence in the carriage full of people and the feeling of humiliation.

Is Australia racist? Heavenly Flam Valley, Image: Graham Jenkinson, Flickr CC
Heavenly Flam Valley, Image: Graham Jenkinson, Flickr CC

Why are my eyes funny looking?

“Why are my eyes funny looking?” My six-year-old son asked casually one evening as he pushed his cheekbones up making his eyes look smaller. I immediately jumped to the conclusion that someone had made fun of him at school. “Who said that?” and “Why are you asking?” I should have approached the conversation in a different way, but the feeling of embarrassment and hurt rapidly overcame me. “Nobody mum, I think my eyes look funny.”

I haven’t been proactive in sharing my children’s culture. I haven’t felt the need to explain to them that they are half-Chinese, such that they haven’t realised that they are anything but white themselves. My assimilated self is to blame, still hiding from my Chinese origin.

“Your eyes are like mine, and I’m Chinese” I hoped my son didn’t notice the forced smile and awkwardness in my reply.

“You’re Chinese!?” he proclaimed in shock. I’ve never claimed to be Chinese in my entire life and it felt strange to do so. As I wrestled with the statement, I came to the realisation that I am both Chinese and Australian. “Isn’t it great!? You are half Chinese and half of what makes up dad, which is English, Scottish, and German”. He stood up and looked in the mirror trying to work out which limb belonged to which country.

“You have family that was once from all these countries, but what you see in the mirror is an Australian boy, just like mummy and daddy who were born in Australia.”

I hoped my son noticed the pride in my voice.

There’s hope of belonging

The Chinese also have another term called “Jook-Sing” a metaphor for bamboo pole. A bamboo has compartmentalised sections; water poured from the top of the pole will not flow out from the bottom and vice versa. This means that people who are Jook-Sing do not belong to any culture.

I worry that my kids will never be accepted in either Chinese or Aussie society, caught in limbo between two cultures, and a struggle to find their identity. There is hope; Australia has a new found focus on multiculturalism, where people no longer have to adopt white Australian culture entirely to feel a sense of belonging. Rather, different cultures, customs, and race including all that makes Australia wonderful and unique is embraced and celebrated.

Build resilient kids and look for hope in multiculturalism
Is Australia racist? Build resilient kids and look for hope in multiculturalism

I’m witnessing school lunch boxes packed with sushi rolls, curries, dumplings, salads, and pasta. Calendars are filled with cultural days, and kids are encouraged to show their friends what’s special about their heritage. It’s a mind blowing concept as it was only in the late 70’s that my older siblings were placed in a segregated classroom for minorities with English as their second language (they spoke just fine).

My eyes are wide open, if Australia is waking up to cultural diversity it’s about time I make a conscious effort to show my kids just how wonderful both sides of their heritage really is.

Is Australia racist? Please leave your reply below:

11 Comments

  • I’m so sorry for some of the situations you have had to deal with, that’s horrible 🙁 I must admit, though, that I had no idea that Asians are meant to be bad drivers and I haven’t head of FOB before. I also have no idea what’s going on in the world so maybe this is why!! 😀 I do, however, think there is a lot of racism in modern Australia and it makes me sad 🙁 I do think we have come a long way, like you say, and I really do hope our children experience a better Australia. I am certainly doing my best to raise my kids as global citizens that embrace other cultures. Kids do say the craziest things though no matter what you do!!

    • Hi Sharon,

      Thanks for reading and leaving such a lovely message, we live in a crazy world but I do believe that good and decency will always prevail. You’re doing an amazing job to raise not just tolerant kids but ‘global citizens’ and need more of this for our next generation whom hopefully won’t ever experience any form of racism. From my kids to yours – Thank you. xo

  • Hey Rene!
    I didn’t realise you were part of the Writer’s group on Facebook so I’ve only just discovered your blog now 🙂 (well done on the award by the way!)

    I don’t have kids, so most of your posts don’t apply to me, but THIS one did. Although I didn’t immigrate to Australia until the age of ten, but grew up in my aunt’s family who has been in Australian since early 80s, so was pretty much brought up in a household that went through similar experiences than your own.

    I was told over and over again that now that I am in Australia I need to assimilate, and that I am an Australian like everyone else, so I need to respect the Australian “way of life”. But it didn’t really help when we were constantly reminded that we “cannot be Australian because we are not white”.

    And the unfortunate side effect of that, is that we (cousins and I) grew up rejecting the Chinese society and tried to live and act as ‘white’ as possible, so in the end we ended up being in limbo of how we feel, and how others perceive us.

    I do hope that the next and next generations will have a better time being ‘Australian’ as well as to appreciate that each other really all come from somewhere (after all, besides the indigenous community, every other ‘true blues’ are just Europeans aren’t they?)

    By the way, did you watch the Rio opening ceremony where they introduced how Brazil as a society came about? That is pretty much how Australia came about, but somehow I don’t see us celebrating our different backgrounds like they did 🙂

    Happy travels,
    Amy

  • What strikes me most in this story is the excitement your son showed when he realized you were Chinese. His reaction is what all of humanity should show: excitement about what makes each of us unique and embracing our differences. Our differences are what make us special. May the love and innocence of your son carry on and spread like wildfire throughout our world.

    • Hi Beth, thanks for stopping by and your beautiful words. I really do hope that this excitement spreads like wildfire. Big hugs xo

  • Rene, this sobering post brought me to tears, when I got to the point:

    “Then came the pushing and shoving and we couldn’t break free.”

    How horrendous for you and your poor dad. I’m so sorry this happened to you. As a child that was bullied throughout my entire childhood at a rough West London high school, and the reason why I raced out of the school gates at the age of 16 with little more than a bunch of meagre CSEs, I find your experiences, while different to mine, similar in other ways.

    My being bullied came, not because I was an English child growing up in England, but rather, an English child having friends whose families came from India and the Caribbean. ‘Nigger-lover’ was my slanderous nickname, also because I listened to reggae, soul, jazz-funk and disco music. And although it hurt, and I broke, physically and mentally at times, I never abandoned those friends from India and the Caribbean (some of whom are my Facebook friends today).

    I hope that your children grow up, like you hope, in a better Australia. I trust that they will. Times have changed, and hopefully, that will mean that your children will not need to change. They will grow up to be the beautiful, educated, informed and refined Australian/Chinese people that you grew up to be.

    Love to them, you and Shane.

    Marie.

    • Thank you dear Marie for your wonderful reply and sharing some of the painful part of your childhood, I’m sorry that you had to go through this and experience such hatred at such a young age. We are who we are despite them and I find solace knowing that you have had wonderful positive experiences since you ran from those school gates! I’m glad you did.

      Thank you, thank you, thank you and yes I always hope. The kids are doing alright xo

  • Beautifully written post, Rene! I’m sorry you had to deal with ignorant people growing up and even experienced such acts in Norway. As a Filipino American – also referred to as a coconut :), I can understand some of this and even experienced a few incidents in an even multi-cultural city like Los Angeles. My husband and I have been guilty of not showing the Filipino side of our kids’ heritage many times. Good for you for making a conscious effort early on. I’m glad the schools are making some efforts and I hope the very best for your kids growing up. Love the fantastic family photos!

    • Coconut! I’ve never heard of that one, I shall ask my Filo friends if its the same in the Southern Hemisphere or are we all bananas? I’m sorry for bringing up uncomfortable memories. Here’s hoping you’re stronger for it. It’s a hard one isn’t it? Showing the heritage, it’s almost foreign to me. But I’ll try! Thank you for reading xoxo.

    • Thanks Katie, I’m going to try, maybe more lanterns and less backyard burning 🙂 I loved using the photos for this story. Thank you muchly. xo

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