“Chinese Dancing, Bendigo Style” by Joo-Inn Chew
Joo-Inn Chew comes to accept and celebrate her difference — her in-between status – owing to the fact that as the child of an Asian and Australian parent, they were a “peculiar species” in Bendigo.
The girls play the song entitled “Asian waif” at their concert which captures their sense of homelessness. While performing their piece, Joo-Inn is applauded not for her talent, but for her sense of difference; the audience seems to pity her because she is out of place, nervous, clumsy and awkward, and she bravely realises, it is not pity she wants, but a sense of belonging.
Joo-Inn searches for a sense of self, by comparing her own unique social circumstances, with the stereotypical norms. She considers the typical Australian norm, consisting of kids with “sandy hair”, “pale freckly skin” and “blue eyes” that did not need “corrective lenses”. Such Aussies ate “white-bread sandwiches”. Furthermore, her Aussie peers conformed to gendered stereotypes: the girls played “Barbies and netball” while the boys “rode BMXs and kicked footballs”. She also considers the stereotypical Asian traits that are evident in her Malaysian cousins such as the expert way they eat their noodles, their excellent piano skills and their career trajectory towards cardiologists or “very good accountants”. In contrast, they are “woefully inadequate” in Chinese, and struggle to pronounce their names.
In comparison, Joo-Inn realises that she and her siblings are real waifs; cultural contradictions and “peculiar hybrids”. She paints a complicated picture of her family in Bendigo that are outsiders, not just because of their half-Asian status among “fifth generation Australian farmers”, but because they are also alternative country people, who,”urban- hippy”- style, grow organic vegetables, live off the land, and are attracted towards left-leaning politics. Even her father does not conform, as she assumed, to typical Chinese traits, and so she realises there are “Dad things” at work that make him his own “peculiar species”.
The in-between status renders them on the margins. They often sit by themselves in the library at lunch time. They often forget to “wear shoes or undies” and “drank boiled tank-water”. The parents are hippies, who straddle both Chinese and Australian backgrounds; when the father is vigilant with money and bargains at the market he is described as Chinese; he is Australian when he joins the Labor party and talks politics. Joo-Inn feels that she is in-between cultures; she is Chinese when she is “thrifty and studious” and she is Australian when she “played games and left food on my plate”.
She finds a sense of place among the Chinese dancers who perform on behalf of the Chinese Association, and practise steps choreographed by the local ballet teacher who designs the steps according to her assumed ideas “about what oriental dancing was”. Walking in the procession, she finds, along with her brother who rides in the children’s float, dressed in his pyjamas, a special sense of difference – one that is celebrated, applauded and nourished. “It was glorious to march before the cheering city, to smile and wave like royalty, to dance and be applauded by classmates – all for being Chinese”.
However, Joo-Inn also knows that she is a Chinese with a difference: she is a half-caste with numerous parts that both conform to, and defy, stereotypes. Accordingly, Joo-Inn focuses on the cultural contradictions of her background and realizes that the “liabilities” are also “assets”; much depends upon attitude and one’s attitude to difference and opportunity. What is a drawback and a vulnerability to some, can become a real asset to others. Finding her place, she begins to feel “special” in Bendigo, which is as “half-half, as kooky and contradictory, as we were”. They were “part-Chinese but mostly Australian, same and different, just a little bit special.”
Return to Summary: Growing Up Asian in Australia edited by Alice Pung