Stories from Growing up Asian in Australia

“The Relative Advantages of Learning My Language” by Amy Choi
“Chinese Lessons” by Ivy Tseng
“Sticks and Stones and Such-like” by Sunil Badami
“The Beat of a Different Drum” by Simon Tong
“ABC Supermarket” by Kevin Lay and Matt Huynh
“Wei-Lei and Me” by Aditi Gouvernel
“Perfect Chinese Children” by Vanessa Woods
“Papa Bear” by Chin Shen
“Towards Manhood” by Benjamin Law
“Anzac Day” by James Chong
“A Call to Arms” by Michelle Law
“Chinese Dancing, Bendigo Style” by Joo-Inn Chew
“Five Ways to Disappoint your Vietnamese Mother” by Diana Nguyen
“The Face in the Mirror” by Blossom Beeby
“Baked Beans and Burnt Toast” by Jacqui Larkin
Interviews with Joy Hopwod and  Ahn Do.

“The Relative Advantages of Learning My Language” by Amy Choi

Amy Choi depicts her mean-spirited attitude towards her grandfather, whom she willfully offends and ignores. She does not bother to learn Chinese and fails to connect with her grandfather who loves writing poetry. She cannot see the “point of speaking Chinese. We lived in Australia.” Her poor attitude continues as her grandfather develops signs of memory degeneration and a family member has to accompany him into the city.  Amy follows behind; she appears ashamed and quietly mocks him. She draws attention to his “blank, goofy, content expression on his face”.

Amy has a change of heart at her grandfather’s funeral, when she is overcome with feelings of regret. “I’d denied my grandfather the commonest of kindnesses.” This experience become the catalyst for a change in outlook. Amy starts learning Chinese and makes amends for her rudeness. As she notes, she is not trying to discover her roots – just make sure that she can connect and offer help if another elderly relative “wants me to listen to them”.

 “Sticks and Stones and Such-like” by Sunil Badami

What’s in a name?

The fact that our parents choose our names can also have a defining influence upon who we are, and our sense of self. For example, Sunil Badami is initially ashamed of his name because it reinforces his difference; he prefers a name that would make him “less black” and hence less different.  However, his mother constructs a myth based on Sunil, the embodiment of Shiva, “serene and powerful on his distant peak”. It becomes a symbol of cultural pride, and thereafter, Sunil no longer “winces” but proudly embraces his dual, hyphenated Indian-Australian identity.

Chinese Lessons  Ivy Tseng

Ivy Tseng reflects upon the significance of her Taiwanese-Chinese-Australian identity, these “hyphenated, cut-and-past identities”.  What do they actually mean?

She realizes that without a knowledge of Mandarin she is not truly able to appreciate her Chinese background and lacks firm and meaningful roots to her past and to her parents.

In other words, language is the passport, the key, to a culture and without knowledge of the language, one cannot truly understand the values, the history, and the culture of another land.

As she matures, Tseng comes to realise what she has lost through her indifference and laziness. She realises she has missed out on a meaningful relationship with her parents and their past. She regrets her indifferent attitude towards the Chinese lessons conducted rigorously and routinely at 11 o’clock every Saturday morning held by her father as he tried to instil in his four children the means to communicate  in their ethnic language.  As a sign of her personal growth, she comes to appreciate her father’s hard work .

Looking in the mirror, Tseng sees that a “Chinese face looks back at me”, and although the suntan is definitely Australia, the “blood comes from Taiwan and China”. Her “vague” sense of unease and “sense of shame” arise whenever she realizes that language is the key to culture and without Mandarin this “foreign gene pool” which she has inherited is to a large degree inaccessible and incomprehensible. She manages to speak some “Chinglish”, but without a deeper understanding of the language the “4,000 years of history, language and values” appears quite remote.  She is left with an unquenched long, “I just want to understand my father”.

“The Beat of a Different Drum” by Simon Tong

Construction of self in language

Simon Tong suffers painfully from his difference as an Asian and these feelings are compounded by his inability to express himself in English.  He is victimized and persecuted in the playground to such an extent that he feels emotionally violated and humiliated. These feelings surface in rage and resentment; he becomes confused about who he is because he cannot articulate his feelings.

Simon believes that Asians have limited understanding of Australia, and what they do know centres on stereotypes such as the opera house, English and kangaroos.  He is the “first Asian” enrolled at the Christian school. Simon finds the schoolchildren hostile and unwelcoming. They “stare” at him, as you do  an animal in the zoo and set him up for ridicule.

During Simon’s first playground experience, he is bombarded by question students who sense easy prey and seek to make sport with him. Seemingly innocent questions (“Are you from Japan?”) soon turn offensive and then humiliating, “Do you cook dog?”, “Do you wipe your arse?” His anxiety and stress are evident when he states that he “dodged, weaved and parried” the questions like a “barrage of blows”.  He compares the questions with violent blows; they are violently intrusive and emotionally torturous. He is so fearful that he feels “robbed of speech”.

Simon draws attention to the construction of identity in language.  His difference is compounded by the fact that he cannot speak English and he feels incredibly conspicuous. “My ethnicity made me conspicuous.” He asks, “If I couldn’t express myself, then who was myself?”  Lacking the verbal skills to defend or assert himself, he withdraws and becomes confused. He feels reduced to a “stuttering baby” because he cannot articulate his feelings and experiences feelings of inadequacy much like a 14-year-old boy — contrary to the desirable image of himself as a Don Juan figure.

Contrastingly, he seeks comfort and solace in the martial arts novels, where people are assertive; they take their fate into their own hands; they exact revenge; in such stories, the heroes do not sulk.  So likewise, rather than sulking in self-pity, Simon finds the courage to overcome his sense of alienation; he buries himself in programs so as to learn English and finds the key in the prosodics of the language.

He also benefits from a very special friendship with Stewart who patiently guides and develops his language skills.

“ABC Supermarket” by Kevin Lay and Matt Huynh

Kevin Lai provides a humorous and witty comic strip about the parents’ Asian grocery store in Cabra (Cabramatta in Sydney). At first it is a place of fun; they enjoy trolley rides and eating to their heart’s content. The comics are full of humour and fun graphically depicting the good times.  However, the store is soon declared bankrupt during the economic downturn in 1994-95.

The images become more sparse and reflect the desolation and misery of closing down. The boy stands with his back to the viewer as he looks at the empty shop. In another image, the parents hug him and only the boy’s sad face is depicted.  He explains his difficulties returning to the place, which is full of childhood memories and parental hopes for the future. They are reduced to just $20.

Unusually, Kevin’s parents declare their feelings of love. “We love you”, which the author finds unusual because “they never said that before”.

Kevin retains an optimistic outlook when humorously states, “but there’s two things I’ve learnt from all that. To appreciate more important things and that eventually things will get better”.  He alludes to the fact that at least things cannot get worse. The dominant image of the two-lane highway reinforces the fact that life moves on.

“Wei-Lei and Me” by Aditi Gouvernel

It is 1982, and Aditi Gouvernel paints a picture of painful exclusion and humiliation in the playground at the hands of the Australian bully, Barry West. Both her and Wei-Li are singled out for ridicule; they are mocked and mauled like toys. Wei Li was “hit, spanked and kicked”. Barry becomes the ultimate foe and a symbol of her exclusion.

Due to different physical features and cultural customs many Asian migrants such as Aditi and Simon Tong feel a sense of rarity. Their ethnic features such as their dark hair and skin colour contrasts to the stereotypical white Australian-freckled-suntanned student.

Wei Li and Aditi build a friendship based on mutual exclusion from their Australian peers. Her house is testimony to her difference. As a sign of acceptance, Wei Li does not draw attention to such differences when he visits her house.  Eventually, Aditi gains the courage to fight back and strikes Barry with a brick when he is assaulting Wei Li.

Painfully, Barry kicked Aditi’s seat for 30 minutes during their bus trip to Parliament house and then spat in her face and laughed. But he also becomes a marker of courage and she learns to retaliate, even though her use of aggression is atypical and undesirable. Refusing to apologise, she has at least had the satisfaction of a personal triumph.

As time changes so too, does one’s sense of self. Aditi reflects on the fact that you can hardly find a parking spot in Chinatown and, ironically, longs for difference as she realizes she is becoming quite normal and homogenous.  “We had become what we thought we never could be: Australian.”  Despite the pain, times change; Australia is more multicultural and she no longer feels so different.

“Perfect Chinese Children” by Vanessa Woods

Growing up, and negotiating her identity is a painful and traumatic process for Vanessa Woods because of her relationship with her mother and her sense of foreign-ness. Her mother has high expectations and expects Vanessa to become a doctor, following in the footsteps of her cousin David who gained the perfect score of 99.9. “It is the ultimate aspiration for any Chinese mother to have a child who is a lawyer or a doctor”.

However, the mother also expects that Vanessa will save her from the shame of her divorce by providing status and respect. Given such high demands, Vanessa feels a sense of desperation not only at their poverty but also at her mother’s brand of “emotional terrorism” that seeks to hold her responsible for bringing the family much-needed wealth and status. Vanessa’s pain and suffering are evident when she resorts to anti-social behaviour such as stealing children’s lunches so as to gain her mother’s attention. This increases her humiliation as she redoubles the family’s sense of shame and makes her feel even more worthless.

Also, Vanessa believes that Asian parents often want to control their children’s behaviour to excess and expect respect and deference. According to her mother, who experience the shame of a divorce, Vanessa is being corrupted by the Australian child’s sense of freedom and independence. She is the “child who talks back and gives viperous looks”.

In her turn, Vanessa Wood’s mother becomes trapped in an unhappy marriage because she is unable to admit defeat and disappointment.  The father’s Australian family is discriminatory,  and refers to the mother as a “chongalewy-chow shiela” and she becomes the “dutiful wife” who “slits her wrists in shame” after the divorce.  She is constantly imprisoned by cultural customs and after her marriage she transfers her anger and shame onto her children.

Eventually, Vanessa acknowledges her mother’s sacrifice. The mother’s plate of one chicken wing instead of two encapsulates her sacrifice. Finally, the narrator sees “love” in her sacrifice.  The daughter realizes that she has been self-centred and selfish and did not see how much the mother sacrificed to give her daughter a better life.

Although her mother predicts that, as a writer, Vanessa will end up “penniless in an attic”, she tenaciously pursues her interests and gains success as an award-winning journalist and author.

“Papa Bear” by Chin Shen

When Chin Shen says that he wants to grow up to be “just like his father”, he seems to show his mixed emotions towards him. He satirises his father and makes him look ridiculous, but he also paints an endearing portrait of him.

On the one hand he is cynical towards his father, because his father exhibited nothing but a catalogue of woes. He came to Australia with $200 and could not speak the language, nor were his qualifications as an engineer recognized; he had an accident, ended up with a “gimpy” looking arm, and took a name from the electronics shop, Tandy, because it seemed to embody the “promise and hope of his newly adopted home”.

However, tongue in cheek, he also admires his father’s character and fortitude; he can see the father’s humorous and eccentric side of his personality; he records his snores and is eager to become senile so he can watch Tom and Jerry cartoons every day.

“Towards Manhood” by Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law contrasts himself to someone who is “unambiguously male” and despicts his struggle with sexual difference. He compares himself constantly to Andrew, who is aggressively (stereotypically male), and who listens to the right “rape me” songs  by Kurt Cobain.  Contrastingly, Benjamin sees himself as an “Asian hybrid man child thing” which leads to constant feelings of anxiety.  He states, “I’ve tried bashing shit, listening to different music … pretending to like girls, but nothing’s really worked”.  Benjamin recalls how he suffered as a target of discrimination and persecution. At school, his peers were “on the hunt” for anyone who showed signs of difference.

Finally and with the support of his family, Benjamin realises that he must accept his gender as someone who is in-between male-female status.  It is interesting to compare his attitude and acceptance of his homosexuality with Paul Nguyen (“You Can’t Choose Your Memories”) who “never discussed homosexuality”. His mother regards his sexuality as a curse, and an unfortunate disease. She also believe that her son is deliberately “hurting” her because he refuses to change his sexual orientation. It becomes a focus of resentment between them and inhibits their relationship.

“Anzac Day” by James Chong

James Chong is keen to belong to the Australian Anzac tradition. Throughout high school he dresses up in the kilt and learns the bagpipes so that he can lead the school-band as a pipe-major. Proudly, it gives him a sense of belonging. However, he becomes resentful and humiliated when the video footage on Lateline on ABC television in 1992 zooms in on his Asian face and questions his right to participate in this “true blue” Australian tradition.

It confirms James’s “adolescent angst” that often surfaces because of a sense of exclusion owing to the “colour of my skin”.  His personal humiliation is painfully poignant.  He feels excluded from the Australian myth perpetuated by public figures such as Dr Brendan Nelson who draws attention to John Simpson Kirkpatrick as an emblem of the Australian identity. (“He represents everything at the heart of what it means to be Australian.”

“A Call to Arms” by Michelle Law

Michelle Law feels excessively self-conscious and different because of her hairless arms that invite the mirth of her Australian “friend”, who is the “antithesis” of her. She laughs at the “freakish nature of my body”. She feels painfully different and self-conscious at school because she cannot swim, wears “hand me down togs”, “oversized goggles”. “Everything up to that point in my life seemed so incredibly abnormal compared to everyone else I knew”. Michelle is aware constantly of “not fitting in” because of her difference – her lunch, her presents to the teachers, her herbal drinks that her mother called “coke”.

She realizes how deeply this “stand out from the crowd mentality” was ingrained in her psyche when she returns to Hong Kong. She is able to “disappear” — become anonymous— and her parents’ habits do not incite “automatic embarrassment”.  However, she still stands out quirkily because of her Australian background and inability to speak Cantonese.

As she matures, she sees the world from a “less self-centred perspective” and realizes that migrants such as herself can benefit from their in-between status and should take advantage of their opportunities.   Although Michelle feels different in both Australia and Hong Kong, she realizes that she has been “incredibly lucky” to have had the influence of both cultures. She accepts her difference – that she will never do a “tumble turn” in the swimming pool as well as her Australian counterparts. However, she is no longer painfully bothered by her inadequacies; rather she accepts her difference.

“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 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”.

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.

Joo-Inn focuses on the cultural contradictions of her background and realizes that the “liabilities” are also “assets”; much depends upon attitude and how one comes to value one’s differences and what might appear as drawbacks and vulnerabilities.  They begin to feel comfortable in Bendigo, which is as “half-half, as kooky and contradictory, as we were”.

“Five Ways to Disappoint your Vietnamese Mother” by Diana Nguyen

Diana’s mother seemed intent on sacrificing her daughter’s satisfaction and personal fulfillment so as to maintain “face” or pride. She laments the fact that “all my life I’ve had this mixed idea of who I am and what my role is”.

Initially Diana’s mother was happy to encourage her talent for the performing arts at the young age of 3 years old. It gives her a sense of pride as boasts to her friends.  However, she changed her attitude when Diana was in Year 11 and demanded that she pursue a career in medicine, hoping to become wealthy and reputable.

However, wishing to lead her own life and seek personal satisfaction leads to conflict. Diana is wounded on several occasions by her mother’s determination to reject her desire for an acting career. When her mother walks out on her performance she is “shattered”.  She recalls her humiliation and the loss of dignity as she recoils and lets the “hurt sink deeper into my soul”.

Diana is acutely aware of her controlling mother’s sense of disappointment, frustration — even embarrassment. The mother is so preoccupied with her “face” needs (her dignity) that she refuses to acknowledge the shame of having a daughter who finds a boyfriend on the internet.  She prefers or chooses to ruin her relationship with her daughter. Understandably, Diana is humiliated.  Ironically, the mother displays similar feelings of discrimination towards the Chinese that Australians showed towards her. She hated Chinese because they are “too tight with money”.

When Diana moves out of home she has “a freedom that I had never known before”.  And yet, the daughter feels disappointed and a keen sense of rejection that the mother cannot accept that she loves her boyfriend and is still with him after five years. She regrets the fact that she will always be the “slut daughter” in her mother’s eyes for the “rest of my life”.

The mother’s focus on pride, customs and social proprietary alienates Diana who feels the victim of her mother’s excessive desire to control. She criticises the tendency of her Asian mother to foster dependency so as to restrict her daughter’s choices. Although the mother discards her she finds a “freedom that I had never known before”. Diana also vindicates her choice by stating that the relationship has lasted five years.  As we discover, Diana becomes a successful Melbourne-based actor and achieves recognition when she is nominated for Best Actress for Death by 1000 Cuts.

“The Face in the Mirror” by Blossom Beeby

 Blossom Beeby, an adopted Korean child is brought up in a “manufactured” white family and her Asian-ness is suppressed. She identifies herself “inside” as a Caucasian person as a reflection of her surroundings; however when she looks in the mirror she sees a “foreigner”.

Beeby uses the imagery of a commercial product to describe her sense of alienation and cultural displacement. Accordingly, the commercial figurative reference to the “Made in Korea” baby with “scant” “care instructions” reflects her criticism of the impersonal attitude of her adopted parents. She believes she was brought up in an environment in which her parents seemed to follow a set of rules about the integration and assimilation of “Asian babies”. She believes that such rules tended to overlook and suppress her Asian appearance and personality so that she could better conform to her white social and cultural context.  In this context, her “asian-ness is pushed to the crevice in the background of my mind”

The author also uses the imagery of the mirror as a tool of self-awareness to reflect her confused cultural identity. She is conditioned to feel like a “rosy white kid” but the mirror reveals a “foreigner”.  The suppression of her Asian background unsettles her and creates self-doubts. She is made to feel as if being Asian is somehow inferior and this compounds her inferiority complex.

She reflects on the fact that “for much of my childhood, my Asian-ness was pushed to a crevice in the back of my mind”. This sense of a gap (slippage) between the experience of self and physical appearance leads to a sense of denial and rejection that haunts her and leaves her feeling displaced, raw and empty.   She is plagued by doubts and an increasing sense of resentment.

Beeby gains a different perspective on her identity after she sees an advertisement in a fashion magazine. Formerly, she thought that Asian people could not possibly be beautiful. She always saw herself as inferior. But after seeing the beautiful Asian model, she realised she did not have to be ashamed of her ethnicity; it could be a source of beauty and pride.

Her relationships with migrants, become a “rebellion of sorts”, and help her re-evaluate her place in the world. Frequenting bars with her new social circle, she realizes “it was the first time I’d felt comfortable being an Asian” and “I was finally glad to be an Asian.”

Once again, her identity takes an important turn when she returns “home” to expose the myths of origin relating to her mother and the circumstances of her birth.  She discovers that the social worker arbitrarily names her Soo Jeong according to a landmark with similar names. It was not a nostalgic name offered by her mother; there are no bonds to restore. She gains, though, a renewed sense of appreciation of her home in Australia and the opportunities it has afforded her.

“Baked Beans and Burnt Toast” by Jacqui Larkin

Jacqui Larkin draws attention to the consequences for individuals when people jump to conclusions and make assumptions about their identity based on appearances. In her case, the teacher, Peter Nugent, the airport staff, and the waiter all make assumptions based on her ethnicity.

When Jacqui returns home to Hong Kong – at the airport she feels conspicuous and embarrassed because she does not speak Cantonese and is humiliated by the airport staff. It reminds her of kindergarten.

Her feelings recall her first day at kindergarten and even more embarrassed when the teacher calls her Jacqui 500 (instead of Jacqui Soo). The teacher seems to mock her “origin” of birth, which is Chatswood and presumes she cannot speak English.

At school, Peter Nugent, the “stray dog”,  taunts her and becomes the “ugly face of all those Aussies who’ve enquired” about her origins – as if she could not possibly be born in Australia.  She is constantly aware of her difference.

However, during their coincidental meeting in Hong Kong, Peter Nugent excuses his meanness on the grounds that he admired her “exotic” and beautiful nature, which he could not name, nor pigeonhole. “Like most emotionally retarded eight-year-old boys, the only way I could communicate with her was by calling her names”. Name-calling once again becomes a painful marker of one’s inability to label the “exotic”.  He draws attention to his own alienation— “I knew that I was an egg”— and Jacqui realizes, and accepts, that she is the banana.  Peter states, “if you’re a banana then I’m an egg – white on the outside but yellow in the middle.”  To ease her nausea, he brings her a plate of baked beans and burnt toast – the nicknames that Peter gave to her and her friend Jo-ann at school.

Interview with Joy Hopwood

Joy Hopwood was the first regular Asian-Australian presenter on Playschool and now runs her own production company.

Joy’s mother was persecuted by the students when she worked in the school canteen because of her difference and her poor language skills.  Joy recalls her difficulties withstanding peer pressure because she was young and vulnerable.  Rather than defend her mother, she disowns her and distances herself from her mother.

As she matures, Joy realises that racist taunts should not be experienced personally but are more of a reflection of the perpetrator.  The comments from Jan Edmund, a mentor figure, give her strength and enable her to see her conflict from another perspective. Ms Edmunds states that “racist remarks .. reveal the racist’s ignorance and lack of intelligence and by no means is it a reflection of the receiver”. Although this gives her confidence as she grows up, she lacked the insight and maturity to cope with the discrimination at an early age.  She comes to appreciate her mother’s pain and her strength of character.

Interview with Ahn Do

The Australian-born Vietnamese comedian, Anh Do reflects upon the most difficult act he ever did which he believes was character building. He had to perform at the RSL at a function for war veterans that was commemorating the fallen brothers in World War Two, in Korea and Vietnam. Because of their war experiences, they were prejudiced against Asians. He performed a five minute comedy gig to complete and utter deafening silence.

A member of the crowd pretended to shoot him with an imaginary finger.  To break the ice, he proves that he is just an “Aussie kid”.  He tells footy, kiwi and farming jokes. Gradually he breaks the ice.  Eventually the audience of war veterans could say that “this Vietnamese kid was just an Aussie comedian up there talking about his working-class childhood.” Anh recalls Dave Grant’s comment that “hard gigs were an opportunity to test your mettle: Learn from them Anh, treat them like a rare gift”. He rates this experience as one of the most rewarding moments of his career because of its degree of difficulty. “You’re funny for a slope” is the ultimate compliment.

Later, when Anh returns on a family visit to  Vietnam as a young married man, he realises that had his parents not taken the perilous boat trip in the late 1970s he would have had an entirely different life in Vietnam. He recalls that he saw a skinner version of himself selling postcards at a temple. “In that moment I had a flash of realisation.  That could’ve been me. Indeed if my family hadn’t embarked on that trip years ago, I could’ve easily ended up selling trinkets at a temple for fifty cents.”

  1. Paragraph and essay plans: Growing Up Asian in Australia
  2. Click here to see an Essay based on Growing Up Asian written by a student with my assistance.

Dr Jennifer Minter: Identity and Difference, English Works