The construction of self in language, (Growing up Asian, p. 42)
Simon Tong, a student at the Lasallian Christian Brothers’ School in Geelong (1982), suffers painfully from his difference as an Asian student 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 many Asians have a limited stereotypical 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 school children 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 uses boxing metaphors to compare 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.
Writing paragraphs focussed on Simon Tong’s sense of difference
As a conspicuous Asian student from Hong Kong, Simon appears overwhelmed in the playground because of his stereotypical physical difference. This difference also transforms into social isolation as the boys encircle him and set him up as a target for ridicule. To capture the Lassallian boys’ sense of novelty and curiosity as well as their predatory instinct to injure and offend, Simon uses the metaphor of the “animal in the zoo”. In this instance, Simon becomes “easy prey” as the boys throng around him, making “yawping and bowing” monkey noises. He sense of fear is palpable as he notices one boy’s eyebrows which “wriggled like a single furry caterpillar” and another whose “hideous skin lesions” exacerbate their sense of difference. In this case, the aggressive confrontation between the Australian boys and the lone Asian student, makes it increasingly difficult for Simon to belong and to feel part of the school-boy group.
Furthermore, many migrants struggle with language barriers, and this makes it difficult for them to maintain a robust sense of identity. Often Asian students cannot articulate their their desires and feelings; other times they may be misunderstood or become the butt of derision. Sometimes they feel that other students are patronizing towards them and this causes them to become introverted and timid. For example, Simon Tong’s feelings of inferiority are compounded by his inability to express his thoughts in language. Simon also uses boxing symbols to capture the belligerent linguistic confrontation of the boys and his own sense of vulnerability. They direct their increasingly personal questions at Simon, such as “do you wipe your arse”, do you eat fish” to make him feel increasingly comfortable. He is unable to defend himself in words so his reticence makes him almost invisible. “If I couldn’t express myself then who was myself”. He knows that should he use the right words, then he would be able to reclaim his dignity and salvage some confidence. Language would allow him to assert himself and present himself in a desirable way as a suave 14-year old Don Juan who desires to woo the girls, but sadly, he struggles to maintain his identity among his peers at school.
(However, Simon eventually, with the help of his special friend, makes a concerted effort to master the English language. He learns to find comfort in the prosodics of the English language which helps him to regain confidence.)
When people move to new communities, cultural differences often force them to re-evaluate who they are and how they should fit in to the new group. During the 1980s, many Asian migrants felt exposed in Australia because they felt culturally and racially different. They were often made to feel inferior by their school peers. For example, before he came to Australia Simon Tong had never seen a white person before, and when he finds himself in the playground among freckled boys and those with caterpillar-like eyebrows he finds the experience confronting, demeaning and painful. Because he is so conspicuous he is treated like an “animal in the zoo” and the playmates ridicule him. He cannot defend himself and starts to feel inadequate and defenceless.