“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 literally and symbolically reflects 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.
She tries to slink away, invisibly blending into the background, to hide her “humiliation” and her conspicuous sense of difference. She also feels mortified at the audience’s reaction. She notes that “we played badly but they loved us”. While performing her piece, she is applauded not for her talent, but for her sense of difference. She states, “a faint wave of humiliation broke over me”.
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.
This lonely sense of difference is evident during the school sports day. Joo Inn and her sister knock over the hurdles; they are not as adept at sport as their Australian playmates. They do not have lollies like the other kids; rather they are the only ones to eat their “organic fruit cake” and eat wholemeal bread and give into the temptation of gorging on “fairy bread and toffee” because it is so Australian. The food becomes a symbol of their cultural differences, strengthened by the parents’ social difference. The parents are hippies, who straddle both Chinese and Australian backgrounds. Joo Inn notes that when the father is vigilant with money and bargains at the market he is described as Chinese, but he is Australian when he joins the Labor party and talks politics.
In comparison to her Australian peers, 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”. She comes to realise that the things she thought were Chinese, are just her father’s idiosyncracies — his own contradictory sense of identity — such as his “love of peanut butter”, his “bad jokes” and his “shyness”.
The in-between status renders them on the margins. The girls often sit by themselves in the library at lunch time. They often forget to “wear shoes or undies” and “drank boiled tank-water”. 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”.
If Joo Inn feels a lonely sense of difference, while performing the piano at the school concert, this all changes when she joins the Bendigo Chinese Dancing Organisation and performs a hybrid form of Chinese cultural dancing. Finally, she feels as if she is valued for a worthwhile reason. Among the dancers, she feels as if they are all part of the one “tribe”. This growth also coincides with her encounter with other Chinese families such as the Tans and the Wongs. As she notes, they all share a unique sense of difference. They know what it is like to “look a little different” and to have a parent who “would stay too long at parent-teacher night discussing our marks”.
They practise dance 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”.
Joo-Inn comes to realise that she is 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