THERE ARE COSTS IN BELONGING TO A COMMUNITY
Ralph Ellison once said, ‘When I discover who l am. I’ll be free’. For those who belong to mainstream groups in society, discovering who they are can be relatively easy. However for those who find themselves growing up in marginal groups, or who suffer from a strong sense of disadvantage or from unfortunate experiences, growing up can be very painful. Such people they often struggle to find who they really want to be. They are often forced to make difficult sacrifices in order to find a sense of place.
When Simon Tong started school in Australia he felt like an “animal at the zoo”. Diana Nguyen becomes the “slut daughter” in her mother’s eyes and Aditi finds revenge in slapping Barry with a cricket bat. Likewise, when some of my “friends” taunted me, and called me “coon”, “nigger” and “dirty black bastard”, I, too discovered that it was a very painful process trying to belong in a new place. Like so many of these migrants, I have discovered that there are numerous costs in trying to conform to a new culture and society. We have all paid a heavy price for our parent’s decision to migrate. However, the sacrifice is not all ours. Our parents, too, have paid a heavy price. And yet, most of us have also discovered that there are some benefits in belonging to a new community. You just have to know how and where to look.
Many migrants who come to a new country such as Australia have to sacrifice many of their traditions. Often these are not appropriate in the new country, because of its views, values and customs. My mother reminds me of Diana Nguyen’s and Vanessa Woods’s mother. Sometimes I almost think we must have similar grandparents. My mother frequently complains about the loss of authority, because in Korea children are used to following their parents without question. Here, in Australia children have more freedom and are used to challenging their parents and choosing what they want to do. My mother believes that I have lost my respect and she threatens to send me back to Korea. Likewise, Vanessa Woods’s mother also laments the fact that the children do not show her the necessary respect. They are following the way of “Australian children” – the “ones who don’t work as hard, are loud and uncouth and, worst of all, talk back to their parents”. They also hold chopsticks like “peasants”. Such parents feel as if they have lost their authority and have sacrificed their relationship with their children.
In the worst case scenario, many parents completely demoralized as they lose their authority. Vanessa’s mother “almost slit her wrists in shame” because her (Australian) husband divorced her and desperately unhappy she struggles with her Asian pride. Once, the perfect Chinese wife, who nearly got RSI “rolling perfectly circular Mandarin pancakes” to his mistresses, she becomes doubly angry when Vanessa starts stealing lunches at school. She gives up so much and yet her daughter becomes increasingly anti-social because she cannot cope with the pressure. As her aunt tells her, the mother is poor because of the expensive school fees. She is ashamed of Vanessa’s poor marks, that have not compensated her for her poor financial situation and shame of being divorced.
When I first came to Australia, I felt excluded, alienated and isolated, because of the clash of language and cultural beliefs. I felt a loss of self-esteem because my English was poor and I was not able to express my ideas and opinions. It made me feel inferior. Worse, because of my strange accent, people mocked me; how many times did some of my “friends” imitate my ridiculous accent and I would become a bright red lobster. Like Simon Tong, I felt like the ‘animal in the zoo’. Not only that but also my cultural background led to humiliation, because I had to decide whether to follow my Korean or Australian culture. Simon is victimized and persecuted in the playground to such an extent that he feels emotionally violated and humiliated because he feels he is always the butt of derision. This is illustrated when he is bombarded by questioning “Do you cook dog?” “Do you wipe your arse?” and finally his isolation and inability lead to anger and disappointment.
Luckily, I haven’t had any experiences as humiliating as those of James Choong, who was trying so hard to do the Aussie thing and was publicly ridiculed. During an exciting day in 1992, he dressed himself in his kilt, played the bagpipes and marched down the streets in Sydney with his school’s pipe band. He wanted to share Australian traditions and become a part of the Anzac Day parade. However, he did not realize that he was being filmed. The program questioned his “true blue” status and whether he had the right to participate in Australian traditions. This made him feel extremely isolated and lonely – all because of the colour of his skin. It made him realise that just how hard it was to conform and be accepted. It comes at a high price.
Although my parents want me to have a good career and become a doctor, I do not feel completely overwhelmed by their expectations. I have forgotten my dreams about becoming a drummer, but then I wasn’t much good anyway. I just feel a sense of relief banging out my frustrations after a difficult day. Luckily, I do not feel as restricted as many children of migrants. Diana Nguyen’s s pride is wounded and she feels worthless when her mother storms out of her performance at school. She is bitterly disappointed that her mother does not approve of her desire to become an actor. She lets the “hurt sinker deeper into my soul” and realizes that her dreams have been belittled by her mother. She chooses freedom rather than living her life according to her mother’s desires and in the process she sacrifices her emotional bond with her mother. I also feel very sorry for Vanessa because she wanted to be a writer, but the mother fears that she will end up “penniless in the gutter”. Her mother does not accept her dreams and she suffers from her mother’s brand of “emotional terrorism”.
When I sometimes catch up with my Chinese friends at home, through social media sites or through occasional visits back home, I just realize how much easier it is for me in Australia. Even when I think I am studying hard, I realize I am never studying as hard as they are. This makes me feel guilty if I ever complain about my hard work.
Although there are many costs belonging to a society, there are also benefits. It is a balancing act, and sometimes you have to give a bit to get a bit in return. Quite frequently, if you follow the group’s expectations and goals and succeed this can bring about a feeling of personal achievement and fulfilment. Often, despite the costs, many migrants feel that can take advantage of “both worlds” and this can lead to personal enrichment. For me, it is a balancing act that I have grown accustomed to. On the one hand, I go to the footy, support the mighty hawks, enjoy meat pie and hang out with Aussie friends. On the other hand, I like to go to my Korean church, hang out with Korean friends and enjoy Korean food as well. At times, I feel comfortable, like Jo ann chew as a “peculiar hybrid”, and part of the “half-halfs” breed – partly Korean, but quite a lot of Australian mixed in. As she concludes “same and different”
I have discovered, like many Asian migrants, that the benefits outweigh the costs. I enjoy my extra freedom, even though I have to be careful not to question my parents too often. I have learnt to sacrifice my goals of become a basketball star, and am working hard to become a doctor instead. Perhaps this is more for my parents than for me; however, I know that I must keep them happy because they have made so many sacrifices. However, this is not always the case for many migrants who have given up so much of their lives to make a new start. For many, the demands and the cost nearly defeated them. I can’t help thinking that someone like Mrs Woods and Mrs Nyugen must regret ever coming to Australia.
As Age writer, Benjamin Law concludes: “By not-quite-belonging-anywhere, I paradoxically feel at home everywhere … I feel largely immune to culture shock. If anyone insists I go back to where I came from, I just count myself lucky to have more options than most.
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