My Experience As An Asian-Australian Woman

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No. The person in the picture is not me, in case you’re wondering. It just happened to be the best picture I could find for this article which was not copyrighted, and I’d rather not reveal my identity by putting my face, beautiful though it may be, up on the Internet for all to see. Besides, look at his shirt–a kangaroo! It was synchronicity, it was fate, I tell you.

I am Asian. Specifically, Asian-Australian, though if anyone were to ask for my nationality, I would simply say, “Australian”.

Race is important in this world, because people judge others based on what they look like. The greatest tragedy of the world, in my opinion, is that who we are on the outside does not have any bearing on who we are on the inside. You are your mind, your soul—not your body, not your looks, not your skin. Yet, either because of the media, or the way society is set up, we consciously or unconsciously judge each other based on outward appearances. What’s more, different appearances carry different judgments. Someone who is black, and buff, might be construed as threatening. Someone thin and of average height like myself, wearing glasses, might be considered a “nerd”.

This part of my identity has led to much suffering. Growing up in Australia, back when immigrants were just starting to flow into the country, I attended a school where each class was perhaps 85% Caucasian, and 15% other ethnicities, ranging from Asian, to Indian, to Aboriginal. In primary school, I experienced no discrimination due to my race, except for when I was mistakenly placed in ESL English in my first year because they thought I couldn’t speak English. That all changed when I moved to a different state, and started attending a school where the level of minority groups was much higher, as it was an area with a greater immigrant population—each class was perhaps 75% Various Ethnicities, and % Caucasian. Mind you, every single person in these classes was Australian, born in the country, spoke the language, grew up watching Playschool on television, regardless of what they looked like. Yet in this new state, things were different. It was almost as though the increase in the “minority” population had started to make some Caucasian Australians nervous, afraid of being “taken over”. In Australia, there’s this secret desire, amongst certain Caucasians, to keep Australia true-blue Aussie—in other words, white, despite the fact that the colour of your skin or whether you use chopsticks or fingers or your hands or a knife and spoon when you eat dinner determine whether you are a “true” Australian or not. Legally, you are an Australian if you were born in the country. Unfortunately the image of the proper Australian as being sun-kissed, blonde, and blue-eyed still persists, in Australia and overseas.

Towards this end—that is, maintaining the “whiteness” of the country, which is, do I have to say it, an extremely racist thing to do, especially considering we are all immigrants, except for perhaps the Aboriginal Australians, who lived on this land for thousands of years before the first settlers arrived—people have been very creative. For instance, everywhere, in increasing numbers, I see Australian flags being flown, from flagpoles, gardens, cars. In some countries, this might seem patriotic. Not necessarily here. The Aboriginal Australians have a flag, but you don’t see it flying from anywhere. No. The Australian flag, with its blue colour, its union jack, sends a very clear message: this is our turf, unless you’re Caucasian, or born in Australia and therefore properly assimilated (and even then, you’re only perhaps halfway Australian, at best), get off our territory. On Australia day young men have been known to wear it like capes and hurl racial insults at passers-by. Every time I see one—I saw one just yesterday, while sitting in the car; it was flapping beside a front door—I feel a quiet jolt, and not a nice jolt. I wondered how it would feel if I were Aboriginal Australian, and saw that flag, flying everywhere, staking out the territory.

But this silent racism extends to more than just flags. Australian TV is dominated by Caucasian faces, everything from advertisements to the News; should you turn the television on here in Down Under, you would most likely be surprised to be told that we are, in fact, a multicultural society. Representation, on television, in the media, is crucial for affirming one’s racial identity. If you don’t see yourself represented, then the implicit message, sent to your subconscious, is that people who look like you are not beautiful and do not matter. This is one of the reasons why I stopped watching Australian television years ago.

I have also been subject to instances of racism as I got older, which, for someone who desperately wanted to belong, was highly anxious, and hurt by the slightest bit of rejection from anyone, were searingly painful. A boy in a class, many years ago, once told me he ate yesterday’s dinner, pizza, the next morning, for breakfast. I expressed some mild shock at this—after all, for someone health-conscious like me, pizza for breakfast was the equivalent of pouring engine oil down one’s throat and calling it milk. I was anxious about coming up with the answer, as I had rarely spoken to him before. He then replied, “Well, it’s what Australians do,” before asking another Caucasian student to affirm that she also often ate last night’s dinner for breakfast a lot of the time. This implied two things, particularly due to his accusatory tone: 1) He was more “Australian” than me because he did this supposedly “Australian” thing and 2) I was less of an Australian, because I was Asian. If I had been Caucasian, I doubt he would have even made such a comment.

I wish I could have told him, though I was too stung at the time to say a word (repressed resentment is big problem for social anxiety suffers; we often can’t stand up for ourselves verbally) that 1) There is no such thing as an “Australian” habit, because Australians come from all walks of life and are all different; it’s just as Australian to use chopsticks as to eat meat pies and 2) Really, eating pizza for breakfast isn’t healthy. But at the time, I just let it go, sitting there, stunned and rejected after my attempt at social interaction.

My aunt once told me I was lucky that, as an Asian, I had large and “pretty” eyes. It would give me an advantage in society. Only later did I realise it was because large eyes are considered a stereotypically Caucasian feature, and therefore valued. Having “small” eyes would mark you out even further as an outsider. And it’s true. Dami Im, Korean-Australian pop singer, winner of Australian idol some time ago, on her recent album, had her eyes photoshopped to appear preternaturally large compared to her real ones. She has gained little popularity in Australia because she is Asian; after winning, many racists tweets darted her way. This preference for larger eyes is ingrained in the subconscious of anyone who has grown up in a Western society, consuming Western media. Large eyes are beautiful. Small eyes are not. This is racist, and it’s even worse because sometimes the racism can become internalized, causing Asian-Australians to dislike their features.

Little things add up. The way a person behind the counter—this was before my mental health worsened—would cheerily greet a tall Caucasian woman when she came through the door, but ignore me, or say “Thank you, come again” to everyone except me, thrusting the bag containing my purchase over the counter as though it were something to be got rid of. The way a man at a store kept correcting my words, even though what I was saying was perfectly fine. How a woman on a street stopped me to ask, while I was wearing my school uniform, if I spoke English—she was an American tourist, I believe—before inquiring for directions. The way certain people would downplay any of my literary achievements, both students and teachers, trying to “keep me down”.

Remember, throughout all this, I was, underneath, an anxious, hysterical, exhausted, and depressed mess. I was suicidal, because I was sensitive, because I was introverted, and had been pretending, pretending for so long, that I was normal and that I was okay. The racial rejections just made it worse. All these micro-aggressions, piled up over the years, did nothing to help improve my confidence or self-esteem or my mood.

The problem of race even extends over to what I consider my last bastion of hope in the world: books and films. Art. My favourite movies as a child were the Barbie movies: Barbie and the Princess and the Pauper, Barbie as Rapunzel, Barbie as Nutcracker. They are—and I kid you not—works of art, masterpieces, as genius as Studio Ghibli films. They were beautiful, and I loved them, and I watched them, over and over again, almost obsessively. Even today, I can still song the songs, still remember the lines of the characters, every scene etched deep into my mind. I was wonderstruck by them. They shaped my imagination.

Yet, beautiful as these films were, I didn’t know the damage I was doing to myself. Like any little girl who watched the films, I wanted to be Barbie. She was well-spoken, elegant; she got the Prince, so she was desirable; she was beautiful, flawless, intelligent. But she didn’t look like me. Other girls at school looked like Barbie, with their bright blue eyes, and flowing blonde hair, and at least some of them had brown hair, like other female characters in the films. I didn’t. I had black eyes, and wavy black hair, not even straight like Barbie’s, and though I’m not ugly, at the time, it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that I didn’t look like Barbie.

In fact, none of the characters I read or watched were Asian. Anne of Green Gables, Mary from The Secret Garden, Polyanna, Little Women, Peter Pan, Beatrix Potter books, Roald Dahl books, Enid Blyton books, Felicity Wishes—and on and on it went. The damage, for a long time, was deep. I still haven’t fully recovered. Through films and books, I learned that only Caucasian men were handsome and desirable. Therefore, subconsciously, to be more like “Barbie”, more like Anne of Green Gables, more like all my favourite characters, more like the women on television, in Hollywood movies, the strong and the beautiful, I only had crushes on Caucasian males (and once an Indian boy, because, well, he was cute), shunning Asian males because they did not affirm my subconscious beautiful, elegant and intelligent young lady—you could only be a princess if you had the right prince, after all, and, as an INFP, I was ridiculously idealistic about that sort of thing. Boys, however, no matter the race, never paid me any attention, probably because I faded into the background while the other girls swished their hair and laughed all the time, so that, on top of my already internalized self-hate, tore down my self-esteem even more.

The healing process has been, in the last few years, as I grew aware of how I had been brainwashed, has been remarkably fast. If you want to reduce your racism, whether directed at yourself, or at others, the best way to do this is to watch films from other countries, or movies with diverse casts. Asian actresses Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi, Arden Cho, Jamie Chung, Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh, as well as their supporting Asian male cast members, all helped me to learn to take pride in my Asian identity, the ethnicity given to me at birth. I watched Indian films, films starring African Americans. I watched Aboriginal films. I started to watch Youtubers from all different backgrounds.

I started to change my view of the world, and my ideas of beauty., and therefore my ideas regarding myself. Today, I am not attracted to anyone purely based on their race. Any man from any race can be attractive, and the same goes for women. My own brother is living proof of that—he’s quite good-looking, especially as he’s growing into a young man, though I would never admit it to his face, and I’m sure he, as someone without anxiety or any social problems, will do just fine with the ladies. And I fully embrace my ethnicity–really, if I’m not reminded about it in the form of any mistreatment, I often forget what I look like to others, my gender, my ethnicity, my face: I’m just me.

Minority groups, in terms of representation in media, especially Asians, still have a long, long way to go. Most Hollywood movies do not have diverse casts. Most children television shows in Australia do not have a diverse cast. Australian TV is still deeply, deeply racist. Most Disney movies showcase Caucasian characters. Most books features Caucasian protagonists and characters. I don’t have anything against any particular race whatsoever—what I dislike is unequal representation, exclusion, stereotyping, sidelining. People from all different races deserve to be represented as lead characters. They deserve to be shown characters that look like them through the entertainment they consume, or are encouraged to consume. They deserve to be represented in a positive light—and not just Asian people, but all races, especially African American men and women, and Aboriginal men and women, who are, arguably, even more marginalised than marginalised groups. If homosexual people can gain such progress—think Ellen DeGeneres (though if she were not Caucasian, would she have achieved such success, as an openly gay TV presenter?) in society, then so can all racial groups. It’s getting quite old, this business of pretending some people, just because they were born with particular features at birth, are more important, more beautiful, more worthy or better than others.

Hey, I know this is a serious topic. At the same time, it’s also quite a silly one, because we’re all human, and it’s so silly, to differentiate people like this. But I’d be lying if I said my identity, as an Asian woman—you know, like I said, sometimes I even forget I’m Asian, and what I look like, but the world has a habit of reminding me; just a week ago, the lady at the doctor’s who was drawing my blood asked me where I was born, even though I was anxious and I didn’t want to talk—hasn’t coloured my life, my experiences, and my view of the world. I wish I could just sit in my little cave, wrapped up in a dreamer’s ignorance, but I can’t. This is one facet of the real world I must face. I want to live in a world where saying you are “Chinese” or “Korean” creates just as nice of an impression as saying you are “French” or “Russian”. Yes, it’s just skin, in the end, but it’s very important skin because of the value people place on it.

Of course, as a writer, I will doing my own bit to inject diversity into literature by featuring characters from all races and backgrounds in my stories. Oh, it’s just so silly, don’t you think? We are our insides, not our outsides. It’s so very silly. But frankly, compared to my mental health issues, being Asian in the modern world is a piece of cake—that, however, is a topic for another time. In some later posts, I will be writing about the discrimination you will face if you are an extreme introvert, a creative, or highly sensitive. INFPs, for instance, who are introverted, sensitive, and creative, are often mistreated by other people, and discriminated against due to their personality (I think it’s because we’re soft and shy and easily flustered, and that makes us an easy target, or some people just find us childish, strange, or immature and don’t respect who are). The more we talk about issues, and get our voices out there, the better it will be. The more we heal, the more others will.

 

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11 thoughts on “My Experience As An Asian-Australian Woman

      • Thank you. I’m honored. Yes, racism often is a much more talked about and controversial topic in America, while here in Australia, even though we have the sensitive history as well in regards to the poor treatment of Aboriginal Australians, people very rarely touch on racism in conversations, either to keep the peace, pretend that everyone is equal, or because it makes people feel uncomfortable (sometimes even those who are not privileged are uncomfortable talking about race, as if they don’t want their disadvantage to be highlighted!) which in turn does no favors for those who are disadvantaged due to the colour of their skin, or the size of their eyes.

      • This is what I talked about in a post talking about this new neo-liberal trend called “colorblindness”. By denying racism, only makes bigotry more insidious and disingenuous.

  1. I love the way you write, and I feel this might come across racist but I don’t intend it that way, but it’s great to see an Asian woman writing. As I write this my anxiety is saying stop, don’t be patronising, but I’ll push on because my point is that while race should be irrelevant, it isn’t, and when minorities stand up and tell their stories, it chips away at the racism that exists in all societies. I live in New Zealand and we are no better here, I hear racist language and views from all kinds of people in all directions and it’s sad, because we are all humans, we are all souls and that should be the only thing that matters. I don’t consider myself racist, and I struggle with the concept of white privilege as it applies to me, because I think it’s just another form of racism, but I continue to learn and never fail to be shocked by how people treat each other because of who they are and/or how they look.

    • Thank you. And I don’t think what you said was racist in the slightest. People’s voices do need to be heard, and I am glad I can add my voice to the mix. I am so glad you see the world in that way. It’s very encouraging. As someone who is privileged, and aware of that privilege, I can understand how you might feel conflicted about it. The best way to deal with this internal conflict is to be aware of race whenever it crops up, wherever you go, and to act accordingly. Also–though if you’re anxious like me, as seems the case, this might be impossible–making friends with people from diverse backgrounds, forming bonds, is the best way to combat racism, and to help everyone remember that, at the end of the day, like you said, we’re all just human.

  2. This is an extremely interesting POV. I’m Asian too, studying in NZ so reading about your experience is eye opening in the sense that I had expected it to be different for someone being born in Australia.

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