Sunday, January 22, 2012

my experience of being Asian in Canberra

I am having another mid-morning freak out. I woke up at 1.30am from a dream… 3 hours later and I can’t stop thinking about food, moving homes and my own ethnicity.

The other day, I made an Asian dish with vermicelli, julienned zucchini and carrots and rib eye steak. The ‘dressing/sauce’ was Vietnamese-inspired as it consisted of lime, fish sauce and sweet chilli sauce. It was definitely delicious – sweet, wholesome and tangy.
Since I can’t get to sleep right now, I’m going to try to articulate my thoughts about Asianess, particularly my experience in Canberra… Looking for share houses has been confrontational. I responded to heaps of online ads for shared accommodation using my personal email (which includes my Asian last name). Over 50% of the email responses made an ethnic comment, such as ‘Hi, I am Korean’ or ‘We are Asian too’ or ‘Where are you from’. Several things bothered me about these comments:
1)      That’s nice that you are Korean. Is that the most important part of your personality?
2)      Just because I have an Asian cultural background doesn’t mean that I identify with it in the same way as you. Don’t assume that we’ll have things in common just because we are Asian.
3)      I am from Australia, thank you very much

Last year, I received an email from a prospective housemate saying something like, “I noticed you are Chinese. I am open to all cultures and backgrounds”. Well Mr, so am I, but because you said that so conceitedly in an introductory email, I question how forward-thinking you really are. This was a shock because in Sydney, as a young adult, my ethnicity would rarely be pin-pointed by friends, aquaintances or strangers. NESB people were everywhere and generally accepted in mainstream society. I figured that it was a ‘Canberra thing’.

I work in a Department which has a very low percentage of NESB employees. While most people are accepting of my Asianess, sadly some of the harshest racial comments I’ve received were at work. I hope that these words are attributable to the individuals rather than a comment on the field I work in.

My closest friends and family have criticised me a lot for not ‘accepting’ my Chineseness and for not speaking Chinese. I enjoy some parts of the culture i.e. food but I don’t find a need to speak Chinese and this isn’t my parents’ fault. But why the rejection? I guess I grew up in an environment where the language and ethnicity wasn’t welcomed. My extended family in Australia didn’t speak Chinese and I was constantly bullied by my wider circle of (non-Asian) friends. And many Asian individuals rejected me or felt a need to compete. So I’ve kinda internalised this and now randomly get offended or feel threatened when people ‘box’ me into the Asian ethnicity.

I don’t completely reject being Asian or being non-Asian. I probably shuttle between the two and, unlike many people coming of age, refuse to decide whether I’m more Asian or Australian. It’s a constant state of confusion, which is a new culture of its own right in Australia.

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