For the month of June, the Art Gallery of NSW is doing a series of talks between Benjamin Law (a writer) and other prominent Australians of Chinese background for Art After Hours (I'm afraid I'm posting this a bit late since there's only one more left this Wednesday). The second one was an interview with the legendary newsreader Lee Lin Chin (non-Australians may know her as the presenter of our voting results on Eurovision), so we decided to go and see her in the flesh. They discussed her life and how she ended up in media, and although it was funny and interesting, I had been hoping to hear more of their thoughts on issues surrounding Chinese Australian identity, racism, and representation. So I'm going to use this as a springboard to discuss my own experiences, and add my five cents (because Australia is sensible and discontinued one and two cent coins) to the discussion of Asian representation in western media.
If you haven't gathered, I'm Chinese Australian. My parents immigrated from Shanghai and I was born in Sydney. My family has always lived in multicultural suburbs, and I went to very multicultural pre- and primary schools. I went to an all-girls high school where the majority of students were East, South, or South East Asian. Throughout my life, almost all my friends have been Asian girls. The largest suburban centre in the area where I've lived since I was 5 is the suburb of Sydney with the highest percentage of residents with Chinese ancestry. Even in the city centre, I still see a place as diverse as London or New York.
So due to a combination of childhood innocence and because I didn't feel like a minority in my immediate world, I never thought critically about racism until a few years ago. To me, racism was something along the lines of being abused on the street - which had happened at that point, but I was able to brush those incidents off as insignificant and continued to think that racism wasn't a big part of my life.
I'm not going to talk about the racism I deal with from other people here (I wrote out a whole section and it was so many words). What I do want to tackle is the idea of internalised racism.
Internalised racism was when my friends and I made fun of people for being "too Asian", and saying "that's so Asian", "you look so Asian today" like it was a bad thing. It was when we tried really hard to differentiate ourselves from "FOBs", people who we decided were more connected to Asian culture than it was cool to be. Internalised racism was in the self-deprecating jokes we made about being Asian (that were not at all self aware), and our laughter when other people made racist jokes about Asians. It was in the times we said things like "I don't want to date an Asian guy", which I'm still mortified about. It was in the embarrassment I felt about my parents, who speak English better than I will ever speak another language. It was in my refusal to properly learn to read and write Chinese and speak Mandarin at Saturday school when I was six. And then again when, in a last-ditch attempt, my parents made me take Mandarin in year 10, only for me to spend those classes doodling on my calculator. This would turn into one of the biggest regrets of my life. I'm using past tense, but I'm still trying to work through this.
I also wonder whether there's a hint of it behind my rush to correct people that I'm "Australian" and was "born here", disguised and complicated by the fact that I want to prove to the racist asshole who's asked the "where are you really from" question that not all Australians are white.
Where did this all come from? It might have been more understandable if I'd grown up as the only Asian kid at school or in the neighbourhood. But that wasn't the case.
This brings me back to Benjamin Law and Lee Lin Chin, who are both relatively well-known Asian Australians, and to the issue at hand: representation in the media, or in this case, the lack of. Because how else would I have learned to think of myself, my friends, and my family, as less-than?
Growing up, I'd barely ever, and still don't, see myself represented in magazines, in TV, in movies. Don't even get me started on commercial Australian television (some of the shows they've tried to convince me are set in Sydney... seriously?). There's a reason why I was obsessed with Disney's Mulan when it came out, why I still remember Karen from Play School, and why I was so excited to see a character named Cho Chang in the most popular book series of our time (although I take issue with diversity in general in Harry Potter). The stories of people like me were almost never told, and so I learnt, unconsciously, that we were unimportant and/or stereotypes to be looked down on by the white majority. And as a result, we tried to distance ourselves from what the white-dominated media told us was true. In a circular and ironic way, we were trying counter racism, but we just ended up racist towards ourselves.
So the first point of this post is to add my voice to the noise against whitewashing Asian characters in Hollywood, and express how excited I am to see a growing movement that pushes back. And also to acknowledge shows like Fresh Off the Boat, the first time I've seen a family even vaguely like mine as the main focus of a TV show (also Constance Wu is my queen). Benjamin Law's show, The Family Law, is another one set in Australia, but to be honest I couldn't really get into it.
My second point is to point out how amazing blogging is for representation. Say what you want about the pitfalls of social media, but it means we can literally cast ourselves in our own fashion shoots and short films. It also means we can choose what (or who) comes up in our timelines, and have that mix of people be as diverse as we like. It wasn't on purpose, but I don't think it's pure coincidence either, that I follow so many female Asian bloggers. It makes me happy to see Asian women being so successful in blogging that they've transitioned into traditional media. But popularity is irrelevant. Reading blogs has done what mainstream media isn't able (or doesn't want) to do. It's shown people like me, who I can identify with, doing awesome things and being successful in so many different ways - professional blogging, photography, fashion design, travelling, studying, working, curating closets, DIY-ing, cooking, and just living happily (or unhappily). It's shown people like me and my friends but with backgrounds and life experiences that are completely different to ours. In the blogosphere, we're no longer confined to stereotypes because we have more control in what we produce and what we consume.
I also have to make reference to the infamous article that Racked published and deleted about how Asian bloggers haven't "embraced race" (I can't find it cached anymore, but this is a criticism of the original article). To be honest, I think there was a misunderstanding of the original piece (that I did find and read at the time). I do think that Asians in general, and not just bloggers, should be more vocal about racial issues (that is a whole other can of worms). But in terms of embracing race, like many bloggers pointed out - just putting ourselves onto the internet, Asian faces and names and all, especially in a western context where we're so underrepresented - that's an act of defiance. Middle fingers up to a society which tells us we don't deserve to have our stories told.
My individual contribution to this is pretty small. Maybe I'll inspire an Asian girl somewhere to choose the self-imposed torture that is med school while half-assing as a blogger and blowing all her savings on travel. But when you look at the overall picture - so many Asian bloggers from all different walks of life - and what message this sends to a girl growing up somewhere like Australia, who barely ever sees herself represented in any TV she watches or magazines she reads or advertisements she sees? Maybe if I'd had the chance to feel represented in this way, before the social media and blogging era, I'd have a lot less internalised racism to struggle with right now.
Interesting related articles
- What it's like not being white
- On internalised racism - probably a better explanation than mine.
- Blogging about diversity and On Asian American identity - two posts that inspired me to write this one.
- Asian women in western media
- Comparing Asian Australians and Asian Americans - an article which I stumbled across by chance but is really interesting. I've kind of conflated Australian and other western societies in this post (especially since American pop culture is inescapable), but this outlines some contextual differences.