He comes bouncing up to me, like Tigger from Winnie the Pooh.
“Hey did you like the movie?” says the tall pimply-faced boy.
The Sydney Film Festival was on and I had just seen Beijing Bubbles, a documentary about emerging punk bands in China.
I smile and nod my head, hands clasped, concentrating on keeping myself warm on a fiercely cold and rainy Sydney night. I was dressed in my finest and furriest wet weather gear: hand knitted turquoise beanie; scraggly pink gloves; cheap camel-coloured faded fake fur coat; baggy jeans; child’s sized vinyl ankle boots; and plastic rimmed glasses because the effort to put on my contacts would have frozen my eyeballs. If you didn’t know me you’d think I was a 15-year-old kid straight from the streets of Harajuku, the cute and quirky district in Tokyo where kids go crazy and creative with their hair, makeup and clothes.
“Are you from China?” he excitedly pipes up again.
Oh no, here we go, I think to myself. But hey, let’s see how far I can take this. I look up at him, squint and nod my head slightly to the left.
He stops bouncing. “ARE YOU FROM CHINA?” he says again.
Once again I try to look confused.
“ARRRRRE. YOOOOOU. FRRRRRROM. CHIIIIIINA?” but this time slower that if I had a remote control I could count the amount of pimples around his mouth and see the strings of saliva as he enunciates his words.
“WHAT. COUNTRY. ARE. YOU. FROM?” he says, now stooping down to my height.
“Oh I from Japan!” I say with a smile putting my hands on my cheeks and pulling the cutest face I can muster.
By this time a friend of his comes up to him, who coincidentally I know.
“Hey mate. How’s it goin’?” says the mutual friend.
“Yeah good. I was just talkin’ to your friend here. He thinks I’m from Japan, but don’t tell him the truth.”
And with that Pimply Faced Boy turns red.
I have many other stories like this, however they don’t always result in short Asian female publicly embarrassing tall white boy. When I was young, I recall being spat on by a driver as I was innocently making my way home from school; I remember walking around the city with my family and a drunken girl shouting out, “Go back to your own country”; and I also remember being 13 and arguing with the most popular, most rebellious and most handsome boy in school, and hearing him shout out across the basketball court, “Well at least I’m not Asian,” to which I replied, “Well at least I’m not racist.”
Thankfully, experiences such as this have been few. They haven’t affected me or turned me into a gangster ready to unleash my martial arts skills, although if I could wish for any “Asian power” it would be the ability to jump-kick.
“Hi-yah! Take that! That’ll teach you to call me ching chong!”
In fact, throw as many stereotypes at me and I can say that I don’t fit into any mould. I can’t play the piano, I’m absolutely terrible at maths, and I don’t know how to make “lucky” paper stars (though I must admit I learnt once. It was fun).
Seeing those “stereotypical Asian” people makes me quiver. “God, I’m so glad I’m not like THAT. They’re so… boring,” I’d say to my white friends, acting like the meanest bitch in the school.
“Look at those girls. Why do they hold hands and giggle all the time? And white frilly skirts. Do they think they’re dolls or something?”
And we’d laugh with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
But I can imagine what they’d say about me.
“Ai yah, she not China. Her skirt too short. Why she smoking for? Beer for boys. Ai yah.” And then they’d giggle and start talking about how to make their skin white.
Then again, I’ve always been accused for not being “Asian”. I remember my Auntie mocking me once and saying loudly to everyone at the dinner table, “Huh! She not Chinese. She not even like jook!” as I’d grimace every time I’d drink congee.
“Qoi ho yingmun-ah.” She’s so English she’d say, and I’d see my Por-Por – my grandmother on my mother’s side – smile and shake her head whilst I remained silent.
Then there were the questions, always from the aunties, uncles and family friends.
“Why you not speak Chinese?” they’d poke and ask.
“Um, cause my parents never taught me,” I’d meekly say.
And that’s the truth. My parent’s never taught me Chinese. It was always English to the kids and Chinese to each other – and more so whenever they were arguing (and they argued a lot). They never made me learn the piano or the violin. I never learnt mah jong and I wasn’t even taught much about my family history. In fact if there’s anything my parents taught me, it was “you must be good to your brother,” even after they’d pick on me and make me cry.
I never learnt my father’s famous phrase “No kissy kissy until you get married,” which for some reason he’d say at every given opportunity – even when I was young and had absolutely no desire to lose my virginity – and always close to my face with his finger pointing and waving at me. However, I did learn, “Eat all your food cause Buddha say so,” and I would because my mother was a brilliant cook. She was also good at sewing, cleaning, and gossipping – loudly. Yes, she was a typical housewife and as her only daughter, one of her favourite past-times – even up to my 20s – was to buy me clothes and accessories in Asian printed fabric, like as if another one of these skirts, bags, belts, mandarin collar tops or cheongsams would make me more “Asian”.
“Hey look what I bought today,” she’d say. “It was on sale. Reduce from fifty dollar to ten dollar. Cheap you know. Try it on.”
Even though my mother’s English was reasonable – she was born and raised in Fiji after my grandparents and eldest uncle moved there from Guangdong, China – she still forgot to add pronouns and plurals to her sentences and had trouble saying words like “calendar” (“cal-in-der” she’d say) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (“Schwarz-a-nigger,” instead).
“Geez thanks,” I’d think to myself. Yet another outfit made by some white designer and mass-produced by Asian immigrants.
I think this was my mother’s way to get me out of the grunge outfits I often wore instead. Flannel shirts, ripped stockings, band t-shirts and Doc Marten boots, channelling more Courtney Love than canto pop. In my effort to transcend my “Asian-ness” I also dyed my hair pink, red, green and blue (though not all at once of course), got a nose piercing and a labret, and bought an electric guitar and sang teenage angst songs.
So you can imagine how I’d feel at punk gigs. Whilst “dressing the part”, I didn’t “look the part” amongst all the big burly guys and loud Aussie blonde chicks. I was sometimes ignored and looked at like I didn’t belong and when I was noticed I was often asked, “Where are you from?”
Ah yes. The defining question of every non-white Australian’s life. The question I love to hate, hate to answer and when I’m in the mood, like to play around with, especially when asked at the most inappropriate times.
“Where are you from?” they ask at parties after I’ve pulled the best Steve Irwin impersonation.
“Where are you from?” strangers say when I’m waiting in line for the bathroom.
“Where are you from?” says the hospital nurse when I’m in pain.
“Where are you from? Where are you from? Where are you from? Are you from Japan?” says the conservative man during an interval at an Australian play.
Why is it that white people immediately assume that if you don’t sport blue eyes and blond hair that you’re from another country? I can only imagine what goes through their mind before they ask the dreaded question. Olive skin? Check. Slanted eyes? Check. Short and slim? Check. Ah, why of course she mustn’t be Awstralian!
There’s no escaping it either. In my travels overseas I’ve had heated arguments with fellow travellers who are shocked when I tell them I’m from Australia.
“No, where are you really from?” they say with a furrowed brow.
“Ah Sydney,” I reply.
“No no no. Where are you REALLY from?”
“Yeah Sydney. Y-know. Seen the Harbour Bridge?”
“But you don’t LOOK like you’re from Sydney.”
So if there’s anything about growing up as an Asian Australian it’s not about hating Pauline Hanson (although of course I do), or disliking chicken feet (which I also do), or trying to please my family (which I don’t), or being the target of a white man’s yellow fever (which I sometimes am). It’s about not being judged on the answer to “where are you from?” It’s about being accepted and respected on who I am as a person – as both a Chinese person proud of my culture, and now being older, discovering it out of my own interest; and as an Australian proud of where I’m living, the things I do, and what I believe in. So if you ever see me, a short, punky looking Asian Australian girl, don’t ask me. You already know the answer.