The Race: Asian Australian, Part 10

1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you? Please tell us about the racial makeup of your family if you were adopted or come from a colorful family.

I was born in Australia to very traditional Chinese-Malaysian parents. The word “Malaysian” refers to a nationality. There are predominantly three races living in Malaysia – Chinese, Malay and Indian. A very long time ago, the Chinese came and settled in Malaysia. My grandparents – and many generations before them – were born in Malaysia. My relatives and extended family don’t know where our ancestors originated. We don’t talk about Chinese history but the history of Malaysia. We’ve always considered ourselves Chinese people living in Malaysia. We don’t identify with China the country but with Chinese culture. Chinese Malaysian is similar to the term, say, Korean American.

Melbourne

Melbourne

When I was growing up in Melbourne, I always heard my parents speak Cantonese to one another. But when they spoke to my kiddy-self and chided me for running under the blazing sun and turning “ugly black”, it was always in English – with Cantonese words here and there. We celebrate the Chinese New Year every year. I always come home to rice and noodles on the table. In short, “Chineseness” has always been a part of my life. I would be naked without it.

2) Where do you live? If you have ever moved, whether to another city or the other side of the world, please tell us when and where, and the ways the cultural differences between the places shaped or made you think about your identity.

I lived in Melbourne until I was six. Then my family moved to Malaysia and later Singapore when I was ten. Throughout school in these countries, my classmates clamoured to sit with me during recess and went, “Mabel is from Australia. Australian! She is my friend!”. They thought I ate fish and chips and went to the beach all the time, which was far from the truth. It was as if being Australian came with “white privileges”, that being Aussie was “classy”. The Malaysian/Singaporean accent rubbed off on me a fair bit. I returned to Melbourne for university. Australians pointed out my accent, asking me “Where are you from?” every odd week. Thus, I’ve always felt too Asian to be Australian and too Australian to be Asian.

3) Is “Asian Australian” a fairly common designation?

Very common designation used of someone who holds Australian citizenship and is of Chinese/Vietnamese/Korean/Thai/etc. descent. I have met a lot of people who identify with this label.

4) How diverse was the neighborhood and school you grew up in?

My preschool classmates Down Under were mostly Caucasian. There were a few Caucasians and Eurasians amongst the countless Asians I went to school with in Malaysia and Singapore. My first language is English and I think and speak in this language. I talked with all my friends in English. Although I know basic Cantonese and am fluent in Malay, rarely did we talk to one another in these languages.

5) When did you first become conscious of your race or ethnicity? Please describe the context or a moment when you noticed you were different in color or language. Can you share a bit about the fear, loneliness, longing for acceptance?

I was about six in preschool. One afternoon, I was sitting in class across one of my blonde, blue-eyed classmates who was a head taller than me. I always admired her – outgoing, confident and sporty. All the things I was Asian-stereotypically not good at but wanted to be. She looked at me condescendingly, brows furrowed, eyes narrowed. So fiercely, in fact, I was startled, thinking I had done something wrong. She demanded, “Why is your hair brown?”. I felt very small at that moment. I wanted to cry. Maybe this is why I sometimes still feel shy speaking to Caucasians today.

6) Do you consciously gravitate to certain company? Are you more comfortable, more at home around people of your own ethnicity? Have you observed a social or behavioral tendency in your own people group you would rather not perpetuate?

I’ve always found it easier talking to those of Asian descent. Maybe there’s an underlying assumption that we’ll understand each other easily for the shared cultural values. That’s not to say I don’t like talking with people of other races. I do. When I meet someone, what they have to say about the topic of conversation piques my interest – given they’re from a different background, usually their opinions will differ from mine.

7) Are your most meaningful relationships with people of your own ethnicity?

Of course there’s my family, and my closest friends are of Asian descent, those who have predominantly lived in Asia and/or Australia. Not too sure why this is so. Perhaps I’ve shied from others because of racism towards Asian Australians, which I’ve discussed here.

8) How much does racial affinity give you a sense of belonging compared to a shared faith or interest? Think about the groups you are part of: writers, homeschoolers, mothers, hobbyist, artists, colleagues, church. Would you rather spend time with those who share your cultural food, tradition, and values or those who share your interest or mission? Where do you feel the greatest ease and connection?

Similar racial values or shared interests don’t usually play a part in encouraging me to feel a sense of connection to a group. I don’t see how we can’t feel a sense of belonging and feel comfortable if we’re with people who respect who we are, our values and what we do. I connect most easily with those who don’t judge me, say, based on my speech or dress. It’s their nonjudgmental attitude that makes me want to spend time with them. I like hanging with those who have strong opinions too and feel there’s something worth learning from determined minds.

9) Do you consciously try to keep yourself or your family active in diverse circles?

At university and work, I mingle with people of different cultural backgrounds pretty much every day. Very frequently I’ve met classmates and colleagues who aren’t from around Australia but grew up in Asia with their first language being, say, Chinese or Vietnamese. I never had trouble conversing with them in English, though I admit there are times when I can’t understand some of their English-mangled sentences. When this happens, I politely ask them to repeat what they say and usually get their point. When I don’t, I change the subject as seamlessly as I can so that the conversation keeps going.

10) How did you set out to secure a sense of acceptance and belonging in social contexts, especially if you have faced hurtful experiences?

As an introvert, I have fearfully kept my mouth shut in front of Caucasian after experiencing racism in Melbourne. After six years back here, I realised part of the problem was because I held the impression Caucasians frowned upon my culture and who I am – a minority, an Asian Australian. A silly, narrow-minded thought; surely not everyone is like that. Today, I’ve learnt to love who I am and am more confident talking to people.

11) What has struck you the most in working through this exercise? Any closing thoughts on race and identity you would like to share?

I thought responses to these questions would come easily. I was quite wrong. It was a struggle to put reflections of my past into words. Race is a sensitive issue. This exercise reminded me we’re all culturally different, a beautiful thing. We should never judge others but embrace who we are as individuals.

Mabel at Mabel Kwong on multiculturalism.

62 thoughts on “The Race: Asian Australian, Part 10

  1. Thank you Mabel for your openness and sharing. There seems to be a common theme with race that you point out in your blog post (the provided link): “At the same time, one’s surroundings also defines how the Asian individual in Australia perceives being Asian-Australian.” As individuals, we don’t seem to think of ourselves in terms of race – that only happens when in contact with others who are not like us. Like the gentleman in the book store who saw race first over the individual when you said hello. Knowing that perhaps it is possible to identify and reduce racism by strengthening the presentation of the indivdual over race. (This last is rhetorical – it is obvious that you personally cherish individuality over race both in those whom you meet and in yourself.)

    Thank you again Mabel for your honesty and willingness to participate in this discussion.

    • Thanks for reading Paul, and thanks for your nice words too. I think you say it more elegantly than me: in a multicultural world, we should strengthen ‘the presentation of the individual over race”. At the same time, we’re very much drawn to difference, especially cultural difference. When we meet another person of a different race than us, I think a lot of us silently try to guess what their ethnicity is as we chat with them. It seems to be human nature to figure out someone’s background – it’s fascinating to us. Strengthening individuality over race starts with us being non-judgemental, in my opinion.

    • “As individuals, we don’t seem to think of ourselves in terms of race – that only happens when in contact with others who are not like us. ”
      Reminds you of Sreejit’s story from India, doesn’t it?

      Of course I’m not surprised by the depth and insight you bring yet again, Paul. Like Mabel, I took to the way you spoke on putting the person over his race.

      Bravo, Mabel:

      Strengthening individuality over race starts with us being non-judgemental, in my opinion.

  2. Dear Mabel:

    Thank you for sharing. Two things you said stood out for me: “Chinese Malaysian is similar to the term, say, Korean American.” This was helpful because being American, I instantly understood this distinction.
    “connect most easily with those who don’t judge me, say, based on my speech or dress. It’s their nonjudgmental attitude that makes me want to spend time with them. I like hanging with those who have strong opinions too and feel there’s something worth learning from determined minds.” I love this because so frequently, I find myself holding my tongue when it comes to sensitive topics. It is easy to avoid confrontation this way, but you put yourself out there, even enjoy the possibility of conflicting opinions for the sake for learning. So inspiring. Thank you. From you, I am reminded of the value of engaging in such discussions and widening my acquaintance to include those of divergent outlooks.

    Just wonderful.

    Fondly,
    Elizabeth

    • Thank you for your nice words, Elizabeth. Yes, I definitely sympathise with you there about holding back words when it comes to a conversation about sensitive topics. Race, religion, family…all often fall into the category of sensitive topics. So many sensitive topics are around us, actually.

      If we hold back our words, most likely we won’t insult the person we’re chatting with, especially if we have just met them. On the other hand, everyone deserves a right to an opinion and sometimes I do wonder if it’s worth staying silent on a sensitive issue knowing my perspective might offend. I guess we can always choose our words very, very carefully. If we put in the effort to be non-accusatory, there’s no reason why others won’t reflect on our perspective and engage in insightful discussions with us.

    • I found the Korean-American analogy helpful too, Elizabeth, as I had never heard of Chinese-Malaysians. Goes to show the art of communication over a subject matter that is new to the listener includes using paradigms familiar to him or her.

  3. “…we’re all culturally different, a beautiful thing. We should never judge others but embrace who we are as individuals.” Two thoughts that reach out to me, Mable. Cultural differences should be celebrated for the diversity they bring into our lives, not serve as a barrier to communication and source of prejudice. A very thoughtful blog. Thanks. –Curt

    • Thanks, Curt. Yes, we should definitely celebrate cultural difference. Educating others about diversity and what it has to offer should be championed too. There’s so much we can learn from diversity – culture, food, clothes and my favourite, why some of us live the way we do. We’re all people after all with dreams, hopes, problems and fears. One of the few things that truly differentiates us is our heritage. Because of this, I see no room for discrimination and prejudice today. Thanks for reading!

      • I appreciated what you had to say Mabel, and what Diana is trying to accomplish. I think the Internet provides a means of exploring our differences, celebrating who we are, and coming to understand how very similar we are as well. –Curt

  4. More fantastic-ness from this ground-breaking series!

    It’s as though with each new read, I get to open my eyes and heart center a little bit more, seeing through the illusion that different languages, cultures, histories could ever make us justifiably different … I still don’t see how this could be true?

    Thanks to you, Mabel, for sharing a bit of your history, thoughts, feeling, and Self here.

    And, once more, to the lovely Diana for creating such an incredible forum on race and identity.

    Simply brilliant work, D.!

    K.

    • Thanks for reading, Obzervashunal. We’re all very different, but we’re very much the same too in many ways. Race and identity are often big parts of us, but our personalities, tastes, dreams and hopes…are also what makes us, us. I think a lot of the time so many of us don’t realise or forget about the latter.

      Yes, thanks to the lovely, awesome Diana for creating this outstanding forum *applauds*

      • Thanks for replying, Mabel. My hope is that I live to see a radical global shift, the kind where we, all of us, actively seek out ways to celebrate each other simply because we can… perhaps we are in the midst of that revolution right now?

      • It takes a bright, hopeful Soul to know one!

        And yes, I dare to believe we are in the midst of a very singular moment in recorded history… see ya on the other side!

  5. This honest assessment has made me very sad. I’m ashamed as a Caucasian Australian of those who made you feel that way. It’s certainly not the way I was brought up where my parents embraced everyone who came into our home regardless of their ethnicity. So it was with surprise I found reverse racism when I lived and worked in Asia. I found out that there were reasons for their attitude toward me. Some of it was inbuilt racial prejudice against Caucasians and some of it was because of their colonial experience where they were treated badly by the system imposed on them. I understood and sympathised so made it my business to make friends with those who felt that way toward me. It took time, but it was worth the effort because I have such a lot of Asian friends today. Looking forward I’m told that eventually Australia will become a Eurasian nation so hang in there. The culture is gradually changing.

    • So sorry to hear that you feel sad about this. Don’t, it really isn’t your fault. I am inclined to think that those who put down others based on their race are just a minority in our community and most of the time it’s due to a lack of education. Almost a decade later back in Australia, I’ve met very lovely Caucasian Australians who are eager to get to know me and my background, and of course work together.

      Thanks for sharing about your time in Asia. Not too surprised to hear that there is still some form of discrimination in Asia towards Caucasians. You’re so right. Some here are still all too familiar with white domination in the colonial era. I do think the tide has turned significantly in Asia in the last decade. People here are more accepting and welcoming of European and American expatriates, though you still hear some locals grumbling about this. As for Australia, I think we’re getting there. Thanks for reading!

      • “Multicultural Australia” is a recent phenomenon for us as a nation (think the last decade or two). Time and time again Australia has been popularly labelled as “a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities” or a “multicultural melting pot”. Not too sure if I feel comfortable with these terms as they arguably imply Australia is a society where diverse races live, live under a mono, assimilated culture.

        We have a long way to go to becoming a diverse nation where we respect each other’s cultures and backgrounds.

      • ““a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities” or a “multicultural melting pot”. Not too sure if I feel comfortable with these terms as they arguably imply Australia is a society where diverse races live, live under a mono, assimilated culture.”

        Huh. Could you elaborate a bit, M? You might be echoing Paul on the homogeneity he spoke of. I would think that “melting” means mix. Are you saying you don’t think it’s really a mix of cultures or that you’re afraid we will mix to the point of becoming a monoculture and losing our distinctions?

      • We, in Canada, have also been adapting to an increase in cultural diversity. Our big neighbor to the south (the US) employs a cultural adaptation technique they label as “melting pot”, with which they attempt to achieve a certain homgeneity. This has not worked particularly well for us (likely because of our larger land mass and lower population) and so instead we tried the “mosaic” approach which expects and encourages and even celebrates differences. So, even though there are innumerable pockets of different cultures, we manage to find enough commonness to successfully create a thriving economy and country. (But don’t, for God’s sake, ask a Canadian to define their country – many bottles of wine and cases of beer later, everyone will be asleep, only to rise again the next day to continue the debate. Ha!)

  6. “My first language is English and I think and speak in this language.”

    To me (and this is just my opinion—which is all that matters 😉 –you should have embraced)
    But as a fan of the musical, “South Pacific”, and as a West Coast Navy Man, well…I may be biased.
    HW,
    This is a wonderful project.
    I am loving it.
    My only regret is that my “South Pacific” experiences were not as noble.
    (I was a Sailor, after all.)
    Yes,Rambling, but you are good.

    • Thanks, Lance. I’ve always been loud and proud about speaking English as my first language. Even in front of people who think otherwise. Even up until today in Australia, I get people – Caucasian Australians and Asian Australians who speak with the broad Aussie accent – speaking slowly and loudly at me when we meet for the very first time. Assuming I am not very fluent in English at all. Definitely not a pleasant experience but it never stops me from politely talking to them in none other than English.

      I can’t see how your “South Pacific” experiences aren’t as noble. I’m sure they are in every aspect. And as a Sailor, I’m sure you have lots of tales to tell far and wide 🙂

      • “get people – Caucasian Australians and Asian Australians who speak with the broad Aussie accent – speaking slowly and loudly at me when we meet for the very first time”

        Omg, that’s terrible, M. I would be offended.
        And Lance indeed does have many a tale to tell, from land and sea.

  7. Reblogged this on Mabel Kwong and commented:
    Normally I don’t do reblogs, but today I want to share A Holistic’s Journey’s ‘RACE Around The World’. Check out all the submissions about race and identity, worth reading!

  8. Hi Mabel & Holistic Treasury
    Thank you, Mabel for sharing this. I did not realize we have so many similarities. Reading the first part of your article …..”My grandparents – and many generations before them – were born in Malaysia. My relatives and extended family don’t know where our ancestors originated. We don’t talk about Chinese history but the history of Malaysia. We’ve always considered ourselves Chinese people living in Malaysia. We don’t identify with China the country but with Chinese culture.” that is exactly me. I cannot read or write chinese and when I migrated to NZ, I actually felt neither here nor there, I look Asian and because there are so many Chinese (from China) living here in NZ most thought I am from China but I do not relate much with them except I do speak some Mandarin. I believe Malaysians/Singaporeans migrants do not really clique or mingle just amongst themselves and that is one good thing so I am friends with anyone irrespective of color. It is a blessing we can speak English and educated in English makes it a lot easier to mix and mingle in a foreign country. BTW I always enjoyed your posts, Mabel. It must be the Malaysian/Singaporean connection and we are not too far away, you in Aust and me in NZ. 🙂

    • Thank you Little Borneo GIrl for stopping by and reading. I have come across so many Singaporeans and Malaysians old and young who get VERY annoyed when they are asked if they are from China. It’s almost as if that they are ashamed of being associated with China the country – but of course not Chinese culture.

      Over the last decade, there has been an increasing number of foreign workers from China migrating to Singapore and Malaysia to work. If you read the news, these China workers are often put down one way or another by their host country – the media accuses them of criminal acts and even talking too loudly on the trains. It’s as if Chinese Singaporeans/Malaysians loathe the Chinese from China. Which is bizarre given that both groups share the same culture. This doesn’t seem to be the case in Australia, though. The Chinese from China and Chinese from Singapore/Malaysia get along just fine, from my experiences.

      I’ve always loved your blog too, Little Borneo Girl. Maybe it’s the Malaysian connection but I’m also inclined to think we have similar interests too. Hope to meet you someday 🙂

  9. Hmmm…I’m a white Australian and I think Asians are racist too, but doesn’t stop me from conversing with them even if some have been futile. I think in order to combat racism you need to stand up for yourself. I was talking to this asian friend at uni and I asked him if he was going to the uni bar event and he said “isn’t it where white people go? all the asians go to unsw”. How can you stop racism and ignorance from both sides if you self segregate? I always see asians including indians only sticking with other asians/indians and people say “oh we share the same culture” but that’s a load of crap, if you are born in Australia you are pretty much surrounded by western culture as I have found out by talking to asians, apart from maybe sport lol…but in other words your oriental homelife is a small % of your whole life.

    • Thanks for your honesty, Curious. You bring a very interesting perspective to this. Definitely, Asians actively choosing to mingle with their own ethnicity like in the story you shared is quite common in Australia, and racist. However there could be other reasons why Asians don’t want to hang around other races. Maybe they are intimidated by the other cultures’ typical mannerisms. Or afraid. For instance, once my Asian hairdresser told me she was afraid of giving Anglo-Australian men haircuts as they were “big and talk loudly”. Education is the way to go to get us all to hang out together. And maybe just going up to each other and saying “Hi”.

      • While I have no problem with the probable thought that Asians are racist just like any other group (or rather, that they are racist folks among Asians), M brings up a good point. That we never can assume the motives behind someone’s behavior. People do often act from fear. And in writing my parts 1-3, I realized the tendency of Asians to cluster among themselves might actually be one face of the fierce loyalty they are capable of in various situations; they are simply starting with their own people.

  10. So your starting paragraph alone was informative and enlightening. And I obviously had not been familiar with the term “Asian Australian”. I can relate: “I’ve always felt too Asian to be Australian and too Australian to be Asian.” But in my case, I shared that I’ve come to feel more American and more Korean at the same time, more so than ever. I appreciate that and am glad you came to relax into and embrace who you are, esp the Asian you. You seem to enjoy studying and engaging people very much and keep thoughtful in the many things to learn from what they can offer. Seems you also gently teach them a great deal as well. Thanks for putting your heart into this, Mabel.

    • Thanks, D. You’re too kind, as always. It’s been a while since I’ve written anything related to being an Asian Australian and I’m glad your forum encouraged me to do it once again. Being Asian Australian, or Japanese British, Korean American etc.., I think our feelings of “Asianness”, “American-ness” etc. ever stay static; sometimes we feel one over the other, and as you pointed out maybe at the same time. I have yet to experience the latter and I hope so someday. The journey is mine to make. You’re right: I love studying things/people around me and maybe that’s why I’ve always been attracted to academia and it comes through in my writing quite a bit. But I’ve never made it my point to teach – teaching is great thing of course, moulding minds! – but just to share.

      “a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities” or a “multicultural melting pot”. Not too sure if I feel comfortable with these terms as they arguably imply Australia is a society where diverse races live, live under a mono, assimilated culture.”

      I wanted to reply to your question above but WordPress won’t let me, so I will do it here. By “melting pot”, yes, I was thinking along the lines of us all mixing and living under a monoculture until we forget our individual cultures. When “melting pot” is used in academic terms in Australia, it connotes all of us mixing and living together harmoniously – living within an Anglo-esque monoculture. This is just my analogy: usually a big ladel or spoon is used to stir a pot of food. In Australian melting pot terms, it’s a white hand that holds the ladel, stirs the pot and controls the appearance of the final dish.

      • No, I didn’t feel or mean that you taught your reflections proactively. I just meant you naturally share.

        Interesting way of elaborating on the melting pot.

        “The journey is mine to make.” Love it.

  11. Lovely, post, very interesting, I really learned something new here. D, this series has taught me a lot about how much I don’t know about racism. Sometimes you can feel like it’s just you, racism is happening too and it narrows your perspective. Also, it exposes my own biased attitudes about race. Mabel, that part where you wrote, “She looked at me condescendingly, brows furrowed, eyes narrowed.” This just broke my heart, because I remember that look, and that was preschool? Wow!!! Thanks for being so candid, and for reminding me that racism shows it’s ugly head to everyone.

    • Thanks, Shazza. Yup, that was in pre-school. Interesting to hear that you remember that look too. Racism definitely narrows our perspective. If we’re being racist, usually we look at a certain race based on our assumptions and stereotypes of them. If we’re on the receiving end of racism, there is every possibility we might be scarred for life from this experience and never look at a certain race the same way again. So racism has the potential to affect the mentality of two groups, in a negative way in the context of culture. It’s great that you’re discussing tihs. Thank you for your insightful comment.

  12. Reblogged this on Musings&Rants and commented:
    This post is exceptional, it has much teach about race relations, with it’s in-depth storyline, in regards to a Mabel, Chinese-Malaysian in Australia, is riveting. Another whopper from Holistiic Wayfarer…

  13. Hi Mabel I found your post. It gave me some real insight into why you understand my feelings so well. Although the ethnicities of our background are quite different our journey from one world to another is very similar. I was excited to hear that you had the experience of people wanting to be friends with the new person from another place. I know Australia is considered an exotic location by many people and I guess the places I moved in from were nowhere near as exciting. I’m glad I found your post in the race and I appreciate the chance to catch up on some the details of your life. I hope we will speak again.
    Alex

    • Thanks, Alex. Yes, our backgrounds are very different and we live in different parts of the world. It’s funny how we have so many similarities and feelings about our culture. I think a lot of us in this world are closer than we think. All we have to do is pluck up the courage, put our assumptions about one another beyond us and chat to one another about who we are and what we do.

      This is the first time I’ve heard someone describe Australia as an exotic location – but quite rightful exotic as we’re located almost near the south pole and a nation of migrants. I’m sure the places you’ve lived in are equally exciting as mine and everyone else’s – each place has a story to tell and each person living in a certain place has a different one to tell too. Very nice to have connected and hope to see you around.

    • Thanks for reading and the nice words, Ruth. I hope you enjoyed it and found something meaningful about what I wrote. If we are from the same country, go to the same school, share the same interests and eat the same food, there is a high chance we won’t have the same experiences and stories to tell. Which is what makes us all interesting as people. I had a look at your blog, you do have very interesting cultural stories there. Keep up the good work.

  14. Reblogged this on 2l2phant and commented:
    ***applauding***
    Bravo!!!

    One of my favorite lines: “This exercise reminded me we’re all culturally different, a beautiful thing. We should never judge others but embrace who we are as individuals.”

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