Issue Three: Oneself

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Even though I was born in Australia, and have grown to appreciate the diversity and prosperity in which this country has been blessed with, for a long period of time there was and still is part of me, which feels uncomfortable when I call myself an Australian. In fact calling myself Australian just doesn’t come naturally to me because that’s not the question people are looking to be answered as every time I’ve been asked a question about my background. I know it’s implicit about my ethnicity and parent’s background (which I know fully aware is mostly people’s curiosity and I am not implying racism in anyway just to be clear).

To be uplifted from a primary school where currently 96% plus of students are from a non-English speaking background, and where on the annual International Day celebrations, the line for “Australians” numbered in the mere dozens, and then to be thrown into a middle class school in north-west Sydney where white Australian students still represented a significant portion of the school population was nothing short of a lesson in on identity during one’s most important formative years.

In the world of high school playground politics where cliques and belonging is king, differences in background was brought to the forefront, and it was here that you were drilled into that you’re an “Asian”. One might be Australian born and bred but it didn’t matter. Labels were used for simplicity’s sake and because social groups are more likely than not to be drawn together by similarity in culture, labels like “Asians” and “Whites” were used as descriptors because it represented the reality of the situation as well as for simplicity’s sake.

For a high school kid in their teens, who has not been explicitly exposed to the fact that there are subset groups of Australians called “Australian Chinese” or “Australian born Chinese” as well as exposure to witnessing the gradual distinct identity formation of Australian born Asians. It became difficult to synthesize one’s own identity as there was always the pressure to fit in and be accepted by one’s peers, and it would’ve be nice to be labeled an honorary white or something like that by being just as good as them at sport or being cool enough, even though somehow all the Asians always ends up together in the same social groups anyway. However there was the niggling fact that you weren’t really like them, because you did not share the glue, which binds groups from cultures together of shared experience, which binds Australian born Asians together.

And for most part, media and culture has ingrained into us Aussies are white Anglos, and for most part, this is still the case when we look at media representing idyllic Australian life such as Home and Away and Neighbours, with the former representing the picture perfect Australian beachside suburb, full of blonde sun kissed surfers, and the latter a half an hour drive into one of the suburbs of the Hills Shire for those Sydneysiders who are in the know.

To call oneself simply an Australian, when people ask ‘Where are you from?’ or ‘What’s your background’ when coming from such a background and experience is to turn a blind eye to these experiences and facts, and diminishes the unique experiences one have experienced in shaping one’s identity and the wider collective experience. To push aside the societal forces, which have forced these situations upon us, to just to be accepted and win approval from the assimilationist feels a move that is lacking in awareness. It also feels like a defensive mechanism to prove doubters wrong and to throw up a defensive wall to simply say, “Yes I am Australian, I’m one of you guys! Take that cool white kids who gave me s*%# in high school”

Temporary approval might be won, and a few eyebrows might be raised, but it would probably feel hollow.

This is why terms such as Australian born Chinese (ABC) or Australian born Vietnamese (ABV) holds such weight and importance and helps so much with solidifying who we are. It might be obvious, and I’m sure many of us are increasingly becoming aware of the solidification of the Australian born Asian identity as a group distinct from our parents as well as other Australians as we come of age, and many Australian born Asians are conscious enough to add a note stating: ‘but I was born here’ when answering questions about one’s background. But these terms carry the collective history and shared experience of all of us. It is why there are Wikipedia articles specifically for each minority group in the world because labels such as Australian just might be too broad, and even though politically we are all Australian, the word for us does not reflect one’s collective experience and culture but instead the culture and experience of another group.

This is why for now, I will only answer, “I’m Australian” whilst overseas and I bump into another Aussie.