[7 July 2008]
“People never suspected you could be a racial minority and gay. Of course you’re not gay; you’re foreign.” Benjamin Law in “Towards Manhood”, Growing Up Asian in Australia
Australia’s relationship with Asian immigration is one of its less impressive features and a cause of tension from colonial times until today. After the influx of Chinese workers in the 1850s Gold Rush was met with antagonism and race riots, Asian immigration was curbed sharply. Restrictions on non-white migration were formalised in the 20th century and some remained in place until as late as the 1970s. This antagonism was originally couched in economic terms (Chinese workers undercutting on wages) but has more to do with old-fashioned racism and insecurity about Australia’s location in the Asian hemisphere.
As a consequence, the experience of Asian migrants both during the years of the “White Australia Policy” and subsequently has be tainted by rejection and sometimes violence. Children growing up in Australia have had to find their place in spite of cultural differences and opposition.
It’s not all racist taunts and rags-to-riches stories in Growing Up Asian in Australia (although they play their part). It’s about the whole experience of growing up between two worlds. Alice Pung, the author of her own idiosyncratic Asian-Australian memoir Unpolished Gem, has compiled an anthology that covers an astonishing amount of what it means to be Asian and Australian.
Pung has said before that she is interested in moving away from the stereotypical progress narrative of Asian-Western literature—family suffers from poverty and disadvantage only to overcome and achieve success in their new land. This is as clear in her selections as it was in her own book. There is racism, poverty and disadvantage. There is plenty of overcoming, too, but it’s only part of the story.
Far from a monolithic entity, the description Asian-Australian covers everything from the descendants of Gold Rush Chinese settlers through to new arrivals; from Indian to Filipino to Vietnamese. The works collected here represent that diversity well. There’s even the story of adoption from the point of view of a Caucasian mother, as well as Eurasians and people who came to Australia as adults.
Most of the pieces are non-fiction and prose, although Pung includes fiction, comics, and poetry. One section consists of interviews with high-profile Asian-Australians including Melbourne Lord Mayor John So, comedian Anh Do, and punk-rocker Quan Yeomans of Regurgitator. The quality is consistently high. Humour, self-awareness, and insight are in abundance.
A list of “high points” would have to include around four-fifths of the collection. Sunil Badami’s “Sticks and Stones and Such-like” tells of learning to love his Indian name in a deliciously off-beat style. Oliver Phommavanh spins a hilarious tale about trying to put his teachers off Thai food in “Hot and Spicy” (it involves excessive amounts of chili). Best of all, Jacqui Larkin’s “Baked Beans and Burnt Toast” is a genuinely heart-warming story of an encounter with a former playground tormentor.
In all of this variety, it’s tempting to look for common themes and a sort of Grand Asian-Australian Narrative. But Pung isn’t interested in that narrative and it would be a fruitless quest anyway. While there’s a strong sense of family and obligation in many of the stories, this is far from universal. The common thread, if anything, is “looking different”—the separation from the prevailing culture due to appearance. Even this varies depending on the environment and time period of the story. Growing up in Western Sydney in the ‘90s is very different to growing up in rural Queensland in the ‘50s for any number of reasons.
Even the sense of “otherness” is not simply due to being the only olive-skinned kid in the classroom. A lot of the stories feature children who are outsiders partly because they’re awkward or shy or un-athletic or queer. Perhaps it’s inevitable in a selection of creative types.
Many of the writers consider the mix of factors explicitly. They know that their heritage is important and has influenced who they are, but their struggles with family and belonging and identity go beyond genetics and nationality. A lot of the writers’ and their families’ quirks aren’t culturally-driven. As Joo-In Chew writes, “It wasn’t until I grew up and met lots of other Chinese people that I realised a lot of ‘Chinese’ things were just Dad things.”
For this reason, Growing Up Asian in Australia is likely to resonate with many non-Asians. In fact, anyone who has been bullied or excluded or felt that their family is weird will identify with many of these stories. The descriptions of other times and places in Australia’s recent past will also trigger a pleasant (and not-so-pleasant) nostalgia for those who grew up in the same era.
So Growing Up Asian in Australia is a multi-faceted gift: it’s an excellent encapsulation of the multitude of Asian-Australian experiences; it’s an effective summary of the struggles of outsiders; and it’s a funny and endearing read.
It’s also an introduction to a number of talented young writers, many of whom have little public profile even in Australia. With dozens of quality artists on display, you could spend most of the next year exploring their other work and keeping an eye out for their next move. The past may have been a tricky place for many of them, but their future is nothing but bright.