Growing up Asian in Australia

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By John Kerrens (Edited by Alice Pung)

Most of us have probably formed opinions – both stereotypical and otherwise – about “Asians”  (a broad umbrella if there ever was one) in Australia. Many Anglo-Australians have strong opinions about Asian  immigration, without necessarily knowing anyone from such a background. Sometimes the two groups appear to have existed as Quebec-style  “Two Solitudes”; never significantly crossing paths.  This is bound to change over time.

Alice Pung has compiled and edited a wonderful collection of stories, of Asians living in Australia. As the back cover blurb rightly states:  “Asian-Australians have often been written about by outsiders, as outsiders”. “Growing up Asian in Australia” corrects this by having people from various backgrounds tell their own stories. Some of the contributors are well-known:  Kylie Kwong, Anh Do, Jenny Kee and others. The
rest span a whole range of professions and activities; from primary school students to corporate high-flyers, home-makers and entertainers among others.

It certainly wasn’t always easy. Even without the issues of racism and language difficulties, settling into a new, very different culture, has its challenges. Simon Tong, in his article, recalls,  “The sum total of what I  knew about Australia came to three things:  It had an opera house, kangaroos and Australians spoke the dreaded English.”

It is also interesting to gain a closer knowledge of the everyday lives of Asian families.  While there may be the occasional “Dragon Mother” or fiercely authoritarian father, the children of Asian migrants have in many ways had the hardest row to hoe.  But they have also – as kids tend to do – immersed themselves deeper in the new, alien culture, and with greater ease than their parents.

Although children find it easier to learn a new language and new customs, they also tend to receive a more thoughtless and open racism. One contributor described his first day at school, surrounded by his Anglo class-mates firing questions and comments at him: ”Do you eat dogs?”; “Do you eat raw fish?”; “Ching-chong Chinaman”, etc.  Effectively deprived of speech, he was “stripped of my dignity and personality as well. My ethnicity made me conspicuous but  my reticence made me invisible.”  As another contributor wrote:  “My
parents met Australia when they started work and I met Australia in the school playground.”

There were also unique problems for migrant families. Traditional patriarchal/authoritarian parents were often frustrated and angered by the casual ways of Australian families.  Aussie kids talked back to their parents, called elders by first name, stayed out all night with friends and were not especially mindful of old traditions. No doubt many younger Asians found the more laconic, easy-going attitude of Aussie families preferable to what they sometimes perceived as the stultifying culture of their parents.  And of course they weren’t all happy. One Vietnam-born contributor described his communist mother and father:  “They were shit parents. And they had plastic fruit in their fruitbowls.”    **Guffaw**

But it’s fun to read that these people we have both obsessed over and ignored can be humorous, troublesome, eccentric, affectionate, spiteful and temperamental. In other words, they’re typical Australians…

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