Merlynn Tong, multi-talented actor, performance maker and writer, participated in the Yum Chat discussion as a panelist, sharing her professional and personal experiences with the same frank, intelligent – and at times dark – humour that is a hallmark of her work.
Here she lets story do the talking, when reflecting on the panel discussion around the exoticisation of self and other.
You call me gorgeous; I gorge on your words. You. All blue eyes and blond hair, you all ice tray torso, golf ball eyes and yes of course, the sharp sharp nose. I devour and munch on your delicious praise. Clearly I struck gold- gold even down below. You coo, I moan.
Your big hands trace my mane. I love the colour of your hair, you whisper. How delicious your touch feels. This is my true integration into Australia. I have been here 2 years but I have never been with an Australian man, a non-Asian man. Tonight is my formal inauguration into this country, this beautiful wide country that I am falling so madly in love with. You are different to Asian men. Your hair seems softer, thinner, your chest so much bigger, your eyes so blue, two oceans sitting amongst golden soft sand. I wonder what it would be like if everyone I knew had different coloured eyes. Will I remember what colour they are? It never seems effective when I am given descriptions like That guy with the green eyes or That girl with the red hair. Those details slip and drop from my mind. Could it be that because I grew up with Singaporean folk, my brain is wired to remember alternatives like the shape of a nose, the bend of a lip and the curve of an eyelid?
He kisses my neck, then lower, lower. My eyes detect regrowth on his crown. Does this mean that he dyes his hair? The roots are a dirty mud brown. Well that’s unexpected. Why are his pubes gold? I thought I was with one of those always blond surfer-looking guys running on the beach in Tourism Australia ads that gets played on Singaporean TV. When I first arrived in my tiny University share house in Perth, I had imagined that most of my seven housemates would be surfers and I would spend weekends learning to ride the waves. It was a vast disappointment for me that none of them knew how to surf. In fact, only one could swim and almost all were farmers. However, I did enter an intriguing new realm of knowledge that was perhaps more authentically Australian (or at least, Perthian). I learnt about the process of gutting a kangaroo, having sheep as pets and appreciating farm fresh meat and eggs night after night. Just got this batch yesterday, darl. You’re a scrap of a thing aren’t ya? Here, have more!, bellows one of my housemate’s mother, an Amazonian woman who always arrived at our home with neat golden pigtails, a brazen smile, abundant energy and bags of meat and eggs – farm fresh. I adored her. I wonder again about the Aussie boys I saw in the ads. Maybe they dye their hair too. I wonder how common it is for CaucAsians to dye their hair since they are each gifted with their very own unique hair colour. But then again, who wouldn’t want to be blond?
I just love your skin, it’s, it’s so soft. That’s a tad odd; no one had ever said that to me before. Asians just have such soft skin. Okay. I guess we do. Do we? CaucAsian skin looks pretty damn soft. Like snow, or a coat of clouds. Back in Singapore we worship pale skin so much that many girls will not allow a kiss from the sun. For them, thick layers of sun block, an oversized umbrella and a plaster of pale foundation would be mandatory for an outing. Sitting in their shower at home are bottles of body wash crafted to lighten your skin. Paler and paler still, until we look like the CaucAsian women on the billboards of Orchard Road and on TV. I hear that this phenomenon is even more apparent in other Asian countries like Taiwan. I’ve always been dark skinned. I discovered at 22 that I was only three quarters Chinese. My grandmother had cheated on who I thought was my biological grandfather with an Indian man. When I found out, besides feeling a plethora of emotions, I also thought Ooooorrhhh – this explains my skin colour. My brother and I are a whole shade darker than our cousins. I was teased when I was younger. Other children calling me Orh lu lu, which can only be translated as black black so black. Later I started competing in field hockey and staking claim as the sporty girl. I would bake in the Singaporean beaches dotted with ships docking on the horizon. I would bake till my skin turned charcoal. Now I was the beachy and sporty one – even better.
F*ck you’re so slender, he murmurs as he holds my hipbones. His words were dripping with awe. I’ve always been worried about being too thin. Dinners at my relatives’ house would always entail multiple uncles and aunties berating me about my weight. Then they would commence the ritual of seeing who could pile more food on my rice bowl. One of my uncles would curl his thumb and index finger around the my wrist and say, See Merlynn, my fingers still can touch, next week when I see you, must put on more weight so my fingers cannot touch ok? After 27 years, I still have not accomplished this goal. I received all these eccentricities from my relatives as expressions of love. I do enjoy the attention bestowed upon me but sometimes, I wonder if I will ever put on enough weight to satisfy the family. A particularly mean friend of my mother’s once told her, You know, Merlynn is thinner than her disable cousin? That cousin that got problem in the head and need to use wheelchair one? Then you, you looking fatter than ever. Are you feeding Merlynn annot? Or you eating all her food? The friend laughed. Later, I remember my mother trying to wipe away tears and telling me You need to eat more girl. Eat more. Cannot embarrass me anymore ok? Then, she had a revelation, Maybe it’s not your fault. Maybe your stomach got worms. I was appalled by the thought of long worms taking residence inside me. I was even more horrified when we were at the health store buying the medication and I learnt how the pills had to be ‘inserted’ into me. After a series of motherly inspection and investigation, it was announced that I did not have worms.
His lips slide towards my chest. I wonder how I could match up to all the big busted women he must have been with. My breasts are minuscule- even for a Singaporean woman. I once found a bra store that declared me a B-cup instead of my usual A. I was fierce loyal customer from that moment and never entertained the idea of visiting another store for panties or push-up bras. The first time I was with a girl, I was amazed at the sensation of holding breasts bigger than mine. How luxurious it felt- full, proud and so spectacular. Mine are hardly worth a sideshow. She was Singaporean-Chinese too and hence, yes Asian, but I would not say she was slender. She had amazing curves, arches and peaks where it was not possible on my body. I suppose I should rejoice that my fake blond man considers my ‘slenderness’ attractive.
He climbs higher higher, reaching my face again. His ocean eyes gaze into mine. I love the almond shape of your eye. We were entering creepy corners. Who comments on a person’s ‘almond shape’ eyes? Isn’t every eye in the world almond shaped? If it weren’t, you would be an anime character with giant circular full moon eyes. Oh wait. CaucAsians have bigger eyes, so if my eyes are ‘almond’ and he likes it… Is he complimenting my Asian-ness? Does my six pack wonder have Yellow Fever? He keeps nibbling my skin at all the right spots; bit by bit I release my doubts.
I’m overwhelmed. You’re so beautiful I moan. He stops. I look up. What? What’s wrong? I ask. He cracks that stunning grin of his, he looks like a bloody TV star, and declares No, not at all, it’s just that I love your Asian accent. I clam up. What? I don’t have an accent. Ok, even if I have one, it’s not that strong. Is it? Well even if it is, it certainly isn’t ‘Asian’. I’m bloody Singaporean. In fact, I’m Singaporean-Chinese. No, as I recently unveiled, I am Singaporean-Chinese-Indian.
Asian girls are so sexy, he continues to coon. My body is the Sahara dessert. We have reached a cul-de-sac. I am morphing into a commodity that is tumbling slow motion into a pile labeled ‘ASIAN’. I pull away. I sit up, straight. Mastering my best ‘Asian’ accent for Mr. Almost Lucky, I say in my best Thai-Hong Kong-Japanese-Chinese-Indian impression, ME NO LIKEY YOU, GO NOW PREASE.