We know what we go through: the instances of blatant and covert racism, the innocent remarks that cut through us like a lightsabre to the eye.
The countless times we have attempted to educate unhearing ears, our invisibility in popular Western media, stereotypes, loss of identity, cultural appropriation, the never-ending “fight” for the barest right to be treated as fellow human beings in a country that resists us…
I have no problem with this urge to fight and resist. In fact, I encourage it; but as that battle rages on, it begs these series of questions: Who are we becoming? Are we still “Asian Australian”? What exactly encompasses this label? Perhaps we are collectively evolving to the point where these labels and descriptions of “us” no longer defines “me”? If our descriptions of “me” and “us” are constantly changing, then what truly, concretely, defines “us”? What future are we making? What do we fight for?
I have met many people fighting this good fight who descend into their studies and ideologies, convinced that their goals will be for the greater good. I see them argue over jargon and semantics to somehow allay misconceptions of the definition of some concept or thing, arguing in circles before reaching an actual half-hearted solution. While not the case with everyone, I have observed many succumb to this cycle of definition-juggling and dictionary-flipping.
We are so ready to label ourselves one thing or another. The specific set of names or words that best describes our experience, suffering, and livelihood. We want so much to belong that we become dead-set in our search for an “identity”. Something that we can call ourselves with pride.
We are so caught up in the “fight” we barely ever consider what the future will look like for the others. We have not agreed on a collective or universal plan to achieve this equality or equity, so now we see people fighting for themselves, for their own voices, for the rights of their own in-group. Desperately trying to have their individual voices heard or to have the voices of like-minded people heard. Have you ever heard the sound of an unsynchronised orchestra? That’s the sound we collectively make.
In his book “Quantum Psychology,” Robert Anton Wilson uses a metaphor which I have adapted. Look at a world Atlas. Do you see Australia? Good. When someone asks you “what’s Australia?” would you have pointed to Australia on the map?
I mention this metaphor because sometimes we forget that it’s just a map. We can see its geographical shape and placement on Earth but can we see its cities, can we see its people, can we see the individual and collective struggle, joy and sadness? No, we cannot. Yet we still call this shape on a map “Australia”.
What defines a country? Is Australia defined by its geographical shape or location? Its people? Its customs? Its laws? Who makes that decision?
We start obsessing over what a label “means” or who has the right to call themselves that label. We argue back and forth over its meaning, connotation and various applications, but they are just words. Names, jargon, all of which are like maps that do not accurately reflect the entire complexity of the thing so-described.
Here’s the secret: You existed before your name. Your name did not exist before you. Your name or label or whatever you wish to describe yourself in a given context does not describe the holistic “you”.
There is a NASA-built craft called the Voyager 1. As of 2012, it has left our solar system with a golden record containing 116 images meant to portray life and history on Earth. It took this voyage 35 years to leave our solar system with these images that portray Earth up to 1977. The purpose of this intergalactic time capsule was to “introduce” ourselves to possible alien beings. It is a haunting series of images for me to see. Our lives, stories, and history reflected in this small collection of random images compiled by one particular group of people. As an alien, I would have made so many assumptions about any one of these images. Would I have created an accurate representation of Earthly life considering how I, as an alien, with my own norms and languages might think?
I can firmly say, absolutely not.
I can argue that we are all aliens to the worlds of others. People constantly seem to forget that the images of one another’s rich inner worlds are not the same as the worlds themselves.
Yet, we imagine we know everything.
In a way, we do know everything because this “everything” we know is our everything. Think of a goldfish in an opaque aquarium. Perhaps this goldfish is mutant and is capable of human thoughts. It would think: Wow, the world is big as! while being completely unaware of the rest of the world outside of this rectangular coffin of Plexiglass, because it has no other basis for comparison.
We do not know what we do not know, so we assume the known is all there is.
We even have a word for the things we don’t know: “the unknown”. A good umbrella term that acts like the “Miscellaneous” section of a library. Having a name for that infinite expanse of unknown knowledge, such as the term “the unknown”, has a pacifying effect on us. There’s a term for it, so technically we “know” it.
I do not presume to say that people don’t know that they don’t know things, only that when we are creating our perception of the world around us, we tend to forget.
There is currently no way of truly understanding another human being’s perspective of the world. Even the modern study of the mind, psychology, is young in its current form, full of unquestioned assumptions and heavy attempts to acquiesce to an increasingly demanding scientific world with its array of categorisations.
We study and learn, trying to find theories and statements that can be applied to the wider human population. We try very hard to limit variables and the uncontrollable, but every study done on the human mind is rife with unspoken, extraneous variables, differing from one scientist to another, one country to another, one philosopher to another, and one person to another.
These studies themselves are misconstrued and twisted to serve other motives. Whether to sell a magazine or generate shock value, the study of the mind has been diluted and dispersed to the general population for the purpose of grabbing our attention. People forget about the intricate nature of statistics and the ambiguity of the conclusions drawn, so they take these supposed experts’ quoted words and recite it to their friends as truth.
“Oh a study found that women are smarter than men, can you believe it?” What Johnny Layperson doesn’t know is that that study was done only on a sample of Caucasian individuals, in English, on a small population group aged 18 – 25, and that the study found only higher functioning in a certain area of the brain which does not necessarily mean higher intelligence. If you look up the psychological definition of intelligence, you may be able to ascertain how even its definition brings about semantic problems.
So Mr. Layperson recites this one study’s findings as gospel truth, reiterating to others in his life who put too much faith in the voice of media. This misunderstanding may generate interest in the general population, in turn generating more studies on the issue, of which only a select few reach the ears of the population simply because these small studies agree with the “common sense” of the collective mindset, conclusions already drawn, whether or not they are actually generalizable beyond the contexts of these specific studies.
In our daily lives we are susceptible to a number of perceptual biases. Many reputable meta-studies have found that people are very likely to blame another person’s personality for the happenings of a single instance, or to make erroneous assumptions about culpability for particular events, as experienced by an individual, to a wider group.
“Confirmation bias” is a term in psychology that is defined as a person’s tendency to interpret and therefore recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses, while giving much less consideration to other alternatives. This bias extends further to affect our ability to judge situations and people objectively. We immediately want to think of what “fits” our theories, not what is truly happening.
Say, you see a person yelling at their child. We think that’s wrong, so we immediately think, “What a horrible parent, you shouldn’t yell at your child like that.” Perhaps, like-minded parents understand that frustration. That moment wherein your logic and rationale just waste away into an uncontrollable ball of rage, because your kid refuses to listen, you’ve just lost your job, your mortgage is due, you can’t pay for it, and you think your entire life is crumbling to pieces. So here you are standing in a grocery line watching your kid crying, grieving, wailing, for a new… I don’t know, Hulk toy.
“Mummy I hate you! I want that toy! If I don’t get it then I hate you, you’re horrible!”
So you snap and yell at your child. Other people who watch you think: What a horrible parent.
How long did it take to come up with a judgement of another person from this one single incident? Some might say “it’s not a judgement, it’s a factual observation”. Factual observation that is complete and objective can never be done within a few minutes of meeting someone. Even hours, even days, even years. No matter what body language book you have read or theories you have cooked up, you cannot see a person’s entire life, you can only ever assume.
Even if you spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week with someone, you still won’t know them 100% because we have an even richer world in our heads. Constantly thinking, changing, wondering, feeling.
Yet we have this need to make everything make sense. We live by our theories. If someone yells at their child, they must be an awful person because only awful people yell at their children.
Again, we cannot see the whole picture.
We can barely understand our own minds, let alone others’. We constantly change and constantly learn, we will never truly be “ourselves” until our dying breath. We know this, right? We know that we constantly change yet we forget that others can change, as well. We hold them by a single or multiple labels that forever define “them” and define “us”.
The world (as it appears to me) is a complex web of innumerable networks and subnetworks of events and choices, causes and effects, ripples and waves throughout history and in our future and all at once.
In modern society, we are taught, and arguably biologically wired to categorise things into neat little boxes that we can refer to in order to make more complex thoughts. It is impossible for us to see the various causes, ripples and consequent effects in our lives, but we naturally want to figure out some sort of logic, theorem or mode of thinking to make sense of this chaotic world that will fit our own unique way of thinking.
However, “theory and ointment will stick to anything”. Anyone can make up a theory and provide examples for why it’s true. I think all swans are black. Why? Well obviously because I’ve only ever seen black swans. But what about that white swan over there? Oh that must be a mutant swan because all swans are black.
We fulfil these theories for ourselves by picking and choosing events that fit our perception of the world based on our own experiences. This reinforces the safety of feeling like we are in control. That we can predict the outcome and reasoning behind most things in life. When we cannot figure it out, we come up with excuses to repress what we do not know or do not agree with.
Sometimes, this is good for us because it “fills in the blanks” which allows for more creative and ambiguous thinking. Sometimes, it’s not as good. As anyone who has ever played a game of Madlibs understands, the words you put into those blanks define how the story is told.
This is a neat and effective way of thinking that allows us to make predictions and assumptions that drives us further into advancing. It further helps us because it conveniently misplaces the memories, concepts and ideas that we don’t want to think about. This allows us to continue to be sane.
This evolutionary trait now pushes us to want to categorise ourselves. The label “human” is not enough for us. We have complicated social orders, rules, and traditions that make us who we are. We are proud of it (or at least want to feel pride in it) so we want a name, a label, to separate ourselves clearly from people who do not understand and whom we assume wish harm on us for these differences.
We constantly search for clear definitions to define “us” which, by association, defines what is not us: “them”. There is a clear boundary that we have created between ourselves to separate and categorise people into easily digestible chunks. So we know who to avoid and who to stand with within the first couple of minutes of meeting them.
It unfortunately so happens that our physical behaviour and appearance is the fastest way for us to make these quick judgements. To quickly ascertain potential “predators” that can physically or mentally hurt “us”. Which is fine, as a defence mechanism, but when we feel threatened we lash out and fight. Who are “they” to tell “us” who we are, what to do, why we are here?
However, as the alien that I imagine myself to be, I see us fighting, yelling, thinking one side is right and the other is wrong. We have an enemy to fight and that drives us to keep going. It gives us purpose, power and cohesion. We have to think black and white or else we lose confidence in the definition of “enemy” and thus lose our drive to fight. If we don’t think we’re right or at least, feel justified, then why do it at all?
With this constant labelling and this perpetual division of human beings based on uncontrollable factors (such as race, physical appearance, age, clothing, culture), I am truly afraid. I am afraid of what this collective energy will elicit in the future. It may be necessary now but who will we become? I’m not talking about “us” Asian-Australians, or Australians, or Indonesians or people of colour (POCs)… I’m talking about “us”: Humankind.
Here’s an example: Many people have a problem with the over-enthusiastic, so-called “social justice warriors”, or “SJWs”, which is an awful word/label that discourages many to speak out. This term is a pejorative way to refer to people who take their ideas of social justice “too far”. What happens when one group of people decides another group of people are SJWs? Suddenly, those that speak for the subject shared by the over-enthusiastic becomes mislabelled erroneously as the actions of an SJW. A label rife with negative connotations. When in fact, these ideas are important and reasonable. A simple label to describe the actions of the few now becomes a weapon to discourage a message disagreed upon by some.
If we continue to label particular groups of people, what do we misunderstand as a result of these labels? How may these groups of people become the targets of our misplaced anger? What violence, judgement, hatred and vilification can occur from viewing anything that does not fit our idea of “us” as our enemies?
We all think that we think rationally and that we further surround ourselves with people who think like us. We limit the number of experiences with those of opposed thinking to generate relative cohesion, a place to “belong”. But our behaviour is not dictated by our rationality alone, it is dictated by a reactive combination of emotion, thought and morality, all of which differ from person to person. Yet it is these sets of behaviours that we constantly judge each other by.
In the end, what do we really know about each other, if at all?
How we define “us” is constantly changing, yet we hold ourselves so strongly to these labels that we are upset when it does not completely define us. We demand it encompasses more of ourselves and less of “them”. At the end of the day, your cultural identity and any other descriptive, is just one part of you. You’re not just Asian Australian, or Australian, or Asian, or Chinese, or Indonesian, or Filipino, or Vietnamese or Korean or Japanese or every other race or religion or country of origin or colour, you’re you.
This idea seems discouraging and perhaps detrimental to individual struggles against large forces acting on the world. You want to feel safe in knowing that what you think is right and there is no way for bigoted or close-minded minds to be “correct”.
This is not a question of who is right and who is wrong, because even those definitions are about choosing a side to topics and concepts that have multiple sides and details that we may never know. Further separated by our own concepts and opinions of moral good and bad. These differences among people will always be there. It is not within our power to change the minds of every person under the sky; that is simply not within our control.
When it comes to external forces acting on us, there is usually little we can do to get other people to stop being so close-minded or being just plain nasty. There is little we can do to teach the unteachable. When we preach, we preach mostly to the converted. The world is chaotic and uncontrollable a lot of the time, and we are feverishly trying to swim up the river of irrational collective thinking.
If you are an individual who believes we are all flowing in the indelible river of Fate, the statement can still hold true. Maybe there is Fate, maybe there is a single pre-conceived path we all follow and we cannot change. Even so, you cannot predict that change so realistically, you are still living in chaos.
However, what we can control, is how we choose to perceive it.
We are all trying to survive in this chaos. We are so scared of the unknown and incomprehensible that we act out with aggression and separation. When did we become so afraid of each other that we stopped believing we are all one mammalian species trying to survive in this tiny speck of a planet circling around a star? A star that is one of millions and billions in the great expanse of the universe with billions of other solar systems.
We perceive the optimal future differently and have different ideas on how to achieve it. Until we concretely and consciously understand that we are all, at the end of the day, one people on a rickety rock of a planet floating in a seemingly infinite expanse of vacuous space, we will continue to separate ourselves for one reason or another so that we can distract ourselves from the insanity that is the unknown.
This alien wants to see a world where difference is not met with anxious fear that leads to anxious rage that feeds anxious discrimination. I want to see a world where the opposite of how we think is not met with defensive resistance to protect the theories that we hold our sanity to, but rather a healthy curiosity that will attempt to understand everything we can first, before reacting. I want to see a world consciously aware of our humbling collective insignificance (and consequently inspiring individual significance) such that we stop jumping to judgement and relying on the idea that “we’re right and they’re wrong because they suck and we rule”.
I’ll end this long-winded ramble with an oftentimes misquoted phrase:
“Curiosity killed the cat, but knowledge brought it back.”
The Asian Australian Democracy Caucus (AADC) is a non-partisan organisation. One of our ongoing commitments is to contribute a monthly blog in collaboration with Peril magazine. To find out more about this collaboration read here. If you want more information or would like to write for us, get in touch with us, Jen Tsen Kwok or Shinen Wong at firstname.lastname@example.org