I’d like to thank the organisers of this conference for inviting me to speak, especially since I feel very unworthy of being up here. When Mridula first asked me to present a talk at this conference, I declined because I don’t feel I have sufficient expertise in Asian Australian Studies and identity politics to do so. I am so acutely aware that I am no Jacqueline Lo or Tseen Khoo, or any of the younger scholars who have presented such fascinating work on Asian Australian identities in recent years. Mridula, however, convinced me that my insufficient ‘wokeness’ did not preclude me from presenting a very particular and personal point of view on this topic, even if it may now be outdated and under-theorised. Then I looked at the list of topics for this conference, and I felt like an old relic that should be relegated to the archives. That was when I realized that I did indeed fit one of the themes of this conference: archiving Asian Australian identity.
So what does it mean to archive an Asian Australian identity? Am I that identity, the object of the archive, the object to be archived? Or am I the noun, the archive where something called ‘identity’, and another related entity called ‘Asian Australian’, are deposited? I am ageing and I certainly feel historical; I’m not sure whether my writings and my life experience are still relevant to other Asian Australians today – if, indeed, we can define such a group – or whether they should be quietly filed away in the archives, where other musty historical documents are kept. I feel a deep urgency to make way, make room, for the present, for all of you. So I need to file away my particular Asian Australian identity. But if I file my life away, which life, which ‘me’, which ‘identity’ do I store?
What I want to do in this essay is to present a conversation between three particular versions of myself: Dr Teo the academic, Hsu-Ming Teo the novelist and Ming the friend and family member. We want to discuss, argue over and interrogate each other about what Asian Australianness means to us and whether any version of us ever achieved it through our writings – creative and scholarly – and lived experiences, before compressing these critical and querulous conversations into a single historical file to be put away.
Because Dr Teo thinks she is the most assertive and authoritative among us (even though we believe she has the least expertise among us) she will begin.
What does it mean to be Asian Australian?
Dr Teo, academic
It’s true that I have the least expertise and, hence, authority to speak about Asian Australian identities. I don’t research the subject. My mind has been culturally colonised for the entirety of my education in Australia and continues to be so in my professional life. I have researched and taught European and American history – although admittedly from a postcolonial perspective – in Macquarie University’s Department of Modern History for 16 years, and I now teach English, American and Australian popular literature and creative writing in Macquarie’s Department of English.
I find myself in a position of extraordinary, unrepresentative privilege: after less than two years in the Department of English, my former Head of Department and the Dean of Arts asked me to take on the role of Head of the Department of English, and my colleagues within the department unanimously supported my appointment. Imagine that: a visibly Asian-looking Australian with a first and last name nobody can spell or pronounce (including other Chinese and Taiwanese nationals, who for reasons unknown frequently and annoyingly insist on replacing ‘Hsu’ with ‘Tsu’) is now the head and public face of a department of English literature. And here arises my other problem with credibility in talking about an Asian Australian experience: I’m not sure I have been sufficiently victimised and traumatised as a result of my race or ethnicity for my life experience to count as ‘Asian Australian.’
We live in an age that currently defines the most crucial aspects of identity-formation by its traumas, sufferings and exclusions. In her book Popular Trauma Culture: Selling the Pain of Others in the Mass Media (2011), Anne Rothe argues that the concept of trauma now provides ‘the dominant mode of emplotment – the basic narrative structure and core set of characters – for representing such diverse experiences as child abuse, Holocaust survival, war combat, terminal illness, and addiction in contemporary Western culture’, as well as the writing about identity groupings and ways of being (5, 8). In the words of Lauren Berlant, trauma has become a model ‘for having and remembering collective social experience’ (qtd. in Rothe 8). Let me be very clear: I certainly recognise that many people from minority and marginalized groups have suffered different kinds of trauma arising from racism and other forms of overt or aversive discrimination, and that these have had lasting effects – which validates the urgency of the continuing anti-racist activism of institutions such as Asian Australian Studies or Peril itself. What I’m interested in, however, is how this narrative has risen to overshadow other earlier forms of identity formation, and whether my life experience counts as ‘Asian Australian’ as a result. My current dilemma stems partly from the ways in which the notion and meaning of identity has changed over time.
In the premodern, pre-liberal Enlightenment world, identity was not primarily internalised; it was external, forged through social, economic and political relations. So: I am somebody’s daughter, sister, wife, or mother. Generally speaking, I am defined by my profession, my religion, my culture, but also by my gender, class, and race or ethnicity. I cannot simply decide who I am; other people need to recognise and acknowledge who I claim to be. This idea of identity began to change when the rise of the liberal self saw the cultivation of the private self that found full expression in what Jürgen Habermas called the ‘intimate sphere’ of the eighteenth century; a domestic space, says Berlant, ‘where persons produced the sense of their own private uniqueness, a sense of self which became a sense of citizenship only when it was abstracted and alienated in the nondomestic public sphere of liberal capitalist culture’ (111). One thing that the premodern and modern eras had in common was that public identity was still very much defined by actions and achievements – whether for good or ill. One has only to look at encyclopedia entries and national dictionaries of biography to see that during the rise and consolidation of the nation-state, when romanticised, triumphant (hi)stories were being emplotted about the nation, the same was often true for individual and group identities.
Today, we understand identity quite differently indeed. In the postmodern age of later consumer capitalism, we have a fundamentally contradictory notion of identity. We understand that identity is not thrust upon us by others, with all the limitations this implies, nor does it rest on what we ourselves achieve. We realise we can also choose identity, as we as discerning consumers have learned to choose between different products. We can also rehearse and perform identity according to social scripts. This idea of choice, of identity construction, is truly empowering: we can choose differently, learn different scripts, perform our identities differently. We are in control. Or are we? At the same time, we also understand that identity can be forcibly, fundamentally marked upon the body, intrinsically linked to sexuality, biology, and physiognomy, and also to our collective minority history. In this latter collective identity, individuation dissolves within the solvent of group experience. Especially for disadvantaged minority groups, we can be significant before we even do anything because of who we already are – our heritage, racial or ethnic or gender history, or our class or sexual identity. We don’t necessarily need to do; we simply need to be.
If these markers of our identity are denied or misrecognised, the experience can be traumatizing, and this trauma is compounded by experiences of exclusion and discrimination, of being marginalized and made to feel unheard and unseen when we yearn to belong to what Lauren Berlant calls the ‘shaken nation.’ In her caricature of the shaken nation,’ Berlant suggests that
a citizen is defined as a person traumatized by some aspect of life in the United States. Portraits and stories of citizen-victims – pathological, poignant, heroic, and grotesque – now permeate the political public sphere, putting on display a mass experience of economic insecurity, racial discord, class conflict, and sexual unease (106).
This inevitable extension of the second-wave feminist catch-cry that the personal is political is progressive in that it reveals the intersectionalities of different types of oppression due to complex knots of marginalizing identities. Perhaps it also arises from a profound unease with proclaiming and owning group achievements as a marker of individual identity, especially since, in the age of imperialism, achievements were slated home to the qualities, characteristics and cultures that supposedly defined ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ races. It is thus easier today to own collective suffering than to point to collective success as a significant context of individual identity formation, particularly when collective victimisation is experienced on the individual level, whereas collective success may not be.
Berlant argues that the consolidation of what she calls ‘the intimate public sphere’ can also serve conservative agendas by privatizing citizenship. She identifies ‘a rhetorical shift from a state-based and thus political identification with nationality to a culture-based concept of the nation as a site of integrated social membership,’ (110) and the state is called upon to mediate and resolve conflicting claims of unease with a social or cultural membership that seems unable to accommodate all the competing claims to belonging made upon it (Berlant 110). Among the loudest and most strident voices claiming trauma, injury, and exclusion are now those citizens who resent losing the privilege of being ‘unmarked’ racially and ethnically because they were the norm; of suddenly having racial or ethnic identities ascribed to them when, previously, it was ‘the others’ who had such identities (Berlant 110).
Translated to the Australian context, Gilbert Caluya argues that mainstream white Australian citizens may feel they have lost the feeling of belonging and homeliness when the intimate public sphere is invaded by the claims of nonwhite Australians to a stake in the national home, resulting in what he calls a loss of ‘intimate security’ (‘Domestic Belongings’ 204). If white Australians are traumatised, so too are nonwhite Australians and minority groups who experience discrimination, rejection and abandonment from the maternal state. Drawing from Anne Anlin Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race, Caluya calls for an academic investigation of ‘our wounded attachments’ and the ways in which the concept of ‘racial melancholia’ might help us understand how individuals and communities remain invested in maintaining these traumatic wounds inflicted by ‘psychodynamic processes of racial rejection and desire’ (‘The Aesthetics of Simplicity’ 88). Caluya’s call is compelling and opens up a new and potentially very fruitful avenue for future research into Asian Australian identities.
But the foregrounding of trauma wounds that are maintained in order to sustain ethnic identity immediately disqualifies me from having anything worthwhile to say about my experience of Asian Australian identity, especially in my professional field where my career trajectory could be emplotted according to the ‘model minority’ narrative – the polite (usually), law-abiding (mostly), high-achieving (depending on the category of evaluation), assimilated ethnic minority subject – rather than wounded trauma and survival. Being a model minority is often decried and denigrated within various ethnic studies, but I can’t deny it has worked for me. My question for Asian Australian Studies, then, is this: can Asian Australian Studies accommodate the experiences of the model minority, or is this only ever a pejorative term?
How can I possibly claim victimhood, exclusion, marginalization or discrimination on the basis of biological or cultural racism? I can’t, especially since older white academics at Macquarie University – both male and female – have been crucial to my professional success. In 1998 The late Professor Michael J.D. Roberts tracked me down in Odense, Denmark, where I was teaching, to offer me a job tutoring nineteenth-century European history at Macquarie and helped me with my postdoctoral fellowship application. While I was a postdoctoral fellow engaged in researching the popular culture of romantic love in Australia, Dr Trevor McLaughlin encouraged me to teach twentieth century European history with him so that I would be in a better position to take over the course when he retired. A feminist law professor, Donna Craig, with whom I worked on a university research grant assessment committee, coached me to prepare me for academic interviews because I was (and still am) so bad at the interview process. Another white feminist professor, Angela Woollacott, pushed for my appointment within the Department of Modern History and when I interviewed for a branch of history that wasn’t really my field, the white feminist Dean of Arts, Professor Christina Slade, told me that I wasn’t appointed because the position wasn’t a good fit for me, but that the all-white academic panel of recruiters agreed I should be offered a tenured job teaching European history. Professor Mary Spongberg was supportive and sponsored by promotion applications throughout my career in the Department of Modern History. When, in a peculiar version of a midlife career crisis, I wished to transfer to the Department of English at Macquarie University, it was again white female academics who helped me to do so: the Head of Department, Professor Antonina Harbus, my creative writing colleagues Associate Professor Jane Messer and Associate Professor Marcelle Freiman, and the Dean of Arts Professor Martina Mollering who approved the transfer and, incidentally, my appointment to the Head of the Department of English in 2019.
Now, I could perhaps analyse this career trajectory and look at all the ways I was extended a helping hand because I was an assimilated and acceptable model minority who ticked the boxes of being Asian and female – but why be so ungrateful and ungenerous to those who have been nothing but generous to me? Yes, there have certainly been occasions when I have experienced racism and discrimination within academia, but these moments are far outweighed by the support and collegiality I have experienced in Australia and with the American and Spanish colleagues I currently work with. Perhaps my professional experience is unique in this regard, but the point is: I have not been traumatised by institutional racism. Rather, I am extraordinarily privileged, and if to talk about an Asian Australian experience means talking trauma, then I’m not in a position to speak about anything Asian Australian from a professional perspective of either expertise or disadvantage.
But I also find it difficult to talk about Asian Australian identity because of the instability of the two terms on which such an identity rests – a point that has been made previously by other scholars and writers. The content of stereotyped Australianness in popular media representation has always been – and still remains – white. Apart from this, the concept of Australianness is unstable and imaginary, an ‘invented’ identity as so many national identities predicated on the nation-state are. It was invented (White) and has functioned as a ‘legend’ (Ward) or a myth that has always excluded others: women, Catholics, Indigenous peoples, nonwhite people, and the non-heteronormative. The content of this national identity and its values are constantly changing, so that what is stereotypically Australian now would be unrecognisable to white people living in this country over a century ago during the time of Federation, when Australia became a nation-state.
My second point is again well known: ‘Asia’ only exists as a concept outside a geographically amorphous and culturally and linguistically diverse region. As we all know, Asia as a concept has been produced historically through Orientalising discourses since classical antiquity (Said 1-2). There are no ‘Asians’ within ‘Asia’ – a region that, from north to south, spans the ‘stan’ countries of Central Asia to Indonesia (and maybe northern Australia), and from east to west, historically encompasses the Middle East to the Philippines. Categorising such a dizzying diversity of linguistic, cultural, religious, state and national groupings as a single entity – Asians inhabiting Asia – served the purposes of western powers during the age of empire. The construction of biologically and culturally inferior Asians was useful for justifying the exploitation of resources, and for establishing colonial governance in various parts of Asia. Racialising Asians also served the purpose of excluding Asian immigrants from white settler colonial countries such as Australia and the United States through a series of immigration restriction and exclusion acts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
It is true that people throughout the Asian region have accepted this nomenclature. If Asia as an idea was a politically useful conceptual weapon for western empires, this weapon proved double-edged, capable of being turned back and used against its original formulators. After decolonization, postcolonial nations made a geopolitical decision to continue identifying as Asian because such a move permitted collective responses to the economic, political and cultural legacies of western colonialism. Gayatri Spivak has called this a strategic use of essentialism and it is, of course, the basis of Asian Australian studies. It’s a vital and useful alliance of different groups and disciplines to push collective interests and draw attention to work that would otherwise be marginalised for lack of numerical strength and visibility within the Australian academy.
If national identity is indeed an everchanging myth, and if Asianness is a cultural construct that describes the process of racialization or ethnicization, or commercial commoditization, if it is an ongoing work in progress – as Jacqueline Lo, Tseen Khoo and Helen Gilbert, and Asian American scholars such as Lisa Lowe, David Leiwei Li, Patricia P. Chu and many others have argued – then it does seems logical that the point of studying Asian Australian identity is to mark its ongoing foreignness within the stereotypically white, unhyphenated Australian nation. So even though I am ambivalent and uncertain about whether I fully share the current conception of this identity, especially in its version of trauma and victimhood from a daily experience of overt discrimination and micro-aggressions, I believe strongly in the need to document and chart the evolution and transmutations of such an artificial identity. We do indeed need to research and write about the tangible professional, social, political, economic, psychic and emotional effects of Asian Australian identity on everyday life – for both the Asian and non-Asian Australian. In that case, it may be that Asian Australian Studies has no place – and should give no place, to a privileged model minority like me.
Ming, friend and family member
Dr Teo, I get what you’re saying, but Asianness is not a just a political, academic, commercial or cultural construct for me. It’s not a myth for me; it’s a lived experience. Being Asian Australian makes sense for me in a way that something more specific, such as Chinese Australian, simply doesn’t. Look at where my family and I come from.
Map produced by Nations Online Project: https://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/map_of_southeast_asia.htm
I was born in Petaling Jaya, a conurbation of Kuala Lumpur, in Malaysia. My mother is from Singapore and my father from Malaysia, originally from Mentakab in the state of Pahang. My father’s parents were Hokkiens from Hui An and Xiamen in Fujian province, China. For centuries, people from the coastal regions of Fujian province have tended to look eastwards and southwards, establishing trade and cultural exchanges across the Pacific Ocean and South China Sea, rather than inwards and northwards towards Beijing. My mother’s father was a Hakka – a guest person – probably from Fujian or Guangdong province where he and his migrant clan of Hakkas would have been regarded as outsiders. My mother’s mother grew up in Pontianak, the capital of the Indonesian state of West Kalimantan, before she married my grandfather and immigrated to Singapore. Her family was Peranakan, of Chinese and Dutch descent. Today, my extended family is scattered around the western world in Britain, the US, and Australia, but also around the rim of the South China Sea. I have relatives in Xiamen, Taipei, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and Jakarta.
Most of us are ethnically Chinese but we don’t identify with China – not even my second cousin in Xiamen who can tell you all about Chinese history and traditional Chinese culture before the Cultural Revolution, but who won’t say a word about present-day China. The relatives in Singapore identify as Chinese because the State racialises them into predominantly Chinese, Malays, Indians, Eurasians and others, but they take care to distinguish themselves from ‘the Mainlanders’ – Chinese from the People’s Republic of China. My relatives in Malaysia also identify as Chinese – all except for an aunt who was adopted out to a Malay family and considers herself a Malay Muslim who has proudly completed the Haj twice. Chinese Malaysians tell me that they are not like Chinese Singaporeans.
I suppose this particularity, this distinction of identities and belongings, within my extended family bears out your point, Dr Teo, that there is no Asia. But at the same time, given where I come from and where my family is located, being Asian seems much more appropriate – and much more fun – than trying to pinpoint an exact nation or location to prefix cultural identity. Adding to this, most of my close friends outside academia are also from various parts of Asia: Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, The Philippines, Sri Lanka, and one of my closest friends is an Indian from South Africa who came to Australia via Norway. We don’t think about what we look like when we hang out together, but we’re undoubtedly perceived as Asians and we’d probably be happy with that label too.
Yet if you were to ask us what constitutes us as Asians apart from how we look or where we come from, we’d probably be hard pressed to put it into words. I know this is what the American sociologist Kelly Chong also found when she interviewed Asian Americans about interethnic marriages: they couldn’t pinpoint the content of Asianness. Chong reports that her respondents generally characterise Asian values as ‘things like “respect of parents and elders,” “importance of family,” “hard work,” “being stoic,” “education,” “not talking back to grownups all the time,” or mundane practices like “taking off shoes inside the house”’ (65). Individual respondents, however, admit to being unsure about whether such practices are indeed Asian, ‘or just something our parents taught us’ (65). Chong concludes that we’re pretty much making up Asianness as we go along.
I think this fairly describes the Asianness of my particular group of friends. We agree that the one thing that distinguishes us as Asians, and that is both our burden and blessing to bear, is the value of filiality, or the constant consciousness of the duty we owe our parents – and the many ways we’re failing! I realise this is a huge generalisation, but it seems to hold true for many of the Asians I know, here or in the region. (And notice how I have extrapolated from my particular circle of friends to construct a group of ‘Asians’ generally!) But is filiality particularly Asian or does it simply characterise traditional collective societies as opposed to modern individualistic cultures? I don’t know, but I suspect the latter. At any rate, even though this seems like an Orientalising gesture, filiality seems to us what sets our generation apart as Asians from mainstream Australian society even though, like me, they are integrated fairly seamlessly into mainstream society.
Speaking of which, I guess I don’t have a problem with being Australian either. I totally agree that Australianness is reflexively white. When most people think about an Australian, they don’t think about someone who looks like me. I am marked as a hyphenated Australian and I have an identity – an Asian Australian identity. White Australians are not; they are ‘naturally’, stereotypically, unmarked Australians, many of whom seem increasingly aggrieved that in the reality of a postcolonial, multicultural society, they too are now marked with a racialized identity: white Australians.
But you know what? I don’t really care. I know I’m pretty assimilated in many ways because I only speak English. My parents believed they were immigrating from a structurally racist country, Malaysia, with occasional outbreaks of ethnic violence against Chinese and Indians during the 1960s, to another racist country which nevertheless offered opportunities to assimilated immigrants. They stopped speaking their dialects – Hokkien and Cantonese – at home and communicated only in English because they believed an excellent command of English and a good education and profession could overcome the disadvantages of racism. In my case they were right.
I’m assimilated into the Australian state, a citizen of this nation with political and legal rights and obligations, but I don’t feel assimilated into mainstream, stereotypical Australian culture of the sort spruiked by the government in tourism ads or by the deliberately engineered appeals to nationalistic ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie’ sentiment spruiked by commercial media such as Channel 7. If I had to take the citizenship test today, I’d probably fail the Don Bradman and other sporting questions. But I just don’t give a damn, because I know there are lots of other white Australians just like me. I don’t feel angsty about being a hyphenated Asian Australian. Jacqueline Lo, Olivia Khoo, and Helen Gilbert observe that ‘in the popular imaginary, “Asians” are usually located outside the nation space’ (qtd. Graham 68), but in my imaginary as well as in my real life, stereotypical Australianness is located outside of my daily space. In fact, I feel a mischievous, joyful, empowering passive aggressiveness that shrugs and says to all the Hansonites: I’m here, I’m Asian, I’m Australian, there are a lot of us, what are you going to do about it?
I asked you before to look at where I come from. Now I ask you to look at where I am, where I live. In Sydney, from the 2016 census figures, 28% of Sydneysiders have Asian ancestry – and that figure doesn’t include people from Middle Eastern backgrounds although, historically this region has also been considered Asia. In Burwood, which is 10 minutes’ drive from where I live, and in Strathfield, Ashfield, Hurstville, Wentworthville, Harris Park, Parramatta, Auburn, Liverpool, Camden, Cabramatta, and Eastwood and Epping near Macquarie University – the population is predominantly Asian. My point is this: in Sydney, at least, Asians are not marginalised. We predominate in many areas of the city, and if the national imaginary remains resolutely white, then it is not we who are peripheral to national culture; rather, this outdated fantasy of the white nation is peripheral to us, because we are the reality of our part of Australia.
And if we’re not sufficiently represented in popular culture, then perhaps it’s because of novelists such as Hsu-Ming Teo who insists on trying to write literary fiction with modest sales rather than turning to the blockbuster sales of a paranormal fantasy and romance author such as Nalini Singh who populates the space of the popular with Asian characters, thus normalising them as the protagonists of fiction.
Hsu-Ming Teo, novelist
Okay, I think this is my cue to step in and ruminate about being an Asian Australian writer. When I wrote my first novel, Love and Vertigo, I didn’t realise I was writing an Asian Australian novel. Wenche Ommundsen (2011) has observed this about many late 20th century Asian Australian writers: we didn’t know we were creating Asian Australian literature. I had simply finished my PhD dissertation on a topic in British imperial women’s history, I had spare time, and I wanted to read about somebody from my own background. I hadn’t read Amy Tan at that stage, but I had read Lilian Ng’s Silver Sister, Beth Yahp’s Crocodile Fury, and Brian Castro, of course. I didn’t set out to write an Asian Australian novel because I was writing about very specific histories: Singapore under the Japanese Occupation during the Second World War, the sectarian violence against Indians and Chinese in Malaysia during the 13 May 1969 incident, and the centripetal collapse of a patriarchal, diasporic Chinese family upon immigration to Sydney.
The story drew upon my parents’ timeline in Singapore, Malaysia, and migration to Australia, but it was not otherwise autobiographical. It drew upon my research into the history of the relevant periods, and upon oral interviews with relatives and my parents’ friends. It drew upon my then obsession with Milan Kundera and Chet Baker, it drew from my feminist scholarship into rape and sexual violence in German history, and it was framed around my aunt’s suicide as an inciting incident. I didn’t understand it as a migration novel or multicultural, Asian Australian novel until it was labelled that way. I had always conceived of it as a type of Sinicized Madame Bovary, with its exploration of romantic love (a theme Dr Teo continues to investigate in her research) mashed up with the dissection of a family that falls apart.
When the novel won The Australian/Vogel Literary Award, I didn’t question whether it had won because it ticked the multicultural-diversity box, although later I would wonder (and still do) about its literary merit after Robert Dessaix’s Australian Book Review article (qtd. Ommundsen 508) in which he claimed the writing of minority authors was simply not very good – even though Robert Dessaix himself had been one of my Vogel judges. This point about aesthetic merit is not a question that I’m particularly bothered by, incidentally. I find it intriguing, inspiring, maddening, and it ultimately fuels the third novel I’m writing, which is partly about whether a counter-tenor singer in early 20th century Melbourne and Shanghai cannot succeed in his career because he is part-Chinese, part-German, or whether he can’t succeed because he’s simply not good enough – especially in an age that exalted the big tenor voice of Grand Opera and found the counter-tenor voice outdated. I don’t feel offended by the question of literariness because I never wrote my first book as a literary novel to begin with (despite what Ming claims). I was aiming squarely for the middle-brow market because I started writing the novel as a story that my brother – who hates reading and probably hasn’t cracked a novel since Year 12 – might want to read. And he did. When I gave him the first four chapters and he finished reading them within a couple of days and asked for the next chapter, I knew that I was telling a story that someone ordinary, someone without a taste and patience for Capital L Literature, might want to read.
After Love and Vertigo was published, I did the rounds of literary festivals but I was too earnest and did not have the knack of easy entertainment. When I was corralled into a session titled Alien Nation at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival, I realised that the migrant story had elicited such a categorization, but I didn’t feel alien to this nation until I was put in a panel for people who didn’t belong. I also participated in a lot of multicultural panels even though I hadn’t thought of Love and Vertigo as multicultural; it was bicultural at best. But because of this, I then wanted to write what I imagined to be a truly multi-cultural Asian Australian novel that explored multiple cultures. After reflecting on the Alien Nation panel, I wanted to write about my brother’s best friend from school, a white Australian boy with an ocker father who didn’t feel sufficiently Aussie enough because he didn’t meet the stereotypical markers of Australian masculinity; he wanted instead to be Asian, like my family. At one stage, his Cantonese was probably better than my non-existent few words that enable me to order – barely – in Chinese restaurants.
By the time I wrote my second novel, Behind the Moon, I realized I was an Asian Australian writer, and that I was writing something called Asian Australian literature. Simone Lazaroo and Merlinda Bobis have voiced concerns about their marginalization as writers because of the Asian Australian label, and the ways such a label constrains readings of their work (qtd. Graham 70). However, I’d agree with Wenche Ommundsen that Asian Australian writers such as Michelle de Kretser, Suneeta Peres da Costa, Beth Yahp, Azhar Abidi, and even myself, ‘have all, in different ways, made a point of distancing themselves from the burden of the personal, literary, and cultural heritage they as Asian diaspora writers are somehow expected to carry into their writing’ (504). She argues that
In the context of other debates surrounding Australian history and literature, one might argue that Asian Australian writers carry their own version of the ‘history wars’ into their works, where their personal and cultural histories emerge shrouded in complexity, contradiction, and doubt, deconstructed to reveal fault lines in received and coherent narratives of self, past, and nation. (509)
I had no problem with the label of Asian Australian because by then, I was interested in the process of ethnicisation, and the ways in which people from diverse backgrounds such as Singapore and Vietnam were able to become Asian. I was also interested in the phenotypically racial limits of ethnicization – how a white Aussie boy could not become Asian despite wishing to – and also of sexual identity in the 1980s and early 1990s. Drawing upon early research into gay Asian experiences, particularly Peter Jackson and Gerard Sullivan’s edited collection, Multicultural Queer, I wanted to consider how minority cultures discriminated against homosexuality, and were in turn discriminated against. This was my idea of the multicultural novel, where multiple cultures based on different types of identities met and clashed, and made accommodations for each other.
Multicultural issues pervade Behind the Moon, but perhaps not according to the usual narrative of the white nation identified by Ghassan Hage that is threatened by ethic others and white cosmo-multiculturalists who have the cultural capital to consume multicultural products. In the novel, the cosmopolitan, upwardly mobile Asian Australians are not peripheral to Australian society; they are central to it. Instead, white Australians are marginalized in an increasingly multicultural society where the ability to explore and enjoy different cultural repertoires is the new currency of the new elite. I was exploring the beginning of a sense of white alienation in a post-Hansonite, pre-Cronulla Riots world, and the loss of white belonging and “intimate security” in the homely nation that Gilbert Caluya writes about.
Most of all, however, Behind the Moon was a book about friendship and building relationships among ordinary people in the suburbs who are racist, sexist, homophobic, totally ‘unwoke,’ but who still manage to overlook each other’s bigotry, political and identity differences and offences, and, through a compassion that doesn’t include comprehension or even acceptance, manage to build social relations and care for each other. The characters in the novel don’t really change and become politically correct; instead, they learn to work around their own prejudices to engage in neighbourliness. I know that these kinds of relationships exist because they are my family, friends, Asian church members and neighbours as I was growing up.
I didn’t think too much about it, but accepting the label of Asian Australian writer was a strategic essentialism for me. It was useful as a label for marketing my novels and it probably made them stand out in a crowded market. I was (and still may be) not a particularly reflective writer in many ways. When I look back now, I can see how the novels are self-Orientalising in many ways, particularly in the representation of the oppressive East Asian family which demands filiality – something which, ironically, Dr Teo (2020) critiques in her work on Asian American romance novels! And yet … and yet I was plotting and creating characters drawn from experience and from a host of oral interviews conducted with family and friends, and with high school students from Asian backgrounds. Did they represent themselves in a stereotypical, Orientalised way to me because they too had imbibed and internalized the discourse of Orientalism? Or did they recount these things because they had experienced it and it was true? What do I do as a writer when something happens which fits neatly the negative, racialising discourse of Orientalism? Do I have licence to write about it because I adopt the character of an Asian Australian writer and, hence, have some borrowed authority to make these Orientalising statements? Or should I ignore and omit these things because I know they will be taken as generalisations about a culture, rather than a characterisation of a particular fictional individual? Am I allowed to write critically of my own background, even though I know it may be read through the prism of Orientalism? Sometimes, I feel afraid to write.
In the end, I’m a fraud, a part-time, pretend Asian Australian writer. Most of what I know about Asianness is researched, not lived first-hand, because, as Ming said, my family was assimilationist. If Dr Teo is intellectually colonised by European history and western scholarship, I am culturally colonized by English literature and in my most private moments of savouring words, the thoughts of Dead White Males (and Females) weave through my mind and unspool on my tongue. In reflexive response to the thought that I might be a marginalized Asian Australian, I hear, quietly, arrogantly, the words of Emily Dickinson:
The Soul selects her own Society —
Then – shuts the door —
On her divine majority —
Present no more —
In the end, I’m comfortable being labelled Asian Australian, or choosing to wear the label when and where I please. I love being able to slip between the two, even though nobody outside academic fully articulates the nouns so that the hyphen is audible. I know Merlinda Bobis said that ‘ASIAN-AUSTRALIAN evokes a broken, halted negotiation between the Asian and the Australian in the writer’ (119) but perhaps I’m a neologism. In the words of Jim, my Aussie neighbour in the apartment below mine, I’m an ‘Asianustrayan’ – a mashed together mumble that sounds like a new viral strain of the flu; an absurd diphthong that wonderfully sums up the ridiculousness of all of me – Dr Teo, Hsu-Ming Teo, and Ming – and our absurd pretence at Asian Australian identity.
And this is why I should wrap up these rambling ruminations. It does no good to reflect further on this subject because I’m just not that interesting, and out there is a world that fascinates and infuriates, while in here sit a chorus of scholars who know more about being Asian Australian and doing Asian Australian studies than I could ever hope to. It’s time to archive myself and make way for the new. Make way for all of you.
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