I was five minutes early and she texted, she was going to be five minutes late. So I took a seat at our favourite Malaysian restaurant, next to a mother and daughter couple enjoying a lazy Saturday lunch. They had all the best dishes there, curry chicken noodles, prawn noodles and out of the corner of my eye I spied – “oh, is that the chicken biryani?” – I asked. “Yes”, the grown up daughter replied with a smile. “Any good?” I asked. “Not bad, I think the beef one is better”.
“Where are you from?”
“Here we go”, I said to myself but then, I’d started chatting to them so…
“Singapore, what about you?”
“Same, been here long?”
“Since 98, you?”
And we all had a giggle. Same numbers tumbaliked (inverted)!
Yet later and still waiting for my lunch mate to turn up, I heard them conversing in Cantonese and caught the mother’s eye (it was hard not to when she was sitting about a metre and a half diagonally across). Realising I understood, she asked me in Cantonese:
“You lived in Perth always?”
“Yes, no…yes, I spent 3.5 years in Brisbane, working”.
“You prefer Perth or Brisbane?”
“I have more kaki (legs, meaning friends) here… so Perth suits me. Not like Singapore”.
And so we started comparing our experiences living elsewhere. Somehow the conversation crossed over to the Chinese – in this case meaning those from Mainland China – in Melbourne. The daughter made a face and said, “aiyah, so many of them there, in Singapore also”. “Well, uh, yes”, I started, “there are 1.4 billion people in China, so …”.
We fell silent after that. I was unable to reciprocate yet knew exactly where she was coming from.
Those people from China, today’s Danger Asians, flush with cash and not afraid to let others know, buying up mansions and fancy European cars. Spoiling the model minority image of Chinese Australians.
We don’t talk about this much in Australia. Unlike Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau, we don’t like to admit that even among the Australian Chinese population there is unease with the number of migrants (temporary and permanent) in Australia from our ancestral homeland. Or that unlike Chinese migrants of earlier waves, those who do come from Mainland China today or rather, those who have the means to make it all the way out of China are not working-class labourers of Australia’s nineteenth-century Gold Rush, Colombo Plan scholars and students of the mid-1900s or the professional classes from Asian cities.
Instead the Chinese from contemporary China are mostly young, savvy, cashed-up and almost all speak Mandarin. China’s global economic dominance means many are confident, some rashly so, so it’s not hard to look askance when they are chattering in groups, thronging the streets of the city and generally creating a sub-culture of their own in Australia. A Chinese world that excludes those of us who don’t speak Mandarin, who don’t catch ‘Running Man’ online or give a fig whenever Japan stakes its claims over the Senkaku Islands.
Not for us the denigrations against ‘foreign talent’ like Singapore or the ‘ugly (read uncouth) tourist’ complaints against Mainland Chinese visitors to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. Silence is our chosen stance.
The truth is, every wave likes to think it’s different from the incomers. “We’re not like them”. “We speak better English”. “We have better manners”. “We’ve integrated”. We’ve earned our place. Or at least we think we do. We belong.
I imagine that when the Chinese first turned up to mine gold in Ballarat or later still, set up shops to sell everything from waxed duck and Chinese mushrooms to the dried up roots and insects for traditional Chinese medicine that they were held in similar disregard, if not contempt, by non-Asians. Their manners and dress strange, their food smelt atrocious and they kept to themselves. Danger Asians they once were. And we, those of us descended from them, protested at that treatment and today, feel secure and confident enough to call it out for what it is, racism and discrimination.
My friend turned up, dazzling in a jumper emblazoned with a famous brand. “Hi, you’re late”, I jumped in quickly in English but my hope was forlorn. It didn’t take more than two sentences from her for them to realise she’s from China. What had I hoped to shield her/them/myself from, their scorn at me or my embarrassment at my erstwhile compatriot’s prejudice? Or my own guilt at not coming to the defense of the many Mainland Chinese who are my friends and colleagues, individuals with whom I practise my half-baked Mandarin, share music videos, trade emojis and meet up over the weekend?
The old lady read my dilemma on my face I think. As they left she politely wished me “慢用” (manyong, bon appétit) in formal Cantonese. It still chafes at me, my cowardice at the fear of placing my hard-won Australian-ness in peril.
Today’s Danger Asians are quite simply the latest waves of Asians who come to Australia to seek a new life and yet, remain different just long enough to stand out. It was us yesterday and today, it’s them.
What is our duty to the similar yet different migrants who come after us, these latter-day Danger Asians?
My daughter came home late today. She’d stopped to help a woman stranded by the roadside, engine stalled by the sudden deluge of rain. “I saw her standing knee deep in water and panicking. She’s from China and doesn’t speak much English. So I called her insurer for her, locked up the car and waited with her until her husband turned up to bring her home”. Soaked to the skin but tired happy my Australian-bred, monolingual daughter demonstrated to me that watching out for another Asian is no different to watching out for anyone else in distress or maligned. You do it because you can and you should.
Featured image: Hyderabadi chicken biryani, Garret Ziegler (via Creative Commons)