Secret Asian Papercuts (being Chinese-Australian means being too Chinese)


papercuts“I thought you were something,” a client says, waving his hand towards my face. I smile politely and change the topic.


I am ten years old before I realise that not everyone eats rice two or three times a day. Spaghetti is a rare, exotic delight, and vegemite and cheese sandwiches are a school day treat beyond compare, and if we’re very, very lucky once a month sunday lunch will be meat pies. My sister eats roasted things at any given opportunity. We eat congee for breakfast and rice for dinner. We eat noodles when we’re sick and noodles when we’re lazy, but they’re always an hour cooked in soup and covered in chillis. Dry maggi noodles, as my school mates eat, is nothing but an unachievable dream.

My hair grows late, when I am born. My sister’s is faster, and her head is shaved at the first month, per tradition. My mother is up straight away with me, but with Poh Poh visiting, she undergoes confinement two years later with my sister. We a’re acknowledged after a month; we a’re given tiny gold jewellery that, thirty years later, barely fits me, though it fell off my body when I first wore it, too small to complain.

At the eighth moon we parade around the garden with new lanterns, sometimes paper and one year, precious, beautiful cellophane. I have a fish. (My sister has a butterfly.) At Chinese New Year we have the required parties and the required days; we clean until midnight after reunion dinner, and wear new dresses to visit friends and not-family (for blood family is too far away, five hours in a plane and then a domestic transfer). We eat noodles for longevity; fish for prosperity; eat duck and give oranges for the money. We give oranges for the money, too.

I speak several languages, to varying degrees; Mandarin and English and Cantonese and Japanese and Malay, Manglish sometimes. Wow, people say; wow, that’s a lot. But I’m only understood in three of those, and so the rest of those don’t count, not really – I’d never mark anything other than “I tried,” and certainly I can barely understand. It’s embarrassing more than special.

My mother spoke five languages before she ever went to school; she never finished school, and now she speaks nine fluently, because anything less as a Malaysian would be an embarrassment.

My resume specifies I speak fluent Mandarin Chinese; it follows with native English speaker, because my name and my language combined, that’s a liability when I’m applying for jobs in Australia. [1] It’s not a name I share with a family member, and it’s nothing more than a third or fourth language for any family member, so it’s not my name and it’s not my language.

But it is my name, and it is my language, and combined they are risks for me, though I’ve worked hard for them.


There are words I never learnt in English, words I learnt late, words I never say in English now. Words I have to think about before I say them, though I think in English and English words were the first I ever spoke.

I’m frustrated by speaking English all the time. I go to speak a concept and its English definition is long and annoying and cumbersome; far easier instead if everyone accepted this is the way brains work, a word here and a word there, rolling off my tongue like they‘re one fluid language, and in my head they are. In my head it is all one language; but nobody else speaks it.


I’m 18, maybe 19. My sister’s in the car, so it must be school holidays. My mother is driving. We are on William Street in Northbridge, Perth’s unofficial Chinatown. It’s not near the official Chinatown, with its Old Shanghai food court and its tacky dragons on pillars and its collection of bubble tea and KTV restaurants, but William Street has Kong’s, the Chinese supermarket where the aunties know me by sight and in a decade, where they will exclaim after me and ask how I liked living in Beijing, though I never told them where I was going and I haven’t lived in Perth in years.

As we search for a park, my mother recites the shopping list. Soy milk, tofu, light soy dark soy oyster sauce sesame oil; gula.

We repeat it dutifully, and pause. “What’s English for gula?” one of us asks.

We sit there, throwing words around in English, flapping our hands because the English is there on the tip of our tongues. It’s sweet. It’s hard. It’s something.

In Kong’s, we shriek with delight when we read the packaging. Gula, it says. Palm sugar.


I am 28. I am coveting the pandan pancakes on the menu, for pandan is the life blood of many a Malaysian. Gula and pandan, some coconut. The pancakes are the bright pandan green that always fills me with desire; with longing and homesickness and delight.

Ew, says a friend. Green is not a dessert colour.

My heart hurts.


“Singlish is horrible,” says a white Australian acquaintance. “It makes my teeth itch!”

Singlish, like Manglish, is a legitimate SEA creole. In Australia, we speak our creoles in our Chinatowns, in our ethnic ghettoes and our cultural centres, in our homes and community centres. Our creoles are a code, a marker of our otherness and a marker of where we belong.

In Singapore Singlish is fought against, a class war continuing the eugenics wars of previous years; it is not official, and my Singlish is not good, but you will pry my patois from my cold, dead, South East Asian hands, because it is mine.


At uni, I make Cantonese-speaking friends. We speak back and forth, swapping languages, until I use a word I am sure is Cantonese, a word I have known my whole life, a word I learnt from my family, my family who speaks Cantonese first and everything else a distant afterthought. It was Cantonese because it is ours.

The word I use is in Hokkien, and my whole world fractures. It’s a word we have picked up on the streets of Penang, a Hokkien island floating in a sea of Malaysia.

My friends laugh; I shy away with shame.

I’m 25 years old and I attend Cantonese classes, and I struggle, though it’s the language of my family.

“That must be hard,” a friend says. “But good on you for trying! You’re so lucky to have that background. I’m no good at that stuff.”

They have no idea.

[1] “Australian bosses are racist when it’s time to hire”, Peter Martin, The Age, June 18 2009, accessed 20/10/2013

Stephanie Lai

Author: Stephanie Lai

Stephanie Lai is a Chinese-Australian writer and occasional translator. She has published long meandering thinkpieces in Peril Magazine, the Toast, the Lifted Brow and Overland. Of recent, her short fiction has appeared in the Review of Australian Fiction, Cranky Ladies of History, and In Your Face. Despite loathing time travel, her defence of Perpugilliam Brown can be found in Companion Piece (2015). She is an amateur infrastructure nerd and is professionally working to save us in our climate change future. You can find her on twitter @yiduiqie, at, or talking about pop culture and drop bears at

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