I was invited to submit a story for an anthology. Normally I view such invitations with equal parts surprise and bemusement ("You want me to write a brand new story? To a deadline? And not suck?") but just for once in my life the theme lobbed a perfectly good idea in my lap. What a rare and happy occurrence! So I ran with it.
I had four false starts. I even had some false middles, and at least one false ending. When I looked at the draft, it didn't work, so I scrapped it, and came at the idea from a different angle.
In each case, the further into the story I got, the harder it became to write.
Not because the idea sucked. Not because I was blocked or didn't know where I was going. Short stories are easy to find rhythm in, and I knew where all the beats were to fall. It wasn't because the story wasn't doing what I expected it to do.
It was because I didn't know I couldn't write about cultural identity within Australia.
It shouldn't surprise me. I've tried to write blog posts about identity before, and they remain locked away in the drafts and will stay there. Writing fiction about a sensitive subject is no different from dealing with any sort of issue, I suppose - you do it when you're ready to.
Except I didn't realise I had an issue until I couldn't write this story.
After I'd sent off two utter miscarriages of first drafts as proof that I'd tried (but hell no not for submission), I spent one evening lying in the dark and thinking. Chewing over the subject like a bit of gristle, because I don't like being thwarted and damned if this story was going to get the better of me just because I had 'iss-sews'.
Errrrm. Wasn't quite prepared to end up in tears. Bit of a surprise, that.
I did it again a couple of nights later, just to be sure I wasn't having a bad day, and nope. Same thing happened. Apparently I have Iss-sews with a Capital I.
Dad is Chinese-Malaysian, which means the family is Chinese, but living in Malaysia and has done so for some generations. To my knowledge, there are no actual Malaysians listed in my ancestors. The race riots of some 40 years ago, largely polarised between the Malays and Chinese, still appear regularly in conversation. Racial divides within Malaysia are not something I'm prepared to tackle right now, but suffice to say they're present, and I can't help thinking at least they're hell of a lot more honest about them than here in Australia.
Malaysia is where he started life, but politics and history meant it has never really embraced him. The fact that the family has been there so long means the culture, such as it is, is a hybrid of imported Chinese and environmental Malaysian with a bit of British occupation thrown in. Amah, his mum, is Hakka, eternally displaced. Dad has never been to China. There are no roots there.
He came to Australia to finish high school, and never left. A harbinger of the end of the White Australia policy.
He's saturated with Australia. Even in that intimate, private, silly and circumstantial culture that families grow entirely on their own, Malaysia doesn't know him any more.
He's saturated with Malaysia, but not Malaysia, and China, but not China. Australia sure as hell doesn't know what to do with him.
Mum is half English, half several generations of white settler. There's a convict back there, some handful of generations ago. Sir Thomas Bock was caught acquiring an abortion for his mistress (not his wife), and ended up on a ship bound for the colonies. Some of his paintings are up in the National Gallery in Canberra. She grew up in a normal middle class family without special circumstances or events.
If anyone in my immediate family should not feel out of place in this country, it's her, but she went and dated a Chinese-Malaysian, and was told she should be ashamed of herself, spat at and the subject of such vitriol, and then she went so far as to marry him, and have children, and have to point out to store attendants that no, she is not the baby sitter, these brown monkeys are hers and only hers.
We joke that she's adopted.
And down the bottom of these family trees of people who don't belong where they are either because of the circumstances of their birth or the decisions they've made, there's me and mah bro.
I was the first person of any sort of ethnicity in my primary school, and boy did I suffer for it. At the time, I thought was being bullied because, you know, they didn't like me. They'd taken the time over the years to single me out as victim because I was too smart or the like. Because it never occurred to me that people would treat me differently because of my colouring.
I can't say which is worse, being scorned on a personal level, or on a skin-shallow level.
High school was an amazing eye-opener. So many different people from so many different backgrounds, and amid them all I didn't stand out. I wasn't deliberately ostracized, but I did discover a new way to not belong.
All the Greeks would flock together. The Chinese would form groups. The emphatically White Australians closed ranks. Even though as individuals they may have nothing in common, they had a shared understanding of background and common assumptions, of where they came from, what they faced when going home. It perplexed me, and still does to a degree. Why would you seek more of the same out, when you can get that at home at any time? But it’s a means of belonging. One of the easiest means. And I belonged nowhere. Both my backgrounds have been mixed and diluted and I'm comfortable with the pure form of neither side and neither side knows what to do with me.
I remember a group of exchange students from Hong Kong spending a term with us. They latched on to me at sight, and could not at all fathom that I wasn't an exchange student either. They didn't believe that this was my home, and my normal school, until they realised I couldn't speak Cantonese. Then they ignored me for the rest of their stay. I cop it from both sides.
My brother said it best; to everyone else we're asian, but not asian enough for the asians. He's a bit better off. At least you can see the Chinese in his face. Makes him easier to pigeonhole. Me, I don't look like anything. Even Dad says that.
Australia thinks it is white. The fact that I am clearly Not White, regardless of how Not Particularly Asian my behaviour/language/personality/values may be, is some sort of brand, and people keep trying to squeeze me into categories I don't fit into. I'm sorry, but I'm not Malaysian. I'm sorry, but I'm not Chinese. I'm Australian, and I’m sorry for that too. I stopped eating with chopsticks at work because it was more hassle than it was worth, the attention made me embarrassed of my lunch. Now people are asking what accent I have. Within Melbourne, when speaking to other Melbournians, I should have no accent whatsoever.
I just don't belong here. I wish I could say that out of self-pity or melodrama. That would then make it an exaggeration, maybe even untrue. But. There's an overarching cultural assumption entrenched within Australia, and I'm as guilty of it as anyone else. I see brown monkey children with one white parent and think 'babysitter' before realising I'm making the same assumptions that were made with Mum. I see full-blooded Chinese on the train and am surprised at the Australian accents in their mouths. It's entirely unconscious; in the words they choose, the jokes they make, the remarks they don't think about before they say, all because of facial features and colouring.
It doesn't matter now. It's twenty-seven years too late. I don't belong, and the foundations have been laid, and I will never know what it is to belong to a people. I don't think that's something that can be learned, not now. There is no tribe, group, culture for me to belong to. I don't fit. For all my life, and the rest of my life, I'll encounter people who look at my face, and try to pin a classification on me, and then I'll see their faces and the pauses they make when they're wrong, and surprised, and in that moment trying to find another category to put me in. There isn't one.
What this means is that no one, beyond my brother, understands what I'm built on. The nature of mutating cultures and changing social permissions means that for the rest of my life, there probably will remain no one who understands me. And you cannot grasp how lonely that is, and how lonely that will stay.
I'm lucky. My life is full of awesome people who accept me, but acceptance is not the same as wordless understanding, which isn't the same as assumed and doubtless belonging.
You don't understand. Chances are, if you're excluded from the majority, there's still a minority you're a part of. I can think of maybe a couple of you, reading this, who will have some idea of what I'm talking about. And yes, I know, none of us feel like we belong. But there is difference between not feeling, and not being given permission.
Makes me wonder how much harder this life would be if I didn't have parents who taught me to do what I want, be what I want to be, go where I want to go and go with no flow whatsoever.
With mixed families becoming more common, people like my brother and I will pop up everywhere. I like to see this as a good thing; a rising tide of mongrels who take the best of their various backgrounds and mash them together to make something unique. People who have no easily taken-out-of-the-box identity, and have to construct their own, and are free to poach and steal and take from all the cultures of the world all the things that make sense to them. People who understand what it means to not be understood, people who can't be judged at face value and so refrain from making judgments themselves. People who have had to be themselves, and so are not afraid to be themselves.
What I suspect will happen is just another shape of tribalism, with gangs of one sort or another. Music and lifestyle cultures will fill the void. The amorphous masses of potential each identity may be will just be dictated by a different sort of family. And they'll close ranks, and try to fit you in a mental pigeonhole anyway.
It's somewhere in the middle there.
I was born here. I've never lived anywhere else in the world. I don't speak any other languages. When people ask, "So, what are you?" I answer, "I'm Australian."
And then they say, "Yeah, but really, what are you?"
I don't know.
I was asked what my take on the Race Fail conflagration was. I said nothing. Thinking this over is like standing on the edge of the abyss. I'll smack down homophobic comments, sexist throwaways, people who are religion-ist or elitist or otherwise judgmental, but I'll let all the racist comments in the world slide. Because they come back to me, and the ground I stand on.
Because I can't start that fight. If I do, I won't be able to stop. And I won't be able to win.
Just writing this has taken days and is like pulling teeth. It's badly phrased, badly worded, who knows how many people I've offended, but I don't want to think about it anymore.
The person who invited me to write this story said it took them twenty years to be able to address the subject in fiction. I have until May.