Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Blogger really needs a cut feature.

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.


  1. Beautiful post, Tessa. Thanks so much for writing it.

  2. Congrats on getting invited to the anthology.

    Great post Tessa.

    Over here there's a similar conflict. Family wants me to be "Chinese" even if strictly speaking, they're more Filipino than the Chinese in China. And of course, the other people see me as Chinese rather than Filipino. But me? I consider myself Filipino.

  3. Remember: you're not foreign, you're EXOTIC! :P

    In a contained variation of RaceFail, I'm one of the Bad Guys, because I'm pretty stringently colorblind, and people mistake color-blindness for heritage-language-culture-experience-we-are-all-beautiful-blindess. Not so. I just give absolutely no special consideration to anyone based on color or how many generations of their ancestors were shat upon. Humanity is a cruel cruel collective, and skin color is just one of a thousand excuses for shittings-upon.

    The pieces of you are what make you whole. You're Malaysian AND Chinese AND Caucasian-kum-Australian. You don't have to pick and choose - you shouldn't have to. I generally identify myself as Welsh, because that's the most recent of my immigrant relatives, but I'm still English, German and Italian. The fact that I'm the "default" phenotype in America makes this easier for me, I think, but in five hundred years, *you* will be the default phenotype.

    Just think of yourself as a step ahead in evolution! :D

    (and she shuts up here before she hogs the comment section!)

  4. btw, while out at the grocery store just now, I had a sudden craving for lo mein and hot and sour soup.

    I blame you!

  5. Tessa: *enfolds you in a giant bear hug and doesn't let go for a couple of years*

    I do think that the one thing which offsets the tribalism is this, here: the interwebs. I nearly feel I have more shared history with Smarchers than with Dutch people (especially since leaving behind the zombie box), and every year the remaining gap continues to lessen. A different message board I'm on (and have been on from the start) just celebrated its tenth birthday.
    Both of these places, as well as various blogs and whatnots, have given me far more friends and people who I feel are "us" than any old-fashioned tribe based in the regular real world. Those communities are real, and although their geographic dispersement makes them harder to fall back upon, they'll become ever more important to the sense of identity. And even though these virtual communities are surely as bad with closing ranks against outsiders as any of the real world tribes (whether based on skin color or on music), the great thing about them is that you can't see from the outside which ones people belong to, and their barrier to entry is far lower than any other.
    And so I think (hope) that when more and more people's sense of identity is based on the faceless virtual communities they're part of, this movement will offset the rise of tribalism which you predict.

    So yeah, I think things are getting better; and are amazingly better than they were a generation ago. But meanwhile the current mess is still looking rather insurmountably large... :/

    Jaime: I went into racefail pretty much exactly the same as (I think) you (did) - "I'm colorblind, _all_ discrimination sucks, no matter what reason", and then wondering what the fuss was about. But what eventually was made clear to me is that the fuss is about the pervasiveness. We personally might not treat people differently (as much as possible, and I suspect I fail at that every so often anyway), but people still live in a world where they feel intensely that they're treated differently on a near-continuous basis. And what turns those of us who don't see that into the "bad guys" is not that we have the "privilege" of not experiencing the same, but that we don't really listen to the people who tell us that no, it really, really, really exists, and they're suffering from it, even if we happen to be amongst the few who don't make them feel that way.
    It's physically impossible for us to experience the same, and so maybe we should just heed these words and accept that this is the way things still are to a far too large degree. (And then we can rail against it alongside everyone else.)

    ... talk about hogging the comment section. :p

  6. Ha! I refrained from 'exotic' because of that, heee.

    I should state I'm not after sympathy or wanting to play the victim card overly, although I don't think I can wade into the subject without wailing 'pooor meee' at some point. Just trying to...I don't know. Find some small managable portion that will fit in a short story without being an enormous emotional brick wall.

    And yeah, in 100 years everyone will be half asian of some description, but this is now.

    Bit like that, Charles, that it isn't really about what you define yourself as, but the fact that you keep coming up against people choosing a definition for you, and continuing to do so even if it's pretty clear you don't fit that. Transplanted cultures are slippery beasts.

    Choosing your tribes is different, though, Aanimal, because that's an acceptance thing, not a belonging thing. And either because of some enormous social conditioning or because I am just a cranky hermit crab with a lousy personality, I'm not comfortable with tribes, or a sense of being a part of community. Hence I've pulled back from Smarch and any other number of forums online. That's what I mean when I say it's too late to learn.

    I find individuals. A group, a community, a tribe, clan, race, religion, whatever you want to call it - I'm not wired to have or make a place in such things.

  7. Great post. Not at all badly phrased or worded, either. Looking forward to seeing that story. :)

  8. http://craphound.com/est/download.php
    A book about tribes and emerging ideas of belonging-ness.
    Contains appealing ideas that, while they are not true yet, may be true in ten years or so.

  9. You may be a cranky hermit crab, but you do NOT have a lousy personality and I will go toe to toe with your inner bitch and tell her so. In fact, you are delightfully off-the-wall and should post *more* often around the intarwebs, not less. No matter how long you've been gone or how far apart you hold yourself, Smarch is one place you can always crashland and call home for a little while and get your rightful lovins.

  10. You make me think thinky thoughts.

    That's a good thing. A hard thing. But a good thing.

    I am trying to wrap my head around the difference between acceptance and belonging. It's harder than I want to admit it is. It's harder because just as you say: it's not an experience in which I can take part. I'm white. I'm /White/. I am as cracker-pasty omg-white as it's possible to be, with nothing but English and German and Irish in my heritage, all the way back as far as I can count and my ancestors could write in family Bibles, and whether that holy-shit-you're /white/-ness was in Europe or America, it infused not just the genes that got handed down to me, but the culture, broad and narrow, external and within the family structure. It's handed me privelege I didn't understand until very recently. I'm conflicted about that.

    I can say I know what it's like to be ostracised- that's true enough; I got teased and mocked and bullied for being too goddamn smart for my own good, and antisocial, and withdrawn and quiet and afraid- but I don't know what it's like to be pigeonholed like you've been. For all that I got that kind of intellectual harassment, I was at least still acceptable on the margins of the group, because at least I was white, and I shared that commonality with the people who were harassing me. We had culture in common, and I belonged, however much I was on the fringe of it.

    I don't have the frame of reference to process this properly, not easily. I wish I did. I want to understand it, because you are one of my favourite people, and I want to understand you better than I do.

    I hate that you are untethered and alone-feeling. Belonging is important.

    I feel like I've said something wrong, up there, although I'm not sure I know what it is, or how better to say what's going on in my head. But you've made me think thinky thoughts. I'll keep on thinking them.

  11. Really excellent text!

  12. Great post, love. Like Miiru, I've been ostracised for this and that, but never for something as arbitrary and beyond my control as visible ethnic type. I have no idea what that particular pain feels like.

    Nonetheless, I'm having trouble with that story, too. We'll get there.

    I was in England a few years ago and a man in a fish and chip shop asked where I was from. "Australia," I said. "Aren't you a bit short for an Australian?" he said. To which I guess I should have replied, "I'm Bruce Skywalker, I'm here to rescue you!"

    As Black Sabbath said, we're lost children of the sea...

  13. Thanks, Theo. I have a copy of the book on my shelves somewhere. I'll bump it up the TBR list.


    From the other direction, Miiru, I've no idea what it is to assume a place in a group. All cultural quirks aside, my family doesn't even work like that. We're a bunch of individuals who happen to be related, but we don't act as a unit in the slightest. I think it must be awesome to have a huge family that gets together and is insane (like your most rockin' family, heh).

    It's not a bad thing to not understand. Means you've never been in the position, and that's a good thing.

    Bruce Skywalker. XD When I was in Japan people thought I was Thai or from Hong Kong, and then exclaimed "But you're not blonde!" when I told them I was Australian.

  14. LOL! Oh, Japan...

  15. I quote you:

    "From the other direction, Miiru, I've no idea what it is to assume a place in a group. All cultural quirks aside, my family doesn't even work like that. We're a bunch of individuals who happen to be related, but we don't act as a unit in the slightest. I think it must be awesome to have a huge family that gets together and is insane (like your most rockin' family, heh)."

    I have quoted you!

    The thing I have quoted makes me make frowny faces at my computer screen. This is because my big rockin' family *completely* adopted you. I don't think I ever told you. Heh. You are one of my mom's far-flung chicks, and the reason I make the frowny faces is because but for distance, you could have that experience of getting together and being insane (and the insanity is getting worse, mark you: mah daddy's getting weird in his encroaching decrepitude. Poke mom and ask her about the motorcycle in the tree). My big rockin' family is bigger than the blood ties. It's... weird. And awesome. We're branching out, too- one of Dor's friends, Alex, is going through a rough patch, and mom and dad have taken him in. I've acquired a black little brother. It's neat. :)

    I dunno. I imagine that circumstance isn't quite what you're talking about, either,when you talk about belonging, but it's a microcosm of it, of sorts. And I think it's important for me to tell you that my family, we have a spot for you, even if you do live upside down and tomorrow.

    Oo. I rambled. /talented

  16. That's your own special culture, heh. Most families develop language and culture that is exclusive, but you guys are just smearing the love around. ; )

    My family doesn't behave like that, on either side. I think these things are part of a cultural makeup, as cultural and family backgrounds are to tangled up to truly tease apart.

  17. Anonymous18/4/09 13:55

    Special is so completely the word for it. xD A little more speshuller every day.

    Mah poor daddy. Mom's going to have him put down, she says.

    We do smear the love around a bit, don't we? I never realised how very insidious we were until recently. Does that count as culture? I'll tell mom. She'll be startled and thrilled; she's been trying to culture us for years.

    My family is the Borg wtf :/

  18. Anonymous3/5/09 01:43

    Reading this a little late, wanted to register my solidarity since I'm going through, if not similar, a parallel situation.

    Belonging. Is a thorny issue, really. And it's a subject that's as emotional to me, for different reasons. I've never felt I belonged _anywhere_. Not back home in Malaysia, not when I was in school in England, not here. Not all the time. Coming from a hybrid background as well, I was pretty much the loner through school in Malaysia, with individual cool people who befriended me. Couple of decades later, in grad school, I experience the same. People who simply cannot believe that my outlook is not the exoticized eastern outlook. Back home I'd be known as a "coconut", a little too Westernized to integrate. Here, it's the same, except you end up looking like a "mimic" person for knowing the things you do, for having the ideals and ideas that you do.

    For me, I guess in the end the idea of constructions of racial/national heritage ends up becoming if not meaningless, fraught with questions and ambiguity for me- I like people that I like. And if they can't accept me warts and all, I move on. And yes, racefail did bring up a lot of feelings for me as well. Some of which I wrote in a locked entry. Heh.

    Good luck with the story :)

    Like I wrote in another locked entry of mine (heh) - being hybrid means not being as "inbred" and this can only be a good thing. (tongue-in-cheek)

    - The Ninny