I HAVE A confession to make. Some years ago, while enjoying solace in a café, a well-nourished white bloke accosted me by thrusting his newly purchased cookbook in my face and demanding an autograph. ‘I love your recipes,’ he gushed. I signed his book with a flourish: ‘Love, Kylie K.’
Just to be clear, the Chinese-Australian chef Kylie Kwong and I both wear glasses, but beyond that, we share few similarities. But I figured if this bloke is daft enough to think we Asians all look the same, why not bask in the fake celebrity limelight? What’s the harm in obliging him with a momentary mendacious act? (Apologies to Kylie of course, whose recipes I also love.)
I’m not usually this reckless. As a child migrant, or generation 1.5 Japanese-Australian, my parents drilled it into me as I was growing up that I was ‘an unofficial Japanese ambassador’ to Australia, that my behaviour would influence how Australians feel about all Japanese. Consequently, I was a well-behaved child, a quiet achiever at school, and now I’m a highly educated, professional, law-abiding Australian citizen. I’m not even a dual citizen. I could easily be a card-carrying member of Australia’s ‘Asian model minority’.
But being ‘good’ and ‘quiet’ and ‘assimilated’ is making me angry. I’m fed up with the never-ending race work I have to do: explaining the differences between Chinese, Japanese, Korean; or suppressing the hysterical eruption in my head whenever I’m asked, ‘but where do you really come from?’ And what pisses me off most royally is the odd occasion when I have to prove to editors that I can write ‘native-level English’. After a lifetime of race-splaining, I’m reaching peak race fatigue. And I’m not the only one.
Many Asian-Australians are also tired of navigating an incessant stream of microaggressions, sick of being exoticised or stereotyped as polite, reserved, a maths genius. Like me, they’re itching to be a little reckless, to break free from the narrow definitions that frame Asian-ness in today’s multicultural Australia.
On the face of it, you’d think we Asians would be grateful, being hoisted up on a pedestal for our relative success. After all, around the beginning of the last century, we were the vile Yellow Peril and, more recently, we were accused of ‘swamping’ this country with our unwanted Asian-ness. Yet here we now are, socially integrated and upwardly mobile, compliant workers valued for our economic usefulness. At least that’s what the Asian model-minority narrative would have us believe.
ESHA ANURA AND Karen Chau could be called model-minority Asians, though I can almost see their eyes rolling back at the suggestion. Self assured and scarily smart, they’re recent graduates of a selective high school for the academically gifted, famous for being notoriously difficult to get into. They represent the cream of academic high flyers, the one area in which Asian-Australians are stand-out overachievers. They rave about their school. And no, it wasn’t Hunger Games competitive, but collegial – ‘These really smart girls pushed me to try my best,’ Karen tells me.
Yet I sense a growing defensiveness and a niggling annoyance as we discuss the ethnic make-up of these public high schools. Nearly all selective schools in Australia are dominated by students from Asian backgrounds. Programs for gifted and talented students exist in all states, but NSW has by far the largest number, with around fifty schools compared to about four in Victoria. Some schools in Sydney can be as high as 90 per cent Asian-Australian. Predictably, that’s sparked a backlash and a heated debate.
Asian parents are being accused of ‘cheating the system’, angling for ‘an unfair advantage’, whipping their kids into exam-ready shape with gruelling hours at coaching colleges. One mother asks ‘Isn’t that like child abuse?’ She’s decided not to send her son to a selective school, even though he got in. Why? ‘Because there are too many Asians.’ If you’re thinking that sounds racist, you’ll be interested to know that this mother is Asian-Australian.
Calling these schools ‘Asian schools’ is reductionist, counters Esha. The distinguishing feature is not that the schoolyard is full of Asian faces, but the high value students place on education, she tells me. ‘Everyone valued being smart. They all want to study hard, go to uni.’
‘Asians value education highly’ is one of the many cultural traits attributed to us by the model-minority narrative. Here are some others: Asians have stable family backgrounds; Asians have a strong work ethic; Asians respect authority. Even Confucian virtues feature in this line-up, while other cultural-based explanations credit ‘tiger parenting’ – those low-hovering mums and dads who advocate over-the-top methods in the pursuit of top results.
Is there a grain of truth in all of the above? Perhaps. But here’s the problem: this mantra like trotting out of one-size-fit-all cultural traits not only ignores the historical, linguistic and ethnic diversity that is Asia, but perpetuates a narrow essentialism that merely reinforces stereotypes. And in the ‘hyper-racialised’ environment of selective schools, explains Christina Ho, senior lecturer at UTS, such simplistic views that bypass a broader socio-political analysis can lead to ‘racialised hostility’, the kind that not only pits whites against Asians, but also Asians against Asians.
When I was at school back in the ’70s in the relaxed, beach suburbs of Sydney’s north, there were fewer Asian migrants and education policy favoured encouraging all kids – overachievers as well as those needing support – to attend local comprehensive schools. I mention this not as a nostalgic aside, but to highlight two key Australian policies – immigration and education – that circumscribe the dynamics of the Asian model-minority narrative, both of which have been hijacked by neoliberal thinking in the past thirty years.
So Esha is right. Asians do value education, but not because of some cultural predisposition. Our current immigration policy cherry picks wealthier, skilled or business migrants who happen to come mostly from Asia for their potential to boost Australia’s economic interests. As newcomers with few established networks, they’re more likely to value education to ensure generational upward mobility. And many of these migrants tend to have higher levels of education, making them better equipped to decipher the maze of school choice, including analysing the NAPLAN results, explains Ho, who researches diversity and education.
She also explains that these aspirational migrants are doing exactly what is expected of them: successfully navigating the increasingly competitive, hierarchical education system. And if Asian students dominate selective schools, that’s a consequence of the policy decisions made by Australian governments. To invoke Asian-ness, as if our innate cultural buoyancy makes us float to the top like cream, is just mythical thinking.
LIKE ALL MYTHS though, the model-minority myth maintains traction because it’s useful. And the reasons why become clearer during my long conversation with Esha and Karen about education, identity, citizenship, multiculturalism. I ask them if they’d consider a future in politics, and the discussion veers off into a sophisticated, intersectional analysis of the constraints of two-party politics. I’m in awe that they’d even consider the perils of high office, something I’ve never even fantasised about given that I hail from a country that once tried to invade Australia. But I’m dismayed when the topic of the ‘bamboo ceiling’ comes up. We share our frustrations, but we share no real solutions. Knowing that our aspirations have limits because our ethnicity precedes us is something we have in common as Asian-Australians.
And I suspect this kind of ethnic containment is the role the model-minority myth plays in today’s multicultural Australia. It keeps us confined to a set script we didn’t write, lest we acquire any uppity notions. As model citizens, we’re encouraged to work hard, but not too hard, in case we end up dominating all the top schools. And we’re welcomed into Australia if we come with money, but not too much money, in case we buy up big chunks of prime real estate. I’m reminded of a Japanese saying: a protruding nail gets hammered. I’m also reminded of a misogynist joke about men putting women on a pedestal so they can look up their skirts. I feel like we’re being put on a pedestal as model citizens, only to be humiliated by being rendered inert and invisible.
La Trobe University lecturer Tseen Khoo calls this ‘contingent acceptance’. As perceived outsiders, our sense of belonging is always conditional on us being ‘good migrants’, meeting the never-ending demands made of us, the kind that are never made of those who enjoy white privilege. Don’t complain; be industrious; don’t end up on welfare; be grateful, always be grateful. And of course, a ‘good migrant’ implies there’s a ‘bad’, which is where this myth becomes a divisive wedge fraught with danger.
In the US, where the term ‘model minority’ was coined, the myth is a clear and present racial wedge used against African-Americans. Originating in the ’60s, against the backdrop of the intensifying civil rights movement, the model-minority discourse extols the virtues of Asian-Americans in stark contrast to the ‘culture of poverty’ attributed to African-Americans. This racial wedge may be more relevant today with the sharpening of identity politics. But Korean-American cultural studies academic Jane Park, now senior lecturer at the University of Sydney, cautions me against comparative racisms. ‘We don’t have the same dynamic here,’ she says.
Certainly, Australia entertains different racial fault lines. But the good–bad binary could be just as insidious here because Asian-Australians are appropriating it to police members of their own communities, claims Khoo. This policing becomes more politically potent when ethnic leaders are involved, those who have a vested interest in socially constructing a cohesive community of ‘good’ model citizens as a power base. Anyone stepping out of line is likely to be castigated and silenced.
So when Chinese-Australian siblings Benjamin and Michelle Law published their book of deliberately in-your-face witticisms called Sh*t Asian Mothers Say (Nero, 2014), Khoo reminds me that they copped a dose of harsh criticism from certain sections of the Asian-Australian community for ‘trading in stereotypes that make Asians look bad’. I didn’t find the Law brand of maternal irreverence particularly funny, and I said so at the time. But critiquing the book’s literary merits is one thing. Saying that it makes Asians ‘look bad’ is a loaded judgment that vilifies the authors for deviating from the stereotype of the ‘good’ Asian, as if there’s only one way to be Asian-Australian. This hostility to difference is worrying. As it filters into public discourse, it gains legitimacy by reshaping race, which is one way the Asian model-minority narrative maintains its divisive power.
I can offer an antidote to this though: knock the Laws off their pedestal. It’s not as brutal or as inane as it sounds. Allow me to explain. Recently, I saw Michelle Law’s debut play, Single Asian Female, a family tale about a Chinese-Australian mother and two daughters. I was pretty excited to experience a production by and about Asian women, and the show was a sell-out. But I came away a tad disappointed that the play didn’t reflect my lived experience. How ludicrous of me to expect it to.
In multicultural Australia, all our individual narratives deserve equal exposure. But with so few of us punching above that bamboo ceiling, and with the Law clan being such affable overachievers, it’s easy to hoist them onto that pedestal, expect them to represent all Asian-Australian voices. Which is just plain daft on my part, and no different from stigmatising them with the model-minority myth. The burden of representation shouldn’t fall on a select few individuals, not even the Laws. We need to knock them off that pedestal, and rethink diversity as more than mere representation. Given the vast richness of Asian-Australian experiences, the burden is on all of us to fill the multicultural space with our diverse stories, complicate what it means to be Asian, drown out the one-dimensional myths.
What’s promising is that there’s been a flurry of activity among Asian-Australian storytellers in recent years. The screen industry is slow off the mark, but not so the literary scene. Asian-Australian literary journals such as Peril have been around for a decade or more, but newcomers like Pencilled In and Liminal are now go-to places for me to discover authors who are rewriting their own identities as decidedly more ambiguous, diverse and perhaps a little subversive.
THERE ARE AT least two factors behind the burgeoning online creativity of Asian-Australians. First is the ‘Asianisation’ of Australia. The 2016 census tells us that about a quarter of all Australians were born overseas, with China, India, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia overtaking New Zealand, Europe and the United Kingdom as the main origin countries for new migrants. So there are just more of us, and we have voices that are impatient to be heard. Second is the critical work of scholars in Asian-Australian studies who have prepared the intellectual groundwork for the new directions in thinking about identity. This relatively nascent academic field draws on diaspora studies and explorations of cultural ‘mixed-ness’. La Trobe University’s Tseen Khoo is the founding convenor of the Asian-Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN), a mishmash of academics, artists and activists whose research expands the idea of identity as complex, fluid and anti-essentialist. At the risk of elevating Pauline Hanson to a status she hardly deserves among us Asian-Australians, Khoo tells me rather reluctantly that the rise of One Nation in the ’90s was the impetus that kicked off this network. Today, a major pillar of AASRN’s political project is ‘narrative disruption’: resisting objectification by encouraging new subjectivities.
And it’s this idea of new subjectivities that excites me. Just in the past few months, I’ve enjoyed reading the works of Julie Koh, Isabelle Li, Eileen Chong and Melanie Cheng. All engaging, all women, all Asian-Australian, and all with distinctive voices that resist the dominant narrative and its tendency to compartmentalise race, ethnicity or gender. And by that I mean they might subvert the typical migrant arc, or experiment with re-orientalising subjects, or twist and distort stereotypes.
I’m especially intrigued by author Shu-Ling Chua’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’ (Meanjin blog, 17 January 2018), a memoir about sex from an Asian woman’s perspective. I’ve explored similar themes in my work, and I can’t resist falling back on crusty old Orientalist theories or spotlighting the ‘white male gaze’. But Chua turns herself inside out to examine identity and sexuality from within. It seems to me like bravery borne of vulnerability, or is it the other way round? Either way, her work has a tender poignancy that’s disarming, like this line: ‘I touched myself weeks later, head tilted to my bedroom mirror. My sex face didn’t look terrible.’ Or this: ‘Did my forebears overcome poverty so my lover could suggest a threesome? #intergenerationalmobility.’ Chua seems unselfconsciously self referential, which might just work to diminish the power of the white male gaze. Intriguing.
Taiwanese-Australian Christine Ko, a visual artist, also interrogates her identity with a critically sharp eye. Through large-scale installations, she probes the concept of ‘double marginalisation’, a liminal space within a liminal space, defined by marginalisation by ethnicity as well as by class. Ko argues that neoliberal multiculturalism has created a ‘monoculture’ of wealthy Chinese-Australians, which she feels alienated from, not being of the same wealthier migrant class. Some of her works use unspooled videotape to delineate space, inside which she builds cubby house-like immersive interiors that have a neither-here-nor-there cosiness. The tape resembles shiny, black hair, which I instantly recognise as the veil I hid behind when I was a kid. So did Ko. But the tape is also a repository of memories, of the places left behind, and while Ko says she chose it because videotape is obsolete so cheap, I appreciate that it has multilayered meanings, and I like how she plays with flimsy materials to evoke the mutability of identities.
What resonates with me most is Ko’s idea of compound marginalisation. I also feel marginalised from other Asian-Australian migrants. I call it the Anh Do effect. Remember the Vietnamese-Australian comedian’s bestselling book, The Happiest Refugee (Allen & Unwin, 2010)? Just look at the cover. Big, cracked-open-with-joy smile, great teeth, and the boat as the backdrop. Ah, the boat. The boat is such a powerful symbol of the perilous migrant journey and the moral fortitude needed to survive it.
I have no boat. Which is to say, I have no triumph over adversity, no compelling grandiose narratives in my migrant story. But that shouldn’t make my story less worthy. I don’t think the multicultural project makes such value judgments. Or does it? Around forty years ago, when Australia began welcoming large numbers of ‘boat people’, the boat was a symbol of our national largesse, our warm-hearted openness. Today, boat people are a threat, devious outsiders who’ll jump the queue; terrorists even. A boat today is more like a red flag to the rednecks.
The point I want to make is that while narratives matter, you can’t always control how they’re read. In fact, the most compelling aspect of identity, and concepts such as race and culture that make up identity, is their malleability, the infinitely stretchy qualities that make them irreducible to absolutes. Without this quality, we wouldn’t have fusion food – and how boring would Australian multiculturalism be then? But on a serious note, this malleability also makes these concepts empty vessels that anyone can choose to fill with an agenda of their own.
I suspect that’s why I feel I don’t have a handle on my own Japanese-Australian identity. Fifty years ago this year, my family arrived in Sydney on a plane. Post Pacific War fear and hate of the ‘Japs’ was still palpable. But that image was soon rehabilitated by the intensifying Cold War, as Japan became an important ally to the West as the fear of encroaching communism intensified. But I reckon the clincher was the release of the hip and revolutionary Sony Walkman cassette player circa 1979. Japan became an advanced economy around this time, and I felt people looked at me differently, as if my technological savvy DNA would ooze out and anoint them. Their eyes opened wide instead of narrowing. I felt it. No kidding. Perhaps it’s the same way we revere (or don’t revere) the Swedes for bestowing us with Ikea. Of course, how people view me is not the same as my identity. But what’s important to note is how ‘race’ is socially, politically and even geopolitically constructed. Just how that moulds our identities is one of the most intriguing insights of multiculturalism.
I HAVE ANOTHER confession. I’ve never actively interrogated my ethnic identity. The Japanese community in Australia is small and transient, many returning to Japan as they age. Some of us are even dubbed ‘lifestyle migrants’, and many in the Japanese community still cling to essentialised ideas of Japanese-ness. But lacking a sense of community is not the reason I rarely think about my identity. And here comes the really big confession – throughout most of my life, I’ve aspired to be white. Growing up in Australia in the ’70s, my heroes were mostly white and male – the Lone Ranger, Superman, James Bond, even Maxwell Smart – ruggedly individual men who fought evil outsiders and triumphed. Perhaps not explicitly but instinctively I understood white privilege, even as a kid. And as a little yellow girl, perhaps I sensed that becoming a member of the hard working, uncomplaining model minority was the most expedient way to find acceptance in Australia. Fitting in meant being subsumed by the dominant narrative.
But something changed a few years ago. I saw an affecting documentary performance created by my friend and artist Mayu Kanamori called Yasukichi Murakami: Through a Distant Lens (2015), based on the real-life story of Murakami, photographer and inventor who arrived in Australia from Japan in 1897. I already knew the history of the first Japanese settlers in Australia, their contributions to the pearling industry, their internment during the Pacific War, their postwar forced repatriation. But I felt no connection to these people. I didn’t grow up hearing stories about them. Why would I? My parents told wartime stories about trading their good kimonos for white rice or the firebombing of Tokyo. But seeing this show and ‘meeting’ the ghost of Murakami on stage made me appreciate the diasporic experience, the idea of being dislocated from where we come from and where we are, feeling like we don’t belong anywhere, not even with our own people. I realise now that this sense of ‘un-belonging’ is a kind of belonging too.
I think Mayu is brave, fossicking around in historical archives for stories to reimagine. It takes more than research skills – the written history of Japanese-Australians is incomplete at best. It takes a gutsy dose of moral imagination. For I know that storytelling for her is a political project. For every story we tell about even minority minorities like the Japanese diaspora (or Nikkei) in Australia, we amplify the spirit of multicultural inclusiveness. I’d like to think all stories, including mine, belong to all Australians. I do love stories.