A letter to Asian girls
Have you ever wanted to wake up white?
A few years ago, I was on a date. It was 11pm; we were in the city and walking back to his place. My date, who later became my boyfriend, is a charming and intelligent African Australian, deeply attuned to his own racial identity – as you would have to be growing up brown in Australia. I am an Asian-Australian woman.
It was our third date. We were on Lonsdale Street when a group of loud, drunk white men stumbled in front of us. One of them turned to my partner and whisper-shouted, “Congratulations man, you got an Asian girl! How did you get an Asian girl? You’re Black.”
We looked at each other and kept walking. We were silent on the way home.
Outside his apartment, he turned to me and asked: “Is there anything you want me to say? When people call me the n-word on the street, there are certain words I want to hear from my friends. Is there anything I can do?”
More silence. I didn’t have an answer for him.
I realised then that I’d never had an answer.
The night crawled. I told him, “Nothing. Don’t do anything, I don’t expect anything. I’m used to it.”
What I couldn’t tell him was that time I was eight-years-old and a white middle-aged man approached me in the supermarket. I was picking carrots for my mother when he told me, “I really like Asian pussy. I can’t wait to try out your tight cunt.”
When I told him I was from Melbourne, he then asked, “But where are your parents from?”
I didn’t know what I had done. I didn’t know there were so many ugly words in this world that people could use to describe me.
What I couldn’t tell my partner was that other time I was eleven-years-old, and another white middle-aged man approached me. This time, I was in a bookstore. I was in primary school and had discovered that I loved reading. I wanted to be Claudia Kishi from the Baby-Sitters Club because she was artsy and effortlessly cool. As I grew older, I realised that ten-year-old me had wanted to be Claudia Kishi because she was the only character whose family looked like mine, who stuck out like a sore thumb in the whiteness of her fictional town Stonybrook. Out of all the books I borrowed from the library and the books I begged my mother to buy, she was the only character who looked like me.
But I didn’t tell my partner this. The man in the bookstore started asking questions, but his first one was: “Where are you from?” When I told him I was from Melbourne, “born and raised,” he then asked, “But where are your parents from?” I told him, they were from China and that I was Chinese.
He looked at me and said, “Did you know that Chinese girls make good prostitutes? Would you like to get coffee with me and I can show you?”
When I was thirteen and fourteen, and old enough to take public transport by myself, I was sexually assaulted on the train. Both times, the men started with, “Where are you from? You are so beautiful. Are you Japanese? Are you Chinese?”
The first time, I froze as he began touching me and pressing me against the carriage wall. I didn’t know what was happening. My mother had always told me that bad things would happen to bad girls. But I hadn’t been bad. I didn’t know what I had done.
The second time was worse because no one did anything and no one said anything. Not the other passengers who watched from their train seats, and definitely not my mother. I came home crying, and she told me, “Don’t be so naive. You’re too young to understand what happened. Don’t talk about this again.”
We have never spoken about it to this day.
By the time I was fifteen, I wanted nothing to do with my race. I went to bed every night wishing I could just wake up white. I hated my parents because my life would have been so much easier if they weren’t Chinese – if I hadn’t been born Chinese. I stopped speaking my language. I had heard too many ching chong chang’s when I walked down the street, courted too many catcalls, encountered countless white men who would leer as they passed me and shouted “ni hao” at the same time.
I watched as English infantilised my parents, as teachers, waiters and real estate agents asked me to ‘translate’ my parents’ broken English while laughing at their accents and grammatical fumbles. I resented my parents for their foreignness, for not learning English well enough, for embarrassing me in public when they spoke Chinese. I realise now that I was breaking my parents’ hearts.
I broke my parents’ hearts when I begged them to dye my hair blonde when I was six. (My father told me that story when I was much older.) I was the only Asian child in my very white primary school, a school with a veggie patch and a trout farm sequestered in the beachy south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. The children around me would pull their eyes into slanted slits and ask questions about my squishy nose. They asked if I ate dog, and ran away from the dumplings that my mother had made the night before, rolling out the dough, carefully filling each pocket, sealing the dumpling shut. By the time I was twelve, I stopped eating the lunch my mother packed, and I started researching plastic surgeons that could turn my flat Chinese nose into a beautiful white nose, my small Asian eyes into round double-lidded eyes.
I went to bed every night wishing I could just wake up white
I developed body dysmorphia. An eating disorder. Intense anxiety. I couldn’t eat because if my face could never be beautiful, then at least my body could be. I couldn’t go to school because I was too scared to leave the house. Every time I stepped outside, I had this crippling fear of being racially and sexually assaulted.
During high school, I heard things like, “Have you noticed that there aren’t that many pretty Asians?” and, “Was the guy hot? Nah, he was Asian.” No one around me ever had a crush on an Asian person, and whenever someone told me I was pretty, they always told me I was a “pretty Asian.” As if the default appearance of all Asians was set to average-unattractive and the “pretty Asian” was an anomaly. I could never just be a “pretty person” because Asians were always judged separately.
There is a lower beauty threshold for people like me.
When my Asian friends tell me they don’t find Asians attractive, I am angry, but I also understand. I have hated my appearance for nearly all my life, and this hatred has defined attractiveness as always white and never Asian. Because it was my appearance that marked me as different, a body that never belonged in this country, a target for middle-aged white men.
It was my appearance that made people shout ugly racist things to me, that I’m a preference that boys “don’t do,” and it was my appearance that entitled strangers to ask, “Where are you from?” and shout bastardised Chinese words across the street. I empathise with my friends who say they only date white boys. Did they grow up like me, thinking I could never be beautiful because of my Asianess, my small eyes, flat face and flat nose? Did they spend their childhood and early teenage years comparing themselves to white women? Maybe.
I started healing in university. Slowly. I discovered Franz Fanon and Homi Bhabha, Ien Ang and Alice Pung, and they gifted me the vocabulary to express the confusion and hatred I had felt for the past 20 years. I read and read and read, and through my reading, I found comfort in these scholars who had experienced what I had: that perpetual feeling of “inbetweeness,” of being a hyphenated identity that would never belong anywhere, forever displaced. For the first time, I could articulate my isolation and loneliness, how my appearance excludes me from the white Australian imaginary, and how I am doubly alienated whenever I visit my family in China. I grew up in the west, surrounded by white people with white values, eating white food, not speaking Chinese; I am silent in conversations with my grandparents, with shopkeepers and waiters. They think I am mute, mentally stunted. I look Chinese in a sea of other Chinese people, but they can always tell that I was born elsewhere, from the way I dress, my mannerisms, my directness, because I can’t speak the language.
I fell into Gender Studies, critical race studies and took classes called, Genders and Desires in Asia, Race and Asian American Literature, a history subject that traced the patterns of migration in Australia. Slowly, I began to fit my own story into an unimaginably long history, a narrative made up of others like me.
I found the theory that explained the fraught relationship with my mother and the gap that had widened over the years from things left unsaid, from the language I had lost, and my refusal to visit China and return to my ancestral homeland. I realised why my mother never comforted me when I cried about those men and what they did to me many, many years ago. She never did anything because she didn’t know how to. Because she realised that she couldn’t protect her daughter from the same men, the same words that had hurt her.
I know that I will never be able to leave behind that small shy Asian girl who has been scarred from this white country
Now, at the age of twenty-one, I have more or less come to terms with being both Chinese and a woman. I no longer harbour an intense hatred for an appearance and a culture I never asked for, but I regret all the nasty words I screamed at my parents, the years I missed speaking Chinese, the mooncakes, pork bao and century egg soup I never ate.
It has taken me nearly two decades to identify as an Asian-Australian woman, but I am still incredibly sensitive to the question, “Where are you from? Are you really from Australia?”
I get angry when I see Broadsheet and Urbanlist articles titled, “Top 5 Dumplings in Melbourne” and “Where to Find the Best Yum Cha.” I get angry when I see people I knew from primary and high school Instagram their photos of dumplings, at the night noodle markets posing with their bao and duck pancakes. You used to call my food weird and gross and smelly but now that dumplings are popular, now that white people have decided that my mother’s food is worth eating, I should just “get over” my anger, forget how I was teased, isolated and made to feel like nothing.
There are so many things I wish my younger self knew. To be kind to yourself. You are not alone. Don’t be ashamed of speaking Chinese. Learn to cook your mother’s food. If I knew, maybe I would still be able to speak two languages. Maybe my relationship with my mother wouldn’t be what it is now. Maybe I could have seen myself as beautiful. I don’t know.
What I do know is that I am still living with that girl who has never been able to grow up, move on, “Caroline, why are you still thinking about it? It happened years ago.” I know that I will never be able to leave behind that small shy Asian girl who has been scarred from this white country, but who, in so many ways, has been made strong by what she has endured.
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