Published in Issue 2 of Mous. Magazine (print), September 2016. Feature Image by Gabrielle Glen.
Who’s Your Celebrity Twin? It was the typical tween pastime, flipping through the personality quizzes in our schoolyard stash of Dolly magazines – pages of hot pink, encouraging young girls to project their budding sense of identity onto the cookie moulds of teen idols. Tomboys were Avril Lavigne. Hippies were Mary-Kate Olsen. If you wore pink lip-gloss, you were definitely Rachel Bilson.
I asked my friends for my celebrity counterpart and, without a beat, I was Lucy Liu. Not because I had her beautiful feline eyes or her razor-sharp cheekbones (my pre-pubescent features were all chubby cheeks). Hell, she wasn’t even on the quiz. I was Lucy Liu because she was the only Asian they knew.
I realised then that my ethnicity defined me.
It didn’t matter how I answered the questions – how much I dressed like a skater-punk or what colour lip-gloss I wore. I’d always be somebody’s Lucy Liu.
I moved to Australia from Singapore when I was five. When most people think of Singapore, they think of stopovers, humidity and a nationwide ban on chewing gum. Having spent only my first few blurry years there, that was the extent of my knowledge too. And that made me the perfect Weird New Girl – a foreign novelty, complete with a bowl cut, dorky threads and absolutely no knowledge of Australian playground slang.
It wasn’t like I grew up in some backwards, hick town. If suburban middle-class Australia were a blank white canvas, I’d be in the mass of coloured paint splattered in the corner. Little Asian girls existed but we weren’t central to the classic Australian narrative. Of course, there were people who wanted Australia’s canvas to remain pristine and untouched, but I was a kid, and our country’s migration policy wasn’t something I’d give much thought to until later.
What I did think about, constantly, was how alien I felt next to my white schoolmates. My easiest friendships were made with the few other ethnic kids. Contrary to the big-mouthed bullies, this wasn’t some active decision not to assimilate – an ‘Asian invasion’, as they called it. We got along because they understood when my parents wouldn’t let me go out on a Friday night, or why I couldn’t have a boyfriend in Junior High. Nothing was lost in translation.
The other kids’ preconceptions of me stemmed from racial stereotypes in the media. I was painfully shy, so they didn’t have much else to go by. They pegged me as the Hello Kitty-obsessed overachiever, whose tiger parents would starve me of rice if I didn’t get top marks. Truthfully, my parents were the coolest middle-aged weirdos out there, and I didn’t even like rice. I’d tell anyone who’d listen how bad at maths I was.
This sense of otherness wasn’t just from clueless ten year olds who watched too many Rob Schneider movies. Teachers would ask me where I was from during the first roll call of every year. They never asked the ‘normal-looking kids’, but apparently there was a big ‘other’ mark on my forehead that had to be filled with my geographic origin. As genuinely curious they may have been, I hated having to explain my presence in their country. I hated having to acknowledge that I didn’t belong.
By the age of twelve, ‘Asian’ had become a dirty word.
All this internalised racism had cemented itself into my impressionable teenage psyche. In high school, I was determined to deny all traces of my Asian background in an attempt to fit in. I’d roll my eyes out of my head every time someone asked me if I spoke Chinese. “You’re cool for an Asian” became my favourite compliment, second only to “What big eyes you have”. All the better to reject my heritage with, my dear.
But, of course, I played the violin. I attended an orchestra camp not long after starting at a new school, and apart from the perfunctory exchanges on where to stack the music stands, nobody talked to me. A few months later, when I had developed a speaking relationship with one of the woodwinds, I asked her why everyone was so icy. “We thought you were with the Asians,” she said unapologetically.
It was mostly casual racism – the occasional ching-chong accent or cheap joke about eating dogs (honestly) – but I fell victim to the heavier stuff too. In Junior High, a boy called me a “fucking chink bitch” in the locker area. I pretended not to hear him, so he said it even louder. No big deal, I told myself. There are bigger problems in the world. I don’t remember what I did to trigger his wrath, but I do remember crying on my bedroom floor that afternoon.
In some warped extension of cultural appropriation, I felt ashamed for embracing things that would otherwise make a white person look ‘quirky’ or ‘worldly’. I was mocked relentlessly during my brief anime phase, and when I cut my hair into a fringed bob, I was told I looked like a foreign exchange student (kawaii!). My friends were embarrassed to be seen around me when I bought my first real camera – I looked like an Asian tourist.
Pressured by the debilitating high school pecking order, I distanced myself from the girls who listened to K-Pop and used Morning Glory stationery. They were nothing but nice to me, but I saw them as the quintessential Asians – the reason nobody else would lay claim to me. I was never a particularly defiant kid (my music library was more punk than I ever was) but in my own way, this was my fit of teenage rebellion. This was my way of rejecting labels.
Imagine my surprise when I entered the big bad world of dating. All through adolescence, my ethnicity was a hindrance, something I’d downplay for the sake of being treated like an equal. Suddenly, it was a commodity. There was a certain type of guy who favoured oriental cuisine, and for a while, flattered by the attention, I was all too happy to hang out at the buffet.
“What type of Asian are you?” they’d ask, with the zeal of a Pokémon card collector.
It wasn’t always easy to detect those with Yellow Fever. Some were creepily upfront about their preferences (“Asian women are so alluring”) while others were fixated on my “Asian hair” or my “Asian skin”. Taxidermy-level obsessed. The bad ones kept a tally of how many Asian girls they had dated.
I get that people have a type, believe me. I’m attracted to boys with long hair who look like they’ve had two hours of sleep. I’m attracted to boys who read and I’m attracted to boys who dress like David Bowie. But to single out an entire race, and base an infatuation merely on the colour of my skin or the slant of my eyes? These boys didn’t want to know me – they acted like they already did.
I tried to explain my repulsion to my friends, but some of them didn’t get it. “So what if he’s only dated Asian girls?” they’d ask.
It’s disheartening when someone likes you merely for something you were born into – something you have no control over. It dehumanises Asian women and perpetuates the pervasive, confining archetypes that turn us into exotic sexual objects instead of, like, people. I am more than a stereotype – more than some giggly schoolgirl or fragile china doll. I am not submissive, quiet and demure. And even if I were, it would have nothing to do with my race.
I’m all for interracial relationships. I love the sharing, not the tokenising, of cultures. I bubble over with happiness when I see unconventional pairings depicted on my TV screen, or walking down the street. It says – hey, humans are not purebred dogs! We can love whoever we want, however we want! You don’t need to be in a same-race, stock-photo nuclear family to be happy!
So, when I started seeing someone new, one of my friends asked me about him – the classic post-date, girl-talk debrief.
“He’s cool,” I said. “Lanky, blond–”
“Oh, he’s not Asian?”
I shook my head.
“Good on you!”
I wanted to ask her what that meant, but I knew. By dating a white boy, I had officially become one of them. I had broken barriers and overcome adversity to earn a place in their exclusive club. A true success story.
I distinctly remember a conversation with my dad as we drove home from school one afternoon. Ever the cynic, he told me I’d have to work twice as hard as the white kids. He wasn’t bitter – it was just some factual fatherly advice, like not to leave food in my room or how to defend myself against strange men. I resented this victim mentality, as if I was cursed as a female of colour. So what if I’m Asian? So what if I’m a girl?
I hate it when Dad is right.
When you’re white, you can be anything you want – an intellectual, a jock, a muso, a princess. You can be anything, because it’s all been done before in music, movies and the whitewashed norms of Western society. You can have different characteristics and interests (and relationships) without being pigeonholed into some preconceived role.
White people are fed images that align with their own perception of themselves. These are the same images people of colour try to force themselves to fit into. The same images I forced myself into, for years.
I’m happy with the way I turned out and I’m content with who I am. Nowadays, I surround myself with peers who celebrate my diversity, whilst seeing me for more than my race. Being Asian is just one more dot point I can add to the long list of things that make me me – it’s not the flashing WordArt plastered at the top of the page.
But it took years for me to reach even this initial level of acceptance. You don’t have that sense of perspective when you’re young and trying so damn hard to earn the world’s approval. That’s a big chunk of your existence spent begging your mum to dye your hair blonde. A whole lot of sleepless nights feeling anguish, self-loathing and shame about your identity.
Think about that the next time you scrunch your nose at someone’s weird lunch or ask if someone is related to the Purple Wiggle, “you know, the Asian one”. Think about that the next time you call someone Lucy Liu. ♦