On not speaking Chinese

In our latest CAL Connections essay, ‘The name and the face’, writer and performance poet Juliana Qian writes about her experience growing up as an Australian from a non-English-speaking-background in suburban Melbourne. Qian describes how she was ‘expected to abandon her culture’ with the promise that ‘with assimilation comes equality’. She recalls embracing Enid Blyton and Judy Blume and forgetting Chinese ‘word by word’. But in the eyes of fellow Australians she remained ‘other’, forever associated with a limited version of what it meant to be Chinese that didn’t capture her experiences.

As Qian became an adult, she discovered the stories her family told that did speak to her – stories of struggle and resistance, both in China and the diaspora – and aspects of Chinese culture that she connected with. From these encounters, Qian was able to forge a new, more nuanced relationship with the Chinese aspects of identity. We spoke to Qian about her essay.


There are aspects of traditional Chinese culture that it seems many Australians expect you to identify with that don’t speak to you – traditional marriage, religion, language, etc. But there are other aspects of the Chinese diasporic experience that you do connect with. In your piece, for example, you mention your discovery of Chinese Queer Cinema as being meaningful to you. How did you go about finding aspects of Chinese culture that you connected with? Can you talk about why it was important for you to make those connections?

Often I’ve found things by accident or, rather, they’ve found me. But more and more I’m discovering aspects of Chinese culture through my queer, feminist and anti-racist networks, and through other diasporic Chinese people. I guess these connections are important for me because I am interested in history, in heritage, in the lineage of ideas and identities, in community and culture and change.

It’s not so much that these traditions don’t speak to me as that I don’t see tradition as monolithic and determining. Usually, when people venerate tradition, they deny some traditions in favour of others. I think it’s important – particularly in relation to gender and sexuality – to remember our predecessors and to resist the notion that queer or feminist thinking is a Western import or invention.

I guess in part I take note of how China is changing, of how Chineseness is changing, so I can talk back to expectations of what a Chinese person should be or know or think. If I can’t escape that, I can at least anticipate it and gather the tools to counter some of those expectations.

A part of your family history that seems to resonate with you is the stories of struggle and resistance that your parents and grandparents have told you. You mention hearing the story of your great-grandmother’s refusal to participate in the tradition of foot-binding and your grandparents burning their books during the Cultural Revolution. Why do you think it was those stories in particular that resonated?

I think because these are stories of change, and whether the individual stories are brave, uplifting, tragic or even mundane, the idea that things do change dramatically and decisively always appeals to me.

What do you recommend to young Australians who may feel like you did when you were in high school?

If I had the opportunity to talk to my fifteen-year-old self (via a LiveJournal post from the future), I’d tell her that white people are never going to forget you’re Chinese. Make of that what you will.

And be kinder to your mother.

You write in your piece that, ‘Australian audiences have an insatiable appetite for the suffering of people of colour, for stories of violence and poverty, trauma and tragedy.’ Yet you write that you ‘came to this country on a Cathay Pacific plane’ and, although you had experiences of ‘racism loss and shame’, you also had experiences that were ordinary, suburban, peaceful and happy – but it seems there’s no place for that narrative in the Australian imagination. Why do you think it is that white Australians are only able to think about the identities of non-white Australians (or Australian People of Colour) in such a limited capacity? What effect does that have on non-white Australians living here?

Mainstream media has a pretty limited imagination in regards to just about every marginalised or minoritised group, so it’s unsurprising. I think, generally, the media approach to people of colour in Australia varies between invisibility, vilification, tokenism and stereotyping – mostly invisibility when it comes to drama, and mostly vilification and stereotyping when it comes to news and current affairs. It reflects a racist mindset, but also just lazy and timid storytelling that depends on well-worn tropes and expects that audiences can only relate to those who are demographically similar. And what’s in the media shapes audience taste as well as responding to it – maybe it creates inaudacious appetites. For people of colour in Australia, particularly for POC artists and media makers, I think there is this pressure to be culturally unique at all times, like your value is in being exotic to a white Australian sensibility – or to try to deny or ignore being a person of colour to escape those expectations.

I see this in the multiculturalist arts sector which I think people imagine is supposed to redress racism. But everything is framed in terms of celebrating or preserving culture, or supporting and representing communities. Which is all well and good but there is actually very little targeting individuals or groups disadvantaged by racism who might want to be doing work that doesn’t have obvious links to cultural heritage.

Cultural diversity and anti-racism are two issues that both require attention, and they’re very much interconnected but Australians often seem to imagine they’re the same thing. I guess that’s one of the reasons why I use person of colour and people of colour instead of ‘culturally and linguistically diverse’ – oppression of non-Anglo-Australian cultures is definitely a problem, but racism is also still a problem. It takes new forms, it finds expression in new, covert and insidious ways, especially when you look at government policies and statements, but you can look at the comments on any Australian newspaper website to see that old racism – classic racism if you like – is still alive and well.

I think there’s also this effect where immigrant people of colour feel they have to justify their presence through their contributions to community or via their tales of survival through hardship – because our presence is suspect. I’ve written about that more here.

[Whoa, went way off topic!]

You mention quite a few Australian writers in your piece that you enjoy reading, including Nam Le, Alice Pung and Anita Heiss. It sounds like you feel they depict a more complex, more accurate version of the Australian experience. Can you talk about what you think these writers are doing in their work that draws you to their stories?

It’s interesting that you say ‘more complex and more accurate’ because I think these writers demonstrate the accuracy of telling very specific stories, both autobiographical and fictional, and that’s maybe where it succeeds. It’s not that I think every media product should represent everyone all the time, and often self-conscious attempts at diversity really fall flat. I like what writer Alyssa Rosenberg said in the conversation around HBO’s Girls, that we need ‘two broad categories of diversity on television: broad shows that include broadly diverse casts, and shows that take deep dives into necessarily narrow settings’, and that it’s the narrow category that currently only shows white settings. When you have a lot of people telling different, specific stories you get complexity.

You can read Juliana’s essay in its entirety, and you can also listen to her poem ‘Tong Xing‘, which we recently published in our first-ever Audio Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Bec Zajac is Overland’s publicity officer. She is also a Master of Journalism student at the University of Melbourne and a broadcaster at 3CR community radio. She has published in Overland, New Matilda, Brooklyn Rail and The Age.

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