How Asian am I?

It was my first week at university, and I was sitting with people I’d only just met, cringing at a joke someone made about ‘those Asians who are always wearing the same damn University of Melbourne jumper everyday’. At this point, I felt compelled to interject, ‘Hey! I’m Asian too!’ They turned towards me appraisingly. The hazel-eyed girl to my right grabbed my shoulder, in what I believe was meant to be a comforting gesture, with an incredulous snort. ‘No way, you’re not, like, Asian Asian at all!’

I don’t know what response I was expecting. Maybe an awkward laugh, maybe I was fishing for compliments for my carefully-put-together outfit, maybe I wanted to test the waters to see how my ethnic status would fit in with the new cultural climate. But I did not expect to be told that I was actually not Asian.

A few days later, I met two Sri-Lankan girls. Hoping for some kind of camaraderie, I recounted this bizarre incident. After all, bitching always breaks the ice, right? To my surprise, they shared a knowing smirk and nonchalantly revealed, ‘In Melbourne, they won’t classify you as Asian.’ To be Asian was, apparently, to have ‘yellow-er’ skin. This ruled out Indians, Malays, and every other vaguely dark-skinned Asian, including myself. Relentless, I insisted, ‘Singapore is in Asia, India is in Asia, and so is Sri-Lanka. That’s just basic geography. I mean, where do they think India is? In Europe?’ Laughing, the taller one casually informed me, without any trace of sarcasm, that here, my racial identifier was ‘curries’. I instantly regretted undertaking this ice-breaking endeavour. Absolutely nothing could make this moment more awkward for me.

The incident reminded me a lot of my first year of primary school in Singapore. I was often told by fellow Chinese classmates that I was not Chinese, and simultaneously told by fellow Indian classmates that I was not Indian. ‘You’re Rojak!’ (a name for a local delicacy that features a mix of ethnic cuisines) someone joked. It was funny, so I laughed along. It didn’t help that I wasn’t all that good at either being Indian or Chinese. I didn’t understand the jokes in dialect, and I hadn’t tried famous ethnic delicacies like Roti Canai or Kway Chap. I didn’t fit in, and I had no chance of faking it.

As I grew up, however, I became less concerned with fitting in. When faced again with this awkward question about my ethnicity, humour would be the first card I played. ‘I’m Rojak,’ I’d smirk.

It was funny, so they would laugh.

I couldn’t have plagiarised that joke in Melbourne. I doubt Rojak even existed here. So forced by circumstances to come up with an identifier, I told people ‘I’m from Singapore’. Then, playing the humour card once again, ‘Oh my god, you don’t even know where that is, do you?’

In the event that I did relate the little I know of my convoluted ethnic background to strangers, it would often illicit interesting responses. Most of the time, I was left mildly amused by the furrowed brows of bewilderment and confusion on their faces, often followed by a thoughtful, ‘That’s so interesting…’

Once, a grown woman actually asked me, ‘Why would your parents want to marry each other?’ Then, upon discovering that my grandparents also had a cross-ethnic marriage decades ago, exclaimed, ‘They are crazy!’

A year into being away from Singapore, when I thought all my awkwardness surrounding my ethnicity had been properly pacified, it came back to haunt me in a completely different form. This was the moment that made me realise that all those little things I had experienced as a child in school and on that first week in Melbourne were all a part of this big and complicated problem: racism, a problem I had somehow deluded myself to believe I had sneakily averted by virtue of my elusive racial orientation.

I met Ariel* at a Japanese sushi restaurant, celebrating a birthday for a mutual friend. We had been introduced before. She’s ‘half-white’, she said: Australian born and bred, with her dad is Malaysian. Intrigued, I enquired about which part of Malaysia they were from, but she corrected me, ‘No, no, we’ve never actually lived in Malaysia.’

Biting back a snarky response about how Malaysian is a nationality, not a race, I entertained the standard questions about how clean Singapore is and about the amazing food. I was happy, for a moment, to meet someone curious about the country I know and love. Then she started encouraging me to say something in Chinese.

First of all, my Mandarin is terrible. It was the one dreaded compulsory subject I struggled even to pass, all the way until I was finished with school. Secondly, darling, Chinese isn’t a language. Mandarin is. I disappointed her with my miserable failure at Mandarin, feeling a bit unworthy of her prior enthusiasm, and also a little un-Singaporean, like I did way back in primary one. She looked confused, ‘But everyone in Singapore speaks Chinese! You’d have to, it’s your national language.’

As the conversation progressed, I don’t know which of us was more confused. Ariel, relentlessly insisting that Singapore was a Chinese-speaking Asian country, with Chinese natives, and that ‘even all the parliamentary documents are in Chinese!’ or me, in the peculiar position of being told that I was wrong about everything. Because she was ‘pretty sure’ about this, I decided it might be helpful to reiterate that I am, in fact, Singaporean, and had lived there for most of my life. We don’t all speak Mandarin, we are a multi-racial country, and the official national language of Singapore is Malay, although we use English in the parliamentary documents.

‘Are you really sure, though? Because I’m pretty sure.’

And there, once again, I was robbed of my identifier. No. I guess I’m not that sure after all. Am I still Singaporean if I don’t conform to someone’s expectations of what it means to be Singaporean? Am I still Asian? Am I just meant to accept these absurd new labels, just to adapt to a culture that is ignorant about mine? Could I still call myself Chinese or Indian if those genes only contributed to approximately a quarter or half, respectively, of my existence? The way I, or my cultural heritage, looks to someone else shouldn’t matter to anyone but myself, so why does it still make me so uncomfortable? And most importantly, why does it matter what race I am anyway?

Well-worn out of ways of turning the situation into a clever joke, I turned back to the sushi belt, wielding my chopstick swords and hoping to quell my emotions with food. This was when I noticed a large deep red bottle labelled ‘Heinz Tomato Ketchup’, between the salmon sashimi and a pot of wasabi. No way, I thought, now that’s definitely not Asian. But would you believe it? A quick Google search later told me that, actually, ketchup is Asian.

*Ariel is not her real name.

Rachael Lopez

Rachael Lopez is not from here. She enjoys reading subject descriptions, sometimes fantasises about spending her entire life as a student at university, and hopes to write something worth someone's time. You can find her on twitter at @rxxxxxl.

More by Rachael Lopez ›

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  1. What a great piece, Rachel! I’m from Singapore too, and I’m mixed race as well. It’s really weird, I’ve been living in Melbourne for more than 3 years and I still get pretty stupid comments about my race. Not just from Australians (“You’re from Singapore? But your English is so good!”), but Asians too. I can totally relate to you, Asians don’t consider me Asian either, which is…disappointing sometimes.

    Race should be a non-issue, but realistically speaking, your identity is somewhat shaped by what you look like and how people behave around what you look like.

  2. As incredibly helpful as web-only articles on Overland may be towards your efforts to define and articulate your cultural identity, perhaps simply making the effort to talk about your heritage and humbly explain what it means to be Singaporean to your friends and acquaintances, without the implied judgment of their apparently unforgivable ignorance, you may have some luck in opening up understandings of what it means to be Asian in Australia, darling.

    1. Perhaps if Rachel was asked to explain what her heritage was and how she would define her cultural identity, rather than being told, she would humbly oblige.

    2. You are what is commonly referred to as “part of the problem”.

      Someone writes thoughtfully about their first-hand experience of being the victim of racism, and here you are, showing up in the comments section of a web-only article on Overland, belittling their story, muttering it’s their fault people were racist, they didn’t educate every single person they came in contact with!

      A hint for you, darling: her birth didn’t bestow her with the responsibility to become a cultural teacher.

      Ignorance is not a defence, and she’s well within her rights to be annoyed if she wants.

    3. Why the F should she explain it *humbly*??? See also: explaining it at all.

      Your patronising ‘darling’ at the end of this ridiculous comment is abhorrent. (And before you jump to it, her use of the same word in relation to Chinese not being a language was completely justified. As a major trade partner and leader in the Asia-pacific region, China is a country that Australians should know at least a couple of things about. No excuses – certainly not if you’re trying to assert your knowledge of the official language if another Asia-pac country, ffs.

    4. Did you not read the article, Kel? Did you not read the part where Ariel tries to teach her about how things are run in Singapore?

      “But everyone in Singapore speaks Chinese! You’d have to, it’s your national language.’

      Rachael clearly tried to explain to Ariel about how things are run, but no, she would not listen. She even had the audacity to try and correct someone who had lived in Singapore for most of her life. Please please please explain to me how she isn’t trying to make an effort and how she could have improve.

    5. I’m a mixed Australian-Indonesian and Rachael has written about something really important to me.
      I’d like to add that it’s exhausting to constantly be in the position of reiterating and affirming one’s own identity.

  3. Perhaps if Rachel was asked to explain what her heritage was and how she would define her cultural identity, rather than being told, she would humbly oblige.

  4. It’s interesting (and convoluted, surely) how discourses around what it means to be Asian are constantly centered around whiteness. Geographically, it makes sense that Indians and Malays (for e.g.) are Asian, however due to the privilege conferred to light-skinned folk, only people of East Asian descent are considered ‘Asian’ in the general consciousness. It is the direct product of the “Model Minority” myth borne out of white institutions.

  5. Great read Rachael, hope life is good for you wherever you are; biting back snarky responses is the way to go! Btw, you’ll always be Singaporean to me. Take care and all the best!

  6. Ignorance is something we are all exposed to every day, and typically something we all also exhibit in different ways… the problem is, we typically dont know we’re doing it.

    You could do worse then to help others discover their own ignorance through polite and courteous discourse (like you have done) although I admit, I am sometimes guilty of making good humoured fun to get my point across and I regularly use my smartphone if we cant agree.

    Adrienne – I agree that Indians and Malays should be considered Asian if using geography to determine inclusion but I dont agree with your comment re “direct product of the Model Minority”. In my experience, it is just pure geographical ignorance.

  7. I was on board with this until it got to the anecdote about Ariel. Ariel might be terribly ignorant about Singapore but it also feels like in your bid to articulate your own complex identities, you want to collapse everyone else’s into something more uniform.

    There’s just two lines that are bugging me here:

    “Biting back a snarky response about how Malaysian is a nationality, not a race”
    Of course I recognise that Malaysia is a multiracial country and that race, ethnicity and nationality are distinct if often overlapping. But what’s wrong with Ariel identifying herself as simply Malaysian? You realise that “Chinese” and “Indian” are nationalities too, right? That China and India are also multi-ethnic countries? The norms around what is considered a legitimate ethnic identity are often situated in a context of nationalism, and can always be further problematised.

    “Chinese isn’t a language. Mandarin is.”
    Both “Chinese” and “Mandarin” are not words in any Chinese language and imperfect translations of a bunch of different concepts in Chinese languages. But arguably Chinese is a language – the official national language of both China and Taiwan. It’s certainly a written language, albeit one that exists in varied forms of simplification and modernisation. As a spoken language, Standard Chinese is based on northern Chinese languages but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist and should be referred to by the names of those languages, any more than, say, Spanish should be called Castilian. But also I think it’s fine for people to ask if you speak “Chinese” as shorthand for “a Chinese language” rather than listing the myriad languages. And yes, I know I’m probably a bit touchy about this because my native tongue is a Chinese language that’s neither Mandarin nor Cantonese (nor Hokkein or Hakka), but anyway.

  8. As a Singaporean Chinese in the US, I was once told by a white man that I was not Chinese, but Singaporean. People have very different ideas of the borders that delineate each label. The silver lining of these incidents is that at least they provoke us to think about how we choose our labels. Do I call myself Singaporean because of my citizenship? Or is there a Singaporean culture which I partake in and identify with? Can I be Chinese, Singaporean and Indian at the same time? What do each of those labels mean, and what do I say about myself when I choose to identify as them?

    I dare not say there are easy answers. But locked into a world of fluid identities and rigid labels, it is sometimes meaningful to ask ourselves how the two interact and how we can work with them.

  9. Excellent piece. What you wrote about being “robbed of” your identifier resonated particularly strongly with me. As a Malaysian of mixed (Chinese + English) ancestry, I know exactly how frustrating explaining one’s background to others can be. Particularly when the constructed boundaries of nationality and ethnicity don’t quite line up.

    A mixed identity can take a life time to figure out and negotiate, but there seem to be a lot of people who are ready to make sweeping pronouncements a few minutes after meeting you. I’m in the funny position of having my ethnicity re-classified wherever I go. In my home country (Malaysia), I’m classified as ‘European’ on my birth cert and identity documents. But while I was a student in Australia, I was Asian. (I wrote a short piece on this last year). I think the key thing here is that everyone’s identity is theirs to negotiate and (re)fashion. We should always be wary of attempts to pigeonhole us into tidy ethnographic boxes.

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