Landscape
Type
Reflection
Category
Culture
Identity

Catch them unawares!

A noticeable tattoo is revealed whenever I wear short shorts. Curious people often point to my upper left thigh and ask, ‘What does the scripted tattoo say?’ I tell them it reads ‘B1’, and, if they understand the reference, they will instantly think of the iconic Australian children’s figures Bananas in Pyjamas. I then follow up by saying that B1 and B2 are my uncles and as fellow bananas, we are ‘yellow’ outside and ‘white’ inside.

With my name, Suzanne Nguyen, many will realise that I am Vietnamese. Currently, Nguyen is the seventh most popular Australian surname. In the White Pages, an outdated directory book, the surname was printed over twenty pages. I know because I once counted it myself. Within ten years, Nguyen will overtake Smith, especially in the denser cities like Melbourne and Sydney. It’s a reflection of the growing diversity in Australia and indicates the high volume of Australian residents and citizens with Vietnamese heritage.

I was born to parents who escaped the war in Vietnam and sought refuge in Australia. My parents first met on the boat and then flew to Darwin. They had five children together and we were all born in Australia. When I was younger, especially in high school, I often insisted to others that I was Australian. I didn’t realise it then but I was unconsciously rejecting my Vietnamese heritage.

Despite sounding very ‘Aussie’, it has always bothered me that people don’t automatically recognise that I am Australian. I don’t blame them entirely: most people’s perception have been geared and conditioned to recognise Australia as a ‘white society’. This is, in part, the lingering stench of the White Australia Policy, which only ended in 1973 – less than fifty years ago.

Nowadays, however, Australia happens to be a culturally diverse country with one of three people having parents born overseas. Our top three migrant groups are British, Indian and Chinese. Yet none of these groups lays claim to a surname as rampant as Nguyen. But how would Australia know of this major Nguyen presence, given the dominance of whiteness in Australian popular culture? Do you like bread? Because that is what our screens are like – bland toasted white bread.

Whenever I apply for art grants or prepare for exhibitions, I write that I am Asian Australian. Truthfully, I don’t feel like a human being, but a mere tickable political box. The experience only serves to add to my ongoing questioning of my cultural heritage and I wonder what it means to be Australian and what does it mean to be an Asian in Australia? These are two different questions, instead of finding worthwhile answers, I find that they have given me a complex for all things yellow and white.

Typically, if you’re a Person of Colour (POC), identifying as such suggests a pride in one’s heritage. In my case, there are moments when I feel disconnected to my Vietnamese heritage, but as I grow older and (hopefully) a little wiser, I realise that I must hold strong to heritage. I like the family and cultural values my parents have given me. I like knowing that I can speak a second language. I like the pungent smell of fish sauce as it never fails to remind me of my mother’s comfort cooking. I like knowing that my Asian culture allows me to connect with and sometimes be confused by Asian cultures. I like being yellow.

I am also consciously aware that I grew up thinking like a westerner. I grew up speaking ‘fluent’ English. One of my nostalgic childhood memories is eating cheeseburgers at McDonald’s. The way I think has been westernised, especially since I was educated from preschool to university in an Australian education system. That’s the whiteness within me coming out. Hence, my inner banana complex.

But to be honest, I find labels like POC limiting, which I guess is the genesis of the tattoo. Here’s the thing about labels: not only do they have a power to connect you to a particular group and allow us to feel solidarity, but they also allow people to make us ‘the others’. The feeling tends to be an abrupt feeling of alienation. There is no clear defining line, especially due to the nature of race politics.

So yes, whenever I am asked to identify my heritage, you’ll find it says ‘Asian Australian’ in my bio – but I hope after reading this, you will interpret it to mean: A banana with yellow and white complex.

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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Suzanne Nguyen is a Banana with a yellow and white complex. She’s an artist and story collector who aims to cultivate race discussions and gather diverse Australian stories.

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Comments

  1. ‘Surname’? Does that word carry cultural cultural currency still, or has it become outmoded, like ‘Christian name’, because no longer applicable across the board? Or does language hold sway as the supreme power? Simply wonderin’

  2. I ask people for ‘family name’, and then ‘what would you like me to call you?’. It seems to make sense for most people.

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