One of my earliest memories of New Zealand is of being told to ‘Go back to China!’ in the playground at school (ironically called the Confidence Course). This irked me, because I wasn’t from China.
What dictates where a person is from? It isn’t something usually thought about, more something that is simply a given. I was just me, too young to think about my identity past the immediacy of the national anthem.
I was born in Singapore but hardly remember my eight years there. I recall tuition after school every day, and playing soccer on the street with the Indian boys next door, but that’s the extent of my childhood memories on the island.
But I wasn’t considered Singaporean because I never had the passport.
I remember a little more of Malaysia, but it was only three years before my parents decided it was time to move on for a better future. Even so, it was the home of my forebears; surely it was mine, too.
But I wasn’t considered Malaysian because I wasn’t born there.
I was in national limbo, something I hoped might change in New Zealand. And eventually, being a New Zealander did become my identity. Gaining a New Zealand passport and the loss of my Malaysian one simply made it official in the eyes of the law.
To me, I could be both a New Zealander and of Chinese descent. It seemed simple enough, like choosing a coat for the weather—I slipped into either as the occasion required. At school, I was a Kiwi. At home, with relatives, I observed the Chinese traditions: Chinese New Year, the Lantern Festival, respected my elders.
I cultivated a New Zealand accent to avoid the ‘Where are you from?’ question. If I sounded Kiwi, surely that made me Kiwi. It worked, somewhat. The bullying shifted from overt racism to a more subtle difference that excluded me from being classed as ‘fresh off the boat’.
‘It’s okay,’ I was told, usually after bearing witness to someone else being told to go back to China. ‘You don’t count—you’re pretty much white.’
I was promoted to the status of a banana: yellow on the outside and white on the inside. I could hang out with the Kiwi kids and not have my race drawn to attention. I embraced it; at that age, I would’ve taken anything to fit in. I wanted to be white, I wanted to be normal. I wanted to just live my life.
Nonetheless, curiosity has a way of inspecting deviations from the norm, like contemplating a jumbled Rubik’s Cube. How could it be manipulated, how could it be put back together, how could the colours be put in their place? I may have sounded like a local, but I sure didn’t look like one. Even if I’d been born in Aotearoa, somewhere along the line something foreign had been injected, something that very clearly did not belong to either the indigenous Maori or the European settlers.
‘Where are you originally from?’ became the question. They would inquire with a polite tone, an undercurrent of reminder that I did not really belong. And so it would begin all over again, as if the farther back you went into one’s personal ancestry, the point of difference would finally be revealed as the truth of origin.
As I grew up, so did the discourse. New Zealand was more educated after the immigration boom of the 2000s. You couldn’t say ‘China’ because there were other parts of the world where Asian people lived. And you couldn’t tell them to go back to wherever they were from because that, we were learning, was racism. The question evolved into a more discerning catch-all: ‘Where are your parents originally from?’ I attempted to deflect the inquiries and point out that European settlers were, not that long ago, immigrants themselves, but this just went over their heads.
I moved away from Auckland, the big smoke, to a rural town but that turned out to be a step backward. Coupled with the interest of where my parents were from was how impressed everyone was by my English. There seemed to be a notion that the English language had to be learned by immigrants, even though it is one of four official languages in Singapore, and held up to their myopic standard of what ‘good’ English was, as if white people had a monopoly on mastering the English language.
You have no accent at all, they praised, after their curiosity had been satisfied and my identity properly categorised. And with that, my assimilation was complete.
Unexpectedly, I had mixed feelings. Just as a liquid fills the void left by the removal of a solid object before it, the fluidity of my identity shifted and created a new limbo, a cultural one this time. Was my racial descent now rendered invisible, apparent only if I reminded myself and others of it—would it only come out for Chinese New Year, or only when I ate mooncakes in celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival?
I moved to Australia in October 2015, braced for the rinse and repeat of tracing my roots with strangers while I navigated reclaiming ownership of my culture for myself. Contrary to expectation, I have found my identity as a New Zealander thrust upon me in that time. Nobody cares that I’m Chinese, born in Singapore to Malaysian parents.
‘You’re from New Zealand, aren’t you?’ they say, with a little smirk once they’ve placed my accent.
Everyone assumes they know where I am from, and nobody cares to interrogate that further. It is as though the accent I cultivated for myself all those years ago has added a new, even more incongruous layer to my identity in Australia: I am not an Asian with a local accent, but I am not an Asian with a stereotypically ‘fresh’ accent, either. Because of this, only one layer of my identity seems to be peeled back for now.
In a way, that has made it peaceful enough for me to contemplate who I am for myself. I am a New Zealander and I am of Chinese descent, ready to take hold of my identity and to figure out the Rubik’s Cube any way I wish.
Image: ‘Auckland streets’ / flickr