I have the name and the face. And if it’s enough to make a stranger shout ni hao at me from across the street, then maybe it should be enough for me too. Sometimes I like a good comeback, something like ‘A-ya, dui bu qi, wo de zhong wen bu shi tai hao, xiang ni zen me cong ming de ren da gai ye hui shuo yin wen ba?’, which means ‘Oh dear, my Chinese isn’t too good, but a genius like you probably also speaks English, right?’ But I can’t be too sarcastic because I dread the day that the smart-arsed white person showing off the language they presume is mine actually does speak better Chinese than I do.
Sometimes ethnic cultures become cool, and mine has been flavour of the month for years. Between acupuncture and Zhang Yimou films, between being intriguingly foreign and a rising economic superpower, China seems to be on everyone’s lips. A lot of people speak Chinese now and I find myself apologising that I can’t appreciate it more. I’m annoyed, defensive and a little ashamed. My own Mandarin is babyish, clunky. My Shanghainese1 fares a little better, but who cares how well I speak something that I have to explain is actually a language.
When my uncle arrived in Sydney in the early 1980s, he walked through Chinatown and someone called out to him in Cantonese. When he looked back blankly they asked, again in Cantonese, ‘Why do you look Chinese but don’t speak Chinese?’ Coming from the People’s Republic of China, he didn’t consider their language to be Chinese, but nevertheless it’s a pertinent question. Ien Ang, the Java-born, Netherlands-raised, Chinese-looking Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Western Sydney, has written an entire book, On Not Speaking Chinese, discussing the cultural and linguistic expectations that ethnic Chinese experience in diaspora. In the first chapter she visits mainland China as an ‘imposed pilgrimage’ to the country that she is assumed to embody, but which has existed for her as a distant, abstract reference. But the relationship between diaspora and mainland isn’t a simple case of periphery and centre. Actor Joan Chen, arriving in Hollywood from Shanghai, found her image seemed inauthentic to directors wanting concubines and dragon ladies. She had to learn to play parts more familiar to ‘a Western version of Chinese-ness’.
I think I was happier in the 1990s when most Australians thought Chinese was one language and my schoolteachers avoided having to say my name. I remember my grade six teacher reading out the seating arrangements for our primary school graduation: ‘the Pizzati family, the Condello family and uh, Juliana’s family’. Now people want to know if I speak Mandarin or Cantonese. Friends post ‘kung hei fat choi’, a Cantonese felicitation, on my Facebook wall at Lunar New Year and I feel like a Scrooge if I snap that first, that’s not my language, and second, I’m too much of a pinko to appreciate wishes of prosperity. Even Westpac wished me a happy new year on a big red poster at my tram stop. I still don’t see my face in Australian film or television too often, but I do see it in advertisements for home loans and insurance. I hear we Asians aren’t very funny or expressive, but we can spend money.
I don’t know the names of gods or how to make zhongzi. The only way I know to pray is as a Catholic. It’s a common problem. Migrants, refugees, colonised peoples, people who have lived through war and revolutions and shifting borders, we’re not always connected to our cultures. I’m ashamed when there’s nothing beneath the face and the name – there are things I feel I should know, things I’m expected to know. Does it even matter? There’s over a billion Han in the world: it’s not like our culture can die out, right?
Kids like me are expected to abandon our cultures, to think of them with shame or nostalgia. Our cultures are exotic, fashionable, fascinating and valuable when contained within or filtered through a white Western lens – then our cultures are glittering mines. But drawing from your own background is backward and predictable if you’re a person of colour. Sometimes white people try to sell me back my culture and I have to buy it. My China is as much the BBC version as it is the PRC one. There are things I want to eat but cannot cook.
Sometimes I’m on Wikipedia looking for the historical context to my parents’ anecdotes. Everything I read is in translation, because I’m illiterate – but also because many of my passions fall foul of Chinese government censorship. The first film I ever watched about lesbians in China was The Chinese Botanist’s Daughters, a French-Canadian co-production that was shot in Vietnam because Chinese authorities refused to approve filming. Even within the People’s Republic of China, organisers of Shanghai Pride 2009, the first large-scale LGBTI event on the mainland, found censors were more willing to approve English-language promotional material.
So I have my mother teach my white boyfriend to make century egg congee just the way I like. And I read Fran Martin and Tze-Lan Sang and wonder if the bulk of scholarship on female homoeroticism in Chinese literature and film has been in English.
During the Cultural Revolution my grandparents burnt all their books in case they would be accused of being bourgeois and counter-revolutionary. This is my culture.
My father is an atheist, but the stories he told me at bedtime were the Bible stories his grandmother had been told by Baptist missionaries. My grandfather, holidaying in Australia in 1997, told me the stories from Xi You Ji, better known in English as Journey to the West or Monkey. This is my culture.
My mother converted to Catholicism after arriving in Australia, following in the footsteps of her father’s half-sister who is a nun in Macau. The seventh of nine children, my great-aunt’s faith was one of few things she could call her own. Sixty years later, she explains that partly she did it to distinguish herself from her younger sister, who was always smarter and prettier than her, but who after two degrees still gave up her own career to take care of her husband and children. If you’re going to follow a man, Great-Aunt Number Seven says, it better be Jesus. This is my culture.
In 1930 my great-grandmother took the bindings off her daughter’s unbroken feet. All her daughters would grow up to walk comfortably, and to read. My grandmother became a doctor, training first in Western medicine then traditional Chinese medicine. Her mother would never take off her shoes in company, even in front of her grandchildren. This is my culture.
In 1985, in Shanghai, my parents married with no ceremony, for fear of appearing ostentatious. My mother kept her maiden name, as had become tradition. In 1996, five years after migrating to Australia, she took my father’s name and I changed mine from Qian Jing Hua to Juliana Qian. Both of these are anglicisations. In 2008 in New Jersey, my second cousin married her white American fiancé with a traditional tea ceremony. Customs which have become obsolete in the People’s Republic survive and flourish in diaspora, where cultural traditions can come to be a defining element of Chinese identity.
I have a lot of stories. Most of them are not about tradition, nor about assimilation. Most of my life is not about tradition or assimilation. I grew up not between cultures, but within overlapping cultures that are themselves amorphous, contradictory and changeful. My grandmother’s story is not my story. I don’t claim her experiences as mine.
I know what stories sell. Australian audiences have an insatiable appetite for the suffering of people of colour, for stories of violence and poverty, trauma and tragedy. But I came to this country on a Cathay Pacific plane. My childhood was suburban and ordinary. I had experiences of racism, of loss and shame, but always plenty of friends too. And the China I knew was largely peaceful and comfortable, despite real corruption, censorship and repression. My parents used to rush to the television whenever China was mentioned, but soon my father began to grumble that they were only interested in the dismal and catastrophic. SBS showed many horrific documentaries, few films, no comedies. As Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie says about representations of her country, ‘to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience … the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete’.
I know what stories sell. In ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’, a story from Nam Le’s The Boat, the narrator is told ‘Ethnic literature’s hot. And important too.’ Anita Heiss, in an interview about her memoir Am I Black Enough for You?, says that she was inspired to write a story of Aboriginal Australia that didn’t begin in the desert after reading Alice Pung’s first book, Unpolished Gem, which opens with the line, ‘This story does not begin on a boat’. But reviews of Pung’s latest book Her Father’s Daughter praise the section about her father’s experiences during the Khmer Rouge regime as the most powerful part of the story.
My favourite anecdote in Her Father’s Daughter is when Pung begins applying for graduate positions after finishing her law degree. Looking at her résumé, the big firms can’t understand the number of years spent as a sales assistant in an electrical goods store. She ends up at a small practice, hired by an Italian Australian who appreciates her working for her family’s business. When I moved to Footscray, my mother took me to Retravision to buy a vacuum cleaner. Alice Pung’s aunt served us, and while she and Mum discussed the merits of bagless machines, I had that sepia feeling that comes when you’re inside a place that’s inside a book.
I don’t want to write about a country I barely remember. I don’t want to write my parents’ stories in a language they barely read. When people appropriate my culture, I can’t always say that the problem is that they are misrepresenting it, that they lack the necessary expertise. I lack the necessary expertise. I just have this name, and this face, and sometimes that means I have to account for things I don’t understand.
Usually I’m angry for good reason, reasons I’ll only bother to clarify if I love you. Sometimes I’m resentful not because people are disrespecting my culture, but because I’m bitter about what I don’t know. This face and this name give rise to assumptions about access to culture I haven’t always had. At other times, I stubbornly refused to learn: speaking Chinese is only cool or impressive when you’re not Chinese. As a child I was dismissive – why bother when I already have the name and the face?
For years I was embarrassed to speak Chinese in public. It might be urbane for Kevin Rudd, but people might think I couldn’t speak English. Like many non-Indigenous people of colour, I used language to legitimise my presence in this country. I offered my Australian accent like an excuse for my face. The accent is crucial; more important than any other measure of linguistic competence, it offers immediate protection. But this is only for the bearer, the soon-to-be-disillusioned offspring of adult migrants whose voices were stuck in another country. My generation was promised equality after assimilation; mostly, we sold our parents out.
Now I work in a call centre. No name, no face. Customers hear my accent and confide their relief that they haven’t got someone in India, the Philippines. I tell them, shaking, that I can end the call if they feel the need to be racist. I want to say, ‘This is China speaking, she just sounds like you now.’
My high school offered four languages other than English, and I chose Chinese and Latin. When I was in Year 10, it was announced that VCE Chinese, already split into two subjects, would be further divided into three streams: Chinese Second Language, Chinese Second Language Advanced and Chinese First Language. Students would be allocated according to the cumulative number of years that they had resided in China, Taiwan, Macau or Hong Kong or that they had been educated in a school where Chinese was the medium of instruction.
The rationale was that ‘background speakers’ were making the standard too difficult for ‘non-background speakers’. However Chinese remains the only language in VCE divided into three examinations. Indonesian, Japanese and Korean are split into first and second language streams, while other languages commonly spoken in Victorian homes, such as Italian and Greek, have one subject, one stream and one set of assessment for all students. Having lived in Shanghai until I was four, I would have been placed in the Second Language Advanced stream. I wrote a letter to the Age, asking why my migration history was considered a meaningful advantage for learning Chinese but unworthy of special consideration in my other exams.
It’s not that I wanted special consideration. I wasn’t disadvantaged by my ‘non-English-speaking background’ – I might have sometimes mispronounced the odd word (for years I thought ‘cough’ rhymed with ‘rough’ and ‘colander’ with ‘coriander’) but I also won the school writing prize. Like most of the mainland Chinese kids at my private school, I attended on a full academic scholarship. But I wanted it acknowledged that the structure of LOTE education was a disincentive for me to study Chinese.
The unusual VCE rules for Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese and Korean were designed to promote the study of Asian languages, but effectively they promoted them among non-background speakers with no regard for the impact on background speakers. For me it is indicative of how Asian Australians are positioned as irrelevant in the discussion about Australia’s relationship with Asia. Any ties we may have to our birth countries or ancestors’ countries and those cultures only serves to dis-integrate us as individuals in Australia without impacting upon how Australia is integrated into ‘the region’. Our history is not Australian history. Our skills aren’t Australian skills. Our lives aren’t Australian lives.
Discussion around the VCE policy suggested a belief that ethnic Chinese kids didn’t need to be taught Chinese because we would already know. As if the words just come from the face. As if twenty thousand non-phonetic characters are just downloaded with the genes.2 My incompetence in Chinese is a failure, but my competence wouldn’t really be a success because it’s assumed. My English skills remain a success and a surprise. Latin was more surprising, more impressive and, for me at least, loads easier than Chinese. As a teenager I was keen on being lazy and looking smart, so I dropped Chinese and took Latin through VCE. No-one speaks it at home, I figured. So that’s cultural capital, I learned.
In spite of the three-tier structure, Chinese is one of the most popular LOTE subjects in VCE, available at dozens of schools as well as by distance education and through weekend programs. Only one school offers Indigenous languages of Victoria at a VCE level. Six schools offer Auslan. Despite the introduction of languages from all over the world, fewer languages are spoken in Australia now than before colonisation, when over 250 Indigenous languages were spoken. Language is only one aspect of culture, and an aspect with more obvious instrumental value, but language policies reflect attitudes to culture and identity more generally. Australian society assigns inescapable ethnic identities to people of colour and expects us to be knowledgeable about our cultures, languages and history. But at the same time it holds our self-identification with any ethnicity as suspect, disloyal, and accords our knowledge less value than if it were held by a white person.
I don’t remember what I knew about this country before I came here, but I assume I would have expected white people speaking English. I’m not sure I knew of any difference between the UK and the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. I don’t remember when I was first told that Australia was colonised. I think it’s something I’ve had to learn again and again. That this is not a young country. That this is not a white country and never has been. Knowing that changes things, somehow, or makes sense of things. White Australia is a hoax and a fantasy, nasty, brutish and short-lived. Despite the best efforts of systemic violence and oppression, the ideal of a white Australia has always been tenuous, reliant on spectacular denials and grand erasures, on so much bracketing, so many bureaucratic manoeuvres of borders and boxes.
I moved out after high school and found that I no longer ticked the box for ‘speaking a language other than English at home’. Along with miscellaneous other treasures, I’d lost my NESB identity in the move. I started teaching my lover Shanghainese, with as little success as my mother had had in teaching me Mandarin. Most of my sharehousing friends saw their parents once a month, once a year if they lived interstate or overseas. I visit weekly, and if I miss just a month, I notice the words going blank. My queer community celebrates the idea of ‘chosen families’. But my chosen family can’t keep my language in my mouth. Australians don’t like to say ‘people of colour’ or ‘non-white’. The favoured term is ‘culturally and linguistically diverse communities’. But I’m not part of any Chinese community since I moved out of home. A few of my friends are Chinese, but we all speak different languages and besides, our non-Chinese friends are always around, so the only time I speak any Chinese language is within the four-person community of my biological family.
For me, for better or worse, Chineseness is inescapable. No matter where I live, what languages I speak, or how little I know. But maybe my children won’t have my name. Maybe they won’t even have my face. Disregarding genetics, East Asian ethnicities tend to be recessive identities when it comes to political affiliations. The list of people with Chinese ancestry who don’t call themselves Chinese includes LJ Hooker, Keanu Reeves, Vanessa Hudgens and Kelis. Historically, white privilege has been irresistible to many who have the option, while anyone who looks at all black hasn’t had the option to be anything else.
Chinese communities can also be viciously racist. In 2009 when Lou Jing, a mixed black Chinese girl, made it into the top five of Shanghai-based television talent show Go Oriental Angel, she and her mother received a barrage of racist and misogynistic abuse for being the offspring of an unmarried interracial relationship. Even the show’s judges racialised the 20-year-old contestant, calling her ‘black pearl’ and exoticising her ‘chocolate’ skin.
While I expect and hope that Australian Chinese communities are more accepting of mixedness, I don’t envy the prospect of ‘passing’ as white. Any privilege of passing is married to pain, whether in the fear of being found out, the shame of hiding or the bitterness of knowing. Even if you don’t want to pass, that bitterness endures, beside the dull and wearying repetition of revealing yourself. When I write anonymously, people assume I’m white, male, straight; they tell me things about my people that I don’t want to hear, things they mostly wouldn’t say to my face.
My children might appreciate that Chineseness is not inescapable for them, that strangers won’t come up to them shouting ni hao or asking them how to use chopsticks. But they likely won’t appreciate a burden of proof I don’t have to bear, tests of cultural competency they’ll have to pass before they’re allowed to be angry, to talk about appropriation or integrity or even justice.
My generation was promised equality after assimilation. And for a while there I believed it: I read Blyton and Blume, and later Plath and Salinger. And I loved them as I should. I forgot Chinese word by word and let my tongue grow wooden. And I hardly noticed because I always had more to say to my friends than to my parents. I waited for strangers to stop asking where I came from, and they kept me waiting. I went to the place I didn’t remember that I’m supposed to have come from, I looked at my grandparents’ bookshelves and the gaps in their photo albums and I thought about culture, loss, change and time. When I was four an ocean crossed me. If it hadn’t, I still wouldn’t be in the same place I came from.
It took me until adulthood to realise that nothing would ever erase my Chineseness. It’s not in my name, my face, what I know, my family’s stories or even my blood. It’s all of my body and out there, in the world. A place in the world that follows me wherever I go.
1. Shanghainese is a variety of Wu, one of many Chinese tongues (‘fangyan’). Though often referred to as dialects, fangyan are properly considered regional languages or topolects as they are mutually unintelligible, varying in vocabulary and grammar as well as phonology. Hence most mainland Chinese are bilingual or multilingual, speaking Mandarin (putonghua, ‘common tongue’ or guoyu, ‘national language’) alongside their native regional languages.
2. The current Chinese government official character set which all software is required to support, GB 18030, includes over 20 000 characters. Zhonghua Zihai, a 1994 dictionary, contains 85 568 characters. I’ve been told 3000 is adequate for functional literacy.