Monday 30 September 2019

Secret Asian Man: the privileges and pitfalls of "passing".

One of my best friends in high school was quite open about the fact that he hated all Asians.

Not that I thought he was necessarily going to go out and commit hate-crimes. The early 90s were a simpler time: casual racism was still socially acceptable, Con the Fruiterer was hilarious, and One Nation was but a twinkle in Pauline Hanson's eye. To be honest, I think he mostly just had a problem with the rich international students from Hong Kong and Singapore who seemed to be too cool for everybody else.

It's only really in hindsight that I think it was odd that he'd express his hatred of Asians if one of his good mates was one. I can only assume that (a) he didn't know I was Asian, (b) he thought of me as more "Aussie" than "Asian", or (c) he was trying to drop a hint, and I just wasn't catching on.

I was initially raised in a bilingual household, until my parents were worried that my English was getting too muddled-up. Even still, through much of my primary school years, I went to Chinese language schools on Saturday morning - which I absolutely hated. I was skilled with using chopsticks from a young age, and my mum would do most of the cooking in the family, which meant that more often than not, meals would consist of some variant of rice or noodles with veggies and some meat. Still, we kids loved it when it was dad's turn to cook, as it mostly involved pies or sausages.

It's only been in recent years where I've really come to accept my identity as an Asian-Australian. Before then, it was always something that was used against me, whether it was hilarious teenage jokes about being the product of the sex trade, or random drunken strangers who'd shout "Ohhh kon-ni-chi-wa!" or the highly-original "Ching-chong! Ching-chong!". That is, they weren't telling me to go back to my own country, or threatening to bash me.

When recalling these experiences, my white friends were always outraged and indignant on my behalf - but also a little surprised. After all, I "didn't even look that Asian" (so they'd tell me). Like being a "halfie" wasn't even worth it.

And in spite of my experiences, I also accept that, for much of my life, I've had the privilege of "passing" as, well, ambiguous. Certainly, on paper, I have a Western name, excellent English language skills, a nice predominantly-white middle-class profession as a librarian, and was born and bred in Australia. And without any reason to indicate otherwise, people assume that I'm white - and I don't give them any reason to think otherwise. I figure that they can work it out later on, once they've had a chance to get to know me as a person first.

Of course, that ambiguity can also lead to its fair share of awkwardness. Even when people have the best intentions and, purely out of curiosity, find themselves asking me that classic, "So, where are your parents from?" Like I need to provide my detailed family lineage, so that they can understand my, skin tone, facial bone structure, curly hair and ability to actively reverse the effects of ageing. They're often surprised (as am I) when they reveal that they thought that I was either Greek, Polynesian, or Jewish.

In recent years, I've noticed a trend at presentations given by professionals from First Nations backgrounds. They introduce themselves, not only by their name, but also their cultural group - and sometimes they even do this in their language. Whilst this may be an important statement of authority or sovereignty over the topic that they are going to speak on, another thing always intrigues me: the speaker is often from a mixed-race background, and if they hadn't explicitly stated their cultural identity, I would have no idea whether they were from a First Nations background or not.

I've spoken to other professionals from mixed backgrounds about their experiences, and whilst they are privileges to not being "obviously" Black, Brown or Asian, there are pitfalls too. We share experiences of discrimination, and a passion for promoting diverse voices in our professional fields. However, at times when we put ourselves out there, we can find ourselves challenged from "both sides". My white colleagues have often felt awkward or uncomfortable when I bring up topics such as (for example) white colonial narratives dominating cultural institutions, but at the same time, I experience a reluctance amongst my colleagues who are people of colour to engage in such discussions, and I can't help but feel like it's partially because I'm "not Asian enough" to be part of such a movement, especially when I've had all the privileges of "passing". Indeed, when I was elected into the IFLA Standing Committee for the Library Services to Multicultural Populations Section, one response from a colleague was, "Oh, that's interesting. What's your connection with multicultural populations, then?" It definitely felt like a challenge - for me to justify putting myself forward for such a role when there might be more suitable candidates. And maybe I should - even now, I experience my share of imposter syndrome, and suspect that I'm just being a dramatic leftie playing the race card when others have it so much worse.

I'm not saying that I'm entitled to be the spokesperson for Australian-Chinese communities - nor would I necessarily want to. But I do feel that librarians of colour should stand together, to ensure that we are all represented as a part of our society when it comes to our cultural institutions, and that we provide services and collections that connect with all communities in our society. We should all be proud of who we are, and be counted.

And I am not half a person.