My best friend and I were grabbing lunch with her white boyfriend once. We were all crossing the road when a man called out to us: “How much for both?” Stunned and disgusted, we looked the other way and kept walking.
Five years later, the story is the same but just with different dialogue. Strangers see me in the street and yell “Ni hao” or “How was the boat ride here?” or “How much for a happy ending?” In the online world, the comments are just as creative—white men asking how tight I am, whether I like being dominated and dangling Australian citizenship in return for sexual subservience.
It’s unfortunate it’s taken the deaths of six Asian-American women at the hands of a white man in Atlanta to renew this conversation about discrimination when my friends and I have been experiencing it from day dot. In Australia, we like to think the problem here isn’t so severe—but racism doesn’t discriminate when it comes to which part of the world you live in.
From hiding my homemade Korean lunch in the playground to being called by my last name “Kim” in the office, it’s been drilled into me that I’m different. Turns out, sticks and stones may break my bones and words will too, eventually. I get the same look of disbelief when I’m overseas and tell people I’m Australian as when I tell people here I’m a journalist who writes in English—yet the joke that I’m kind of like Tricia Takanawa in Family Guy doesn’t translate no matter which country I’m in.
Looks are very deceiving when it comes to Asian-Australians like me. Whether it’s the stubborn Taurean in me, or years of being pigeon-holed as the “smart quiet Asian” growing up, I took it upon myself to go against the grain in every way possible. I was grateful that my mum pushed me academically, but entering high school with a potpourri of cultures showed me the social and mental cost of that achievement. My friends and I started skipping school, hosted house parties with boys, and almost got expelled for writing a blog documenting all our misdemeanours. I immaturely took pride in these things as it was “unexpected” for an Asian, and all my non-Asian friends would tell me “you’re not a normal Asian, you’re a cool Asian.”
My aforementioned best friend was my partner in crime during those wayward years. We talked back to teachers, hiked our skirts up above our knees and skipped class to meet boys—but we were also scholarship students at a private girls’ school, achieved good grades and got into the fields we wanted. Emily is now a violinist who’s played at Buckingham Palace and even taught Hugh Grant for a role—yet her Asian-ness often overshadows her talent.
“There’s a cruel stereotype that Asians have flawless technique due to hours and hours of practice forced on them by their tiger mums, but are completely soulless and without creativity,” she told me. “I’m so often complimented that musically I don’t ‘play like an Asian,’ but equally on the flip-side if I make too many mistakes I’m suddenly ‘not Asian enough.’ You just can’t win.”
Battling a constant tug-of-war between your heritage and nationality is like being the child caught in an ugly divorce—always feeling like you need to choose a side. Being reminded you look Asian every day when your mentality is Western is an Inception-like mindfuck.
I was telling my white colleagues once about an (also white, but now ex) boyfriend who was an investment banker. One waited until the others left to ask sheepishly, “Is he, um, Asian as well?” Soon after, I found out she had called me a gold digger and claimed I was stealing their men as well as their jobs.
When my ex told his parents about me, they were concerned about my level of English skills.
“She’s a journalist who was born in Australia,” he comforted them.
It’s a topic that’s also seeped into my current relationship. Dating a white Australian as an Asian-Australian should come with a disclaimer: that everyone will want to share their two cents whether you want it or not.
As my boyfriend Jarrah explained: “Either my white-washed friends ask too many times how to pronounce her name or not remember what ‘kind of Asian she is,’ or older family friends stating, ‘smart choice to have an Asian girl, they really make you feel like a man and they look after you.’”
We often jokingly jab each other about our cultural differences, from my appetite for strange seafood to his lack of numeracy skills, but it’s these differences that have also opened our eyes to new ways of thinking. Jarrah’s taught me to be more direct and expressive about my thoughts and emotions, while he’s learned a thing or two from me too.
I admit I do get self-conscious when we’re out; whether I’m confirming the stereotype of the small, submissive Asian woman with a strong Western man. From over-enunciating my words to not taking photos of my food and acting like a tight-ass—all these are attempts to look less “Asian.”
This pervasive myth that paints Asian women as either gold diggers or quiet and polite is perhaps the reason for a lot of the casual racism I’ve experienced—along with the assumption that I can’t, and won’t, defend myself.
Rosa Do was walking through Marrickville, a multicultural and fairly progressive suburb in Sydney’s inner-west, this time last year when COVID-19 first became a regular fixture on our screens. The 21-year-old was with her sister when two white girls walked up behind them and said to each other, “Stay away from those girls they’ve got corona.”
“There were laughing and giggling to each other so naturally we were angry about that and we immediately called it out… but she started getting angry and swearing at us saying, ‘You’re a dumb asian slut,’ ‘you dumb Asian dog,’ and ‘your people brought the virus here, go die,’” she told me.
Rosa started filming, as did passersby, and the video ended up going viral. The girl tried to kick and punch her before spitting on her. Online crusaders eventually outed the perpetrator, who ended up being underage and received a good behaviour bond.
When Rosa told her parents about what happened, they were worried and questioned why she spoke back to the girls.
“But a couple of weeks after they said, ‘You know what? Good, I’m glad you did that and exposed her and made them remorseful. We’re proud of you and you always have to stand up for yourself,’” she said.
In the realm of racism, I’ve learned those who stay silent are just as guilty as those spitting out harmful words. It takes two to tango and I, too, am complicit when I join in on jokes about eating dogs, bad driving and being a diversity hire. For years, I rejected my heritage because I was sick of the baggage that came with it. I protested to my parents via a powerpoint presentation in Year 3 to change my name to an Anglo one, and I’ve since built a rolodex of automated responses for every occasion—“I was born here but my parents are from Korea,” “Kim is my last name,” “I actually wasn’t good at Maths in school.”
There’s still a long road ahead, but the next time I’m belittled because of my appearance, I’ll still be stunned and disgusted—but I won’t look the other way.
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