What it's Like to Grow Up When You're the Only Asian Family in Town

"Being in a white town, my mum would always talk about other people right in front of their faces, or say weird mum stuff like, 'I really need to fart' in Cantonese."

by Stephanie Liew
19 March 2015, 12:02am

Stephanie and her sister in Tatura

I grew up in a place called Tatura in Northern Victoria. It's one of those towns where there's only one main street with businesses and you can drive straight through it in five minutes. It's just outside Shepparton, where Ardmona SPC tinned fruit is made, if that helps to picture it.

We were the only Asian family in Tatura and opened its first Chinese restaurant back in the early 90s. Before us, locals would have to drive 20 kilometres to get Chinese food, which is weird to think about.

Our family lived in a flat behind the restaurant, kind of a weird hybrid noodle joint crossed with a classic Aussie home with a Hills Hoist and a carport. Both my parents are Malaysian born Chinese and we were well liked in town because my mum's really friendly and eccentric. Also, people liked my dad's food. He pretty much served a westernised Chinese takeaway: fried rice, dim sims, spring rolls, sweet and sour pork, beef and black bean. It's still like that now. I don't think the town's palate has changed.

Until a few years ago my parents worked seven days a week and the only day they took off was Christmas. This meant my sister and I wouldn't see them very often. They didn't come to our school events except for high school graduation. My mum would be really apologetic. I could tell it would hurt her to not be there, but if she wasn't at the restaurant they would have to close.

My mum is the strongest person I know. She's open minded about a lot of things and when I grew older we'd talk person-to-person, not like mother and daughter. Basically every good trait I have I can attribute to her. But growing up, there were times I wished I wasn't Chinese. My parents were really strict—I was the last person among my friends who was allowed to go to sleepovers. My mum would say, "that's the Australian way, we're Chinese, we do things the Chinese way." I just wanted to do things my friends did.

When I was in primary school I wished I was white. I wanted boys to notice me and thought they didn't because I don't look like the tall blonde girl. I remember wishing my eyes were bigger, my nose not as flat, I thought I was the opposite of a "hot girl". It hurts to think my past self would denounce being Chinese for the sake of fitting in. But what kid doesn't compare themselves to their peers? If you're a girl, you're doing that anyway.

I remember when my best friend and some other kids started saying this rhyme that goes "Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these" and then they'd pull their eyes back. My teacher told me to make up a rhyme to get even so I opened my eyes really wide with my fingers and said, "English, English, you're a fish".

I definitely noticed micro-aggressions: the kinds of things that kids would say out of curiosity with no ill intentions but still made me feel different. If I ate my lunch with chopsticks, or did anything slightly Asian they'd say, "Oh my god, that's so cute. You're so Asian".

I was a false extrovert to compensate for my lack of confidence. Having strict parents meant we had to work harder than other kids to be praised, and for a while I wasn't humble about my intelligence. I felt it was the one thing I could be sure of. I knew I was clever and I wanted other people to know as well. I was that annoying shit in class who wanted to prove I knew all the answers. I'd correct the teacher's spelling and get a real kick out of it.

Being in a white town, my mum would always talk about other people right in front of their faces, or say weird mum stuff like, "I really need to fart" in Cantonese. She also has these funny phrases she learnt from the young boys and girls who worked at the restaurant. She likes using "I'm going to drop off some kids at the pool" as a euphemism for doing a shit. But she'll use it in ways that didn't make sense, like "they're really big kids, and there's a lot of them". She likes being the weird, crazy woman — she gets a kick out of it.

Cantonese was my first language but I stopped speaking it when I got to kindergarten, in favour of English in a thick Aussie accent. We once saw a new doctor in Tatura who was Australian born, second or third generation Chinese but couldn't speak a word of it. It hit me then that my language could die out as my generation goes on.

One time, my Malaysian cousin and her Australian boyfriend's friends came to our restaurant. My mum was talking to my cousin in Cantonese when the boyfriend's friend said: "Here in Australia, we speak English. You should speak English". My mum was so mad. Why would they speak to each other in English when Cantonese was their first language?

About every three or four years, we'd go back to Malaysia to visit family. There, my sister and I would be the "white girls". Our lifestyles were so different and Chinese people are very blunt. Any time there was a cultural difference or we showed reluctance towards something, my aunties would say, "that's because they're white girls".

Sometimes we'd go to Melbourne and visit dad's friends and their families. Seeing girls who grew up in Melbourne and were in touch with the Asian part of their identity made us feel very self-conscious. They'd speak to each other in English but every now and again they'd say Cantonese words and speak to their parents in Cantonese; my sister and I were used to responding to our parents in English. I couldn't help but wonder what it would have been like if I hadn't grown up isolated in a white town or if I'd had Chinese friends who I could relate to. I had one Chinese friend who lived in a neighbouring town but we saw very little of each other once we got to our teen years.

Moving to Melbourne and seeing Asian people everywhere was definitely something I had to get used to. I remember it being really nice to be able to walk through Chinatown and hear people speaking in Mandarin and Cantonese. Blending into the crowd and not being the only Asian felt good.

But the city had its weirder points too—other things I had to get used to that weren't so positive. When my sister moved to Melbourne for uni, three years after I did, she talked to me about the first time she interacted with a guy who had yellow fever. There were some creepy guys back in Shepparton, but because of the lack of representation of us on Australian TV, we never really felt attractive. I remember feeling some creep vibes with guys at uni in Melbourne, but I didn't know what fetishisation was at the time. I was uncomfortable about it but I couldn't figure it out.

Reading the book Growing Up Asian in Australia really changed my perspective on so many things. It's not that I didn't know there were all these different people with similar experiences to me, it's just that growing up, I could never talk to anyone about it. I often wonder what it would have been like if I wasn't the only Asian girl in my year level, or if we weren't the only Asian family in town. I wonder what it would have been like to have a city upbringing. But looking back I can definitely see values in the way I was raised. I think my mum raised me the best way she could and I'm really grateful to have grown up between two cultures.

Told to Emma Do. Follow her on Twitter: @emsydo