The Everyday Erasure of Being a Chinese New Zealander
Why being a Kiwi with Chinese heritage means feeling invisible a lot of the time.
Alice Canton, director of OTHER [chinese]. Image supplied.
Invisibility is something associated with magic and folklore, disguising heroes and heroines from their foe. But, Alice Canton says, a cloak of invisibility often rests on the shoulders of Chinese New Zealanders. Born in New Zealand, the 30-year-old theatre director grew up having her cultural identity go largely unseen by most of the nation.
"There is quite a misrepresentation or invisibility around Chinese identity here in Aotearoa," Alice told VICE. "You're less likely to hear stories from our community, you're less likely to hear news stories about things other than the obvious."
The "obvious" are the stereotypes often believed to represent Chinese in New Zealand. To many, they are a "model minority; quiet, law abiding citizens, heads down". For others they are criminals who launder money, or foreign investors blamed for the housing crisis.
Alice wants to challenge those types through her new stage show OTHER [chinese], which features Chinese-New Zealanders telling their stories about identity and invisibility on stage.
"[I was interested] in what might happen if we subverted this idea of representation by getting actual people to tell their own stories," says Alice. "My mum's Malaysian Chinese and my dad's Pakeha, so I guess the material in my show is pretty close to my own inquiry about identity."
OTHER [chinese] opens tomorrow at Auckland's Q Theatre. Alice shared with us these stories from the play.
"I've been asked if I was Irish, Finnish, British, American, Russian, Japanese, Korean, Bangladeshi, Nepalese, Indian, Serbian, French, 'part Asian,' Mongolian, 'something exotic,' 'nah but way more exotic than that,' 'is that all/what else/super white' and 'definitely mixed.'
It's been a strange journey to reconnect with Chinese culture and explore what exactly that might mean. In the past it's definitely felt very shameful and something to hide away from; something I struggled to associate with; promoted for diversity's sake, which still feels a little uncomfortable.
For me being Chinese is about belonging to my mother, calling to home in several languages, eating char kuey teow, zong zi and Sunday roasts in equal measure. Leaving nothing behind on my plate. It's being a ridiculously pale, tatted, curvy, hellfire wild child swimming off the coast of Malaysia. Disobeying my elders but acquiescing to wider knowledge. Existing in a global diaspora. On any bad day it's about feeling swallowed, choked, parasitic, conflicted and unwanted. On any good day, it's about pride—belonging to family, loyalty, community, food and a lineage of survivors."
"I was a 'banana', white inside and yellow outside. I was a 'coconut', white inside and brown outside.
I have Chinese and Bornean Native ancestry. I was white inside because I was assimilated into western values—British colonialism and Christianity—when I was born. I started my process of decoIonisation and search for cultural identity—yellow and brown inside—when I emigrated to New Zealand in 1995."
"Falling leaves return to their roots, but where are my roots? I belong in New Zealand as much as I belong in China. If you average them on a map, you'll find the place I truly belong is Papua New Guinea. Or maybe somewhere in the middle of the ocean.
I feel both most and least Chinese in China, surrounded by faces that look like mine and food that smells like home. The belonging is in the old familiarity of a birthplace and the warm embrace of extended family. The unbelonging is in the place I have been estranged from for 16 years, while my mind has been shaped by Western world views.
If I am a leaf then I will be a New Zealand-Chinese leaf! I will darn well blow where I please. I know what tree I come from and where I am, and that is enough for now."
"I remember when I was younger, I asked my dad if we are Thai Chinese. He answered no, we are pure Thai. His denial was confusing to me because we look Chinese and practice Chinese customs. Also, he sometimes spoke Thai mixed with Teochew words. Especially when impersonating my imaginary future mother-in-law scolding me for not knowing how to wash the dishes properly.
I did my own research and found out that the Chinese community have been historically ostracised and then forced to assimilate amidst backlash against their perceived economic dominance, rising Thai nationalism, and anti-communist paranoia. King Rama VI who called the Chinese the 'Jews of the East', decreed that the Chinese population had to adopt Thai surnames."
"Ever since I've had my daughter I think it really has motivated me to understand my own story of being Chinese, but also how I can be a good mother and let her create her own story. One of the things that is very dear to me is the importance of family. I'm an only child and I'm very close with my parents, we just have such a tight family unit that I almost have difficulty describing. It's almost like the Chinese way, and I really hope that she has that with me and her dad.
I want her to be bilingual. I'd like her to speak Mandarin and I'd like her to identify with being Chinese and also Pākehā. Since she was born, I've incorporated more and more Chinese customs into my life and I hope that that continues and I hope that naturally, it just becomes part of her life, her childhood, her experiences, that it becomes part of her and that she will go on and continue them independently of me in the future."
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