Sweet and sour academia (from Thesis Whisperer’s tmblr, “Refreshments will be provided”)

When I was chatting with the lovely people at Radio National’s Life Matters program the other week, I realised that what I really want to say about national belonging and cultural citizenship was this:

Having full cultural citizenship as an Asian Australian should mean that it’s fine to be a ‘bad’ citizen, as well as celebrating those deemed ‘good’.

‘Asian’ shouldn’t be the first point of categorisation, and the heaviness of migrant expectation and stereotyping of migrants shouldn’t curtail a person’s liberty to be, say, a slacker.

Or to ‘Anglicise’ their name (sez she, who has a coffee name of “Jen”).

Or – (hushed tones) – to be monolingual.

We’re not all economic ‘bridge-builders’, heart-surgeons, and superhero Senators, though I’m hardly complaining that we can be those.

Where is the liberty and comfort of feeling at home with mediocrity or failure?

And I’m talking here both about the bar being set by the broader community as well as the one cultural communities set for themselves. That ‘Model Minority myth‘ cuts both ways.

On that aforementioned RN program, I said on-air, laughingly, that I was a ‘bad Asian’ because I was monolingual. I was referring to the common expectation that those from non-Anglo cultures must display their ethnicity through various cultural forms: language, ritual, social mores.

Language ‘lack’ or desire warrants a whole post in itself. To sum up its complication: I feel inadequate about my language skills only when others declare that they are inadequate; at the same time, I strongly resent anyone telling me that I must learn/know a Chinese dialect.

I think being bilingual and beyond is fantastic, but the onus on those of Asian descent to need to know an Asian language can be misguided. It taps into the rhetoric of ‘usefulness’ that I find insidiously intertwined with discussions about how existing ‘capacity’ in Australia will assist our national future in the Asian Century. I want to be at liberty to be linguistically useless and considered a full cultural citizen; after all, many (non-racially marked) others are!

Being marked as ‘Asian’ brings an immediate range of assumptions in Australia. Mostly, it means you’re assumed not to belong. That ubiquitous question many Asian Australians get, “where are you from?”, is a prime example. The many racial microaggressions (PDF) that are part and parcel of living as a racial minority in Australia become life’s static. This does not make it better; it is just what happens.

Some of the common racial static that I encounter manifests when I demonstrate my propensity for being a ‘bad Asian’:

  • I like sweet and sour pork. A lot. This always gets a (commonly snide) comment from those who pride themselves on knowing Asian food. They deem sweet and sour pork ‘inauthentic’ and something only ignorant white folk would order at a Chinese restaurant. My ordering this dish also invites comment and raised eyebrows from Chinese restaurant staff; surely, it should be my Anglo partner who’s ordering this kind of thing (they must be thinking, as they go on to offer him fried rice and beer)?
  • Shop staff often assume my (Anglo-Oz) husband and me are not together. When we’re out with the two kids, we’re often asked whether we’re ‘all’ one family (meaning: am I a part of this family). Once, at a supermarket checkout, one of the workers thought I was flogging S.’s groceries because I started packing them away in a trolley. The most egregious example was when a neighbour assumed that I was ‘just the cleaning lady’ at our house in Taringa, after we’d been living there for over three years.
  • I don’t like chili much. While my family jokingly disowns me for this (well, I think it’s jokingly), I’ve lost count of the number of times my admission of chili-aversion lands me in a conversation that’s awash with culinary machismo: “Oh, this one time, when I was in KL, I snacked on a whole dish of bird’s eye chilis…” Almost always, this chili preening is done by white dudes. Seriously, why? You need to put it away.
  • No good at maths. I’m a humanities person through and through. In fact, I regret doing Maths 1 at school, and wish I’d done Modern History or Geography. I think it would’ve stood me in better stead as an Arts academic than the “Below Satisfactory” that I managed to score in Maths. Ah, 20/20 hindsight.

The freedom to be what we – as individuals – are is a big part of full belonging. While ethnicity and culture can be convenient and strategic groupings (I’ve used them myself to forge a career, after all), let’s stop defining people only in those terms, or imposing them as limitations.

Give ‘Bad Asianism’ a go. You might like it.