Being an ABC (sort of) and why your well-meaning questions come off as ignorant…

This is an issue that is often on my mind, but I never thought I’d write a post about it.

An ABC, also known as an Australian-Born Chinese (although I suppose it would work if you were American-, Armenian or Antarctic-born as well) is a person of Oriental ethnicity who was born and raised in Australia.

Technically, I’m not an ABC. I was born in Malaysia and migrated with my parents to Australia at the ripe old age of 9 months. When I travel to Malaysia, I go to pig out on laksa, shop, and sightsee. All sense of coming home is at the end of the trip, when the plane descends into the green and brown patchwork of Melbourne’s far northern suburbs, when I’m in a car with a heater and five seatbelts, whizzing down the Eastern freeway with a vibrant blue sky overhead…it seems there’s no city in the world where the colours are as vibrant as in Melbourne. Not to me, anyway.

I would proudly call myself a Melbournian. And why shouldn’t I? My life is here. I went to the local primary school, one of perhaps six Chinese kids in the year level. I jog the neighbourhood streets. I sprint to the milk bar in PJs when I’m halfway through making a cake and run out of milk. I make the long haul from the south-eastern suburbs into the city. I complain about the trains. I’ve memorised the city grid. I attend university as a local student. I work and volunteer. I take road trips into the country. I roll on the beach.

I know we’re supposed to have come a long way. Even in a few short years. Back when I started Prep, I had my fair share of 6-year-old white boys calling out “Ching Chong” when I walked by. I wonder if that still happens in primary school now…? I’d like to think not. (My mum told me several things to say in reply…I wish I’d had the courage to follow her advice.)

As an Asian in a western country, I still experience the odd racist slur–hurled from a passing car, or muttered in a crowded place. But thankfully, those experiences are rare. More common is the subtle racism often exhibited by people who just couldn’t care less, or even those trying to be nice.

As a student and a volunteer in different hospitals, I’ve had so many people ask me where I’m from. Sometimes six times in one day. Some days I loathe this question. If I were fair-skinned, brunette and brown-eyed, would I be fielding the same barrage of curiosity? Probably not. I never know how to answer. Often the conversation goes like this:

Person I’ve just met: So, where are you from, sweetie?

Me: Oh, I’m from (insert home suburb), just down the road.

Person: Yes, but where are you really from?

Me: Oh…uhhh….well….I was born in Malaysia, but I grew up here.

Person: Oh, that’s lovely! Me and my husband, we’ve been to Malaysia twice, you know! And we loved it both times. We just love the people there, and the place, and the food–oh, the food! It’s a wonderful country.

Me: Um…thanks.

“WHERE AM I REALLY FROM?!?!” For your information, sweetie, I really am from just down the road. I have an abiding adoration of the English language, I read voraciously, I pore over the same paper that you pore over on Sunday mornings over your mid-morning brekky. I actually have tried to learn how to pronounce Welsh names, ’cause I think they’re absolutely beautiful. So honestly. What right do you have to make me feel less like an Australian, just because I have olive skin and almond-shaped eyes?

The thing that gets me angriest is when white kids exclude us because they just see as as a ‘bunch of Asians.’ To them, we are an indiscriminate mass of squinty eyes and yellow skin. We’re not even worth seeing as individuals. And yes, I have definitely experienced this.

I don’t care if I sound grumpy and whiny. I feel that I deserve it. After all, being an Asian-looking girl means I’m automatically put into a box, stamped and stereotyped. It is one of the most difficult moulds to break out of, and I hate it. I am not only the sum of what I look like, and I do have something splendid to offer society. Just watch me.

Yeah! *punches air*



  1. Bravo bravo, Grace! I’ve had similar experiences as well though I guess I do get the benefit of saying to those people who question my origins that I was born and raised in Melbourne, thank you very much! Had a slight sense of (false) pride when the Young Australian of the Year was an ABC (sort of). Just goes to show that people can say all they want but when we make a difference, there’s nothing they can do but applaud (and shut their mouths).

    All the more reason to make a real impact in the world around us for good :).


  2. I get that a lot too. Then again, I do notice a lot of people who ask me where I was born, immediately ask where my parents are from after I answer them “Melbourne”. I guess my answer is too boring for them.
    At work though, I probably confuse tourists a lot because I’m Asian, but I have an Australian accent (according to some tourists, my accent is really strong…hmm).


    1. Hahaha I completely understand. OHHH, the worst was when we went around Europe, and every time we walked into a shop, the owners would be calling out, “Konichiwa!”. And when that failed to get a response, they’d try “Ni Hao!” and even Korean. At last we would tell them we were from Australia. They usually looked confused.


      1. Actually an old lady thought I was the daughter of a pharmacist who was Italian. Not sure why she thought that.


  3. Haha I used to think like you back when I was in high school. I used to get annoyed when people assumed that I was from overseas, but I was in fact born and raised in Australia.

    But then once I started travelling more, got to experience different cultures. I got to embrace my heritage and be proud that I’m an ABC.

    I’d rather be an ABC with a rich culture than an Australian proud of being bogan, uncultured and uncivilized.

    Fortunately for me, when I grew older I looked more and more mixed (for some strange reason even though I’m fully Chinese).

    Of course it’s no fun being stamped and boxed as a stereotype, that’s why it’s up to US to stand out and show ourselves. Be an individual. Be yourself! :)


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