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*


Too many Asians?

It’s 6am and I’m rolling out of bed, throwing a bucket of water over my car to melt the coat of ice it has collected overnight and driving through dark streets to the train station.

Spending the week in the city has made me realise how much I miss urban Melbourne. There’s a unique energy generated by the bustle of people weaving and pushing in both directions down the sidewalks. I like walking down Swanston Street and seeing which shops have transformed since I last passed by. I enjoy the multiple personalities of the city: Chinatown for the commoner, the Collins St malls for the elite and cardigan-wearing, Flinders Lane and the alleyways for the hipster, the Universities for the unassuming student.

Nowadays when I walk around the CBD I estimate that the crowds must be at least 80% Asian. Unfortunately for some, we really are everywhere. I’m not proud to say that I used to regard these recent migrants as nothing more than a nuisance (as though my family were some sort pioneer of the migration wave). They all looked and sounded alike to me, I didn’t understand them, they dressed funny, and why did they have to band together in chattering flocks and blatantly refuse to adopt a shred of Australian culture?

But I suppose I was looking through a set of blinkers–not looking properly, the way I would look at a friend. With clearer vision I can see now that they are as individual as you and me. In fact there is no they and us. There are only Melbournians; people who walk around the city. You may return to your home country after a period, but you’re a Melbournian for the time that you stay here, be it 6 months or fifteen years.

I think it’s important not to be immediately judgemental of something or someone different. A different thing can be just as interesting or attractive–maybe even more so than the usual. The long-legged, sun-bronzed blonde with messy tresses and loud laugh is miles apart (especially in upbringing) from the quiet, pale-skinned Oriental girl with big shiny eyes like a doll and imperturbably straight hair. But both are beautiful and ordinary in their own ways, if you look close enough.

Now arriving at…


Today I took public transport alone, into the city, after almost a whole year of travelling by car. It had been a long time. I thought I remembered what it was like to sit among strangers on a crowded carriage, but I was wrong.

Melbourne is full of strange and ordinary people. In fact, you will never find people stranger than the ordinary folk that populate a city. The people that press close to you on the tram, that cough a phlegmy cough into your hair, that fill the confined space with their stale, orangey smells. The mad fellow that stumbles purposefully up and down the aisle, muttering into the crook of his arm. The swearing schoolkids. You haven’t taken the Metro until you’ve experienced all of these.

I’m not sure what’s changed in the past year but I found myself noticing all these little things that used to slip my attention. The seat scattered with spilt raisins, which I avoided. Unpleasant sticky stains on the floor. And the incessant symphony of smells: old coat and day-old sandwich, unwashed hair, funky breath.

In the past I’ve always enjoyed being in public places to observe people passing by–strangers with fascinating, hidden other lives. But today there was something claustrophobic, almost threatening, about the experience of taking public transport. Maybe it’s only because I’ve been away for so long.

When you’re in the same place every day, and around the same sort of people every day, you can miss out on the diversity of the very city in which you live. If you spend more time watching TV than out and about, you can forget that real people are often unattractive, unusual to behold, unfashionable, foreign, and difficult to understand. It’s nice to have a reminder that the world revolves around 7 billion other people, too.