My job description as an esteemed public servant has always included the ambiguous clause ‘other duties as required’. Whilst this is suitably vague enough to cover all manner of tasks, the most common seems to be posing in photo shoots where we can’t afford to pay real models. My face has appeared on promotional materials for various projects and, while I make the standard jokes about not receiving royalties and having enquiries directed to my (non-existent) agent, the truth is I don’t mind seeing myself out there.
The other day, the concept of a photo opportunity representing different generations of learners was being floated around. Given the timing, it was unlikely that we would find many volunteers – so we reverted back to our standard solution of finding someone we knew to take part. When it was suggested that my family (with my Mum, myself and my son and niece) represent the three generations, I was happy to oblige. My Mum isn’t very keen on photos, but the chance to have a nice professional shot with her two grandchildren would be a great opportunity, so I volunteered on her behalf.
Whilst in the process of booking a photographer and drafting a schedule, we received word from one of the founders of the project that she was not happy with the concept for the photo. Generations of learners were fine, she thought, but she was firmly opposed to the photo being ‘too white’ as she wanted it to represent the diversity of learning in Australia. That was fine, I thought, I hadn’t mentioned it to my Mum anyway, so no big loss. But something didn’t sit right with me about the response. It gnawed at me for a couple of days, and I couldn’t work out why. And then I realised: my family had been labelled ‘too white’, and I was offended.
It took me a while to process this. Sure, my Mum is Australian born, of English and Scottish descent, but my Dad was born in Malaysia of Chinese background. Which makes me half Malaysian-Chinese, and my son shares a quarter of that heritage. Even my niece, in her gorgeous blue-eyed blondness, is a quarter Chinese and I expect this will be as important to her as any of her family history.
I started to understand why I was so annoyed. All those years of playground insults and casual racism seemed to have been in vain. Finally, I had realised my childhood dream of being ‘less Chinese’, but instead of a feeling of satisfaction I was left with a strange feeling of emptiness instead.
By one single comment, someone had stripped away the cultural identity I had spent years coming to terms with. Growing up, I had gone from feeling completely at ease hanging with my cousins from my Dad’s side of the family, to being isolated at primary school where the freckle-faced bullies told me I had black hairs growing out of my nose because I was Chinese. Hell, at high school I was even teased for having freckles myself – because ‘don’t you know Asians don’t get freckles?’.
As ludicrous as this all seems now, it left a lasting impression on me. It wasn’t until university, immersed in the cultural melting pot of Melbourne and turning out undergrad papers on cultural hybridity, that I really came to terms with who I was. I am half-Chinese! I don’t have to be embarrassed by my middle name, or the fact that anyone who fancies themselves au fait with the Chinese language would prefer I pronounce my maiden name (Leong) with less of an Aussie twang.
The half-halfness was what I struggled with most. This feeling that if I was only half-Chinese and half-Australian, I would never be a whole of anything. But even that made sense after a while, as I met people who embraced their one-quarter or one-eighth heritages with open arms. I could only imagine the struggle faced by people of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who were forced to proved their identity because people didn’t think they looked the part. My first-world offence at not being included in a photo pales in comparison, but I still felt it.