The Identity Crisis!

No one remembers how they felt when they were born, or what it would be like to be cradled in the arms of your mother. All babies are born equally, non-discriminate and no baby is born a racist or feels confused about their identity, trying to piece together where they belong. Babies are innocent, and only learn and develop from the stimulation and environment presented to them. No one can determine who they are born to, what culture or religion they would belong to and what personality they will adopt. It is only through growing up, facing obstacles and challenges and life itself which will determine who the baby will grow up to be.


I mention this because being born in Australia to Malaysian Chinese parents, being a baby was probably the only time I  felt equal, not discriminated and treated with the same respect as every other baby. I must say despite my experiences growing up I do have the best parents any child could ask for. They were pretty modern in how they bought me up, not being overly strict and dogmatic over my education, and allowing  play time with friends and during the holiday period. But what they did teach me was some of our Asian cultural values of respect for elders and respect for earning an honest living. They bestowed an Irish name to me, unknowingly,of course most likely for the reason that I would adapt much easier and be accepted in Australian society.


My father recently told me that when I was only one years old, in 1983, he happen to see the then late NSW Premier Neville Wran at the Sydney Fish Markets. Apparently, the story goes that a staff came up and asked him if the late Premier could carry me for a publicity shoot, promoting multiculturalism in NSW. For good luck and blessings, my father allowed and that was probably my first dip in the pool of politics, and a positive story to share before I delve into the more serious portions.

Growing up, I was pretty happy, loving my barbie dolls, watching ABC kids shows and playing mothers and fathers with the local kids and my cousins. My only failing was that I was a complete coward, feared anything free falling. I was scared to go down the slippery dip and was petrified of going down the escalators. My poor dad had to carry me till I was six years old, with his arms moving lower as I grew taller and heavier.

In 1988, I started big school. The school I went to was very anglocised to say the least, with myself noticing for the first time that I was very different looking in appearance. The other students and even some of the parents never let me forget that. Being racially bullied and ridiculed when you are five is a very personality shaping experience. Being called ching chong, chinky chink, and go back to China was the most common phrases screamed out to me for eight months of the first year of school. I learnt quickly the best places to hide, but could never avoid the physical bullying from bigger kids, who ridiculed me for eating rice and for having smaller eyes and black hair.


For the next few years, I was quite shy and very quiet, and even though I had changed schools, and the demographics was much more diverse, I was so belittled as a five year old, that I mastered the art of internalising my sadness. I allowed my friends to boss me around and was pretty obedient, not wanting to rock the boat or shake the bush. Despite having exceptional reading, spelling and writing skills, it was school policy in those days to send all kids who did not look Caucasian to ESL (English as a second language). In hindsight, I still can not fathom how racially dividing that experience was.

By the time I was ten years old, I was still a happy kid, but an odd urge started to take over. I started to resent my last name Chew, and in my mind wished I was any other last name. I also started to look at the other students, who had blonde  or brown hair and hated the way I looked. In essence, it was that I was starting to question my identity. Truly I clearly remember wishing each day that I did not look Chinese. I even went as far as to tell my parents one day that I wanted to change my last name legally to Smith. You can imagine how they reacted.

At that time, I was also attending Chinese school, as my parents thought it would be best for me to learn how to speak mandarin. I attended this with my cousins who lived around the corner from me. I hated going to Chinese school, and would never tell any of my fellow classmates in school that I went to Chinese school. I was quite embarrassed and innocently thought by hiding it,  would make me feel better and feel more Australian.

I guess, I felt quite alone, even though unknowingly, many Australian kids were going through the same or similar experiences as I was. Questioning my identity became a daily ritual, and I lost a lot of confidence in myself because of it. I could never feel certain of who I was. I knew then how much I hated being Chinese, but I questioned how Australian I was. I mean, I spoke the language with the accent, but I looked different from what I understood at the time an Australian looked like.

To cut a long story short, I struggled with my identity issue for quite a long time. It was really not until I entered university as a young adult that I started to appreciate the Asianess and Chineseness of my cultural background. It is interesting, how reflections from your childhood really shape not only your past, but also your future, and having this identity crisis has bought me to where I am today.

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Perceptions as a Chinese Australian

Just this morning, I shared an article on my personal Facebook page, which discussed Australia’s former Prime Minister, Bob Hawke’s decision to provide asylum for Chinese students on the aftermath of the Tienanmen Square Massacre in 1989. As quoted in Guardian Australia, Bob Hawke stated in an article written by Gabrielle Chan;

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“I have a deep love for the Chinese people,” Hawke said. “I had no consultation with anyone and when I walked off the dais [after the announcement], I was told: ‘You cannot do that, prime minister.’ I said to them, ‘I just did. It is done.’ ”  (January 1st, 2015)

This sole decision making on the fly conducted by Bob Hawke, did not run smoothly, with resistance and rejection of this huge immigration proposal by the ones closest to the former Prime Minister, including some of his fellow colleagues in power and in government departments.  Despite  this resistance, Bob Hawke pushed on to change the course of Australia’s multicultural landscape in allowing 16,200 Chinese students call Australia home.

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This landmark decision came just after a decade, when in a show of bi-partisanship between two former Prime Ministers Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser set Racial Discrimination as law and ended the White Australia policy which has plagued the country for over seventy years. And in 1976, former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser went one step further and decided to go against the grain of public opinion yet again and allow thousands of refugees from Indo-China call Australia home, after they were displaced from the Indo-China conflict.

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So therefore, Bob Hawke’s decision in allowing 16,200 Chinese students make Australia home marks as a huge milestone of opening up our country’s borders, and leading to what we call now the rise of the Asian Century. This however is neither the start, nor the end of the building of Asian communities in Australia, but is a significant event which has changed the course of Australia’s cultural and diverse environment.

As a Chinese Australian, I write this article with intense interest and intrigue. My personal experiences are varied and being Australian born, I cannot empathise with these immigration experiences. But what I can offer is my personal opinions and insights, and reflecting back on what I have been involved in, learnt and read, the specific migration experiences of the Chinese in Australia has been a difficult one spanning over two centuries, dating back to the mid 1800s, when the first Chinese touched down in Australia for the search of gold and a life for their families.

But from understanding what happened then, and seeing where we are now in 2015, we are lagging behind significantly with regards to representation in public life and in corporations. Where the Chinese Australian communities like all other migrant communities have flourished, adapted and contributed greatly to the country, public opinion, policies and leadership have not caught up, and we are now in a situation where our governments, large national corporations and decision making bodies are still virtually Caucasian with no immediate urge for change. The institutional racism is a larger problem than the casual racism which have received huge social media interest of late.

Change must come but we can not just sit down and twiddle our thumbs waiting for change. Together with other communities, and I acknowledge that this is a broader issue beyond just only the Chinese Australian community, we must push, participate and get involved in removing what is known as the Bamboo Ceiling. 


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