Growing up Asian in White Man’s World

There are many pivotal moments in one’s life that mean almost nothing at that time. Sometimes, the everlasting influence of those moments can only be understood when you look back and recall the emotions attached. A woman can reminisce the first time she wore a dress and recognised that moment as her first taste of feminism; a man can remember the many dates he took his wife and pinpoint the moment he knew he loved her; almost every adult can find innocent moments of their past and delight in the impression it left behind.

Individuals evolve by learning from mistakes and lessons. Looking back now at the mature age of twenty-four, I realise that there are many experiences that have left a permanent mark on both the character I am today and the legacy I leave behind. At age nine with a backpack on one shoulder, I waited at a bus stop in the western suburbs of Melbourne. A book in one hand and the leftovers of a packed lunch box in the other, I minded my own business like any other day.

I drank a juice box like everyone else did and ate the remaining half of a peanut butter sandwich that my refugee parents made but never tasted.

A car screeched around the corner and a conditioned instinct kicked in. I held firm onto the straps of my bag and prepared myself to receive some sort of bigotry. Typically, angry drunkards or senile figures would have said ignorant racial slurs that just roll off their tongues and leave it at that. by this time, however, those sorts of insults did not hurt anymore. Nonetheless, this encounter was different.

It might have been the first time I learned the difference between a meritless bully and a racist.

The man, who seemed to have too much time on his hand, rolled his window down and shouted with defiant aggression: “Go home – you don’t belong here!”. His bullet-like words were accompanied by a cowardly spit as he sped off into distance. When you grow up being a minority, you simply succumb to those sorts of behaviour. Being much older now with a little more wisdom, I finally recognise that moment as the first time I understood racism and saw myself differently.

Before then, the concepts of racism and privilege were just terms that were taught, but no one actually learned of its consequences.

Before then, the fact that the vast and specific references to my ethnicity are racist just eluded me.

Before then, I naively assumed that some people were mean and nothing more.

Before then, I thought that I was just like everyone else.

I remember feeling confused on whether or not such taunts were specifically aimed at me. Judging by the way the gentleman sitting on the bus bench tilted his head away as if nothing had happened, I knew that this act of malice was mine to receive.

But I am just going home – I’m at the bus stop – what just happened? Did he really spit at me?

Instead of seeking equality, I came to desire “white” privilege. When you are a child, you do not see race as a divide. Racial inequality is something that is learned gradually and socially constructed. White is better, blonde is prettier and minorities come second.  

I am the child of immigrants but was born Australian. I speak one language indoors and another outside. Despite being raised in two different cultures, I did not know where I belong back then. All I knew was that I was not like everyone else, but wanted to be.

Growing up as a first generation Asian-Australian, there was never any form of minority representation. Everyone in the media was white. The only ethnic figures under media limelight were either the subjects of scrutiny or in cartoons. Here and there, we would sometimes spot an Asian character on screen that was relatable to the minority group. But even then, they were probably supernatural characters or had fighting skills that were comically theatrical.  

Twenty years ago, the Australian society was hesitant to accept the existence of the minority groups. Introductions of multicultural restaurant and cuisines were gradual while xenophobia roamed the community. Minority children in the Western suburb grew to believe that their race meant that they were only qualified for second place.

To this day, ethnic representation is an ongoing topic that is seemingly heard and discussed from time to time. Yet somehow, the issue of whitewashing remains prevalent. The same arguments are addressed, then expected apologies are released in the press. However, the cycle of identical empty promises often repeats.

However, it is arguable that the Australian society has flourished into a moral state very different from the one decades ago. The variety of human characteristics, that is ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, are now being embraced and celebrated. The other day, I was on a public transport on my way to complete a university exam. As I sat with a book, I thought to myself: who would have thought that the same kid who got spat on at a bus stop for being a minority would be graduating with journalistic major?

The moment that marked my first understanding of racism eventually flourished into a driving motivation to prove stereotypical societal expectations wrong. The Australian society has travelled a long way on the journey of equality. Nowadays, it is no longer a bewildering sight to see children of diverse race playing together in the same school yard, to see different ethnic groups tasting a variety of international cuisines while enjoying each other’s company. Nonetheless, there is still a long way to go despite the evident growth. Minority groups are still often the subject of discrimination and hate speech. Immigrants and refugees are still unwelcome. Race and nationality have entered the thrones of major political debates. While the (mostly) white politicians debate on the welfare of the minority, they often forget that we too are humans.  

However, if there’s anything I am sure of is that they cannot take away the fact that I am Asian. I am Australian. And I am proud.