Motherhood magnifies the most essential human experiences. For me, nestled among my redefined experiences of sleep, womanhood and family, was my identity as an Australian.
By
Carla Gee

30 Apr 2018 - 7:44 AM  UPDATED 30 Apr 2018 - 8:05 AM

In her contribution to The Motherhood, in which Australian women share what they wish they’d known about life with a newborn, Carla Gee reflects on dealing with an unexpected postnatal racial identity crisis. 

Dear Carla,

‘How to Deal With a Postnatal Racial Identity Crisis’ isn’t a chapter in What to Expect When You’re Expecting but, oh, how I wish it had been.

The birth of my children attracted strangers who were curious to know: how did a nice Chinese girl like me end up in this private hospital, the birthplace of heirs to white, ol’ money dynasties? Race is the surprising and taboo topic that came to define my experience as a new mum.

Like an ill-fitting hospital gown, racism has been the stained garment covering my life that I’ve never been able to remove. But now it cloaked my children as well.

Carla, what I’m going to tell you is a true story. It’s the tale of how my Chinese ethnicity distracted the health professionals I encountered and near-eclipsed the existence of my newborn son. I was a living piece of Chinoiserie who inspired hospital staff to sing this refrain: ‘Where are you from?’ The answer (‘Australia’) never satisfied them because the questions kept on coming. Why was my English so good? And why didn’t my children look Asian? Who is their father?

For unbelievers, these sort of awkward racial encounters are about as serious as an English drawing-room comedy. They are full of misunderstandings and folly. Ever keen to placate, the racism sceptics will say: ‘They have a good heart. Maybe they needed to know for a medical reason. Your hormones are making you too sensitive. You’re sleep-deprived and emotional. They couldn’t have meant that!’

People who speak like this probably had their brain abandoned in a handbag at Victoria Station, like in a zombie version of The Importance of Being Earnest. People who speak like this don’t get it. Or don’t want to get it. They don’t want to believe that this kind of prejudice is real. I got it, because I lived it.

And it was real. It is always real.

But now that you have two children who are half Chinese and half Anglo-Australian, you want your answers to be better for their sake. You want your Asian identity to have substance – to be something beyond Chinese New Year and chopsticks.

The posh hospital where your son is born will start to feel like an extended episode of Who Do You Think You Are? with never before- seen footage and a blooper reel. The staff are obsessed with your genealogy. They insist on knowing where you, your parents and grandparents were born.

Much to their frustration, your answers aren’t straightforward. You’re ethnically Chinese, but neither you nor your parents were born in China. Yes, you identify as Chinese, but it’s hard to feel connected to a place you’ve never been and to a language you don’t understand.

But now that you have two children who are half Chinese and half Anglo-Australian, you want your answers to be better for their sake. You want your Asian identity to have substance – to be something beyond Chinese New Year and chopsticks.

It’s hard to answer big questions when you really just want your catheter and urine bag removed, your baby keeps making weird shaky movements with her arms (is that normal?) and you’re stressing that maybe you forgot to tick ‘ice cream’ on your dinner order.

After your caesarean, you’re given six days to recover in hospital. That means six days of fixating upon your gorgeous son, Will. You stare at him until your eyes prickle and burn. Is it the light or has his skin turned a deep yellow colour? Yellow skin is the hallmark of jaundice. You’re hyper-vigilant because your daughter Emmy had jaundice and spent several days in intensive care, while you secretly cried in your room.

‘Does Will look a bit yellow?’ you ask the young nursing student who is taking your blood pressure.

‘Well, it’s hard to tell,’ she muses. ‘Your skin is kind of yellow, too. People of your, ah, culture tend to naturally have a yellow tone to their skin,’ she finishes off with a mumble.

As you’re walking through the halls, trying to exercise your legs, you overhear a nurse’s conversation.

‘I don’t know how you tell with these dark girls, Doctor Elliot,’ she mutters into the phone. ‘How can you see if they have skin discolouration when their skin is already dark? How do you tell, with these girls?’

You walk a bit faster, even though it hurts.

You have a favourite nurse, Maggie. She’s efficient, grandmotherly and makes you feel like you’re her only patient even though the ward is full.

‘I’m worried that Will’s skin looks yellow and that he might have jaundice,’ you confide in Maggie.

‘Well, you’re pretty yellow yourself, aren’t you, love? You don’t mind me saying that, do you?’ she says, with a wink and a squeeze of your arm.

You laugh a little too loudly. It’s the sort of laugh that shrieks through a barbeque, as the snags are sizzling and tins of beer chill in an esky. You avoid Maggie’s eyes and look at your son instead. Later, test results will show that Will doesn’t have jaundice.

An additional result is that you don’t have a favourite nurse any more.

At the fancy hospital you can leave your newborn baby in an overnight nursery, where the night nurse, Judy, takes care of him.

As you gratefully collect Will early one morning, Judy is keen to chat about her weekend. It feels good to listen, because it’s like having a friend in this impersonal place. Judy excitedly tells you that her daughter took her to a special movie night where there were free gift bags. She finds the pink polyester tote and begins rifling through it. There’s a bunch of stuff in there – pamphlets, moisturiser sachets, a crappy-looking scarf.

‘Can I give you these soy sauce and oyster sauce samples? You probably cook with them, don’t you? I can’t have them because MSG makes me sick.’

You smile for a bit too long, and it occurs to you that you should take them and thank her. Back in your room, you squash the sauce samples into the sides of your suitcase, deep down so that nobody can see them.
The next morning, you collect your son from his final nursery stay. Judy seems flustered and tense as twenty babies sob loudly in unison. You don’t stop to chat this time because she looks so busy. You sign baby Will out and start to wheel his bassinet away.

Motherhood magnifies the most essential human experiences. For me, nestled among my redefined experiences of sleep, womanhood and family, was my identity as an Australian.

‘STOP!’ Judy screams at you.

You turn around, startled.

Judy lunges towards you and snatches the wheeled cot out of your hands. She points to the name card above Will’s little head, gets right up in your face, and hisses. ‘The surname there is Gee! You’re not Gee!’ Oh shit, you realise. She thinks I’m trying to steal a baby. She thinks this white-looking baby with the Anglo surname isn’t mine because I’m Chinese.

Yesterday, while gazing into your son’s face, you and your husband had playfully tried to decide whether Will looked more Chinese or Anglo-Saxon. Or is he the perfect mix of the both of you? It’s moments like this, when it appears you’re kidnapping a miscellaneous white baby, that the answer becomes obvious. Your baby doesn’t look like he belongs to you.

Judy is looking at you like you’re a stranger. That’s when you realise that she’s not your special friend – instead she’s someone who likes to natter on about her life to everyone she encounters.

Just because she gave you Chinese sauce doesn’t mean that she remembers you.

You grimly press your lips together and hold out your arm for Judy to read your plastic hospital ID bracelet. An expression of undisguised horror comes over her face. She apologises and apologises, and is still gabbling repentantly and clutching at your arm as she walks with you to the door and into the corridor.

Back in your room, you are angry, but you feel strangely guilty too. It’s as though you really did steal a baby. Somehow, this feels like your fault.

 As I was constantly reminded that I didn’t appear to match or belong in my own country, I became even more adamant that my place was here. It’s my fight, my purpose to be ‘here’. To be unashamed and visible as a mother and a proud Chinese-Australian woman, and to give my children the confidence that they, too, belong.

Sheryl from the local baby health centre has phoned to arrange a complimentary home visit from a nurse. You’re absent-mindedly answering questions about your address and date of birth as you attempt to quieten two-year-old Emmy and breastfeed baby Will at the same time. An unexpected question snaps you out of
this motherly haze.

‘Any cultural issues?’ asks Sheryl casually.

You honestly have no idea what she means, because sometimes when you hear the word ‘culture’, you think of ballet and art museums.

‘What do you mean by “cultural issues”?’

‘Well, some Asians make you take your shoes off before you go in their house, so we bring foot coverings if we know in advance,’ she replies helpfully.

You explain that while you are Chinese, the nurse is welcome to wear shoes in your home. You boldly declare yourself to be free of ‘cultural issues’.

A week later you open the door to the community nurse, Laura. She pulls from her handbag what appears to be two blue shower caps, and proceeds to shove them over her boots. For some reason you thought the shoe coverings would look a little more chic.

You tell Laura that she can wear her shoes in your house. She is confused and insists on the shower caps. You repeat that she doesn’t need them. Finally, Laura accepts defeat, and the shower caps go back in her bag. She’s trying so hard to be considerate. You wish this didn’t make you so uncomfortable.

Laura is excited to meet you as there really aren’t many Asians in your small bushland suburb. She asks more questions about your Chinese heritage than she does about the baby. She laughs and shakes her head when she hears that you named your son William.

‘Does he at least have a Chinese middle name, with a special meaning?’ she asks, enthusiastically. ‘I just love Chinese characters. They’re so beautiful.’

You battle to keep your face a pleasantly smiling mask while your mind generates sarcastic retorts. In this fantasy, you would respond with a killer line: ‘You know, I’m a writer, so I wanted to name my son after a poet.

We named him William, after William Shakespeare. But now that you mention it, of all the poets’ names I considered, Confucius wasn’t one of them.’

You immediately feel guilty for having nasty thoughts about this caring community nurse. What the hell is wrong with you? She’s just being curious and respectful. Why does this irritate you so much? Could your racism radar have been a bit over-sensitive, a bit . . . off ? Is this what ‘baby brain’ looks like – a big, extended ‘duh’ when it comes to race relations? If only there was a way to prevent these cringe-worthy moments,something like an anti-racism vaccine. You’re obsessed with vaccines at the moment, thanks to your newfound paranoia of dangerous diseases. The day you took Emmy home, every person walking through the hospital resembled a gigantic, disgusting whooping cough germ. You hurried to avoid them.

You’ve come up with a solution. You will keep your babies at home for six weeks straight, and ban any unvaccinated visitors.

You will not take them outside for anything – not even a walk – until the day of their first vaccinations. You don’t tell people the real reason for this hermit-like behaviour, for fear of looking crazy. So, instead, you offer the kind of excuse that everyone loves.

‘It’s because I’m Chinese,’ you declare. ‘It’s a Chinese tradition that is very special to me and that I want to honour.’

According to Chinese friends and family, Chinese mothers and babies traditionally do not leave the house for the first month of the baby’s life. To you, this custom is conveniently similar to your self-imposed quarantine, plus it sounds much more socially acceptable and also exotic.

Thank goodness nobody asks you why this tradition takes place, because you’re not completely sure. You’ve heard it’s something to do with the mother not getting wind on her back and you know there’s a ‘no hair-washing’ rule. But you rarely ask questions about your cultural heritage because it makes you feel dumb.

You want to be better than that for your kids.

You want to be the mum who knows and embraces her background. Not some clueless ‘banana’ who is yellow on the outside, white on the inside. So you feign an ancient understanding, a race memory. For you, the first six weeks of your children’s lives are crucial. You want to keep them alive and guard them with everything you have. But you still want clean hair.

Motherhood magnifies the most essential human experiences. For me, nestled among my redefined experiences of sleep, womanhood and family, was my identity as an Australian. As I was constantly reminded that I didn’t appear to match or belong in my own country, I became even more adamant that my place was here. It’s my fight, my purpose to be ‘here’. To be unashamed and visible as a mother and a proud Chinese-Australian woman, and to give my children the confidence that they, too, belong.

I want my children to be proud of their Chinese and Australian heritage, but, more importantly, I want them to be proud that they are loved. Asia and Australia may be mighty continents, however, it’s my small children who matter to me the most and make me who I am.

They are here, in my heart, and they always will be.

With love, Carla

This is an extract from The Motherhood, edited by Jamila Rizvi (published by Penguin Random House).

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