In 1993, I was 12 years old and living in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. Every morning, my grade six teacher would ask the whole class what we had for dinner the night before. Everyone, even the Polish and Vietnamese kids, would say pies, burgers, fish and chips.
In retrospect, we may have all been covering for our real dinners. I, for one, didn't want to be the person who said 'soy sauce chow mein', so I'd lie and say I had barbecue - a lot.
We didn't even own a barbecue.
It wasn't so much that I hated being Chinese or Chinese food (I was born in Hong Kong to Chinese parents and moved to Australia when I was eight years old) but at the height of Pauline Hanson and her anti-Asian sentiments, I believed that my life would be easier if I was a bit more white.
As I couldn't easily change my skin colour, I controlled what I could, embracing Australian-ness through Top 40, then later Hottest 100 and American TV. My accent was so thick that once, when my uncle from Hong Kong called and I answered, he hung up because he thought he had the wrong number. At the time, I was pretty proud.
My accent was so thick that once, when my uncle from Hong Kong called and I answered, he hung up because he thought he had the wrong number
In my 20s, I spent time in London, drinking snakebites at the Walkabout. After that, I lived in Canberra and went to trivia nights, meat raffles and once, the Prime Minister's XI.
When I returned to Melbourne, I started dating an Anglo-Australian who would eventually become my husband. About a year into our relationship, I decided to take him to Hong Kong so he could meet my extended family and see where I was born and where I spent my formative years.
On that trip, it was the first time he had heard me speak Cantonese, and watched me play mahjong and crave ginger chicken congee.
He was shocked, not from hearing me speak my mother tongue but because supposedly I had once told him I didn't speak any Cantonese at all.
I don't remember specifically lying about that but it sounded like something I could have said in the past.
I realised that the Chinese part of me had been largely repressed, deliberately at first but more subconsciously later. And on the verge of sharing a life and maybe even starting a family of our own, I figured it was time to show all of me.
Slowly but surely, the Chinese influences started to surface.
At our wedding, we had a tea ceremony, a tradition where the bride and groom serve tea to senior members of the family as a sign of gratitude and respect. Red pockets and gold jewellery were gifted. After marriage, I chose to keep my Chinese surname. My husband has a lovely Anglo last name that I once would have jumped at. I practiced saying it and writing it but in the end, I didn't feel like I could own it. I didn't feel like it was me.
My husband has a lovely Anglo last name that I once would have jumped at. I practiced saying it and writing it but in the end, I didn't feel like I could own it
When our daughter was born two years ago I introduced her to her gung gung (maternal grandfather), pau pau (maternal grandmother) and yi yi (aunty). It was second nature and I couldn't imagine my parents and sister being anything else to her. Just as my parents took me every weekend, I take her to yum cha and the Asian grocery store where we buy sauces, pastes and all of the snacks. When she was six months old, I took her to Hong Kong. At only two and a half, she has training chopsticks for toddlers.
I want her to know the Chinese influences that have shaped her mother and in turn, will shape her.
I describe myself as Chinese-Australian. I need both sides of the hyphen to make a whole.
Despite over 200 years of Chinese history in Australia, Chinese-Australians have not been able to drop the hyphen. Our stories are still told at the immigration museum, there is still a lack of representation in most areas of public life and it's too easy to revert to "othering" during times of crisis.
Being Australian still implies an Anglo default.
But while I can't drop the hyphen, it may not be this way for my daughter.
She will grow up in Melbourne, one of the most successful multicultural cities in the world. She has Anglo, Chinese and Turkish cousins and will have friends from all over the world. Of the 10 families from our local parents' group, half of the children have at lease one parent from Asian ancestry. We named our group "Spring Pups" because our children were born in Spring in the Year of the Dog. No one had a problem with that, no one felt swamped.
She has Anglo, Chinese and Turkish cousins and will have friends from all over the world
It is my hope that my daughter is proud of her heritage, that she never has to hide any part of her identity and that when she describes herself as Australian, no eyebrows are raised.
And lastly, I hope she can help others feel more included too, so that none of her Australian friends have to lie about what they had for dinner last night.
New Gold Mountain airs over two big weeks premiering Wednesday 13 October at 9.30pm and continuing on Thursday 14 October, Wednesday 20 October, and Thursday 21 October at 9.30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand. Subtitles in Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Arabic, Vietnamese and Korean are available to stream on SBS On Demand after broadcast.
Teachers: head to GOLD, an SBS Learn website unearthing diverse experiences of the gold rush.
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