• The plight of the ‘banana’ (Yellow on the outside. White on the inside)

    When you go to a Chinese restaurant, the staff speak to you in their language and look disappointed when you can only offer a small shrug and a ‘sorry’. They may offer you forks, and no doubt take note of the fact your white partner uses chopsticks a million times more deftly than you do.

    When an elderly Asian person tries to communicate with the bus driver, and fails, the driver casts a meaningful look back at you over his shoulder, and all you can do is offer a small shrug and a ‘sorry’.

    When an Asian person comes up to you on the street and (presumably) tries to ask you for directions in their language, and all you can do is offer a small shrug and a ‘sorry’.

    When people at work ask if you speak any other languages, clearly hoping that you do, and all you can do is offer a small shrug and a ‘sorry’.

    When a white security guard says ‘ni hao’ to you as you walk past, and you don’t know how best to respond.

    When people learn your Chinese/legal name and gush about how beautiful it is, and you don’t know how best to respond.

    When you open your mouth and someone hearing you for the first time expresses surprise at your total lack of an accent, and you don’t know how best to respond.

    I’ve had too many of these incidents happen too close together of late, and I’m tired of feeling apologetic all the damn time. It’s my own problem to deal with, I know; it’s not about malice, it’s about what’s going on inside me and my own identity issues.

    I am Chinese by heritage, born in Malaysia, raised in New Zealand. I know more Malay words than I do Chinese, and I am pretty sure I know even more Maori words in total. English is the language we spoke at home – my parents grew up speaking different dialects – and while my dad briefly tried to teach me Mandarin once, I had neither the desire nor inclination to succeed. If it weren’t for, I suppose, external forces, I wouldn’t even care. Maybe in my dotage, like my mother, I’ll feel the urge to reconnect with my birthright and start taking Mandarin classes – but for now, it’s just not on my radar. But being non white in an overwhelmingly white industry makes me feel like I need to be some sort of ambassador or representative at times. But I’m not. I’m an impostor.

    I am surrounded by white people for the vast majority of my waking hours. At work. At home. In the media I consume. Sometimes, despite the fact I see myself every day in the mirror, I think I actually forget I’m not white too.

  • On unabashedly saying no to booze

    As I get older, my tolerance for BS has shrunk to near negligible levels. I just don’t have the time or energy for the things I don’t have time or energy for. You only get one lifetime – one in which the days seem to roll on by ever faster – and I’m not going to play along on matters of convention just because.

    Alcohol is such a founding pillar of both social and work culture, and I’ll admit, I used to drink just to fit in. But I’ve largely called it quits.

    Color Martini: "Maya's drink (at Tokyo Go...

    (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    I hate beer and wine – and that’s usually all that’s ever available at work dos. Occasionally I’ll indulge in, and enjoy, a spirit or a liqueur among friends. But as a rule I generally don’t enjoy booze very much. I had my few years of drinking on weekends, and my fair share of flushed, tipsy photos snapped in the process … and I’m well and truly over it.

    Alcohol is expensive. And I’m a cheapskate. Even at events where booze is flowing freely, I unashamedly abstain. At one particularly tedious evening some time ago, mixers were on offer from the dedicated bartenders, and I thought I’d try to drink to pass the time. A couple of sips in and I called it quits. Lesson learned. (Sorry, I have no qualms about wasting booze.)

    Drunk me is not the best me. One drink – max two – and I’m gone. I’ll probably fall asleep within the hour. If I’m driving (which is also rare), it’s best not to touch a drop. Plus I get the dreaded Asian deep red flush – it’s a full body thing for me. Not attractive; extremely embarrassing.

    And you know what? It’s not as strange or awkward as I anticipated.

    At one industry awards dinner, I refused both the red and white wine as the bottles were offered around. A little while later, my boss simply said, “You don’t drink wine, do you? We might swipe your glass” and passed it on to someone else who was apparently juggling two kinds of vino.

    At a bar meetup with a group of strangers (and one person I’d met once before), I ordered a plain orange juice. “You’re on the hard stuff!” one joked, and didn’t say any more on the matter.

    Occasionally I break ranks. I succumbed to nervous drinking at a lunch function not so long ago, surrounded by chefs, food writers and other hospo types. I couldn’t feel the champagne flush, but sure enough, when I ducked into the bathroom I looked well and truly sunburned. And as it was a four-course meal with a different matched wine with each dish, I tried a few sips of each – figuring it was a rare chance I should seize. (SO. MUCH. WASTE. And is it a prerequisite to love wine in order to earn your ‘foodie’ stripes or what?) Takeaway: I still hate wine, even good wine, and even wines chosen to complement amazing food.

    It’s funny how alcohol and caffeine are our sanctioned drugs of choice. But maybe we’re becoming more accepting of people who don’t partake. I’d like to think so, anyway. With evermore complex dietary requirements becoming commonplace (I swear every third person I come across is either vegan or gluten-free), perhaps we’re becoming less judgemental about whatever others put – or don’t put – into their bodies.

    (This post was partly inspired by Clare and Cait.)

  • Thoughts from a first generation immigrant

    Assorted Mooncakes
    Image by ulterior epicure via Flickr

    When I was little, I wanted nothing more than to be white. I wanted to look like everybody else, I wanted to lose my accent, and perhaps most of all, I wanted my parents to act like all the other parents. The kind who would welcome me having friends over to play. Who knew why other kids knocked on our door on Halloween night dressed in all manner of weird costumers – because I didn’t. Who didn’t shop at op shops and garage sales or buy me baby bonnets instead of sporty caps. My parents were by no means stereotypically FOB immigrants, with broken accents, who struggle to catch a bus or dispute a bill. But they were just different enough to set them apart.

    I remember borrowing a cheongsam to wear on Cultural Day in my first year of primary school. I wonder if I looked as awkward as I felt in it From then on, I wore my own jeans and a tee.

    I hated in-class exercises where everyone was urged to get in touch with their heritage. People would look at me and say, “Oh, you’re so lucky, you actually have a culture!” Uh, no, not really. (This is made even more complex by way of hailing from Malaysia but being ethnically Chinese.) We’re not religious, we speak English at home, the extent of our CNY celebrations are gorging on moon cake (the one time of year I halfheartedly lay claim to my heritage). Name a traditional custom or ritual you associate with the Chinese and I’ll probably never even have heard of it. We ate rice almost every day, though. That counts for something, surely.

    And yet, I’m not a total cultural vacuum. Celebrity chef Rick Stein was in Malaysia on his Far Eastern Odyssey this week. Mesmerised by the familiar accents, the hearty laughs, the general conduct of the locals, I watched, entranced, as they whipped up fish head curry and beef rendang. If nothing else, culture, to me, is associated with cuisine. And no matter how long ago, the “aiyahs” and the inability to enunciate the h in “three” still instantly transport me back to a certain place.

    There are things that are going to stop with me, that I won’t pass down to future generations. My kids will have straight English names. They won’t hear their parents talking on the phone in another language, or hear foreign words peppered throughout conversation – random pet terms substituted for English for no real reason, apart from maybe habit. They may occasionally eat dishes featuring strange ingredients like shrimp paste, but most likely they’ll eat steak and pasta and my version of Thai curry.

    That’s okay. Because what’s really important is that they learn to be decent human beings. Hopefully they’ll be intelligent. Not weakling klutzes like me. And ideally semi-attractive, because life is enough of a bitch as it is. But ultimately, as long as they appreciate the importance of hard work, doing right by others and themselves, and grow up with a respect and appreciation for people of all backgrounds.

    Some things may be more prized, where I come from, than they are for others. Family. Pride. Standing on your own two feet. But ultimately, these are values that transcend time, space, and ethnicity.

  • “Stealing our jobs”

    (This is a post based on my personal experiences and observations. Yes, I’m going to generalise and make some sweeping statements, but I am aware that I can’t apply a blanket rule to everyone of a certain ethnicity. Topics like this always arouse intense feelings; here are my views on immigrant-bashing).

    In recessionary times, everyone gets all protectionist and the rednecks come out of the woodwork to shout about immigrants stealing jobs. Stealing jobs from our young unemployed. Stealing jobs from hardworking people just trying to support their families. One Your Views gem in particular really got me riled up. It was rather incoherent. I finally worked out – I think – that this person meant immigrants working at gas stations and supermarkets were stealing jobs from Kiwis and in particular young people and students.

    Because of course, immigrants can’t be students working a part time job to support themselves. Of course! All these “useless unskilled” immigrants have decided to make the momentous decision to immigrate to an entirely new country just to work menial jobs to screw over NZers. As many expats know, it’s local work experience that is valued here more than anything.

    My mother, an accountant, worked in a factory for a while before landing a part time bookkeeping job. We hear the classic line about Russian doctors and physicists being forced into taxi driving. I don’t think it’s different for accountants, teachers, or any other sort of profession. At dinner not so long ago, my mum told us how important it was for her to acclimatise and learn more about the culture before diving back in. Simple things like going through receipts and working out what were deductible expenses and what weren’t, are a billion times harder when you don’t even know what Tic Tacs are. (I also remember our first Halloween and wondering why all these random people in costumes were turning up at our house. And my first sleepover, where we had boiled eggs at breakfast and I didn’t know how to peel them, so even though I love eggs I didn’t have any to eat).

    Migrants don’t have the safety of the full welfare net to fall back onto. They are more likely to take any job they can get, because they HAVE to. I know many people, for whom it’s preferable to sit on the dole rather than work on, for example, an assembly line that requires commuting and pays about the same as the dole. Why would you want to work a job like that? BF”s case worker commented that many of her clients choose to job hunt from home rather than coming into the centre every day. But when she asks for their job lead diary, it’s empty. You can guess what they’re spending their time doing instead. Don’t get me wrong. I know there are many many people who would be grateful for ANY job. But there  are just as many happy to get paid for doing sweet f-all, due to the way the NZ welfare system works. Oh, and not-so-hypothetical people (who irritate me with their sheer stupidity) who don’t believe that their boss won’t fire them when they don’t go to work – just because they DON’T FEEL LIKE GOING TO WORK. (And, of course, get fired.) I am serious. True story. Happened last month.

    Here’s a sweeping statement. From what I know and see, migrants are generally very hard workers. It’s the fact that many of them have had to pull themselves up by their bootstraps (what a lame expression!),and have certain values and priorities instilled in them. It’s the way I was brought up, to stand on my two feet. They have a strong work ethic, they value education and take it seriously. I don’t even technically live out west as such, yet I am still surrounded by bogans – think Outrageous Fortune, personified – and it’s an entirely new world to me. There really is no Asian equivalent to the concept of a Westie, to my knowledge. It just wouldn’t happen. There are A LOT of things I hate about Chinese culture. But not this one. There ain’t no option to pump gas all your life and spend your free time drinking, smoking, and screwing. That’s something I see on a regular basis, and it frustrates me.

    I wonder if people like that would rather I gave my job up to a “real” New Zealander. I’m an NZ citizen. I was brought up here. I have a white boyfriend, I don’t eat tofu or chicken feet, I swear like a true blue westie and eat Watties tomato sauce. Yet when I open my mouth sometimes, people are surprised I don’t have some heavy accent. But you know, I look different and all. Maybe I’m not entitled to my job, by that logic.

    Immigrants don’t always get hired because they are willing to work for fifty cents an hour. I’m willing to bet most of them are hired because they work bloody hard, they’re committed and they’re willing to do the hard graft to get ahead. I don’t think it’s a great idea to be bringing in tons of new migrants at the moment, but leave the ones already here alone. Would you rather take their jobs and give them to a “real NZer”, and pay them the dole instead? Yeah, didn’t think so. Job stealers, dole bludgers, they just can’t win.

  • A nice surprise

    I find that the older I get, the more aware I am of race, culture, and ethnicity – not just me, but others around me.

    Recently I’ve realised that a lot of bloggers I follow and look up to are of varying ethnic backgrounds. This has come through in different viewpoints on wedding gifts, attitudes towards money, and attitudes towards supporting family. It’s been really interesting to read all the followup debate, and learn more about customs which mean so much to people of certain cultures.

    I think it’s interesting, though, that my default perception of people is to assume that they’re white. What does that say about me? And society around me? Have I been conditioned to think that white is the “norm”? I really shouldn’t have been surprised; we live in a diverse world, and I went to a school with something like over 30 different nationalities.

    But I’m glad to have realised this. It’s hard to not see people who look like you represented in the media. To not have role models to inspire you. To be considered an “ethnic minority” for the rest of your life. It’s nice to feel a little more at home in the blogosphere.

  • Homeland heart

    I don’t think that title even makes sense. I just like alliteration. Make that, i LOVE alliteration. Disproportionately so.

    Anyway.

    I had dinner with the family and some family friends over from Singapore, at a Malaysian restaurant. (I felt bad in hindsight, for not asking them questions about their trip and visit, etc. I think I still feel like a child around the family, not like a grownup at the grownup table. But I’m 20 now, and I can’t really just sit around and only speak to answer any questions thrown my way now, can I??)

    The staff were really lovely, really homey, hearty, earthy types. They make you feel at home. Even me, a rather culturally confused banana. The accents strike a chord in my heart and their ways of speech. So did all the photos and posters on the walls. KL. Petaling Jaya. Putra Jaya. Big bustling cities with amazing architecture.

    I really, really want to go see them. Honestly, I don’t even know where in Malaysia I’ve been. Obviously Kuala Lumpur, but I don’t know if I’ve been anywhere else. But all of a sudden seeing all that up on those restaurant walls made me want to see it ALL! It made me want to take BF there and go shopping and sweat in the humidity and eat the great food, and probably get food poisoning but chug on nonetheless. Of course it would probably be good to have the parents there at least for some of it, seeing as I don’t know the language or my way around.

    Just some photos off the net…

    Putra Jaya

    putra putra1

    putra6

    putra5

    putrajaya3

    putra4

    I think I actually have been there, it looks familiar…I think we drove through when we visited YEARS ago. The big open clean streets, the lake, the Arabic architecture….it was really quiet and open and sort of winding….suppose it’s their version of say Botany Downs/American style McMansion developments, but obviously with a federal/govt twist.

    Apparently there’s also a Multimedia Super Corridor, an area devoted to companies in multimedia/IT/communications. Interesting..

    I don’t really feel particular links to the country. No heritage, no fond memories. It does make me sad though, from the little I’ve gleaned about the political situation. Apparently there’s a tizz about the new PM, who’s banned all mention of a Mongolian woman who was the mistress of his aide, who wanted her share of commission (??? Something to do with acquisition of submarines ??) and ended up dead, shot in the face and then blown up with C4. Nice. (Most of the news seems to be in Malay from a cursory search, so a lot of this I got from other blogs). It’s a pretty disturbing tale; if nothing else, that’s a GRUESOME way to go.