A New Zealander’s Story On Being Chinese

sunjun.jpgI finished reading Being Chinese – A New Zealander’s Story by Helene Wong in two days, and it really made me think about my own background, experiences and thoughts on being a New Zealander. Wong was born in Taihape, with a mixture of second and third generation in her family, and in her book, she explores her family history. She shares her experiences in acting and theatre, and the stereotypes and often lack of authentic representation that occur within the industry. I really encourage anyone to read this book, as it really makes you think about the importance of cultivating a society that treats everyone the same. It’s something we should all strive for. It makes one reflect on their own background and the portrayal of Asians in the arts and media.

Being Chinese final cover lr

I think about how when I was younger, I sometimes never felt quite completely Taiwanese, when I was in Taiwan, and yet not quite completely Kiwi when I was in New Zealand because of my appearances. Even though, I was born and raised here. There is a sentence in Wong’s book where she writes “I ask myself, just how Chinese am I?”, and as she writes about her childhood, there were many parts that I could relate to and I believe many Asian Kiwi’s may have also experienced. I suppose, my growing up in the country side may have caused more of it, as there were less Asian’s at my school at the time. The kids who shout “ching chong!” or those who judge your lunchbox content.

Growing up, there was this feeling of Other as my last name would say. There would be the constant mispronunciations during school assemblies and prize giving, yet it was something I simply got used to. In Chapter 3 titled ‘I never think of you as Chinese’, she shares a story in which someone said those words to her. She talks about assimilation, and it made me think about an English paper I took last year, where I did an essay on Amy Tan’s essay on Mother Tongue. It made me think about accents, and how often I noticed growing up that because my parents had Asian accents when they spoke English, they were perceived a certain way compared to an Asian with a Kiwi accent.

I related to Wong’s love for writing, as English was always one of my favourite subjects, and I loved writing essays, reading books and spending time thinking and analysing about texts and meanings. Wong talks about how because of one’s physical identity, we will be viewed a certain way. It made me think of when I was placed into ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) in primary school, even though my English is fluent. It makes me think about how because of the way one looks, I will always be inescapably asked where I am from. If we look at the arts, media, advertising and many other industries in New Zealand, we have to emphasise that there is a need for more representation.

Wong writes about the films she grew up watching, and how often stereotypes and whitewashing occurred. She writes “…there only for their ‘Chineseness’. Worse, if they were anything more than exotic colour and had dialogue, the parts were usually played by white actors in slitty-eyed yellowface. They made me squirm with anger. Despite evidence all around us of Chinese people doing the same things as everyone else – in my own family, occupations ranged from nurse to architect, hairdresser to psychologist – Chinese were never cast in these roles.” She talks about food, as she writes “…when the look, taste, texture, fragrance and sound of a dish all came together it was art, and eating it brought a burst of joy.”

When the nineties arrived, there was an increase in immigration. Wong talks about how during this time, she really became ‘Asian’. She talks about the media stories in 1989 about immigrants, which used the phrase ‘Asian Invasion.’ She writes that “White New Zealanders were suddenly seeing more Chinese faces on the street…They did not say the same of the South Africans who were also arriving in the country under the same immigration policy. Chinese were too different – in looks, speech, behaviour.” She continues to write that “The Sinophobia also came from longstanding beliefs in the West that Chinese were inferior.” When people deny this, they roll everything under the carpet to keep it quiet. However, I really believe that we need to speak about it more.

The term ‘casual racism‘ is used, and I think about how often it comes from ignorance and unintentional offense, and other times it’s overt and covered as a joke. I still remember the little boy who would pull his eyes back and pull his fingers at me, every time I went on the school bus. It makes me laugh, yet I feel pity for those who have been taught that way. It really starts with educating children, in order to be accepting and respectful of everyone’s differences. Auckland is one of the most culturally diverse cities, and being born and raised here, I call it my home. However, there is still a lot of room for improvement and change, and I believe that we can and we will see more diversity in the arts and media industry.

Photography by Sun Jun

6 thoughts on “A New Zealander’s Story On Being Chinese

  1. That sounds like an interesting book by Helene Wong. As Asian Australian, I think there are similarities with being a Kiwi of Asian background. I found it interesting that someone said to her they didn’t think of her as Chinese. It really is a two handed comment. I haven’t had that said to me but sometimes there are instances where others assume I am assimilated. For instance, if they assume I know something like local sports or always like eating Western food – and this is coming from my older relatives who seem to be very content as things always ‘should be’ from their generation. That isn’t always true with me. On the other hand, I like feeling assimilated (sometimes, sometimes not) because I do like feeling a sense of belonging.

    1. It really is, I highly recommend it. I agree, I think it’s almost similar to saying ‘you’re not like them’ but we should be proud of being Asian, and comments like that can come with a tinge of superiority of being better. Haha, I remember in my family, we never watched rugby, but then again not all Kiwi’s watch the rugby and although I was born here, I grew up eating mostly Asian food. I understand, and I can relate as well as I find especially with language there is a sense of belonging.

  2. What an eloquent post! I might go check this book out, it’s been 10 years since I left NZ, but it’s shaped so much of who I am.

    To be honest, the casual racism bothers me more now than it did when I was living in NZ. I found, casual racism towards Asians in NZ was normal (in my experience) so I always just accepted it. The looks people would give my mother when she spoke English would bother or how strangers didn’t understand and when finally understood, they would correct her English… Now, I wish I stood up for her back then.. But it was just how things were. Do you still get asked ‘where you’re from?’.
    Another thing I have found interesting is the sense of ‘us white people’ vs you ‘foreign Asians’ from a lot of people I’ve come across. .. But if you are a white Kiwi, you are descended from British migrants long ago.
    I’m sorry to hear of your experiences of this boy shouting ching chong at you in the bus, but you’re right, education starts with children. I’ve never once in my life heard a kid yell a racist term against a fellow black classmate in NZ, because we were educated that it is unacceptable. I hope that one day more education like this is stretch to people of other ethnicities.
    Thank you for writing this, your posts are always very insightful :).

    1. Thank you so much! Oh yes, it’s the most common question I get asked after “How are you?” I noticed it’s often one of the first questions people ask me when I meet them for the first time. It’s still a tricky question sometimes, because of the phrasing. I normally just reply “I’m from NZ, but my parents are from Taiwan.” but even when my Dad is asked this question (he’s lived here for over 20 years), he usually just says “We’re from Auckland”. Sometimes where are you from can feel like we don’t belong here, but then again, there are also many people who move overseas or are visiting in NZ as it’s so culturally diverse.

      I prefer when people ask “What’s your ethnicity” or “What’s your family background” as the question where are you from can make it sound like I’m not supposed to be from NZ even though I was born here, but on the other hand, it’s often because of our appearances. I presume most Caucasian’s won’t be asked the question unless they have a non-Kiwi accent. That’s true, I definitely feel like there is still a sense of us versus them, but I’m grateful for most people being accepting of different people no matter who they are.

      That’s so true, because most people have been educated about the history. Another aspect is that the racism that has been experienced growing up, is often just tolerated. I think this is an aspect of Asian culture in that we want to avoid conflict, but I truly think that we have to speak up when it’s not right and also start with education.

  3. hi Katie I can relate! As a Chinese growing up in the Philippines I couldn’t also clearly see myself as both but I believe there’s always a purpose where we are right now.

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