Bad Asian

Sweet and sour academia (from Thesis Whisperer’s tmblr, “Refreshments will be provided”)

When I was chatting with the lovely people at Radio National’s Life Matters program the other week, I realised that what I really want to say about national belonging and cultural citizenship was this:

Having full cultural citizenship as an Asian Australian should mean that it’s fine to be a ‘bad’ citizen, as well as celebrating those deemed ‘good’.

‘Asian’ shouldn’t be the first point of categorisation, and the heaviness of migrant expectation and stereotyping of migrants shouldn’t curtail a person’s liberty to be, say, a slacker.

Or to ‘Anglicise’ their name (sez she, who has a coffee name of “Jen”).

Or – (hushed tones) – to be monolingual.

We’re not all economic ‘bridge-builders’, heart-surgeons, and superhero Senators, though I’m hardly complaining that we can be those.

Where is the liberty and comfort of feeling at home with mediocrity or failure?

And I’m talking here both about the bar being set by the broader community as well as the one cultural communities set for themselves. That ‘Model Minority myth‘ cuts both ways.

On that aforementioned RN program, I said on-air, laughingly, that I was a ‘bad Asian’ because I was monolingual. I was referring to the common expectation that those from non-Anglo cultures must display their ethnicity through various cultural forms: language, ritual, social mores.

Language ‘lack’ or desire warrants a whole post in itself. To sum up its complication: I feel inadequate about my language skills only when others declare that they are inadequate; at the same time, I strongly resent anyone telling me that I must learn/know a Chinese dialect.

I think being bilingual and beyond is fantastic, but the onus on those of Asian descent to need to know an Asian language can be misguided. It taps into the rhetoric of ‘usefulness’ that I find insidiously intertwined with discussions about how existing ‘capacity’ in Australia will assist our national future in the Asian Century. I want to be at liberty to be linguistically useless and considered a full cultural citizen; after all, many (non-racially marked) others are!

Being marked as ‘Asian’ brings an immediate range of assumptions in Australia. Mostly, it means you’re assumed not to belong. That ubiquitous question many Asian Australians get, “where are you from?”, is a prime example. The many racial microaggressions (PDF) that are part and parcel of living as a racial minority in Australia become life’s static. This does not make it better; it is just what happens.

Some of the common racial static that I encounter manifests when I demonstrate my propensity for being a ‘bad Asian’:

  • I like sweet and sour pork. A lot. This always gets a (commonly snide) comment from those who pride themselves on knowing Asian food. They deem sweet and sour pork ‘inauthentic’ and something only ignorant white folk would order at a Chinese restaurant. My ordering this dish also invites comment and raised eyebrows from Chinese restaurant staff; surely, it should be my Anglo partner who’s ordering this kind of thing (they must be thinking, as they go on to offer him fried rice and beer)?
  • Shop staff often assume my (Anglo-Oz) husband and me are not together. When we’re out with the two kids, we’re often asked whether we’re ‘all’ one family (meaning: am I a part of this family). Once, at a supermarket checkout, one of the workers thought I was flogging S.’s groceries because I started packing them away in a trolley. The most egregious example was when a neighbour assumed that I was ‘just the cleaning lady’ at our house in Taringa, after we’d been living there for over three years.
  • I don’t like chili much. While my family jokingly disowns me for this (well, I think it’s jokingly), I’ve lost count of the number of times my admission of chili-aversion lands me in a conversation that’s awash with culinary machismo: “Oh, this one time, when I was in KL, I snacked on a whole dish of bird’s eye chilis…” Almost always, this chili preening is done by white dudes. Seriously, why? You need to put it away.
  • No good at maths. I’m a humanities person through and through. In fact, I regret doing Maths 1 at school, and wish I’d done Modern History or Geography. I think it would’ve stood me in better stead as an Arts academic than the “Below Satisfactory” that I managed to score in Maths. Ah, 20/20 hindsight.

The freedom to be what we – as individuals – are is a big part of full belonging. While ethnicity and culture can be convenient and strategic groupings (I’ve used them myself to forge a career, after all), let’s stop defining people only in those terms, or imposing them as limitations.

Give ‘Bad Asianism’ a go. You might like it.

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20 thoughts on “Bad Asian

  1. Gabrielle Wang 13/11/2012 / 8:36 am

    Hi Tseen,

    I liked reading your article.

    I spent much of my childhood rejecting the Asian part of me because I wanted to ‘fit in’. Then I realised that you can’t run away from what’s written all over your face so I decided to go and live in China.
    My husband is white American and a Chinese herbal doctor. He speaks and reads Chinese perfectly. I’m barely literate so we have a culturally mixed up family. I call him an egg as opposed to me being a banana.

    I use my Chinese background in writing children’s books. I feel it’s very important for Australian children to understand other cultures because even though we call ourselves multicultural, there is still so much intolerance here.

    I like sweet and sour pork too, and banana fritters!

    Gabrielle

    • Tseen Khoo 13/11/2012 / 10:49 am

      Thanks, Gabrielle! Yes, when attending Asian Studies conferences, I found myself surrounded by white dudes who spoke fluent Mandarin and/or Cantonese, and I felt…deficient. Then I went away and thought about that response a bit more.

      I think all opportunities to break up the monolith of white Australian culture is worthwhile, and token multicultural elements are giving way to more in-depth and sophisticated concepts of culture and identity. All this stuff takes so long to filter through, though!

      I love banana fritters, too! Maybe I have a ‘candy food’ fetish? 😉

  2. adamaitken 13/11/2012 / 9:29 am

    I agree with what you are saying Tseen. As you know I have been quite cynical about model Asian minority standards for most of my life. I’m learning French, Tseen, so I must be a bad Asian Australian. It’s not “useful” really, I just enjoy being able to read Le Monde’s restaurant reviews (joke). I feel I have neglected my Thai, but since I have aunties who don’t speak English, it has been both emotionally satisfying and useful to be able to have a brief exchange. I do find however that my cousins (the Gen Xers of Bagnkok) are all fantastic at English and they don’t need me to speak Thai to them at all.

    BTW, I did have sweet and sour pork in a Thai restaurant in Bangkok and I always thought it was standard for Bangkok.

    • Tseen Khoo 13/11/2012 / 10:54 am

      Thanks for sharing that, Adam. I did French and Latin at school, mostly because people would say, “Latin?! Why would you ever learn Latin?” (no such outburst for French…).

      I love hearing ‘home’ Chinese dialects spoken around me as I understand a fair bit of Cantonese and Hakka, but just can’t speak it to save myself (except for my ‘yumcha Cantonese’, which has saved me from starving many times…).

      I think there are versions of sweet and sour pork in many Asian cuisines – but the Oz incarnation is truly unique!

  3. Anon 13/11/2012 / 9:57 am

    Not that it matters but Sweet & Sour pork is a totally legit chinese dish. My hardcore Canto mom makes it from scratch.

    • Tseen Khoo 13/11/2012 / 4:32 pm

      I think it does indeed matter because I probably should’ve been less lax with my language. There are versions of sweet + sour pork dishes in many Asian cuisines, but the form that it takes in Australia is, I think, unique? I know that the Chinese restaurant we grew up with in Brisbane had a ‘Phoenix ribs’ dish, which was basically sweet + sour pork ribs that were ‘lighter’ than the average takeaway sweet + sour pork.

  4. oanh 19/11/2012 / 2:33 pm

    Sometimes I think I’m a bad Bad Asian because I *don’t* undermine model minority AA stereotypes enough. Hello! I’m a lawyer! I was good at maths(*)! I wear glasses!
    (*not anymore. It seems maths is a muscle and if you fail to exercise it, it atrophies.)

    I would like to be more of a Bad Asian, please.

    It’s kind of funny (and sometimes a bit aggravating) but now I work with more Viet(-Australian) people, I am assumed to belong to that group, when I still do not, for example, understand all that someone is saying in Viet, or want to eat underripe fruit with salt and chilli.

    “The freedom to be what we – as individuals – are is a big part of full belonging.”
    I like this, and agree, a lot!

    • Tseen Khoo 19/11/2012 / 9:28 pm

      It’s OK, Oanh. I’ll still be your friend despite your Model Minority template life… 😉

      I find myself caught up in my own biases at times, like when I went to a function many years ago hosted by a Filippina work buddy. When I went in, all the Filippina women were in the kitchen talking and cooking, and all the white men (who were their husbands) were sitting in the loungeroom drinking beer and talking sport. S. and I didn’t know where to go. We don’t do gender-split parties! Moreover, I took in the gender politics of what was going on, and thought to myself, “Even though we look like that [Asian woman, white man], we are _not_ that…” (then I spent a long time thinking over what I meant by “that”). Still thinking…

  5. Noojies 21/11/2012 / 11:29 am

    I loved this most so much I wanted to leave a reply immediately after reading it, which is a first for me! This resonates with me on so many levels, and too many for me to list in a reply. I’m a “bad Asian” in many many ways, and in fact, I remember as a teenager in some aspects choosing to be a “bad Asian” in some areas, because people expected me to be a “great Asian”, when I was only “mediocre Asian”. For example, my dislike of Cricket and all things Bollywood. My inability to stand chilli is just natural. In fact, I think I have lower tolerance than many of my Anglo friends. I could go on for a long time about this topic, but won’t bore you!! Thanks again for the great post!

    • Tseen Khoo 21/11/2012 / 9:18 pm

      I was thinking of you as I wrote this piece. So much of the expectation around what’s good/bad behaviour or judging our choices is formed by surrounding community – whether that community is one’s own family/clan/cultural community, or the broader ‘white Australian’ one. Hegemonic images and identifications can be so strong, even when we know them for what they are.

      I hope you do go on for a long time. You are welcome to rant here anytime. 🙂

  6. ND 28/11/2012 / 2:02 pm

    As an Anglo-Oz guy with a Chinese girlfriend of a number of years, I feel your pain. To give a superficial example: I, too, love sweet and sour pork (and lemon chicken!). But whenever we go to a Chinese restaurant I am borderline told I am forbidden to order it because it is gweilo food (and hot air) and I’m supposed to be better than that now. Requests for my liberty to be a slacker cut no ice whatsoever.

    Today, my friends, we are all Bad Asians.

    • Tseen Khoo 28/11/2012 / 3:58 pm

      Thanks for sharing that!

      I had to laugh – Asian food snobbery deserves a whole post of its own! I always find it very funny (occasionally irritating) that born-again foodies tend to go for the “fresh” and pure. Esp with coconut milk or cream, most people I know who do the best curries use canned coconut stuff.

  7. jonckher 12/12/2012 / 11:01 am

    You know, for a while now I’ve been sorting all these yellowy-browny looking people into X-Asians (substitute X for western country of choice) and the other lot of Thais, Taiwanese, Laotians, Chinese (and I mean the mainland Han of course), Malays, Malaysian-Chinese (although they probably identify as Chinese*), etc. Of course, you can have Chinese living in Australia but they’ll probably call themselves Chinese-Australian (generalise to Azn-X or is that carrying it all a little too far?).

    All of this is just so that I can comfortably put samey-as-me-looking people with what I see as different values (ie make lotsa money, buy CC, vote conservative, etc) into a box.

    I suspect that from the Azn-X perspective, the X in X-Asian is interchangeable with “Bad”. I prefer the replacement of “Bad” with “Post” myself but then I’m a bit of a wanker that way**.

    PS: I have eaten many chiko rolls and corner-store dim-sims in the past although I have since given up due to age.

    * Malaysia is interesting and is possibly going through the whole “am I Malaysian first and foremost or Bumiputra/Chinese/Indian/Sandakan/etc/etc first conversation/identity crisis as we speak”.

    ** enough so that I’m considering buying the domain name “postasian.com” and having a single page with my photo on it doing the V sign with both hands and wearing a cute hat.

    • Tseen Khoo 12/12/2012 / 9:21 pm

      The Malaysian identity crisis has been going on for a long time? I remember when our family came over, it was a big effort to even get Malaysia recognised as a country nearby (as in, people hadn’t even heard of it). So, saying “Chinese Malaysian”, which is what we mostly did, had little or no traction at times.

      Query: What does “buy CC” mean? Apologies for being dense.

      I couldn’t get through the Chiko roll because I was appalled to find so much cabbage in it, and nothing else. And the stodge factor… (just not a fan!)

      • jonckher 13/12/2012 / 9:46 am

        “Coco Chanel”of course – just proves to me that you’re an even worse asian than I am!

        I’ve got some younger cousins in Malaysia and for the first time in my life, I’m meeting politically-engaged, activist and hopeful Malaysian-Asians (of chinese background) who actually seem to believe they are Malaysian first and foremost.

        My memories of my Chinese-Malaysian generation (born 70s) is a hugely cynical and racist attitude to Malaysia and Malays (& all others) respectively. Those who could get out pretty much did. My younger cousins on the other hand all have the choice to live elsewhere and have mostly chosen to stay.

        • Tseen Khoo 13/12/2012 / 1:53 pm

          “Coco Chanel”of course – just proves to me that you’re an even worse asian than I am!

          There’ll never be any doubt now!

          And you’re right about the attitudes of the earlier generation of 1970s Malaysian migrants (of which I am one, too). My younger cousins, who have always been based in Malaysia, are now the globe-trotting consultants and analysts who come to Australia to train staff.

  8. Daniel Reeders 20/12/2012 / 8:18 pm

    Thanks for this. I’m a White person, so I hope it’s okay for me to take up some space here talking about how this issue looks from where I stand. I was brought up in an anti-racist political tradition by people who nonetheless had next to no knowledge of other cultures, and we were well aware of that gap and all so anxious to cover it by insisting on what we did know… and I’m afraid that led to an awful lot of stereotyping – the expectations that constitute the ‘Good Asian’ social category.

    Eventually I relaxed about it and learned to just ask questions, but there are ways and ways of doing that, and I’m afraid that led to a lot of really dumb questions of the ‘where are you really from’ variety. There are people in my social circle who post articles and tweets about how these questions ‘give away’ a latent racism, and no doubt many of them are racial microaggressions, but I’d suggest many are white people trying to ‘learn as they go’ about different cultures, one person at a time.

    This is akin to the way we recommend medical professionals develop ‘cultural competence’ by asking probing questions of their patients. A colleague in multicultural health developed a three-part recommendation that I really like: be open, be curious, be heard. It’s disorganised and haphazard and deeply inadequate — but I think it still beats those organised classes for business people on what to expect in Asia, or all the stereotypes my Japanese teacher taught me about Japanese culture, etc. I just wish there was some way I could mass-apologise to all those people of whom I asked all those really dumb questions before I figured out the Good Asian category was bunkum!

    • Tseen Khoo 21/12/2012 / 12:26 pm

      Thanks for commenting, Dan. I think a lot of the ‘microaggression’ derives from the context and intent of how things are broached/asked/enacted. For example, in general, people asking me where I come from doesn’t bother me that much, as long as they don’t bulldoze on when I respond with “Queensland” or “Brisbane”. It also depends a lot on the person who’s asking, and their attitude around the question. That’s why I’m always a bit wary of ‘rules of engagement’ (e.g. of the ‘what to expect in Asia’ variety, as you flag above) – these things are so context-dependent. My thing is: if people don’t know, and they feel they aren’t allowed to ask (with appropriate self-awareness, of course), then how will they ever learn? Reading about identity politics or methods of considering cultural awareness don’t really map onto real-life, real-time interpersonal connections, or an individual’s sensitivities.

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