Me, Lorde’s Boyfriend and Racism

In the light of some pretty awful behaviour on Twitter regarding Lorde’s boyfriend, I thought I’d repost his story I wrote about  how having an Asian boyfriend has changed my perspective about what it means to be white in Australia.  

I’ve never had think much about racism. I’m a white person who went to a school that was predominantly white in a country town that was predominantly white. In primary school we would have multicultural days when we’d bring in plates of dahl and fried rice and wear an approximation of a sari. When I was twelve my family went on holiday to Phuket. I read in the tourist brochure that Thai people had beautiful smiles and if you smiled at them they would always smile back. Experiments proved this to be true and I decided they must be lovely people. In high school I had a friend from Sri Lanka and one from Singapore, but I never thought much about their race.

When I first moved to Sydney I caught a bus with a new friend from the city to Surry Hills. Soon after we got on a woman started screaming that there were too many fucking foreigners in Australia. The bus driver didn’t say anything and she kept going. My friend and I sat quietly, pinned down partly by her rage and partly by our uncertainty. What could we do? It wasn’t until after we jumped off that we shook our heads over her raw anger, over the ferocity of the attack, over the little girl in a pram and her mother who bore the brunt of it. I felt sickened by my silence. It felt like cowardice. It felt like complicity.

I was living with my Sri Lankan friend from school. She was an extra in a local film and we got all dressed up to go to the premiere in Bondi Junction with her new boyfriend. Afterwards we went looking for a drink and a guy started following us, yelling “curry muncher” at intervals. My friend didn’t respond, she didn’t hurry. Her (white) boyfriend and I followed her lead. It wasn’t a new experience for her, but it was for us. She walked with grace and I curled up inside, speechless in the face of these words, flung with such certainty into our silence.

After a series of not-particularly-successful relationships with not-particularly-nice men, I fell in love. My boyfriend’s  family emigrated from Hong Kong when he was three. He didn’t fit my rugged Anglo teenage fantasy of a man, informed by the heroes of Hollywood films (after all where were the Asian men in the poster section of Dolly?), but he did offer a world full of laughter and acceptance, of care and kindness and a new, easy happiness.

A few weeks ago he went out of town with some mates. They dropped into a pub in a small country town. He went to the loo and a group of local guys squirted a hose at him through the window and yelled “take that Jackie!” As in Jackie Chan. Do you get it? It’s kind of witty, because all Asian men look like Jackie Chan in the same way all white men look like Ryan Gosling.

He tells me that it doesn’t really bother him, that he’s used to it. I’m not used to it. I hate the idea of people hijacking the tenderness of his body in that private moment. I bang around the kitchen, slamming doors and trying not to cry. “Hey,” he says, “it’s OK.” He hugs me. Tells me that it says much more about the other people than about him. That people are afraid and ignorant. But I still don’t want to think of his sweetness rubbing up against that hard, unfair edge to the world.

Recently there were news reports about an angry Anglo-Australian man who verbally abused a group of Asian tourists in front of a whole (mostly silent) bus of people. In an article about the incident in The Age, Waleed Aly pointed out that these random bouts of bile seem to act to exonerate the rest of the white Australian population from their entrenched and unacknowledged racial privilege – after all, we can tell ourselves, we’re not the ones going around screaming at people on public transport. Aly pointed to a study by the Australian National University that found if your surname is Chinese, you have to apply for 68 per cent more jobs to get the same number of interviews as someone with an Anglo name. 64 per cent if it’s Middle Eastern, 35 per cent if it’s Indigenous. After I read the article there is another round of banging kitchen doors and hugs. My partner and I want to have children. If we do, most likely their surname will be Cheung. Unless things change they’re going to be applying for a lot more jobs than I have had to.

I doubt many white people have considered that their skin colour or their name helped them get where they are, but here it is: proof of our unspoken, entrenched advantage. Despite appearances to the contrary, living isn’t innocuous. The act of being a human, of having skin and hair and eyes, still takes place within an old system of prejudice, exploitation and an irrational – but historically rationalised – notion of superiority. It’s a misreading of Darwinism on a vast scale, and it’s still leaving an indelible mark on the world. From the ridiculous (people calling their dog away from my partner because he’s Asian and obviously likely to barbecue it on the spot) to the tragic (the gap in life expectancy between Aboriginal and non Aboriginal people, the Cronulla Riots) and the whole vast, deep silence in between, Australia is rife with this falsely constructed intolerance and hatred. It makes me ache to think that if I’m ever lucky enough to be a mother, the little bundle I’ve borne in my body, carried since forever in my bones, will come into a world where there are still people primed to hate it. I feel ashamed because for so long I’ve been unaware that my skin colour is protecting me.

A few weeks ago my friend and her boyfriend (the same one from the Bondi Junction days) got married. A group of us had gone shopping in the Indian shops in Liverpool for jewel coloured saris, and the night before the wedding while my friend had her henna done, her sister took us through the complex system of putting them on. They had a traditional Hindu ceremony and then read their own vows. My friend promised to raise children who respect their Sri Lankan Tamil, Dutch, Australian heritage. For me the wedding was more than the union of two wonderful people. It was a sparkling, joyful antidote to the hard edge, the old inequalities, the racist undercurrent of the world. As I danced to the Bollywood music with my partner I realised that the world is full of a love that goes even deeper, that – just maybe – can trump that undercurrent.

Reading the signs

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I’ve been trying to write something about fairytales, the primeval forest in Europe – ancient and untouched. A wild place that still lives in the old stories: Hansel and Gretel, Snow White.

I quit my job as managing editor of an architecture magazine to focus on writing. To get by I’ve been working part time in a call centre, it’s an OK job, but I get sick of repeating the same lines a hundred times a day. On Wednesday a man told me he had no idea why they bothered hiring me, they should have just got a robot. I’ve been told I have no fucking feelings, that I should be ashamed of myself, that I don’t know what I’m talking about. Not my fault I have to stick to company policy.

What I’ve written so far is big and sprawling, too many points of view, a strange shift from first person to third, way too many adjectives. It’s humid today, too hot. The outside walls of our apartment block are being done up and the workmen are yelling and crashing metal around. I can’t concentrate, and I don’t know what to do next. There’s so much research to do, so much I don’t know.

I walk into the city to go Christmas shopping. Retail therapy, it’s a thing. There’s a shop up the road from us that’s half florist half Aladdin’s cave. Shelves of vintage crockery and test tubes, a moose head, buckets of flowers, an ancient French military uniform, top hats. A basket of little glass vessels, each holding a slither of script. I’m on the lookout for signs today and “off he walked into the forest” seems significant. So does the statement “brilliant author!” with “but –––)” on the back. But –––) what?  But the doubt, but the shame.

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Brene Brown is my hero, in her TED talk about shame  she says:

“There’s a great quote that saved me this past year by Theodore Roosevelt. A lot of people refer to it as the “Man in the Arena” quote. And it goes like this:

“It is not the critic who counts. It is not the man who sits and points out how the doer of deeds could have done things better and how he falls and stumbles. The credit goes to the man in the arena whose face is marred with dust and blood and sweat. But when he’s in the arena, at best he wins, and at worst he loses, but when he fails, when he loses, he does so daring greatly” 

… That’s what life is about, about daring greatly, about being in the arena. When you walk up to that arena and you put your hand on the door, and you think, “I’m going in and I’m going to try this,” shame is the gremlin who says, “Uh, uh. You’re not good enough. You never finished that MBA. Your wife left you. I know your dad really wasn’t in Luxembourg, he was in Sing Sing. I know those things that happened to you growing up. I know you don’t think that you’re pretty enough or smart enough or talented enough or powerful enough. I know your dad never paid attention, even when you made CFO.” Shame is that thing.” 

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It’s the but –––) that holds you back, the “but I’m not good enough, but I can’t do it, but I’m not talented or pretty and besides I have nothing to say.” You get stuck on the but –––) side of the paper. And on the other side there’s the self actualised statement, the living, the doing the brilliant author! in the arena, the one writing, maybe failing, but covered in dust and sweat and blood.

Image: Lettering by the wildly talented Carla Hackett.

So I continued on into the city. In the park a man sitting on a bench told me I looked gorgeous. He had a box of little rolled up papers he was giving away for coins. I wasn’t in the mood for being chatted up, but I was on a mission for signs, so I gave him a dollar and chose one.

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It seems like good advise.

Then I bought my sister’s  present (Eeep! Yay!)  and came home, made a strong pot of tea, opened my draft and started cutting out adjectives.

The moment

Jeannie PhanI’m snorkelling in the salty soft water of a coral island in the Great Barrier Reef. All morning: sea turtles, an eel, a million fish of all different colours. In the deep water off the edge of the reef a mother humpback whale and her calf. I’m suntanned, soaked through with sea water for days. I dive down, following a giant brain of coral, it’s own microcosmic world of predators and the pursued, of a million years of evolution polished into this moment when I’m flying and the world is sheer beauty. My head spins from holding my breath and I glide upwards. I’m in the middle of a school of tiny blue fish, sparkling like fragments of water, I’m flying through light.

Image by Jeannie Phan via Booooooom

The house my grandpa built

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At first, briefly, Africa dismayed me: a whole new continent. The familiar contours of my anxiety.

Nairobi, Kenya. The highway from the airport to our hotel. Light through dust and throngs of people walking along the side of the road. There is a very well dressed lady standing in the middle of a huge pile of dead chickens, groups of men are playing checkers with bottle caps on the side of the road. Tiny, run down houses and muddy stalls.

My dad spent his childhood in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. My grandfather was a missionary. He wasn’t born religious, one day in the 1950s he was watching  a film about the crucifixion, and the actor playing Jesus had looked directly into his eyes, and although his lips didn’t move he said I did this for you. So the hard labouring, ex-serviceman young husband retrained as a minister, and he and his wife took their young family, including an ill, paraplegic son and and a three year old, to Africa.

I’ve always felt slightly embarrassed whenever I’ve had to own up to my family’s stake in the sheer arrogance of white colonial imperialism. When grandpa died, I went to the nursing home in Haberfield to collect his things. They had stripped the mattress but I could still rest my hand in the dent where his body had been. I collected his clothes, his wedding photo, his battered bible. He left Mum and Dad some money and instead of letting it be subsumed in the endless grocery/credit card payments cycle,  they decided to spend on a holiday, of sorts – a family trip to Africa. Continue reading

Rivendell

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When my Grandpa died my dad and I went to the nursing home in Haberfield to collect his things. His heart stopped while he was sleeping – the best way to go, someone said. They had stripped the mattress but I could still rest my hand in the dent where his body had been. The battered old Bible and the framed wedding photo – him handsome in uniform, Gran in a borrowed dress – were out of place in the clinical room. When I tried to write something for the funeral, I always came back to Rivendell.

Rivendell, Tolkien’s last homely house, house of the elves. The house my grandparents moved to when my Grandfather retired as minister from the church in Baulkam hills. I go there for the first time for the funeral and the church is full of old parishioners. I read my story and my Grandmother’s brother claps before he remembers where he is. Continue reading

Packing

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I should be packing but I keep getting distracted. It’s my last night with my own room, my own bed. I’m trying to work out what to take and what to leave behind. The place Sam and I will be living in together is all shiny surfaces and Scandinavian design and it feels like a new start, a step into adulthood. Besides which, it’s an inner city studio, and space is at a premium. My books are stacked in boxes pilfered from the bottl-o. My clothes are pulled from their hangers, strewn over the bed and the floor, I’ve been trying them on and then stepping out of them, leaving them where they fall.

I pull on a skirt that belonged to my grandma: colourful diamonds of patchwork tie-dye, and there we are: dancing to the fuzzy radio in the dusty summer sunlight. The veranda looks over the slow, salty river and the air smells of mud. I’m still in my swimming costume and she’s wearing the patchwork skirt. Hand in hand we move to the songs, crazy and twirling and laughing. We are the same height, the same shape, so when I slip into her wardrobe to pull the clothes from their hangers and try them on in front of the shadowy, half-lit mirror they fit perfectly. Long patterned skirts and all the bright colours, the silk and cotton, sliding on like skin. Continue reading

Heaven

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I don’t believe in God. I think us humans created this vast story about an all loving and forgiving being – and that’s even more beautiful than the idea that this being actually exists. Heaven is in our heads and our hands.