This piece was Highly Commended in the Feminartsy Memoir Prize 2017.
My heels clipped the timber floor as I did one, then two laps of the room. Kyoko Imazu’s etchings, of tiny people and giant rabbits, hung on white walls. The Great Wave, delightfully frothy, teemed with people, birds, cats, and large-eyed fish. Delicate paper cuttings and art books dotted the exhibition. I positioned myself by a pedestal and on noticing the paper mouse-hole at its base, smiled to myself.
An old white man approached. I wanted to admire the art but made small talk. That we were at an exhibition suggested he was worldly, neither racist nor sexist. I doubt he saw himself as the latter.
“Where are you from?” he immediately asked.
“Melbourne,” I said.
He missed or chose to ignore my hint. “What’s your name?”
“That sounds like a Chinese name.”
“It is Chinese.” Did he seriously think I did not know my name? My suspicions were confirmed—another Sinophile—yet I obediently answered. I did not think to walk away, until too late.
“Where in China are you from?”
“My parents are from Malaysia.”
Oblivious to my short, pointed answers, the interrogation continued. “Do you speak Chinese?”
“A bit but not well.”
“What do you speak?”
“Ni shi guang dong yuan.” [MANDARIN: You’re a Cantonese …] Wrong dialect, I thought.
“Yuan, person. Nei sik teng m sik gong.” [CANTONESE: You can understand but not speak.]
Rather than correct his pronunciation (“‘Person’ is pronounced ren, not yuan.”), I allowed him to think himself ‘more Chinese’ than me. I presumed some obscure colloquialism and kicked myself later when Mum confirmed my doubts. “Are you sure yuan doesn’t mean ‘person’?” “No.”
He had worked in Hong Kong. I had not.
At this point, he gave me three business cards, including one for his book on ‘Asian culture’. “I’m on the mailing list and live just across the road. Where do you live?”
“We could be neighbours!”
“A lot of people live in Kingston.”
“If you’re free this week, perhaps we could have dinner.”
“I don’t really know you…” I slipped away but felt his eyes on me as I relayed his faux pas to friends.
“You’re waay more polite than I would’ve been,” said my white female friend, concerned but unable to share my rage. “Was he hitting on you or did he genuinely want to talk about Chinese culture?”
Desperate to demonstrate his attentiveness, he imposed one last time. “I’m going to head off now. It was lovely to meet you Shu-Ling. Perhaps I’ll see you around Kingston.” He did not know when to quit.
“Enjoy the rest of your night,” I replied flatly.
When I mentioned the incident on radio a month later, a listener suggested I was the problem. Putting aside how I felt about his questions, the man’s persistence was unnerving. I felt uncomfortable but perhaps he was curious and did not know better. His intentions, in any case, are irrelevant as I did not wish to discuss my cultural heritage.
The expectation that I shrug off a ‘harmless’ comment reflects victim-blaming culture, particularly of females. If being a meek Asian female were not enough, Nicole Chung describes the social pressure on people of colour to keep the peace and spare white people from embarrassment, at the expense of our feelings:
…we can and do make some sort of choice every time — to inform or ignore, challenge or absolve. The down side… for the person of color [sic] facing that decision, is that the fallout is then perceived as our responsibility. When did the party stop being fun for everyone? When we got mouthy. There is no real way for us to win, whether we cling to some notion of “the high road” or attempt to call out the racism we experience in order to sleep better that night.
Despite having written about sexual consent before this encounter, I put his needs before mine. Even now, almost a year later, I hate that I felt compelled to answer. I thought that part of my life was over, that I had learnt to say no, that I knew better. One can only plead naïvety so many times.
That said, this man’s refusal to respect boundaries and his sense of entitlement place him in the same category as men who make unwanted advances. Yet these are the questions society asks, demands of women:
‘Why didn’t you stick up for yourself?’ ‘Why didn’t you say something?’ ‘Why didn’t you say no?’
I knew within seconds where the conversation was going but erred on the side of politeness. I wish I had thought of some witty, cutting remark. I wish I had walked away rather than feeding him a piece of me with each answer. He wanted me to yield to his idea of a Chinese woman, and I obliged.
An editor I pitched this story to replied it needed ‘a stronger narrative framework’ so I set it aside and recycled slivers for other pieces. I cannot let the creepy old white man go however.
I tell the story to white male colleagues who listen politely and laugh. It is an amusing anecdote, ridiculous even, but not a joke. I cringed at the thought of seeing him at Chinese Whispers and Other Stories, an exhibition by four female artists, all with Chinese heritage living in Australia.
“Did you see him?” a colleague asked the next day.
“No. No creepy old white men spoke to me but there were a lot of white men there.”
Years ago, my ex suggested, “Why don’t you try asking where they’re from?” From my lips, those words will never convey the same weight, of being told to “Go home” by another child, of boys throwing rocks at our home and switching off the power every winter for a decade. I do not give a damn where the other party is from and it prolongs a ‘conversation’ I never asked to be part of.
The experience of being stripped of my identity and agency melds into the threat of violence and being sexualised against my will. As a woman of Asian appearance, I am screwed twice over.
This is my reality.
Image: Rodion Kutsaev
Shu-Ling Chua is a Canberra-based writer. Her work has appeared in Feminartsy, The Writers Bloc, Peril Magazine, Seizure, Pencilled In and other publications. She tweets @hellopollyanna and was previously producer of Noted writers’ festival and Voiceworks nonfiction subeditor. This piece is dedicated to anyone who has ever been asked, “Where are you from?”