Race, identity, and travelling in Asia

‘So where are you from?’ the hostel receptionist asks. After seven hours of very little sleep on a terrifyingly bumpy sleeper bus, the quiet, calm reception area feels like a five-star hotel – except you need to pre-pay in not-too-crumpled money, and they take your passport too.

‘Australia,’ I reply absent-mindedly, rummaging through my backpack for the envelope of US dollars we’ve been using in Cambodia. There’s silence. I look up at the receptionist again, who is smiling, peering at me.

‘But you look…’

Tired as I am, it takes me a couple of seconds to process what he just said. I shrug helplessly, looking at my friend, who shrugs back.

‘Oh. My parents are from China.’

The receptionist’s face dawns with understanding, and he nods. ’Ah, so, Chinese.’

I agree half-heartedly, handing him the cash before we trudge upstairs to nap in the waiting area – late check-in.

This whole thing has happened to me in Australia as well, of course.

Normally it goes like this:

‘Where are you from?’

‘I’m from Carlton.’

‘But like…where originally?’

‘Oh, right! Glen Waverley.’

If they’re really brave:

‘Right, but I mean like where is your family from?’

I’m Asian, but I’m also Australian. It’s not that I don’t think of myself as Asian – it’s just that it annoys me when everyone assumes I’m foreign, or different. Other. And even being Asian in Asia presents problems.

I love Asia. I really do. It’s incredibly diverse and very beautiful. I’ve only seen a fraction of it, but I love the food, the landmarks, the weather, hell, even the traffic. I’ve been through a lot of the South-East, and a few cities in China, and I’ve always loved it. But this time, with no family and no uni group, just a friend and a couple of backpacks, I realised something about who I am and about how people see me.

It was funny at first, like a guessing game. In Singapore and Malaysia, people mostly assumed I was one of them, at least until I opened my mouth and that broad Australian accent tumbled out. Then in Cambodia, it started happening, that ‘where are you really from,’ thing, enough so it seemed like a complex. The weirdest experience I ever had when someone was demanding to know my pedigree was in the temples in Siem Reap.

We’d already been fleeced, just a bit, our tuktuk driver taking us to shitty restaurants to get kickbacks and the cute kids selling pants and books and coconuts out in full force, so when a random guy struck up a conversation with us, we kept our distance.

‘Hello, how are you?’ he yelled from his position on top of a small hill, standing by a temple.

We said we’re fine, and he offered to give us a guide around some of the temples. We were all read up on scams and were pretty sure if he did give us a guide, we’d find ourselves owing more than we had.

‘We’re fine, mate,’ my friend said, and the guy on the hill rattled off some facts for us, about the history of the temple, some of which was legitimately interesting. Realising that we were only listening to him out of politeness, and were unlikely to give him any money, he changed tack.

‘Where are you from?’

‘Australia,’ my friend replied.

‘Wow, Australia. I want to go to Australia,’ the guy said. ‘What about you?’ he asked, looking at me, sizing me up in that way I’m much too familiar with now.

‘I’m from Australia too,’ I said, smiling. I knew what he wanted to really know, but I also didn’t want to give in to this bizarre ethnic fact-check.

He squinted down at me, at least twenty metres away, and said: ’You don’t look like an Australian.’

‘Well, I’m Australian,’ I said, and he was visibly confused.

‘But…’ he began, and he did something that I’m now intimately familiar with. He gestured to his face, signifying my appearance, and said: ’You look like a…’

I didn’t say anything, and eventually he decided: ’You look like a Chinese.’

I gave up. ’Oh. Right. Well, my parents are from China,’ I said, and he nodded, satisfied, and we farewelled each other and left. He stayed on the hill, probably to accost another tourist, hopefully more trusting than us.

Throughout the trip, I had my ethnicity guessed at constantly. Guesses included Chinese, Japanese and Korean. There wasn’t one instance where I told someone I was Australian and they accepted that at face value.

I’m not ashamed of who I am. Sometimes people say that Asians who embrace ’white culture’ (whatever that is) are ’bananas’ – yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Like some kind of ’I’m not like the other Asians, I’m one of you,’ statement. Or people say that the second generation has lost their heritage, their language, sometimes their ability to use chopsticks. For the record, I don’t think I’m somehow white on the inside, whatever that means. I’m just someone with Chinese parents who was born and raised in Australia. And I can still use chopsticks.

I could go on about how much I wanted to be not-Chinese when I was younger, and more recently, too. Or how in my mind, when I thought about myself, I wasn’t Chinese-looking at all, but a white girl. ‘Australian’, whatever that meant.

But the thing I kept thinking about all the way through Asia was ‘The Bell Jar’. I relate to Sylvia Plath because of her bouts of depression, and because I also want to marry a young Ted Hughes. I also look up to her because she was a brilliant writer, obviously. Anyway, in the novel, the protagonist Esther Greenwood talks about how she wants to go everywhere and talk to everyone and do everything, but as a woman, she is limited by society, restricted, without certain freedoms simply because she was born a certain gender and not another.

There’s that strange dual sense of freedom and restriction travelling Asia as an Asian-Australian. On the one hand, it was a change seeing people that looked like me on TV and on billboards. Yet, no one there really accepted the idea of me being Australian, always wanting to dissect my heritage. Being Asian-Australian in Asia didn’t feel like a homecoming. It didn’t feel welcoming or ‘right’. It felt lonely.

Instead, it was the Australians I met along the way who made me feel at home. It was the Australian guy who helped me catch a tuktuk at 4am in a Cambodian riverside town on New Year’s Day. It was the Adelaide bartender who poured me free drinks, and my friend I was travelling with, while we were trying to decipher all-Chinese menus at tiny noodle houses.

That’s not to say that Australians are inherently better than Asians at the whole race thing. It also doesn’t mean that Asia isn’t full of wonderful, amazing people. I’ve met plenty of Australians who have grilled me about my ethnicity, and I’ve met plenty of people in Asia who were welcoming and kind and friendly.

I haven’t delved deeply into the realm of race politics in Asia. It’s murky and difficult and very unlike race politics in Australia or America, both of which I’m fairly familiar with. Perhaps they view race, ethnicity and nationality as inextricably entwined, in a way less ethnically homogenous countries have had to give up to an extent. I don’t think that my racial origin trumps my actual, real life experiences.

One day soon I’d like to go back to Asia and explain exactly what I am to everyone who asks me. It might take a while; I’m not sure exactly what I am either yet.

Image: Scott Oves


sharonaSharona Lin is a recent graduate and recent Canberra convert. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Pop Culture-y (popculture-y.com), has written for The Age, Tone Deaf and The Music, and has written several award-winning short stories. In the coming years, she hopes to publish her first novel.



This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.


One Comment

  • Andrew commented on March 31, 2016 Reply

    You write beautifully and give insight into an issue I see many of my something-Australian friends encounter so often (too often). I hope to read more from you soon!

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