To celebrate the Chinese New Year T-Bone and Sea Bass are treated to a delicious feast at Bamboo Chopsticks restaurant in Doncaster by their ma-ma, my mum. During the evening I am reminded of a question my cousin, many years my junior, asked me at a similar dinner when I was in my early twenties, he yet to reach double digits: "Elvin, are you English or Chinese?" It was a question that struck me then and still does to this day for its precocity. A question that I had asked myself, though not in those exact words, for much of my adolescent life.
Who, and what, exactly am I? Chinese? Australian? Chinese-Australian? ... Australian citizen (but not really Australian)? Or was I indeed the "Abo" I was called on the football field, the "Charlie" I was while taking strike to the opposition spinner, or perhaps the "caveman" I was labelled by a Brighton Grammar rover who went by the nickname "Meaty". No AFL commission had my back back then. Though Michael Long had taken Damien Monkhorst to task and Nicky Winmar had stood up to the Victoria Park rednecks, most Australians still could not tell the difference between an Asian and an Aboriginal.
For the record I was born in England to a Malaysian mother and Mauritian father, both of whom had Chinese parents, and moved to Australia when I was three. I am and never will be quite enough Australian, and never quite enough Chinese. A foot in both camps, or both feet in neither, I'm not quite sure which.
For T-Bone and Sea Bass the equation is all the more complicated, for their mother is what my people would call a gwai mui jai, or "ghost girl" (aka foreign devil caucasian westerner), which of course has racist overtones of its own. Scholars may be able to put it more eloquently, but people need to belong, and to do this they must exclude. The prehistoric human and the need for their clan's protection from wild beasts is surely part of the discussion, but no prehistoric human ever called me "chinger" so we may as well leave them out of it.
This year is the Year of the Monkey. My year. The year where my inherent intellect and creativity will lead me to bust some shit up. At least that's according to the Grandmaster of the Singapore Feng Shui Centre, Vincent Koh. The Chinese New Year always falls around that most manifestly offensive public holiday, Australia Day. While Australian flag bumper stickers proclaiming "We grew here, you flew here" or "If you don't like it, leave", always fill me with so much national pride I think I'm going to burst, I thought I'd defer to the late, great Bill Hicks who summed up the concept of patriotism so well that no one ever need touch it again:
I was over in Australia, and got asked, "Are you proud to be an American?" I dunno. I didn't have a lot to do with it. My parents fucked there. That's about all.
I've always wanted someone to ask me whether I was proud to be an Australian so I could paraphrase him, but of course, I'm not a proper Australian, so no one's ever thought to ask. But if anyone ever did, I'd probably say something like this:
I dunno. I didn't have a lot to do with it. My parents fucked in Britain, but my mum was born in Malaysia and my dad in Mauritius, but both of them had Chinese parents, and I moved to Australia when I was around three years old. I think I became a citizen around '86. That's about all. So yeah, I guess I'm proud to be an Australian.
"So you flew here. But I grew here".
Umm, yeah I guess so.
"Why don't you just go back to where you came from?"
You mean Hemel Hempstead?
"Where's Hemel Hempstead?"
It's in Great Britain
"Great Britain. Is that in China?"
Nah, I mean England.
"England? So you're a Pommie. Hey Bazza, this guy's a fuckin' Pommie".
"A Pommie? I thought he was an Abo".
So now I'm a Pommie? Then why the hell do I so fervently support the Socceroos and want Aussie golfers to do well at the majors? And will someone please post a photo of me from the 2006 Commonwealth Games dressed in Fan-atic worthy regalia to reduce my argument and me to mere ashes? Aha – just found something to discuss at my next therapy session!
The next time the Chinese New Year falls exactly on Australia Day, January 26, is in 2028, coincidentally again the year of the Monkey. Hopefully by then my creativity and intellect will have figured out a way to stop people from celebrating THE INVASION, so I best start generating memes rather than writing this silly blog. My inherent creativity and intellect (again, the words of a Feng Shui Grandmaster, not my own) may as well go ahead and actually empower the Aborigines while it's at it, as I guess they are also my people given someone on the football field once thought I was one.
Speaking of football, this Year of the Monkey is the year I hope to take T-Bone and Sea Bass to their first game of AFL where we can cheer on our hapless Carlton Blues. For the uninitiated we finished bottom of the ladder in the Year of the Goat, and while hopes are high for the upcoming season, prospects are not. Attending the football is a difficult proposition for T-Bone in particular, as he has an extreme fear of loud, unexpected noises and at a Carlton game there is bound to be raucous laughter as players such as Cameron Wood and Levi Casboult struggle to determine whether they are on the same, or opposing, teams. The younger Sea Bass would also be tough to handle as at the time of writing he is completely OOC ("out of control" for anyone not my wife reading this). He's nuts. Completely nuts. Must be all the mixed blood coursing through his veins.
In any case, the football may not indeed be the best place to take young, impressionable children. Children like I was attending the 1993 semi-final against Adelaide at Waverley Park with my Uncle YF. Harry Madden had kicked a goal for the ages and we'd won by 18 points, when upon leaving the stands a long haired Carlton supporter in a denim jacket jumped in front of us and shouted, "Gooks, we're in the Grand Final!!!", then proceeded to give us high fives.
Was he friend or foe? I had no idea. Still don't.
I hope that the cultural confusion that plagued me as a youngster is not even on the radar for T-Bone and Sea Bass as they get older.
I hope they never feel like painting themselves with liquid paper to fit in.
I hope we raise them to realise their cultural precondition is nothing more than the serendipitous happenstance of their parents meeting on RSVP.com, then falling in love. That's about all.
I hope they are confident, comfortable and resilient enough in their own skin to deflect any barbs that may come their way, racial or otherwise.
I hope all of this because I understand that it's not always easy growing up as the "other" in a western society such as ours. It certainly wasn't easy for a family friend of mine, Wilkes McDermid, who was born William Chong, but later changed his name because, I can only presume, he could never quite come to terms with being from Chinese stock yet feeling decidedly British.
I knew little of him, save for fleeting family visits to each others' countries, as it is our parents who were friends, not really us. But I do distinctly recall being in London as a ten year old and fifteen year old William, as he was then known, taking my brother and I to a pool hall. It may have only been four in the afternoon, but it was pitch black and felt like we were doing something incredibly adventurous. I can picture Wilkes walking along in a black trench coat, collar up, with a quaff of black hair that made him look like some kind of Asian James Dean. For some reason I picture him smoking a cigarette, though I'm not one hundred percent sure he had taken up the vice by then.
He seemed so cool, confident and assured, bantering with the locals like he was one of the top dudes going round. Here was a guy showing me how it could be done: a confident, brash yellow face in a white world. Looking every bit the lad, I remember genuinely looking up to him at the time.
Around this time last year Wilkes took his own life. In a farewell note posted on his food blog @Wilkes888 - London based Food and Drink-o-phile, he documents the huge bias in women's dating preferences for men who are tall, either caucasian/ black, or are wealthy or possess some other manifestation of power. In other words, their preference for people who are not like him. It is sad, miserable reading, haunting for its lucidity and abstract use of logic to justify a terrible end: "it's game over for me. By choosing to depart early, all I am doing is to accelerate the process of natural selection whilst saving myself a great deal of long term pain in the process.”
I am reminded of a high school friend of mine, let's call him Mountain-man, asking me on the way home from a teenage party, "mate, does it bother you that white girls prefer to be with white guys?" I'm sure it did, but it's probably not a question one should ask among friends or in civil society, drunk or otherwise. This was of course, from a guy who proudly proclaimed, "chicks dig my body" and boasted that he'd "been with 134 girls" by the time he was 16 and a quarter. To be fair, he did have a fantastic body (chiseled through hours of water polo) and he is still a close facebook friend who actually does genuine good in the world through humanitarian work. Last I heard he had traveled to Brazil and was flinging himself in front of every Zika-filled mosquito about to bite a pregnant woman, then he makes out with them, citing the touch of his lips is the only guarantee against microcephaly (can you please corroborate this story mate? Do you even read these posts? How are you btw? Been ages. lol).
Was Mountain-man brutal, brutally honest, or just plain honest? Wilkes probably would have considered him the latter.
It is fair to say that for a decent portion of my life I eschewed my Chinese-ness and wished it were not. Nowadays I have come to a natural peace that Wilkes could never find and even make piecemeal attempts to converse with my mum and waiters in Cantonese.
As the Bamboo Chopsticks waiter meets my mottled request for a glass of ice water with a quizzical look, T-Bone regurgitates a piece of steamed Murray Cod - that most quintessential of Australian fish being given the Cantonese soy, ginger and spring onion touch.
If and when either T-Bone (Chinese name Wenwei) or Sea Bass (Bailin) ask me the question "what am I?" or "what race am I?", well, I hope that when I reply, "you are whatever you want to be", they get what I mean. Because ultimately you are who you are, where you are. That's about all.
And if they ever encounter an excited bigot who jumps in front of them and shouts, "Gooks, we're in the grand final!!!" and are genuinely concerned or saddened by this, I'll just say what any decent parent would in the same situation:
"Mate, we're in a grand final. Who gives a fuck about racism?"
Dedicated to Wilkes McDermid, 1975-2015
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