Sunday, May 28, 2006

Supermarket Exchange

Yesterday, we went shopping.

As we approached the checkout queue, which was remarkably long for a Saturday afternoon, I picked up a hat sitting in one of those last-minute-impulse-buy-bins. I had no intention of purchasing it, but I have an almost obsessive habit of trying on every random hat I see - especially as I can do this nifty spin the hat and place it just *so* atop my head. Very glam Broadway - if only I was wearing the fishnet tights, tap dancing shoes and tailcoat to go with it. Unfortunately, I was only wearing trousers and a tee. Nevertheless, I caught the eye of one of the two Asian men who were last in the queue.

Suits you. He grins.

I grin back, pointing at the logo on the brim. Pity 'bout the advertising, hey?

He laughs, I laugh. My partner laughs.
His friend turns around and laughs too.
It is all very jolly.

We take our place behind the two men in the queue and natter away. I am half listening to their chatter: broad Aussie accents discussing the mountain bike ride they did last week. It strikes me as somewhat oneupmanship - I rode up this big hill and over these huge rocks last week. Oh Yeah? Well, the week before that, I rode up this huge hill, across a wide creek and careered down the other side bumping my way down giant boulders. I was amused. The conversation was entertaining - there's not that much better to do in a lengthy check-out queue than keep half an ear on your neighbours' conversations.

One of the store staff - a middle aged white woman - calls out: There's a check-out open over here! We are all too close to the front to move; so the store woman comes over and asks the woman - also white, also middle aged - in front of the two men to head over to the other check-out.

The first man turns back to my partner and me; his arms arc out dramatically and he says in a mocking stage whisper: That'd be right - she chooses Whitey. Just cos we're two Chinese boys. Bet she thinks we're trouble-makers. That's racist, man.

His buddy joins in the pantomine - innocent eyes wide and mock hurt rising, they move about in large gestures. We are laughing at, and with, them. We shake our heads in mock disapproval.

The storewoman comes back and says: Hey! You two causing trouble? She is shaking her permed hair at all of us and gestures towards another staff member, just opening another check-out. Come on, then! Imperiously she leads them to the newly opened check-out and the first man swings a friendly arm at her fleshy shoulders - Just joking hey? She is smiling and shaking her head at them. We're still laughing.

She looks over at us. Not with them? She says.

I have been smiling too much. I'm in too good a mood - after all, we've been having fun in a queue. I shake my head: No way!

When they leave we all call out: see ya! goodbye!

Being identified as Asian can be fun. We found buddies in a check-out line.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Random List of Ten

Inspired by:- Ji'ins Simple Things and Jaye's Creature Comforts

Numero Uno

I love lists. That's my number one. At work I have 'to do lists', written on the backs of misprinted papers that have no confidential information on them (in case I want to take my to do lists home with me). I love other people's lists, reading lists (ie lists of things to read, not just the act of running my eye and half my mind over a list), music lists, how-to lists, things you must do before you die lists, movie lists; and the list goes on.

Second guess -

Coffee. Must have coffee. Strong, black. I turn my nose up at milk and sugar. I turn my nose up at instant. I'd rather have a splitting headache and be the grumpiest, snappiest soul ever than descend on instant. I am coffee snob, watch me twitch.

Third time lucky:-

Cleaning. Yes, I am a warped woman. It is so satisfying to scrape away at dirt and grime to reveal bright white tiles or sparkling polished floors, to cleanse the dishes of well-eaten meals and to sweep the debris of a week at work.


Randomly bizarre objects with no practical purpose. Like dancing green man. You put him in the sun and he dances. Woe, he is not mine. He belongs to my best friend in the whole wide world. Especially since she got green man. She's my bestest friend ever.

Take Five:

Music. Not the most knowledgeable of music devotees, I nevertheless have music on almost all the time. My taste is varied and will probably surprise people. It ranges from country to jazz, 'trip-hop' to ballads, corny to cutting edge. Me and my mP3, we go places and I resist the urge to boogie at street lights.

Sixth Sense -

Projects - I plan and dream and tell the world. Rarely do I start. Current project is to scrap book my trip to Viet Nam - that was seven months ago now. I've talked about it a lot. And that's almost like doing it.

Seventh Heaven -

In the mornings, at my house, different objects reflect the sun that comes in through the slats in our blinds onto our one vast blank wall. Glorious patterns of light play and it is as if we have ART on that wall. It really is.

Behind the Eight Ball -

I am slow at reading up on all the blogs that I enjoy. I try not to at work, although sometimes I just can't help myself - usually when there's a really big proof-reading assignment to complete - I will just have a wee look around my unique blog world. An hour later and I am slapping my forehead for not lugging into the debate on time. Two hours later and I am trying to work out how to swing a freelance blog-commenting and writing career, while my mind is spinning away with its ideas. Three hours and no more billable units later, I am back to stressing about my paid work. I actually really like being able to muse, at my leisure, on such disparate topics and people. Now, how to do that and my paid work ...

Nine Lives -

My jars of different teas - sen cha green, gunpowder green, Laos tea de vert, mate, peppermint, ginseng, chai, chamomile, jasmine - neatly arrayed on my kitchen shelf. Domestic bliss, here I am.

Ten = the End

Sleeping in on a wintry morn. I bury under the doona, with a little grumble, and pretend that I don't have to be anywhere else.

And then I need to use the bathroom.

Life's just here to get me down.

You want to tell me some random things about you?

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Identity Crisis

In response to a half-posed question from Tseen Khoo.

I identify as Viet-Australian. This is very easy for me to do because both my parents are Vietnamese and I was born in Viet Nam. My family became refugees when I was two, and we arrived in Australia when I was three. I am not literate in Vietnamese, although I can speak it conversationally (provided the conversations are about neutral topics such as food and family; conversations about politics and history are beyond my Viet language abilities). When I was travelling in Viet Nam recently, I made a most amusing faux pas. Instead of saying my Vietnamese was “not very good” (do), I said my Vietnamese was “naughty” (hu). After that I said my Vietnamese was “nothing special” - binh thuong.

I also use the terms Asian-Australian and Asian to identify myself, in relation to others. Generally speaking however, I am resistant to pan-Asian terms.

Throughout the past few weeks I have been making notes about why this is. Having never articulated it clearly to myself, I decided a process was required to gain an answer. The question has been stewing throughout a week of my interactions with the world; as thoughts surface from the bubbling miasma of my everyday life, I try to capture and record them. One weeknight was set aside for handwritten stream of consciousness note taking. And then I spent a day attempting to make coherent those disparate thoughts and musings. I decided to let the post simmer on, becuase I was not yet happy with it.

Some other posts I read, and the comments made in response, also provided fodder for my pontifications.

Jenn of Reappropriate found herself defending past dating habits, as a reaction to persons who - so it appears to me - are spuriously attacking her failure to 'support' Asian-American men by dating non-Asians. I wish I could more easily dismiss these people whose personal attack on Jenn is incredibly repulsive. The position that a female Asian's failure to date Asian men is somehow racist strikes me as ludicrous. There may be a level of internalised racism in some Asian persons' dating habits (Bao Phi writes an excellent piece about his epiphany of his own racism -read Introductory Essay), but limiting your loves to only other persons who are the same race as you is racism of a different order.

I don't know Jenn at all, other than what I read on her blog and even then I've not engaged with her via her blog, and I don't always agree with her, but her posts are often complex, sometimes angry and always well thought out.

Sume also writes of her difficulty with the concept of identifying as 'Asian in General'. Her post made me wonder about what comprises the notion of a particular culture / ethnicity / race. Some of the comments in response to Sume's post raised ideas / concerns about belonging and community, and not merely identification. Some of the comments devolved into concern about ethnocentricity; but saying “I am Viet / Asian” does not equal saying “Viet / Asian is best” - and this is very much connected, as I see it, to Jenn of Reappropriate's arguments about fighting sexism within the 'Asian Community' (whatever that is).

Sume also made the very accurate statement:
"Is there really a such thing as an "Asian Community"
or is that just a term incorporated into the American Salad
by people who simply couldn't tell Chinese from Japanese from Vietnamese, etc?"

As with all my thinking, I don't consider my view fixed. Rather, I expect my reasons will wax and wane in their cogency and I will accordingly be more, or less, persuaded by myself as I age.

The overarching theme that emerged about why I resist a pan-Asian description of myself (and other people) is that I am concerned about what I (and probably others) have elsewhere called Diversity in Otherness. This theme was reiterated in my readings of the various blogs I visit throughout the week.

Not being of Anglo-Saxon or Northern European Caucasian appearance, I am a 'minority' to mainstream Australia. I am an Other.

Asia encompasses so many countries with vastly different cultures and of vastly different appearances. For some from the United Kingdom, 'Asian' might conjure up images of people of Indian and Sri-Lankan background. To rather too many mainstream Australians, 'Asian' conjures up an image of the dreaded northern invaders – the Japanese. 'Asian' also too often is perceived to be persons of Chinese background, possibly because the Chinese have had a lengthy and geographically wide diaspora. The outsider Asian – of whatever origin – will be the perceived racialist stereotype commonly held by the mainstream: the Curry, the militant Jap, the Oriental.

It is quite apparent that persons from the white mainstream can have complexities in their backgrounds but, to the mainstream, Asian people become all the same. There are experiences and descriptions that might be common to all Asians (that “Where are you from?” moment for eg, or having a white person assume your differently Asianed friend is your sibling); and to all Viet people (I can't think of anything right now).

These common experiences stem from the group's otherness from the mainstream, not experiences that unify them as a group. The experiences might structure an identity and interests that allow for the formation of a community – eg the web-based and what appears to me academia-oriented Asian Australian discussion forum – but do not, of themselves have any universal application to all Asians, or all Asian-Australian.

I found this while reading backwards through the Asian-Australian discussion forum, and it is a more articulate and eloquent rendering of what I am trying to say:

"... just as feminists have found the limits of appeals to 'women's identity', so Asian- Americans may find with ethnicities and cultures as diverse as Chinese, Indian, or Vietnamese that their racial designation itself provides little common ground. ... Where perhaps racial categories are most politically significant is in their contested relation to racism. Racism attempts to reduce members of social groups to their racial features, drawing on a complex history of racial stereotypes to do so."

* This quote was made by Natasha Cho, but unattributed on the forum.
In the short time of composing this post and being happy enough with it,
I have not succeeded in locating its author.
I apologise for not properly attributing and would be more than happy to be corrected.

** Tom, also from the AA discuss forum, has kindly advised that the authorship of the above quote is:-
Heyes, Cressida, "Identity Politics",
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2002 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

I am trying to educate people, but the mainstream in particular: by calling myself Viet-Australian, I am making a clear statement that the Viet form a separate and distinct group from 'Asian'. I do not however suggest that the Viet form a unified or monolithic group. By being myself and proudly Viet, the moment when that person thinks (or, as occurs rather too often for my liking, *says* to me) “Gee, she's not very Vietnamese,” is also the moment when they acknowledge diversity within a group – whether they realise it or not.

There is, of course, the concern that descriptions like mine will become clunky. If my partner and I have a child, will it be described as Viet-Irish-long-time-Australian? And what if we migrate to another country, will I become Viet-Australian-Candian (insert other country)? In some ways, this is moot because one is and should be self-described and self-identified. The continued need for tags is, in itself, racist and leads to the awful question of: is there a minimum requirement of 'blood' to allow one to identify oneself with a culture / race / ethnicity? I do not want an answer to this question. I do not think it is an appropriate question.

Perhaps there is a requirement of some kind of connection: what the criteria of that connection must be, I do not know. But I do believe that criteria should be multifaceted and fluid, and, in the language of logic, each criterion should be sufficient, but none should be necessary.

The mere existence of difficulties and complexities does not mean one should cease to attempt complex, accurate and fulfilling self-descriptions and cultural identity. I am willing to be wrong – I am eager for cogent arguments that would persuade me to alter my position. I hope that I will always be engaging with my self-identification and with how others identify me. And I seek community, I seek people with common experiences because I believe I can learn from them, and others can learn from me, and we will all be enriched.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

My adventures in the Law (Episode I)

In 1998, I was horrified to discover that Western Australia was patting itself on the back for having legislatively removed the concept of a wife always consenting to sex with her husband. Yes, way back then in 1998, the State of WA changed its laws so that a man could rape his wife. Before 1998, a man who had sexual intercourse with his wife, whether or not she agreed, could not possibly have raped her. That act of having said "I do" in some half-thought out ceremony however many years ago was all the 'consent' the law needed.


And then I was even more shocked to discover that the change to the laws was only just on the cards for Queensland.

What prompted that change was the horrific case of H (1995) A Crim R 88 - whose husband raped her, in front of the baby-sitter and their children, and who was sentenced to a non-custodial sentence (he didn't go to jail). I'm not highly supportive of the prison system, myself; but it was the WA Court of Appeal's reasoning that really made my blood boil. One of their reasons for imposing a non-custodial sentence was that, to imprison the husband, would be to deprive the raped H and her children of "the support and assistance" of the rapist vis-a-vis his role, presumably, as breadwinning husband. Never mind the clear treatment of her as something less than human.

As a commercial lawyer, I don't often have to deal with any type of crime, so this has lain dormant in my mind until I read about some further proposed changes to the law.

The law is inherently conservative. I am aware of this. Change is slow. Changing the law requires multifarious strategies: 'softly, softly'; fight from all angles; agitate; cogitate; but most of all persistence.

Western Australia is, with much fanfare, considering whether to bring in a statute (parliament) created defence of 'battered woman'.

I would, most certainly, advocate the creation of the defence of battered woman/person syndrome.

It was in 1998 that 'Battered Woman's Syndrome' hit the big time law books - in the case of Osland v the Queen. This meant that it had been lurking in the lower courts system for at least half a decade prior. In Osland, it didn't succeed to mitigate the woman's sentence, or, indeed, vitiate her conviction.

You see, BWS doesn't fit into traditional self-defence. Because the defence of self-defence was created by men, with men in mind - it requires immediacy, proportion of response to immediate threat created. Case law has come some way to altering and broadening the definition of self-defence. And it will be a very good thing that a statue-based defence is created.

But I am flabberghasted that it has taken so long. And I expect the furore to be great - people still fail to acknowledge the devastating impact family violence has on an individual, and it is still viewed through a stereotyped "it doesn't happen to people like us" lens.

I sincerely hope it the 'BWS defence" gets into the lawbooks, and that other states will follow suit.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Love & Vertigo

A Novel by Hsu Ming Teo

I've had this book on my 'to read' list for a very long time.

I have a little black Book, with artist's acid free paper inside. I carry this little book with me almost everywhere I go and when I stumble across a book, or when I see someone else on the bus or in a park reading something that looks interesting, I note the title & author down. Sometimes, I ask other people to write books down for me. I read in circles and tangents, following authors I like and recommendations from other people.

When I first met my partner, and we were having meetings at cafes to establish whether we were going to become friends, lovers or just not bother, he always had a book to hand. It was one of my little check-ups: I would occasionally turn up just a little bit late and guage his attitude to waiting. The man who kept looking at his watch and had nothing else with which to occupy himself was not for me. The man who, like my partner, had extracted a book and stuck his nose into it before my falsely tardy self appeared got a big 'tick'. I asked him to write a few recommended books into my Book for me to look up and read, eventually.

Hsu Ming Teo's Love & Vertigo was written into my Book, along with a number of other excellent Australian novels, by a poet former friend. The friend is former because she has moved away to another state and we have both been remiss in keeping in touch. She is, I am pretty certain, still a poet.

For some reason, I could never find Love & Vertigo – it was never at the library and I must have been looking in the wrong places in bookstores. I must admit, the title repelled me as well. I did not really have any idea what the novel was about, but I was not sure love and vertigo, together, were things that would capture my imagination.

I was wrong.

Love & Vertigo was an excellent read. Lyrical and humorous, it deals with the reminiscences of a young woman uncovering and telling her mother's life after her mother's suicide. Immigrants to Australia, her ethnic Chinese Malaysian-born father and Singaporean mother have an unhappy marriage and are dislocated in the Sydney suburb they find themselves in. The narrator and her brother absorb and reflect their parents' unhappiness. The novel reveals the disparate searches for Love an individual within a family undertakes and the multifaceted meanings of Love. And the Vertigo? Symbolically, it was the confusion felt by all the characters in the book with their expected cultural, gender and relational roles: obedient Chinese children, submissive wife, breadwinner husband, alienated immigrants.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel – it was incredibly well written and insightful. I finished the novel late at night, my partner asleep beside me. I sobbed through the final chapter: so much of the guilt and self-recrimination were familiar to me.

Hsu Ming Teo captures and documents experiences that I am sure are common to persons ethnically different from the mainstream, or from a family with roots in East Asian and Confucian ideology. And she also uncovers universal aspects of family relations, misunderstandings of love and self, the struggle of the developing individual with the expectations of family and society.

I am sure, had I read this novel in my teenage years, it would have been highly formative for me. It's too late for such a novel to become integral to my person – not any fault of the novel, just that I am quite fully developed in cultural, relational and gender understandings of my own identity – but I was nevertheless moved by the writing.

I eagerly anticipate an interview with the author, to be published in the very first edition of Peril, an Asian Australian journal.

Saturday, May 06, 2006


Although I am resistant to the pan-Asian tag,* I have finally found some Asian Australian blogs that are worth reading. Yay! Of course, they are in Melbourne - wouldn't you know it? - but that's alright.

Now I no longer have to feel like such a fraud lurking around all the wonderful Asian American sites I had been reading. Especially with May being Asian Pacific Heritage Month in America - the whole thing has been making me want to bawl that nothing like that is happening here. Don't get me wrong - I most certainly will not stop reading the excellent Asian American bloggers I've found. But I'd been wondering whether we Australians were just really slow on the up-take or not introspective enough or ... something. So it's good to see that it's happening here too.

I know, I know - it's been out there all along and I wasn't looking hard enough ...

Anyway, I'm writing this ludicrously quickly (for my slow, proof-reader tastes). It's very late at night (for me); I've got a new resolution to blog only on weekends (although I'm still reading during the week); I don't particularly like this diarising / stream of consciousness posting (who's really interested anyway) but I don't want to forget these links:-

I'll pretty it up later, promise.

* I prefer Viet-Australian, if you're curious.

Women's Magazines

Women's Magazines greet you with pictures of poutingly pubescent girls, extolling a laudable desire to be comfortable with your body while deploring famous people for either being too fat or too thin. Magazines ask that you purchase and consume. There's something out there that is just the thing to make you thinner, younger, more desirable.

I once said to a university friend: I'm never going to look like these women in the magazines. For starters, I'm Asian. The friend thought it was a joke. I wondered if there was something I could buy to make me whiter.

Now, there is diversity. Not only are we confronted with preteen white beauties (and the occasional black beauty), there is also the Asian teenaged beauty, whose skin is just barely yellow, whose eyes are rounded almonds, who's as tall as those white girls.

And somewhere someone tells us it's easier to keep the weight off, if you're Asian.


Sure, it was pretty easy being a skinny kid. I grew up malnourished. Something to do with growing up in a refugee camp. But I now live in the minority, developed world and if I can afford to spend my money on these magazines, I also have full access to the smorgasboard of food high in cholesterol or sugars or fats or salt or all of those things. Being a teenager, physically active and with high metabolism, the weight was pretty easy to keep off. Then I was in my mid 20s, got an office job, was on oestrogen and progesterone for a few years, ate irregularly and exercised less. All the while, I remained Asian, and my tummy rounds out nicely, my thighs develop a fullness that I flatter myself Picasso would have liked.

I grew up. I stopped reading women's magazines. I stopped watching television. I ceased to pay attention to advertisements. I forgot that I was supposed to be beautiful and got on with being myself – I stayed fit and healthy, and the belly bulge didn't bother me. I am enamoured of the idea that Picasso would like my fullness (although I am not Blue. Would Picasso paint “Orangey-Yellow Nude”?)

And then, last week, I read a Women's Magazine. I was at a little cafe for lunch. I did not have my usual armory of random novel. Someone else had taken the daily paper. So I took the first Women's Magazine to hand. It was a foolish, foolish thing to do. It took me barely any time at all to flip through the entire 100-odd pages, but by the end, a creeping sense of dissatisfaction lodged itself below my heart (above the not-flat tummy). The feeling – like the belly – won't budge. I don't look quite right. I'm short. My clothes are shabby. My hair is shapeless. My eyes are too narrow. My skin has imperfections: a mole above my lip, blackheads scattered across my forehead like watermelon seeds spat out onto a barren field, and wayward freckles on my nose are falling onto my cheeks.

Picasso's women are not fashionable.

When I was a teenager, I could dismissively say: oh, they don't represent me, those white girls. But now, these magazines have something on me – they are inclusive. Bai Ling, Zhang Ziyi and Lucy Liu glare out at me. Asian is in (it might even be the new black). If you're skinny, and accord with their notion of perfect, product-selling beauty, they won't care what your skin colour is. Isn't that admirable?

Instead of succumbing to the easy availability of the Women's Magazine, I will confront my abibliophopia and sit, eating my lunch with no reading material. Or I will keep novels like I keep band-aids – at work, in every bag I carry, in the car, hidden along the streets I walk regularly. Or I will read the detritus of receipts that gather in my wallet.

I will not pick up another Women's Magazine.

And I will, eventually, repair my damaged sense of body-worth.

No person's body image was permanently hurt in the writing of this post.

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