On the Outside. By Valerie Lieu.Jun 12, 2022
“What are you? Where are you from?”, my school friends ask, before the age of understanding political correctness. “Mauritian,” I reply, already feeling a churning of anxiety in my gut. I’m met with blank stares. I wait for a response, which will undoubtedly be one of the following: “Never heard of it,” “Do you mean Malaysian?” “You look Chinese”, and the joke that gets old fast, “A Martian?!”.
I was not a minority growing up – I simply didn’t exist. I may as well have been a Martian.
It turns out that kids – and, to be fair, many adults – of Australia in the 90s did not know what to make of a Chinese-looking girl who said she came from a place that they had never heard of, and whose parents and grandparents had French accents. Sydney was multicultural enough that other ethnicities were (relatively) accepted, but not multicultural enough for me to have a comfortable place in it, nor was it comfortable for most who encountered me. The confusion did not just come from white Australians, it came from people of other ethnicities as well, including other Asians. It came from me. The awakening of my cultural identity and otherness was not initially an experience of racist remarks or shame, it was of resolute confusion.
That’s not to say there were no racist remarks. “Ching chong chang” was called out in the playground, or even spontaneously would be said directly to me in conversation. While it wasn’t said in a malicious way, I always drew a blank to how to respond, and I would feel that internal confusion and panic rise up. “My mum’s Chinese,” fingers pull the edges of their eyes up into slits, “My dad’s Japanese,” eyes are pulled down into slits, “I turned out like this,” each eye is pulled in opposite directions. This was funny, I joined in with the others. It’s only later I realised it was making fun of people who looked like me.
One afternoon, I was filling out a worksheet for homework and I came to a question about my ethnicity/nationality/culture/background. I’m sure at that age I didn’t know the difference between all these terms, and I can’t remember which term it was, but the meaning was clear to me - where are you really from? As I had been told to do for all homework questions I wasn’t sure about, I skipped it so I could ask my dad when he and mum came home from work. Later that night, I fetch my homework sheet and place it next to him as he eats his dinner. “We’re Mauritian, can you remember how to spell it?”. I decide to settle my confusion once and for all. “We’re Mauritian, but aren’t we also Chinese?”. He finishes chewing his food, a plate of white rice with dishes of curry, tofu, and sweet and sour fish, and replies “Yes, we are Chinese too,” and spoons another mouthful. “So, what do I write?” I ask, frustrated. “Just write ‘Chinese’ hyphen ‘Mauritian’”, and showed me how to write it out with a hyphen. I walked away, worksheet in hand, triumphant at finally understanding what I was. Chinese-Mauritian. I now had a definitive answer for people who wanted to know what I was.
Of course, in relaying this answer over the rest of early primary school, I learnt it wasn’t the shortcut out of follow-up questions I had hoped for. “So you’re half Chinese?” No. “You look Chinese” Yes. “What’s Mauritian?”. I learnt to explain, as my parents had explained to me many times, “Mauritius is a small island near South Africa”, and pulled out what I thought was a fascinating fact, “It’s so small it’s not even a dot on a world map, you can just see the word.” Between the ages of 7 to 10 this would be met with satisfyingly impressed looks. Whenever the topic of extinction or the Dodo bird came up, and the place Mauritius was mentioned (admittedly this happened only a handful of times), I would proudly tell whoever would listen that I’m from Mauritius. My pride and excitement did not stem from the fact that I felt a kinship with the people who hunted the Dodo bird to extinction, but, that for a moment in time, I could say where I’m from and it would not be met with blank stares.
A group of us sit cross-legged on the asphalt in a circle. “My parents are from Sri Lanka,” Anushka says, “I’m from Hong Kong, but I was born here,” Jess replies. “I was born here too. A look of quiet pride is exchanged.
My parents are from Mauritius, but I was born in Australia. I was grateful to be able to say this set of words. Being born in Australia gave you more claim to being Australian than if you were born overseas. I didn’t have the main qualifier that made you Australian - whiteness - but at least I could say I was born here.
In high school, this exchange evolved. “Where are you from?” I would stare them challengingly in the eye and say “Australia”. Pause. “Yeah ok, but where are your parents from?” “Mauritius,” I reply, resigned. “But you look Asian?” Sigh.
I hated being Asian at this point. I hated that I looked like I belonged to something I didn’t. I hated the stereotypes and assumptions that were made about me as an Asian-looking female. I hated that I was subject to all the racism Asians are subjected to, but with none of the belonging. In my mind, I distanced myself from ethnicity and culture as much as I could. At least my other “Asian” friends could relate to other peers. They could embrace their shared background and commonalities, and joke about the casual racism they endured, and how white people didn’t understand. All I felt was different. Different from white Australians, different from other Asians.
At a loss for what to do for my Year 12 HSC major work for Society and Culture, I reluctantly decide to explore cultural identity in Mauritian diaspora. It’s through this project I learn more facts about Mauritius. I start to tell people who are confused by my background, “there is a 3% Chinese population in Mauritius”. I learn that what I thought was the language of Mauritius, ‘Creole,’ is actually a term for a category of languages. I learn that this is the lingua franca in Mauritius, but the official languages are French and English. I gain more confidence in rattling off facts to people, to know what to say, and therefore not panic.
I also learn through trial and error that the quickest way to help people place me is to explain “my great-grandparents were born in China and migrated to Mauritius, my parents were born there then migrated to Australia, and I was born in Australia”. I start to have more clarity about what helps others understand and place me, and I start to find my place.
I’m in third year university. I’m walking home from the bus stop through a park and little primary-aged school girl and her younger brother walk past me. “Ching chong,” she says as she passes me, smiling. I say nothing in return, and walk a bit faster.
I was both shocked and embarrassed that this young child could still make me, an adult, still feel less than. At the other end of the spectrum, older Asian adults I meet often chastise me for not speaking Chinese and say I should learn so that I can talk to my parents. Even though I tell them my parents don’t speak Chinese, I can see from their disapproving looks that they don’t believe me.
What does it do to a person, to be met with a lifetime of subtle interactions that highlight your otherness? Malicious and casual racism is one thing, but what about the more insidious signals that you don’t belong, that you have no place?
What am I?
John Donne wrote “No man is an island,” but maybe he was wrong. Maybe I am an island. Maybe we all are, in one way or another.
This article was previously published by SBS and has been shared on this platform with permission from the author, Valerie.
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