"I don't think that being a strong person is about ignoring your emotions and fighting your feelings. Putting on a brave face doesn't mean you're a brave person. That's why everybody in my life knows everything that I'm going through. I can't hide anything from them. People need to realise that being open isn't the same as being weak."

- Taylor Swift

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Immigration Nation.

I'm proud of being the daughter of immigrants. It's not always easy, but I'm proud of who I am.

Growing up as an immigrant, or as a family member of one, is a lot easier now than it was. But there's still the prejudice, and an immigrant's uncanny ability to point out, despite not picking on, flaws of society is what makes the natives so...uptight.

But it varies from place to place. Even a thirty-minute drive can change things so much.

My family originally settled in the Perth Hills, where both my sister and I were born. My dad liked the hills - Korea is very mountainous, so my father was a very fit and outdoorsy person, and it reminded him of home. It wasn't an extremely isolated place - my parents still worked in the suburbs and the city and commuted daily without too much trouble - but we were still one of the very, very few Asian households in the area.

Once you get down from the Perth hills you get posh people who live in posh houses in posh suburbs who probably haven't heard of kung pow chicken or soy sauce in their lives, and then you get the areas which are quite literally over-run by Asians. Attitudes swing from the grudgingly tolerant to the openminded to the condescendingly friendly to the conservative haters from suburb-to-suburb, despite Perth being a relatively small city.

The next area we moved to was near a good school and the south part of the river, but wasn't as luxurious and refined as some of the upper class suburbs up north - although I still grew up in the shadow of mansions or, indeed it seems to me, young and living in an old unrenovated one-storey house, miniature palaces.

My primary school was a mixed bag of ethnic and financial backgrounds. There were Indians with parents who didn't speak English, the blonde, blonde, blonde, blondes who could blow fifty dollars the way the rest of us would blow five cents, and the Asians. The teachers were almost all white, with some Asian ladies who were teacher's aides who were treated with the same condescending suffocating friendship that all of us Asians were given.

When I first came to school expectations on me were quite different than the expectations of the white kids. Most of the white kids hadn't read a single word until they were dumped at school, and most of them were suffering from too severe a case of separation anxiety that they didn't learn anything. On the other hand, being the daughter of two academics who had to use their brainpower to get them to where they were, I read regularly from a young age, and was at least encouraged to look at the pictures and gaze at the words. Before primary school I had no concept of a 'housewife', and for as long as I can remember my mother as well as my father worked full time, so I spent a great deal of time in childcare. It didn't mean I was detatched from my parents - on the contrary, I was much closer to them than the tantrum-prone 'others', but I was used to, even enjoying the independence of spending the day away from the sharp eye of parental care.

When I learned to write (I could read from when I was four - writing came later) due to a strange way my brain worked, missing a little school (although for me it seemed like a lifetime) to go to hospital, and being left handed, I wrote backwards, like Leonardo da Vinci. They thought it was a learning difficulty. Nobody ever accused da Vinci of having a learning disability, but then, da Vinci wasn't Asian. The other kid with a recognised learning disability was an Indian boy who I remember vaguely - I remember him being quite small, having an unusual name and had autism - he had an obsession with drawing what appeared to be washing machines. In hindsight, I fulfilled that critereon too - small and coloured. The writing of most of the white kids was a good deal worse, but they were just 'developing'.

Year one was a year of some confusion for me. My teacher recognised my talents in English and, not wanting me to be bored and therefore frustrated and difficult to manage, I sat at the back of the classroom doing year two grammar from some old 60's exercises we were inexplicably still using, whilst the other children learned that 'ch' made a 'cha' sound. It was with good intentions, but I remember feeling confused and isolated at the back of the classroom, excluded from classroom activity - the only other times they did this to students was when a child was misbehaving. Nobody told me that I was doing advanced work - I figured that out for myself when I realised my work was more complex than 'ch'.

Before year one, in pre primary, my bubbly and loud personality, as well as my stint in hospital had made me quite popular amongst the other children. My academic talents soon broke down any popularity I might have gained, with both the white kids and the Asians, who were all good at maths, and I was beyond lousy at it - because the 'maths' at that point was merely being able to write the numbers from 1-10, and those Asian kids already knew multiplication and short division and, probably, pi. I couldn't even write a 3 properly.

Year one was also when the ESL program started - students who were deemed to be 'English second language' students were given intensive English courses directed by a matronly old lady who clearly didn't pass English in high school. They looked at my face, rather than my accelerated English program, and I was tossed in with all the other kids who weren't white.

The classes were, needless to say, beyond boring and completely useless even for people who couldn't speak English properly. It didn't strike me then but it strikes me now how rascist that was.

The rascism in my primary school fluctuated as I continued on there, but some things I found icredulous was the defensive attitudes of the 'whites'. I called the whites, as I call the whites now because that is what they are - white. I didn't know the more politically-correct term 'Anglo-Saxon' then, and to be honest, I don't really think it applies now. I never used it in an offensive way, only to point out certain trends and occurences in white culture and their attitudes towards us, but I was accused of being rascist, despite all the rascism against me and my people both then and now, in varying degrees of severity and hurt. This accusation was not only incorrect but also hypocritical - the white kids made no attempt to scale down their impressive sporting ribbons, medals and trophies whilst all the Asian kids were hastily given tacky 'You Did a Great Job!' stickers. I remember teachers telling me not to boast about any English award that may come my way, because it would make the other children felt bad. Nobody ever thought about how I felt watching yet again the blonde, tanned, sleek kids on the podium whilst I clutched my unconsoling sticker.

Another thing they were defensive about was the existance of rascism at all - in fact, they thought of Asians as rascist because we often noted the academic shortcomings of the white children, which is nothing more than an observation in a very social and sport-driven society. Asian kids are smart - we learn very quickly we are nothing but bad at gym and the victims of toilet whirlies, so our way out is to study hard and gain scholarships, which is what I did - well, maybe not the study hard bit. I think I can attribute my academic scholarship to genetics, talent, a bit of big-headedness, confidence and sheer luck.

When I was thirteen, just after starting high school, we moved again to an area where to be honest, everyone is more involved with the beach than with each other, and because I do not go to school with many of my neighbours as I did when I was younger I can't gain the general attitudes of the people around me. But this sense of friendly condescention is gone, and the people here treat us...well, like normal people.

My new school is also largely absent of rascism - although I did raise a few eyebrows as the Asian girl leapfrogging all the 'white' subjects and failing miserably at all the 'Asian' ones, but not too much - I would have copped it a lot worse at another school. As an academic school most of the teachers judge you for what you can and cannot do, not what they think, based on your race, what you should and shouldn't do, which is the way it's meant to be, I think. The English and Sose departments have been enormously supportive of my academic pursuits...the other departments not so much, but I think I can blame a good deal of that on myself and my academic shortcomings.

The student hierarchy, however, is largely race-segregated, even more than before. In a fiercely academically competitive environment (even one that pretends to be otherwise, in an effor to remain 'cool'), the divide between Asians, Others, and Asians that Don't Make the Cut is even more defined than before.

But I guess we'll have to live with that. We are all born who we are, as we are and where we are for a reason.

1 comment:

Adelaide Dupont said...


This will be short, I promise!

Noticed that you're on the first page of Google Blogs for "Immigration Nation" so enjoy that time in the sun. You're among good company like Belshaw and Whitfield, neither of whom are defensive, and both of whom are reflective.

I also had pause to reflect on your Perth through the years, at least the parts which you felt were your Perth.

In the beginning of course, it was your Dad's vision which shaped things, especially in the Perth Hills.

And I had to smile when you said: "They are more involved with the beach than with each other".

The friendly condescenion showed in so many ways. And the other attitudes as well.

As you said:
"Attitudes swing from the grudgingly tolerant to the openminded to the condescendingly friendly to the conservative haters from suburb-to-suburb, despite Perth being a relatively small city."

Whitfield had a Canadian illustration of identity:

Being Australian: what if I told you we were all multicultural?

The contrast between the student hierarchy and the official attitudes of the school may reflect some of these conflicts in understanding and belonging.

And it is a bit different now your belonging is not so embedded in local understandings, but based on other factors.

The second episode of Immigration Nation is great, especially the way they show transparents on the house and have talking heads from some of the lesser-known, more sociological universities. Most of the immigrants are probably east coasters, except for the English.

And I hope that it only means to pretend not to be academic, not to be competitive. To deny either or both would probably sheave it of its reason for being.

And your reason for being is of course tied up in who, where and as you are.