"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, November 01, 2015

Yellow Girl, White World

Now Playing: Eyes Open by Taylor Swift (everybody's waiting for you to break down, everybody's watching to see the fall out) 

When people ask me why I've chosen my field, the most honest answer is that the field chose me.

I've had the curse of acute, limited excellence, and so I'm not really used to the dour struggle of mundane tasks or having mediocrity be the fruit of excessive labour. I've really just followed the path of least resistance; I just went with what I was good at. I took the job that was offered to me, and it's easy enough. I picked the subjects I did the best in at high school and found the right courses at uni. I'll be training to be a childcare worker soon, because as much as some people might find it a painfully horrible job I quite enjoy it; it's hard work but I find it humbling and rewarding and immensely gratifying. When I'm researching graduate schools, I just read to find things I think I can do, things I can enjoy. My distinct talents, and my distinct lack of talent, in most things has made a path that is quite easy to follow.

(Incidentally, had I been a more math/science kid, I would have become a midwife, ob/gyn, or a clinical sexologist.)

I think there are other kids like me; bright, talented, passionate kids who weren't really good students but excellent thinkers, who can't imagine not chasing their dreams. And I know some of those dreams drifted into the Arts and, for a lot of Asians, I feel like that's where they draw the line, snap back into 'reality', whatever the hell that is. It was a path I followed virtually alone; and I always wondered why. Yeah, job prospects aren't great, but job prospects in general aren't great; and as much as Asians seem mildly obsessed with the corporate ladder I knew a lot of Asian kids who were following equally unemployable paths.

But then, I caught up with one of my perpetually-busy science friends, and I was whinging about how I had annoyed one of my professors and my marks immediately plummeted. I assumed that this was an annoyance that everyone has to deal with, but she mentioned something in passing: in Science, if you get something right, nobody can argue with you.

People often think that Asians don't suffer from discrimination because we are the 'model minority'; and some seem to think that our apparent preference for STEM or commerce is biologically wired. But I think it's a reaction to the systemic racism of Anglo 'culture', which rears its ugly head more often in the Arts and Humanities than in more universal things, like money or chemicals or studying dead bugs. In a Science or Commerce degree, people might hate you for being yellow, but they would have to risk getting caught for some seriously dodgy academic conduct to try and bring you low, if you are a good student. In the Arts it's all too easy to justify some random bad marks that just happen to coincide with the point when you snap and wipe the smug grin off some white bread professor.

The people I grew up with take my abilities as a given. I've always been 'that kid who's good at English'; my literary talent and absurd monolingualism is quite unusual in the Asian community here. But I'm always aware that every time I walk into the room and meet a new English teacher, or a new Gender Studies professor, they don't even think I can speak English. I have spent my whole life trying to prove myself, in a field where it's quite easy to just turn a blind eye on what's in front of you if it happens to be the wrong colour. When I was little they said I had a learning disability, that I was a disruptive child who would never go anywhere; and then I topped the state and went to an academic elite school. At that academic elite school my teachers said that I was lazy and would never get in to uni, and then I came in the top 0.5% of the state in English and went to a higher ranked uni that the teachers who claimed I'd never make it. And now, at uni, some of my professors are wonderful, wonderful people who are so generous with their time and knowledge. And some of them are racist assholes.

Establishing a rapport with your teachers is something I learned from a very early age; no matter how bad the systemic bullying was, I always managed to charm one or two of them to be on my side. It's a standard part of how academia works; being the teacher's pet is always an advantageous thing. But you can't be a teacher's pet to a racist; trust me, I've tried.

It's really hard to complain about racism in academia; most of it can't be proven. But you know when you're being treated different, when you've been treated different your whole life. People don't know what it's like to have to prove things, even when you have the qualifications and the grades and the certificates to back up what you're saying. People don't know what it's like to be an agitator or a liar every time you open your mouth, because most of what you say contradicts what other people are saying, have been saying, since the dawn of colonization.

I am not the norm for the artsy English student. Being a woman of colour disrupts the cosy academic elitist narrative that the older generation of academics have enjoyed since before I was born. Colonialism has resulted in people like me - mixed heritage, Western-educated, POC who straddle the line between being an Anglophile and not putting up with your Anglo shit. For these past three years at uni I just assumed that this was part and parcel with being an undergrad; that everyone gets bullied by professors. But I only just realized that so much of my bullying has been incredibly, racist.

I understand, now, why many Asians are too afraid to go near the Arts part of the campus; their fears of being treated differently, of being bullied and mocked, of being punished for speaking out of turn with bad grades, are a very, very real part of my life. In Australia, everyone buys into this myth that if you just work hard enough, if you just stick it out for long enough, you'll get anywhere. But it's really hard to believe that when you're dealing with a bunch of petty academics who can literally scribble any number on your assignment with little fear of repercussion.

I often get accused of being mildly obsessed with grades; and in a way, this is true. When you spend your whole life being valued as a kind of Walking Brain you tend to take your marks a little too seriously. And sometimes I wholeheartedly deserve the mediocre grades I sometimes get - I skip class and take units that are way out of my depth and knock together shitty essays at 3am just like everyone else. But I am not as stupid as people think I am; if you put a number I don't like on my paper, I expect you to justify it; and most of the time, people do. Bad marks encourage me to work harder and take my studies more seriously and I appreciate eating humble pie from time to time. But I don't appreciate being bullied for having the audacity and tenacity that seems to be so much more appreciated in my white and/or male peers; I notice when the marks suddenly plummet when I have the nerve to say things like 'maybe we shouldn't be debating the hijab when none of us are hijabis' or 'you can't call yourself Korean and make sweeping statements about (my) Korean culture because you are literally Finnish'. I'm not your quiet demure Asian masseuse; don't expect me to act like one.

The reason why many Asians don't make it in my field is because it takes a certain level of arrogance to keep believing that you are a full human being in the face of incredibly defeating and dehumanizing migroaggression and hostility. It takes a lot of nerve to simply refuse to believe people, many of whom are in positions of authority, when they say you aren't good enough. I've had to make my own way with little more than an unshakable knowledge that I am good at what I do; and that's a difficult thing to pull off when you're young and full of doubt. Luckily Koreans tend to be quite a narcissistic lot.

Being Australian has many, many privileges; every day I am grateful that I am a wealthy, highly educated girl, with English as my first language. But that doesn't mean that being a WOC - even an Anglicized, second generation WOC, doesn't have its challenges. I really encourage any Asians who are artsy like me but are too scared to go into the field to just go for it; head first, fearless. Because it's only by having the audacity to stand our ground, it's only when we have the courage to say I EXIST in a world hellbent on erasing our narratives, that we can make the world a better and more inclusive place for our peers and our children.

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