Scorn for the suburban is a staple of Australian life. Suburbia is portrayed, as historian Hugh Setton once said, as a place, “where mum does the dishes, dad potters and mows, and the kids pick their acne while watching the telly”.
From Alison Lester and Sidney Nolan, to Neighbours and Kath and Kim, suburban works seem like a human desert, barren of the different. A place one tries to escape. And yet, for many of us who are different, the suburban still feels like home. Why is this?
When my family first immigrated in the ‘80s, home was Elwood in Melbourne. It was a town where diversity moved across like a tumbleweed, slowly and often to an extremely clichéd effect. Elwood was a place with only one miscellaneous “Asian” takeout place and dozens of primary school kids who mocked my mum’s affection for “Mao-come Fraser”.
And yet, we, like most people, enjoyed living there. Elwood was a seaside town lined with terraces that spilt laughter and television programs out onto the street from their bosomy verandahs.
Each night we would lie down and watch TV shows, the screen above us glowing with stories, like a light turned on at dusk. Overtime, my family’s gently obsessive viewing of shows like Neighbours led to a kind of sympathy for the very suburbanites that mocked us.
We began to invest in the stories of the average Australian family. We cross-gendered and cross-racialised in order to relate to protagonists like Harold the grandfather, or Mrs Kennedy, or Kylie Minogue. What began out of necessity continued in earnest, as if we had worn the proverbial shoes of white, straight, Australians for long enough that they had become comfortable.
Slowly, sympathy for the suburban followed
my sister and me into adulthood – even if intellectually we knew that it was a bad thing. We knew that more people needed to assume the perspectives of queer protagonists, and people of colour, and female characters to see how they too lead remarkably rich lives. But, as with most people who have had the privilege of a progressive education, we struggled to escape our middle class, suburban sympathies. And such sympathises showed.
While watching Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off The Boat, we would find ourselves identifying more with the white neighbours and employers observing the Huang family, rather than the Huang family themselves. We too didn’t understand why New Year’s was in February or grasp that Eddie’s parents were from Taiwan and not China. We too thought Eddie’s black bean noodles were gross.
Our experience with Huang’s Australian counterpart, Benjamin Law’s The Family Law also betrayed an odd conformity to suburban views of the exotic, albeit in context rather than content. That is, we totally forgot to watch it. The show’s premiere on SBS meant that it, along with its Asian protagonists, came to exist only in the fringes of our cultural landscape.
And then the Oscars. Reading #OscarsSoWhite tweets inspired no heretical notions. We had to rely on Buzzfeed articles the next day to understand the nuances of the boycott. It never occurred to us that actors of colour were either totally absent, or only present in ways that pandered to the beliefs of white viewers. We just accepted that Asians were Kung Fu-fighting heart surgeons.
This acceptance however didn’t stem from apathy. I just always resisted having dramatic things happen to me. Or rather, at least never perceived things that happened to me as being dramatic. The idea that I, as an Asian, was a “victim of racial stereotyping” made me cringe. Yet, however my sister and I understood Asian actors, or the Oscars, or new “progressive” TV shows, the presence of these things undeniably did signal something quite dramatic.
The way we viewed them, even while burdened by conservative, suburban sympathies, embodied the way change had always unfolded: slowly and imperfectly. These things signaled that change had finally come to the heart of suburbia: the living room.
All too often, those who condemn Australia’s cultural landscape forget that it is still a work in progress. Look closely at this landscape 20 years ago and marvel at the development that has occurred. From Neighbours and Home & Away to shows about a queer, Chinese boy living in suburban Queensland. Our cultural landscape is still being coloured in, it’s still very much in the process of creation.
To this day, my family still lives in Elwood, Melbourne. It has become a suburb of gasping hills and prickling lights. Here the reading bulbs and television boxes of Australian families shine on. Every night, you can still find my family captivated by the stories that made this country. You can still find us cross-gendering and cross-racialising and sympathising.
I long for the day these stories sympathise back.