The air-conditioned train could shelter me from the 39-degree Dallas heat, but it couldn’t protect me from a young man who came and sat down next to me despite many empty seats around the carriage. He struck up conversation and asked me where I was from. When I said Sydney, Australia, he replied, “But you look Chinese”. I patiently explained that my parents were from Shanghai in China, to which he responded by repeating semblances of the word Shanghai in weird stereotypical noises meant to mock the ancient language. He then continued to ask me questions about China I couldn’t answer, clearly ignoring the fact I’d just said I was from Australia.
His mocking/flirting peaked when he asked if I had a boyfriend and then asked me for my number, to which I politely replied that I wasn’t interested. He couldn’t quite handle this rejection from an Asian girl, choosing to retreat back to a seat with his friend where they heckled me by yelling “Chinese girl” and sniggering every so often for the next ten minutes.
I’ve spent the past few weeks travelling around the United States in the lead up to my exchange. At first I was worried I would get shot, be harassed or become lost. The list of anxieties was endless. Yet despite my chronic tendency to overthink, there was one prevalent and ongoing issue I managed to overlook entirely: the need to resolve my “Australian” identity in the face of dominant Western narratives.
Travelling alone, for the most part, has been exciting, invigorating and as corny as it sounds: eye opening. My eyes haven’t just been opened up to a new country, but to the uglier side of travelling as someone who doesn’t appear “white”. My experiences abroad have probably been shaped by stereotypes of Chinese women being meek and submissive, which has compelled random men to approach me, often in an aggressive manner. Other less explicit or drawn out experiences have also defined my time abroad – whether it be those people who “call bullshit that you’re from Australia” or the classic “ni hao” thrown my way as I walk past.
This is not to say that these experiences are exclusive to travelling alone. I’ve often faced similar situations in Newtown, one memory springs to mind – a man stopped me and a group of friends to ask if we were from North or South China, then preceded to ramble about how Northern Chinese women were smarter, ignoring what we might have to say about our own identity. These scenarios aren’t simply men being unaware, because educating yourself isn’t that onerous in this Internet age, instead, it’s a conscious choice they make to perpetuate existing, one-dimensional narratives of race and nationality. It’s a conscious choice to ascribe my own identity for me, to pre-judge who I am simply by my appearance. Outside the open-minded and progressive enclave that is my social circle at USyd, these experiences have been pronounced during my travels.
One of the trickiest things has been reconciling my Chinese Australian identity, knowing the follow up question of where are you really from will no doubt appear after I tell people I’m from Sydney. I always feel like I have to oversell just how “Australian” I am. I consciously say my parents are from China; never “I am Chinese”. It’s a strange habit to have adapted, as if my subconscious has noted the socially engrained dichotomy between “I am Chinese” and “I am Australian”. This is the unfortunate reality for many migrant families, who are often compelled to fight back against racist rhetoric that suggests being truly Australian means assimilating completely, suppressing one’s cultural identity in the hopes of achieving this goal. And no wonder: with the election of politicians like Pauline Hanson, race has never been a bigger issue in Australia. But who knows, maybe one day I’ll be comfortable enough to say, “I am Chinese-Australian.”