I finished reading Being Chinese – A New Zealander’s Story by Helene Wong in two days, and it really made me think about my own background, experiences and thoughts on being a New Zealander. Wong was born in Taihape, with a mixture of second and third generation in her family, and in her book, she explores her family history. She shares her experiences in acting and theatre, and the stereotypes and often lack of authentic representation that occur within the industry. I really encourage anyone to read this book, as it really makes you think about the importance of cultivating a society that treats everyone the same. It’s something we should all strive for. It makes one reflect on their own background and the portrayal of Asians in the arts and media.
I think about how when I was younger, I sometimes never felt quite completely Taiwanese, when I was in Taiwan, and yet not quite completely Kiwi when I was in New Zealand because of my appearances. Even though I was born and raised here. There is a sentence in Wong’s book where she writes “I ask myself, just how Chinese am I?”, and as she writes about her childhood, there were many parts that I could relate to and I believe many Asian Kiwi’s may have also experienced.
Growing up, there was this feeling of Other as my last name would say. There would be the constant mispronunciations during school assemblies and prize giving, yet it was something I simply got used to. In Chapter 3 titled ‘I never think of you as Chinese’, she shares a story in which someone said those words to her. She talks about assimilation, and it made me think about an English paper I took last year, where I did an essay on Amy Tan’s essay on Mother Tongue. It made me think about accents, and how often I noticed growing up that because my parents had Asian accents when they spoke English, they were perceived a certain way compared to an Asian with a Kiwi accent.
I related to Wong’s love for writing, as English was always one of my favourite subjects, and I loved writing essays, reading books and spending time thinking and analysing about texts and meanings. Wong talks about how because of one’s physical identity, we will be viewed a certain way. It made me think of when I was placed into ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) in primary school, even though my English is fluent. It makes me think about how because of the way one looks, I will always be inescapably asked where I am from. If we look at the arts, media, advertising and many other industries in New Zealand, we have to emphasise that there is a need for more representation.
Wong writes about the films she grew up watching, and how often stereotypes and whitewashing occurred. She writes “…there only for their ‘Chineseness’. Worse, if they were anything more than exotic colour and had dialogue, the parts were usually played by white actors in slitty-eyed yellowface. They made me squirm with anger. Despite evidence all around us of Chinese people doing the same things as everyone else – in my own family, occupations ranged from nurse to architect, hairdresser to psychologist – Chinese were never cast in these roles.” She talks about food, as she writes “…when the look, taste, texture, fragrance and sound of a dish all came together it was art, and eating it brought a burst of joy.”
When the nineties arrived, there was an increase in immigration. Wong talks about how during this time, she really became ‘Asian’. She talks about the media stories in 1989 about immigrants, which used the phrase ‘Asian Invasion.’ She writes that “White New Zealanders were suddenly seeing more Chinese faces on the street…They did not say the same of the South Africans who were also arriving in the country under the same immigration policy. Chinese were too different – in looks, speech, behaviour.” She continues to write that “The Sinophobia also came from longstanding beliefs in the West that Chinese were inferior.” When people deny this, they roll everything under the carpet to keep it quiet. However, I really believe that we need to speak about it more.
The term ‘casual racism’ is used, and I think about how often it comes from ignorance and unintentional offense, and other times it’s overt and covered as a joke. It really starts with accepting and being respectful of everyone’s differences. Every individual person is so unique, full of layers and has a beautiful story to tell. Auckland is one of the most culturally diverse cities, and being born and raised here, I call it my home. However, there is still a lot of room for improvement and change, and I believe that we can and we will see more diversity in the arts and media industry.
Photography by Sun Jun