“Race” for Interrupt Mag

This article was previously published in Interrupt Mag for their “Race” issue. They have since rehashed and I think the article is no longer available, thus I have published it here.

My family emigrated from Taiwan to New Zealand when I was just six years old. Overwhelming political correctness in New Zealand means that most people are not blatantly racist. But xenophobia still persists, largely in the form of racial stereotypes. The culmination of this, and the feeling of rejection from my country of origin, has fuelled my turbulent identity crises. I would like to briefly explore the many ways in which I have always felt not “Kiwi”[1] or “Asian” enough.

The early years in New Zealand were particularly hard for me — I was teased for all sorts of attributes that I had never even contemplated my possession of. Being called “ching chong chinese dong” or something of the sort drove me up the wall, more so because my six-year-old self wanted to assert to these ignorant little brats at school that I wasn’t Chinese but was actually Taiwanese. Without getting into the political and historical repercussions of this, it has become a common theme, which still bothers me regularly to this day.

I worked hard, though, and I persisted on my English. By the end of Year 2 (we moved to New Zealand earlier that year) I had gone from the lowest reading group to the highest, and by Year 3 and 4, I was achieving Distinction awards in English competition exams. I guess my parents made the right choice for a suburb to grow up in, especially for the purposes of assimilation. Until my teenage years, I lived in an area where the only other Asian children I saw were a Japanese family born in New Zealand.

This all changed when we moved to a different area in Auckland, which is notorious for its high density of Asian immigrants. To put this in context, the infamous public high school I attended, had more students of Asian descent in 2011, than those of European descent. It was during this time that my self-image took a radical change, and remains unsettled to this day.

Sociologists speak of women striking what is called a “patriarchal bargain”. I feel at odds because often I think that I not only inadvertently take patriarchal bargains, but also a variation, which I like to call a “colonial bargain”. By this I mean that, I get advantages against other Asians, through whatever “whiteness” others deem me to possess.

It is well known that many Asian societies idealise Western beauty, and every year, countless Asian women (and increasingly men) go under the knife to achieve a more Westernised look. Double eyelid surgeries are amongst one of the most popular procedures, which one can undergo, in order to look more “foreign”. It is this obsession with Westernised, Caucasian beauty, that I feel has hugely contributed to my racial displacement.

When I’m in New Zealand, I get asked where I come from, by 99% of the people I meet. Being “from Auckland” isn’t a good enough answer. Most people will press me as to where I’m “really from”, despite the fact that I have spent more than twice the number of years living in New Zealand than in Taiwan. This frustrates me because I have many friends who are also immigrants to New Zealand, but they are automatically accepted as being Kiwis. Notwithstanding the fact that they have lived in New Zealand for a much shorter time than I have, they are not interrogated on their country of origin, simply because they are Caucasian.

Ironically, when I’m in Taiwan, I also get asked where I come from. Perhaps it’s because I speak with a slight accent, but what about the fact that most people that ask me, aren’t even people that I am speaking to? Strangers accost me in the middle of the street, and when asked why, they tell me that they wanted to know because I dress and hold myself “differently”. A lot of Taiwanese people will look on in disbelief when I try to tell them that I was born in Taiwan, and both my parents are Taiwanese. I’m not even particularly tall, but by Asian standards, 5’7” is tall enough to be “probably half-white”, not to mention my athletic, curvier build, and what Asians tell me is my “white-looking nose”. Whilst I will concede that I dress on the edgier side of things, I’m a really private person, and don’t like any of this. I’m most troubled by the fact that my mother and relatives tell me that I should take it as huge compliment that people in Taiwan think I’m half-Caucasian. They say that this means people think I’m really beautiful. What kind of backhanded compliment is that?! Hey girl, we think you don’t belong here, even though you were born here, but totally take that as a compliment, because everyone would rather look more Caucasian, so lucky you!

Backhanded compliments are also rife in New Zealand. Most girls simply receive perhaps slightly sexist compliments such as, “you’re great at parallel parking, for a girl”, or “you’re really sporty, for a girl” — but what I experience on a weekly basis, is something in a whole new ballpark. Ignoring the female objectification and purely focusing on the racial implications, how is a teenage girl supposed to deal with “compliments” such as, “you’re really pretty — for an Asian”, or “you have huge tits — for an Asian”. Does that mean that, I’m not pretty, compared to Caucasian girls? Or that, my tits are only of a good size, for an Asian? I’d like to think that society can view me purely as a person, or as a female, not forever dubbed as an “Asian female”.

There is a scale of expectations that exists for Asians and I will never fit into the stereotype of Asian females as being skinny, exotic, docile, submissive, “China dolls”. This may have more to do with my inherent personality of being on the masculine and blunt side of things, rather than my Western upbringing — but it should be no excuse as to why I’m constantly treated as the “other”, in both countries, which I see as “home”.

I’m tired, really tired, of how every aspect of culture is defined by race. It seeps into every corner of my life: from how people react to what degrees I’m doing — “really? Your Asian parents let you study music?”; to how much alcohol I consume, with whom — “you drink beer with your mum at dinner?”; to what I get up to with my boyfriend. My mother told me not to tell other people about the lack of boundaries she imposes, for fear that she will be condemned as being a “bad mother”. She raised me in an open-minded environment, in which she trusts my judgement, rather than strictly enforcing “tiger mum” rules. This is contrary to the strict parent-child, authoritative relationship that most Asian families have. How silly, that instead of celebrating how open and strong our mother-daughter relationship is, we are too busy trying to hide it from society, because that’s not how good Asian mothers raise their good Asian daughters.

On the front of academic achievements, isn’t it sad that Asian immigrants are held to such a high standard, yet in all other areas of life in the Western world, they are expected to under-perform? I regretfully admit that, as part of trying to rid myself of the negative stereotypes that stem from being ethnically Asian, I too, have also negatively inflicted these stereotypes on others. Never in public. But I feel some sense of responsibility in perpetuating these stereotypes, as I yell “you Asian female driver!” from the privacy of my car, at the countless Asian female drivers that have almost caused me car accidents. Or the Asian girls (and boys) that miserably fumbled their way through five years of athletics day in high school. I loathed them for fulfilling and keeping in circulation the stereotypes that I had fought so hard to break free from.

So I am trying, day in, day out, to ignore the racial lens through which people view me. I am sad at the amount of bullying that I have suffered, racially driven or otherwise, which has further embittered me on the topic of who I am and where I’m from. It’s hard for other people to empathise how difficult and ironic it is, when I am accepted as a New Zealander everywhere else in the world, without question, except in New Zealand. In Australia, they accept that I’m a Kiwi, because my accent shows that I am. In America, people are intrigued that I am from Middle Earth and do not question otherwise. Even in Taiwan, irony of all ironies, it is more acceptable for me to say that I am a New Zealander — so why can’t fellow New Zealanders just accept it? This is a country built on a rich history of immigration, and I should not be viewed as “cool” because I look more like a half, not full-Asian, and act “white”; nor should being called a “banana” be a compliment to separate me from uncomplimentary Asians.

With regards to those ignorant haters out there who I have met along the way, and who will never change their close-mindedness, I am glad that I have turned their negative racism into motivation to do more, to do better. It is ironic to think that my hard-fought-for “second”, or arguably third, language has now become my “mother tongue”. Indeed, I manipulate the English language on a daily basis as a law student, and in my late-night poetic rants. I even tutor English Literature to high school students, some of whom are Caucasian New Zealanders.

Although I cannot attribute racial identity crises as the sole cause of my overwhelming desire to push the boundaries of my comfort zone, it has certainly contributed towards my determination at proving others wrong. I still struggle with my racial identity every day, but I think that the experience has made me a stronger, more colourful person. All these years of unwittingly trying to shed the burden of racial stereotypes, has raised in me a strong awareness towards other issues prevalent in society.

One day, when I feel that I have finally become successful, it will be on my terms. It will not simply be fulfilling what people consider a “successful Asian woman” to be. My name is Amanda Cheng, and I’m from New Zealand, albeit born in Taiwan.

[1] Colloquial term for New Zealanders