If I give my kids a picture of a face and ask them to colour it in – “Crayons please! Let’s colour! Colour, colour, colour” – everyone from the babies to their mothers will instinctively reach for their brown and black crayons.
Well, usually anyway. There are those who reach for something wackier like orange or purple. And sure, a lot of girls will just keep going back to their pink crayons no matter what I put in front of them.
Most of them, however, will stick to the browns and blacks.
I found this fascinating. Which is strange if you think about it. They have brown eyes and black hair, their parents have brown eyes and black hair, and their friends have brown eyes and black hair. So of course they would reach for these colours.
What I found fascinating was my own response. I have brown eyes and black hair. Why did I spend my childhood reaching for other colours?
The Internet has been a great platform for the discussion of equal representation in the media, especially during the awards season. For most people I’ve met, however, myself included, it hasn’t inspired much action. Or thought. On the occasions when we do think about it, sure, it’s important. But in the general scheme of things, it’s more of a backburner issue.
(I mean, I can almost hear the older generations of my family. “Movies? Watch them and be happy that you can!” To be fair though, they’d lived through wartime Saigon. “When I was your age, I just wanted food. And democracy.”)But it got me thinking about the farewell video my friends made for me before I left for Japan. In it, my brother said, “I hope you, yeah, find yourself or whatever while you’re out there alone.”
Wow, I thought to myself. Am I that clichéd – to need a more exotic location to “find myself”?
But in truth, living in Japan really has brought to light different aspects of my identity than Australia had.
Some of it was just reaffirming what I already knew deep down.
For example, my humble apartment is downright roomy for Japanese standards but a shoebox for someone accustomed to the Australian suburbs.
But it’s mine. And I love it.
Yet, as I watched my mum take it in for the first time last year, I wasn’t so sure.
I looked at my two sets of cutlery and hand-me-down cups and plates. I looked at my single ply toilet paper and $15 fold out chair. I looked at my heater, struggling to keep one room warm. I looked around to find a complete lack of entertainment. Even the mattress she was sitting on was dragged across northern Tokyo and dumped on the floor without a frame the weekend before.
“Sorry, Mum,” I said sheepishly, thinking about the comforts of a hotel she could be staying in. “Everything I have in my apartment sucks compared to home. You get used to it though.”
“When I was your age, I was a refugee,” she said simply.
I blinked. “Ok then. How awesome is my apartment?”As an expat, my first instinct is to measure what I’ve bought on my teacher’s wage to what was available to me in Australia on my family’s resources. If I’m going to be honest, much of it pales in comparison.
The thing is, I grew up with the awareness of just how first world these problems are. But knowing that I am lucky is vastly different to moving an ocean away from home, losing a few luxuries I grew up with, and realising – to a small extent – how lucky I am in the process.
Other times, I’m confronted by parts of my identity that I didn’t realise needed confronting.
In my family, I’m the first generation to be born and raised in a Western country. Growing up, there were a few times when what I was taught at school clashed with what I learnt at home. But nothing drastic enough to push me into an emo phase.
You see, my parents assimilated well to the suburban Australian lifestyle. And as for me, I’ve always thought of myself as, for the lack of a better expression, white washed.
I can’t read or write Chinese. I can barely speak it, especially after moving to Japan. We ate steak and pasta at home more often than we did rice and noodles. I struggle to name five Asian celebrities, and of the three Asian songs on my iPhone, two of them were purchased after moving to Japan. Bar my face and surname, it’d be easy to take one glance at my life and assume I’m Caucasian.
After all, I’ve heard people tell me “Wow, you’re not that Asian, are you?” a lot growing up.
And while my perception of what “being Asian” means was definitely off, I found that the reverse – that is, how Asians view Westerners – is also not fantastic.
When Japanese people first meet me, they usually go through a three step process.
- Step 1: I could pass for being Japanese. Therefore, I must be Japanese. It’s a good thing most people check this assumption two seconds after I try speaking Japanese. Speaks volumes about my language skills, doesn’t it?
- Step 2: Oh, turns out I’m not Japanese after all. Whaddaya know. Luckily, they embrace this quite quickly: “オーストラリア？えぇ、 すごい！(ōsutoraria? Ehh sugoi: Australia? That’s so cool!)”
- Step 3: Usually, much later on, it will become apparent that I’m also Chinese. This usually comes as a surprise because didn’t we already clear up that I’m Australian? So, quite often, I have to quickly explain that my parents were not born in Australia. Which leads to, “えぇっ！そうなの？ (ehh! Sounano: oh, is that so?)
There has been plenty of confusion as to what I am. My work ethic isn’t what they expect from a Westerner but my bouncy workplace behaviour certainly is. My natural tendency to shy away from the spotlight is pretty Asian but the directness of my speech points back to Australia.
But who am I to judge? I needed to go through Step 3 for myself.
Let’s face facts here: I’m not entirely sure how to “act more Asian” or “act more Australian” without completely succumbing to stereotypes.
So yes, I believe that media representation does shoulder some blame.
Japan has very set images of what Westerners are like, which blanket entire cultures into a loud and comical figure. Hollywood portrayal of Asians, or even second generation Asians, certainly isn’t any better.
All said and done, media representation of different races, or lack thereof, really shouldn’t matter – because I am who I am regardless of television and who cares, really, which race I belong to.
But it’s becoming more apparent to me that it really does matter. It’s affected the way I perceive my own cultural identity, it’s affected my expectations of what others will be like and it’s affected their expectations of me.
It’s easy to pigeonhole this into an “oh well, that’s life” corner of our minds but teaching kids has started to make me think about the future. (Uh oh, is this what adulthood is?)
I don’t want my high school students to go on exchange to find that their homestay family had expected them to be emotionally suppressed or completely kawaii all the time. Come Tokyo Olympics 2020, I don’t want them to lose the opportunity to make lasting friendships with visiting tourists because they find foreignness gimmicky. And, as I’m watching my preschoolers smear their brown and black crayons across paper faces, I find myself hoping that they remember me as anything but foreign.