Foreign concepts

When I was still in uni, my mum and I visited Japan as tourists.

“Mum, when we get to Japan,” I said on the plane, “I’ll be tempted to buy everything. I’m not allowed to buy any clothes before I imagine what they’d look like back in Australia, ok?”

“Ok,” said Mum. “Why?”

“Because I’ll think it looks cool in Japan because everyone else is dressed the same. But it might make me look like a Fob in Australia.”

“Yeah, yeah, ok,” she said.

With a response like that, I’d assumed she wasn’t really listening to me but a few days later, while shopping, she held a jacket up to her chest.

“What do you think?” she asked. “Does it make me look Fob?”

I laughed. “Mum, you’re allowed to look Fob.”

She cocked her head to the side. What do you mean?

“Mum, you got to Australia on an actual boat. You are a Fob. Literally.”

I’ve always known the phrase “Fob” (short for “Fresh Off the Boat”) to be a derogatory term that was deemed acceptable for me to use because I’m Asian. And so I did. Playfully. I used it to describe accents and dress sense and cultural references.

And, as it so happened, what went around came around.

“You’re not carrying a bag,” the girls at the office giggled a few weeks ago when we all went out for dinner together.

“Yeah?” I asked, looking down at my outfit. Between the zip up hoodie and jeans, there was plenty of pocket space for my phone, keys and cash.

“Girls usually carry bags. You look like a boy,” teased my manager, bumping her shoulder against mine. Everyone had a good laugh.

One of the part time teachers, who had lived in Vancouver before, thought again.

“Actually, maybe this is normal in Australia,” she said.

“You look so Australian,” my manager teased again.

At that, I was torn between confusion and laughter. “Ummm I am Australian.”

If I were to describe my fashion sense, it would be “unadventurously basic.” Jeans, tees, hoodies, black, white, grey, blue, red. It’s certainly nothing that’s ever called attention to me before so it’s nothing I’ve ever been teased about before. Even at an all girls private high school where, because we were usually in uniform, one’s choice in casual clothes was usually a conscious decision.

Not that my coworkers’ teasing had any malice, and nor were my feelings hurt by them. But it did make me realise that I’m the one who’s “fresh off the boat” here.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I identify more with white Australian culture than I do with my Asian roots.


As such, although I have faced racism before, it hasn’t affected me as much as it could have.

Most of what I had faced was incidental racism, harmless in isolation and a little ignorant. It mostly came in the form of people asking me, very slowly, where I was “from from.”

“I from island in Asia Pacific,” I’d reply, just as slowly as they’d posed the question, before launching back into full speed in my normal Australian accent: “It’s called Australia.”

I’m lucky, I realise, that this was the extent of racism that I’ve personally faced as an adult. Because I’ve used the word “Fob” more often than I care to admit.

Even in the cases where the people I said it to didn’t mind, just as I hadn’t minded being affectionately teased by my Japanese friends for my Australian tendencies, I’m aware of how casual racism can become dangerous in a community that hasn’t been exposed to many foreigners.

In one retail job I had while studying in university, a white Australian coworker and I brushed on the issue of Australia’s offshore refugee detention centres.

“It’s not right,” I said.

She was a few years older than me, so she drew herself up and talked in a patronising tone.

“Yes, well, look around us. Foreigners are already stealing our jobs.”

I blinked. “Excuse me?”

“Well obviously it’s not always their fault,” she continued. “They just don’t share our values.”

It was the first time I had been faced with this sentiment from someone in my generation.

“Do you think I share your values?” I asked carefully.

Suddenly aware of the eggshells we were treading on, she huffed a little before stuttering answer.

“Well, yeah, of course. Of course,” she stressed. “But you’re different. You were born here. You learnt from our schools.”

I swallowed, more affected by this than I had expected to be and unsure of how to express myself.

“My ideals are from my parents,” I said slowly. “And they were refugees. And I’m proud of that.”

The conversation ended there and the rest of that shift was as awkward as you’d imagine.

The Children Overboard Incident of 2001 was the first time I realised how important the media is.

Before coming to Japan, or even making the decision to do so, I spent some time with international students every week. What I learnt? I didn’t know the first thing about being an outsider.

I was just as ignorant as that coworker had been and that in itself was dangerous. It became one of my biggest reasons to live in a foreign country without being educated in its language and culture beforehand.

It’s hard to write this without the tone being misconstrued but I genuinely mean this: it’s been interesting.

In Australia, on one end of the conversation – “What are you wearing? It’s so Asian.” – I thought I was teasing Fobs about things that set them apart from the main culture.

But at the other end, from where I’m standing now in Japan – “You’re not carrying a bag? You’re so Australian.” – it just sounds like a list of facts.

So although I personally find no offence in this, I know I will be leaving the word “Fob” out of my vocabulary from here on out.