It’s been a hard little while, right? We’ve had to deal with Pauline Hanson, and a whole lot of ugliness, and some gross Islamaphobia right here, normalised in our media, and it’s been hard. It’s still hard.
Sometimes activism gets tiring, and you feel pathetic and useless when you need to take a break. But it’s important. (I had to go on holidays, for a number of reasons; not least because my counselor thought I was burnt out from 24/7 activism)
Steph has taken advantage of having a blog to interview her friend Vidya, who has a show, Asian Ghost-ery Store, starting this very week at Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
So today Steph and Vidya talk talcum powder, ambiguity, ghosts, and the comfort of the Asian grocery store.
The show blurb:
Raised in the aisles of Asian grocery stores, time has come for Shan and Yaya to escape — and haunt modern Australia. But how do a couple of ghosts conjure a stylish, post-racial image while stuffing their faces with Hello Panda? Shannan Lim and Vidya Rajan glide you through a late-night trolley ride of story, performance, sketch and meandering rumination. Part truthful, part ball of lies, Asian Ghost-ery Store is an exorcism — a dark yet gleeful shopping spree of their shared consciousness.
This was meant to be a joke but somehow it became genuine. An actual guide! Go forth and find therapists, Azns of Australia. Medicare will pay for it, so at least your parents won’t worry about the expense.
Your therapist will be white. This is okay. They can still be of use to you.
When they say ‘magical thinking’, what they mean is, that thing where your mum tells you not to say a thing out loud, because the spirit of that thing will come for you. Do not believe the therapist when they say you have to stop not saying it (but you can say it in your head. That’s okay. Name that thing) (But don’t say it out loud, come on, you don’t want the spirit of that thing to find you).
Therapists almost always practice in old houses. They are probably haunted, but white ghosts can’t hurt you. Do not be afraid. The ghost will take the therapist and any other clients well before they get to you.
They won’t force you to make eye contact. That’s totally a myth. If they do, find a new therapist.
You are not the only Asian Australian with a therapist. I promise. There’s me, at least.
The things that make you specifically your ethnicity are not the problem. You don’t have to become more Australian (“Australian”) to deal with your very real problems.
Your parents will say: are you telling this person our private family issues? (Yes) But they’re private family issues. (Yes) Are you sick? (Your answer may vary) Does anyone you know see you? (Doesn’t matter) What do you mean, your friends know you go to therapy? (My friends know I go to therapy) Do they know there’s something wrong? (They’re my friends, Ma, Ba!)
You may be struck with how some treatments seem like cultural appropriation, particularly around mindfulness and meditation. Yep.
Your therapist might suggest more independence from your family. Feel free to think about the concepts suggested, but remember that you’re Azn and your therapist is not necessarily culturally appropriate.
You will have to explain the following things: family context; family structure; extended family structure; your interdependence on your family; what being Asian means.
Specifically on mindfulness: you will probably learn how to do this. I find mindfulness helpful. But I sit less with my emotions, because identifying individual emotions is hard, and more with paying attention to my surroundings.
On emotions: I have been known to literally start conversations with ‘I need to tell you a thing and I need you not to react.’ This is probably more Chinese hyphen specific, but that’s because emotions are hard and I’ve definitely grown up not expected to share them. My therapist thinks this is because I’m hiding from my emotions, but in my context you can receive comfort without sharing specifics. Other East Asians may find a familiarity in this.
UGH EMOTIONS. WHY.
You might need meds. You might not. Either is fine.
Say you’re lucky enough to get the beautiful and talented and adorable real-life doctor AND actress, Australian-born Renee Lim  in your new comedy show (which is relatively funny – I laughed a lot). Do you let her natural comedy stylings shine with the words, completely unrelated to race, that you have in your script?
Or do you cast her has the heavily-accented, heavily made-up, younger Thai girlfriend of your midlife crisis white father?
GEE. I just don’t know! It’s so hard to decide! Both options are so excellent!
Aside from her accent and her heavy bangles, Mae isn’t even Thai – as if bangles and an accent defines a Thai woman. She could totally be Chinese-Australian! (Or Thai-Australian even though I have issues with the pan-Asian identity – but not a brand new immigrant) Later the series looks at the playful mockery that is part of the “Asian” mindset. She could totally be Chinese-Australian!
It’s not the show I have a problem with – it’s that this is how Australia sees its South East Asian women.
This is not new. South-East Asian Australian women have long been presented as sexual objects, and as objects of ridicule (within a sexual sphere or with a sexual component).
In 1994 we were subjected to Cynthia, played by Juliet Perez, who was born in Australia. Cynthia was “a gold-digger, a prostitute, an entertainer whose expertise is popping out ping-pong balls from her sex-organ, a manic depressive, loud and vulgar. The worst stereotype of the Filipina.”  She was heavily accented and frustratingly other, laughable and deplorable and completely unable to be related to.
Her Thai-ness, much like Mae’s Thai-ness, was completely unnecessary; it was defended by producer Al Clark as “a misfit like the three protagonists are, and just about everybody else in the film is, and her presence is no more a statement about Filipino women than having three drag queens is a statement about Australian men,” which, uh, fuck that shit, Al, because white Australian males are the very definition of the Australian man, but I don’t see the reverse being true about heavily accented Filipino Australian women in small desert towns, completely separated from their communities and cultural networks. Do you?
Representations of South East Asian women outside of Australia (but still connected to Australians) only reinforce this. Turtle Beach, set in Malaysia, features my beloved Joan Chen as Minou, a Vietnamese woman married to the Australian ambassador. During the movie she sacrifices herself for her children, because South-East Asian women are self-sacrificing for the family, I can only assume. 
In Serangoon Road (we all know how I feel about that by now), all the South East Asian women are completely separate from the Australians – there are no SEAzn Australian women in Serangoon Road, which is woah quite the factual error. Maybe my beloved Pamelyn Chee is about to get it on with an American played by an Australian, which is another issue but the point remains.
South-East Asian women on Australian TV can’t be Australians. They’re always from somewhere else; they’re always othered and markedly different. Ien Ang  suggests that this is also in part to present a safe multiculturalism to Australians – some SEA women can be Australian, but they’re still markedly different.
The ABS doesn’t give me the data on percentage of Australians who were born in Australia but are of SEA origin/descent/ethnicity (or if it does I’m not able to work it out). But look around your life. How many SEAzn women do you know who look like this, who act like this? Because fuck if I do (I don’t). I have a broad, hilarious Australian accent (except when I’m talking to my mother) and there’s no way I’m sacrificing myself.
This cultural stereotyping for the purposes of entertainment (AND WRONGNESS) is by no means limited to us South-East Asian ladies. There is (was) one non-Anglo Aussie on Packed to the Rafters and his family is played for stereotypical Greek family laughs ; Benjamin Ng talked Gangnam Style and the stereotyping of Asian males in the Drum last year ; Hany Lee came on board Neighbours as an exchange student (rather than, say, a Korean-Australian) – despite being born in Australia.
If we seek to see ourselves, reflections of ourselves, and actual realities in our media, then Australian media is obviously not presenting us with that, and it’s for a whole lot of reasons. There’s a whole lot of stuff to say here about authenticity, perceived authenticity (and inauthenticity), accepted stereotypes, racism and the Australian identity, but it’s late and you’ve heard it all before. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was 19 years ago, and was hardly even the first cut, and here we are with Mae in 2013, migrating to Australia with her bangles clacking, loving her old white man long time. The Australian identity, if it exists, contains multitudes, and it’d be nice if I wasn’t injured by trying to find it in my Australian media.
PS I’m authentic even when I’m not speaking Manglish at a clip.
There are books that I recommend to everyone, books that I want everyone in the world to read and love, and I am always interested when people tell me their always-recommends. So I was excited at the recent open thread up at Captain Awkward looking at exactly that; and super disappointed that it was super dudely and super white. I know that’s inevitable, in its way and in the nature of our internet and our (western) society, but still, disappointment. So I made my own open thread.
What are the books that you always recommend to people, that you always want people to love, that you shove at people and wave your hands about and reread constantly? Only rule: the author cannot be a cis white dude. Trans white dude, fine. Cis asian dude, fine. Ladies, all fine. Author doesn’t conform to your gender binary? All good.
Here, I’ll start.
The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon: the only book I took with me in hardcopy when I moved to Beijing; a book I’ve filled with annotations and which was one of the most formative books on my writing style; a book that filled me with joy the first time I ever read it. I give it as presents and I talk about it a lot, but I never lend out my copy because it says a lot about me. TOO MUCH.
Growing Up Asian in Australia (ed Alice Pung): I wish this book had come to me when I was younger, but even as an adult it resonates and is an amazing reflection on the Asian-Australian experience that should be vital reading for all Australians.
Heartsick for Country (ed Sally Morgan, Tjalaminu Mia & Blaze Kwaymullina): another must read for all Australians. I cry every time I read this book, this reflection on being Indigenous Australian and the connection between Indigenous Australians and their countries, and that feeling of heartsickness at damage to the land, at history, at racism and at everything else. ALL THE CRIES. ALL THE RECOMMENDS. This book always reinflames my desire to be the best Australian I can be, prioritising Indigenous Australians and the land and just adflkadf.