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Sifting through the culture pile

I’ve been trying to write this post for weeks and part of me feels like I still can’t. It’s not that I don’t have any material; I have stacks of material. It’s that I don’t know what to do with it. I think it might also be part cowardice as well. And fear, which goes with that cowardice: I feel like if I commit these thoughts to publication, they’ll become more real, and that scares me because I’m not entirely sure that this is what I actually think.

But I feel like it’s time I addressed what I am calling the “culture pile”—that is, the big mess of culture stuff in my life that continues to affect me on a day-to-day basis—stuff that, most of the time, I resist examining too closely because I don’t know what to do about it and I don’t know how I feel about it. The thing is, I need to: at the last meeting of my writing group, we workshopped part of my novel and the main bit of feedback I received is that they wanted more of what my protagonist was thinking and feeling about the things that were happening to him/around him. It made me realise that I hadn’t put much of that in because it would mean confronting what I felt/thought about similar things that happened to me. What did I think about those things? How did I feel about them? How did I deal with the experience of being made to feel like I don’t belong—that I’m always on the fringe? And as I thought about these things, I realised my answer is, “I just don’t know.” And maybe, “I don’t want to know.”

To find the answer means digging into the culture pile and I am so not keen to do that. I’m not keen because it’s going to be uncomfortable and difficult and even mildly stressful. There’s a reason why I normally leave it alone. Nevertheless, I think I need to—for the sake of my novel. Perhaps even for the sake of myself.

So strap in. This is going to be another long one, because I am incapable of writing short posts—particularly posts about this sort of thing. And spoiler warning: it’s not going to end well.

Where are you from?

Like most people of colour, this question has dogged me my whole life and it’s annoying because the real answer is complicated. Usually the person who’s asking is usually looking for something in particular, so they ignore the parts of my answer that aren’t relevant to them. They want to know my ethnic/racial heritage, not my cultural heritage, whereas to me, my ethnic/racial heritage is the least interesting part.

In recent years, however, I’ve come to take an almost perverse delight in confounding strangers with what I’ve come to tentatively embrace as my triple cultural heritage. It’s almost a form of revenge: I want them to feel the uncomfortableness I feel, so I no longer make it easy for them. Also, I don’t see why I should. On paper, my name sounds Western: my first name is Scandinavian in origin and my last name is German. If you met me in person, the first thing you’d notice is that I look Asian—black hair, brown eyes, olive skin. But my external appearance isn’t enough of one kind of Asianness to make it obvious what sort of Asian I am: I’m curvier and heavier, and, dare I say, slightly taller than most Asian women, and my nose is different. (Tangent: I remember seeing a weight loss ad while travelling on a bus in Hong Kong and realising I looked like the “before” ad. Not long after, I tried to buy jeans at Uniqlo HK—only to discover that none of them were big enough to fit me. It made me glad that I hadn’t grown up there; perhaps I would have developed an eating disorder.)

This is why I get the “Where are you from?” question most often from other Asians trying to work it out. (Someone—someone who wasn’t Asian, by the way—also once thought I was an indigenous Canadian—perhaps because of my nose and because this person heard that I was born in Canada, which confused them.) Furthermore, I can’t speak any of the Asian languages, and when I do speak, I speak in a mongrel of an accent that’s part Australian and part North American. People ask me to repeat myself all the time because I sound weird to them and I sometimes use terms that are slightly unfamiliar. (I make a point of refusing to pronounce “tomato” the Australian way, for example, [unless it’s with my kids as I didn’t want to confuse them] and for the longest time, I said “washroom” instead of “toilet” or “loo”, and “sidewalk” instead of “footpath”.)

So what am I? Where am I from? I’m going to try and answer that question now. In my own way.

I am Chinese …

Me at the ancestral house in the ancestral village of my father’s family in 2002.

Firstly, ethnically and racially, I’m Chinese through and through. My ancestors came from southern China where it’s hot and humid for most of the year. I think this is why I struggle so much when it’s cold and yet don’t mind the scorching Australian summers as much. My father can trace his family line back to the sixth century AD. My mother knows less about her forebears, but they seem to have come from the same general area. Both my parents were born in Hong Kong to Chinese parents. The only ethnically dubious thing is this very vague reference to one of my father’s ancestors marrying a “princess” from “across the sea”—a woman we know nothing about, and the only reason why we know about her at all is because it’s written in the genealogy on the wall of the temple of my father’s family ancestral village. (I haven’t been there since 2002, but it should be noted that it’s less a village now and more a sprawling metropolis of several million people.)

…. but I am not very Chinese

The thing is, apart from my looks, I am not very Chinese at all. I don’t speak my ancestors’ language—Cantonese. Neither do I speak Mandarin. I know bits and pieces of Cantonese—how to say “Happy Chinese New Year” and a few random words and phrases. But I can’t speak it. I can’t read it (aside from a character or two). Language is a window into culture (as I’ve been learning while progressing through Japanese on Duo Lingo), and me not being in possession of the language is A Very Significant Thing. Well, at least to Asians.

Why did I never learn? My parents didn’t really speak it around me consistently. My mother said that it was easier to just talk to us in English instead of Chinese. My parents sent me to Chinese school when I was young, but when we moved to Australia, there were no Chinese schools—that we knew of, anyway; this was the mid-80s. There was a half-hearted attempt by my father to have me and my brother tutored one time when we visited Hong Kong during the summer and were staying with my grandmother. But my parents didn’t persist with it. So I didn’t persist with it.

Furthermore, the way I was treated by my Chinese relatives and by other Chinese people for not having the language pretty much killed my desire to learn. When we would make those trips to Hong Kong, I was constantly asked, “Why can’t you speak Chinese?”—as if it was my fault and as if genetics should determine linguistics (which is sometimes the attitude of some people I meet, even though it’s illogical). I got so sick of it that, in my childhood pettiness, I resolved never to learn. (Victoria Ying’s comic “Growing up, I felt rejected by the language I was “supposed” to know, so I rejected it back” encapsulates similar feelings.) I realise in hindsight it was the perfectionist part of me getting angry and choosing to rebel. I was a child when these things happened, so I reacted as a child, not as an adult.

Now as an adult, I have found myself learning Chinese very indirectly through Japanese, because Japan borrowed the Chinese writing system (the kanji), so even though the words don’t sound the same, the meaning usually is (sort of). This means that I can recognise certain characters now—numbers, certain nouns and so on. I did start the Duo Lingo Mandarin course once, but found it difficult and stopped. Cantonese is probably more useful to my life, but there is no Duo Lingo Cantonese course (too difficult, perhaps?), and even if there was, I wonder if my emotional baggage around all this would prevent me from giving it a go. I don’t know. The nice thing about Duo Lingo is that, even though it’s not proper and serious language learning, you can do it in private and not have people laugh at you for stuffing up. Which is another thing I am overly sensitive about. (I identify with some of the people interviewed in this NPR Rough Translation episode “How to speak bad English” who feel awkward about speaking English because they don’t speak it “well”. But for me, it’s speaking all languages other than English.)

I am also not very Chinese culturally. Well, I am and I’m not. It should be noted that I have never lived in and I did not grown up in an Asian culture; my upbringing has taken place solely in Western nations. And yet there are things that resonate with me about being Asian. When Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings came out, I found the media coverage about it absolutely fascinating. For example, this tweet by main actor Simu Liu (who is Chinese Canadian, by the way):

It made me laugh, and I sort of identified with it, even though I didn’t have Tiger parents who pushed me and who made me feel not good enough. On the contrary, my parents never put that kind of academic pressure on me. But then I suppose they didn’t have to: my grades were always good and I was a model student. I always conformed to the Asian academic ideal—often without even trying. I showed respect and obedience to my elders (parents, relatives, teachers, anyone older than me), even if I didn’t feel it. I took on my parents’ work ethic, which they led by example; I didn’t need it drummed into me. If I wasn’t good at something, I always tried. If I didn’t know how to do something, I would find out. If I didn’t know something, I would figure out where to learn. I don’t know if that way of operating independently was because of them or because of my education or because I’ve always been quite self-motivated. I suppose it’s all those things.

Growing up, my family ate Chinese food and celebrated Chinese holidays (mostly Chinese New Year; less so the August Moon Festival). We’d go to yum cha and dinner in Chinese restaurants where we ate real Chinese food (not your Australianised fried rice/honey chicken/beef in black bean sauce variety), where my father would always know the boss, where we’d get seated at the best tables, and where he’d order for everyone without consulting anyone, but always including our favourite dishes. My father would take us to Hong Kong regularly to visit his mother and other relatives. (My mum never came with us; she was usually working.) We would stay at my grandmother’s place, and my dad and grandma would buy us toys to play with—the kind you couldn’t get in Australia (usually Hello Kitty stuff for me, but some other toys too; hey, I was raised on the concept of kawaii, which seeped into Chinese culture from Japan, and I don’t have a problem with adults liking stuffed toys). We spent a lot of time watching Hong Kong TV (anime-type shows that I couldn’t understand; there were no subtitles), eating out in places where I couldn’t read the menu, and visiting relatives who would often be critical—not just of my lack of language, but also other things in the way relatives do—making comments about my appearance (most of which, fortunately, I didn’t understand. But I do remember once an elderly relative telling me I shouldn’t tie my hair up in a ponytail because I was young and unmarried as only older and married women wore their hair up; girls of my age should wear it down).

The things I struggled with were more to do with traditions and values I didn’t understand or didn’t share. Filial loyalty and the importance of family (which I think only hit home when I watched The Legend of White Snake on Netflix and reached the scene where Xu Xian’s family refuse to let him marry Bai Suzhen because they know nothing about her and her family.) The importance of making lots of money and being wealthy—and therefore pursuing a good career. (Wanting to be a writer and studying Creative Arts did not go down so well with my extended family, though my immediate family were mostly supportive.) Who to marry, and whether he was well off enough to support me. (I married a white guy and it was A Big Deal, though I didn’t know that until later.) Who gives gifts/red packets to whom. (I’m still confused about that and it’s become more of an issue now that I’ve got nieces and nephews.) The endless number of obscure Chinese superstitions that I find ridiculous and refused to let rule my life—for example, it’s bad luck to give someone a clock as a gift (because the word sounds like death???), but watches are fine; the numbers four and nine are a problem; you eat black hairy fungus at Chinese New Year because the name for it sounds like the word for prosperity and riches; the fights I got into when I got married because we had set the wedding date too close to Chinese New Year, which was unlucky and inauspicious, plus I got in trouble for wanting to print my wedding invitations in blue and white. (This is why the wedding banquet scene in The Farewell doesn’t seem right to me; the characters would never have decorated the room in blue and white.) Also, being Christian (though my parents never opposed that outright and more or less respected my beliefs—perhaps because they were nominal about that sort of thing themselves).

There are Asian things (like Simu Liu’s tweet) that I recognise and identify with, and yet there are many things I don’t. I present as Chinese, but I’m not really Chinese. And to compound things, sometimes Chinese people don’t think of me as Chinese either—because I don’t speak the language, because I never lived in Asia and because I’m married to a white guy. (Tangent: I can understand where the writer of this Salon.com article “K-dramas cured my prejudice against Asian men” is coming from because, like her, I didn’t grow up in a culture that viewed Asian men as being desirable. My [very short] romantic history has only ever been with white men. But then I also wasn’t around very many Asian men.)

If I’m not Chinese to Chinese people and I’m Chinese to everyone else, what am I? (Cue College Humor video: “Are you Asian enough?”):

All this further complicated by my feelings about the so-called “Motherland”: China. China feels like a behemoth to me: it contains such a long, rich and complex history of different peoples and cultures that it has tried to subjugate and unify through things like its writing system, Confucianism, Buddhism, education, government policy, and persecution of anyone who is different. (An over-simplification, perhaps? Still, surely it’s fair to say that China is way less multicultural than other parts of the world.) I saw some of the footage of protests in Hong Kong against Chinese interference in government elections, and the response of the authorities, and I could understand where the protestors were coming from. I read about the treatment of the Uyghur people at the hands of the Chinese government, and then Chinese people I know tell me it’s not true and that I’m being brainwashed by Western media. I’m all too aware that being Christian in China is problematic. (Recently, Apple took down a Bible app and a Quran app in the Chinese app store at the request of their government.) So how can I call myself Chinese when there is so much I am uncomfortable about with regards to China?

I am Australian …

Me at the beach sometime in 1997. Look at my Australian tan!

The second part of my triple cultural heritage is that I am Australian. I wasn’t born here, but I hold Australian citizenship and I have the right to vote in Australia’s elections. I have spent the majority of my life living in Australia: I’ve been here from the age of six. My education has been thoroughly Australian—primary school (all except Kindergarten), high school, university, and even theological study. I was taught Australian history, Australian government and Australian spelling. We learned the national anthem by singing it over and over again in at assemblies. I danced the Nutbush, along with all my other school mates. I learned to dodge swooping magpies in the spring, and my friends served fairy bread, meat pies and sausage rolls at their birthday parties. We observed Australia Day by watching the fireworks, and I had to adjust to celebrating my birthday in winter and Christmas in summer.

In many ways, I am what they call a “banana”—yellow/Asian on the outside; white on the inside. My education was very Western: I grew up reading European fairy tales, as well as Shakespeare, Austen and the other giants of English literature. All the history I learned was very Western/English/European-centric. It did not to occur to me, as I was learning art history in Year 12, that the curriculum was only focused on one part of the world. I imbibed Western values such as freedom, the rights of individuals (over the collective), the equality of all human beings, the importance of self-expression and self-actualisation, and multiculturalism.

It’s not that Australia is free of racism. It most definitely is not; it’s in deep denial about the fact that its history has always been multicultural. But when you live in a place like Sydney whose inhabitants include people from all over the world (which hasn’t always been the case, I know; a lot changed between when my family arrived here in the mid-80s to now), you learn to co-exist peacefully. You benefit from the rich array of cultures you brush up against. I had friends in high school and university who were Australian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Malaysian, Singaporean, Indian, Afghan, American, and so on. When difference is all around you, you get used to living with it.

… but I am not very Australian

That said, I’m not very Australian. I grew up here, but I didn’t have the typical Australian upbringing that many of my Aussie friends had. I don’t recognise some of the things in Bluey that resonate with them. There are overlaps, of course—things I talked about in the previous section. But there were also differences: my friends didn’t celebrate Chinese New Year. They didn’t have the large sprawling extended family that I had, with too many uncles, aunts and cousins to name or count. They didn’t get their toys and stationery from Hong Kong—Hello Kitty toys, double-sided coloured pencils and pencil cases with pop-up compartments—the kind that didn’t emerge until Smiggle started making them about twenty years later.

Furthermore, when I first arrived in Australia, Asians were a very small minority. I stood out like a sore thumb. For the longest time, there was only one other Asian kid in my entire primary school, and the other kids would make jokes about how we should pair out and go out because we were both Asian. That changed in late primary school—particularly around the time of the handover of Hong Kong in 1987 and the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, when many of Hong Kong’s residents decided to emigrate to Australia. By the time I reached Year 5, the number of Asian girls in my class had quadrupled, with the four of us having alphabetically consecutive (English) names: Jennifer, Karen, Loretta and Michelle.

Even so, by that stage, I was still very different from them. Too different, perhaps. Not only did I not speak Chinese, I had lived here for 4-5 years longer than they had. I was effectively more “Australian” than they were, but I wasn’t as Australian as the Australians around me.

And to some Australians, I was not Australian at all. As I said, Australia is largely multicultural, but it has a long history of racism that it has never come to terms with. Remember, the White Australia Policy of 1901 was largely enacted in response to Asians coming to this country during the gold rush. Asians fought for Australia in World War II and were treated abominably by the government and not allowed to stay. There are Asian families who can trace their lineage back generations and who have known nothing but Australia their entire lives. Yet they will still encounter people who say to them, “Go back to your own country!” (You can read some of their stories in Growing Up Asian in Australia, which I have started, but not yet finished.)

It’s hard to feel like you’re Australian when other people don’t treat you like you are. I remember a couple of women knocking our front door about something (they might have been Jehovah’s Witnesses) and asking me if I spoke English. I remember a boy whizzing past on his skateboard who, when he caught sight of me, started to kowtow mockingly. I remember going to a Chinese restaurant with a bunch of Australians and feeling mystified when they all picked up the dishes and passed them to each other to serve themselves food, instead of reaching out and grab the way my relatives did. I remember how the way the waiters at the local Chinese restaurant we frequented acted one way when my father was around and another way when it was me and my Australian friends. All these things reminded me how different I am.

I am Canadian …

Me at Casa Loma (i.e. Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters) in Toronto in 2005.

Prong three: I am Canadian. I was born in Canada (in summer). I hold Canadian citizenship. I attended primary school and two years of kindergarten in a Canadian school that taught me French as well as English. I remember tobogganning and making snow angels in the winter; the slush and the flowers blooming in the spring; the hot glorious summers when the sun wouldn’t set until 9pm; the maple leaves falling into large piles you couldn’t resist kicking about and going trick-or-treating in the fall. I remember going to childcare and pulling the ribbon out of a cassette tape, and not being able to sleep during nap time. I remember going to the wrong classroom on the first day of school because Kindergarten 2 had a play kitchen, which looked WAY more fun, and when they’d realised they’d lost me, someone came to bring me back. I remember refusing to wear ski pants in the winter because I hated them and would only permit leg warmers. I remember eating lunches in a cafeteria, though I think we still had to bring our own. I remember going to after school care, being served celery with peanut butter (I ate the peanut butter and left the celery), and getting freaked out by an animated short about a giant cake that came to life and ran around the countryside, eating people.

I remember being surrounded by kids of other races—including Chinese kids—and race never being an issue among us. That said, I also remember growing up reading the children’s version of Obasan by Joy Kogawa and not quite understanding about the internment of the Japanese during World War II, as well as another book about a girl from one of the indigenous peoples of Canada learning to perform one of the dances of her tribe. I also remember going to Chinese class with some of those kids after school. (I remember nothing about actual Chinese class.) I remember going to dinner at a Chinese restaurant with a white family and their kid eating more of the food than I did. (I would only eat white rice.)

My Canadianness is harder to define. It comes out in my mongrel accent, though a couple of years ago, a Canadian couple at church told me they couldn’t hear it, which made me sad. (Recently when I went for a medical appointment, the specialist asked me about it, so obviously he could hear it and that made me happy again. Though I’ve noticed in recent years that I have actually become better at sounding Australian, depending on who I’m talking to.)  It comes out in bits of terminology that I haven’t been able to jettison—“washroom”, “sidewalk”, “to-MATE-to”. I see it in my confusion over the gender segregation of certain spaces—like the Moore College dining room, where girls would only sit with girls and guys would only sit with guys (though if Ben and I sat down at a table together, it would fill up with married couples, which was just as weird). Being good friends with someone of the opposite sex is not done so much in Australia, or at least it wasn’t when I was growing up. (Or maybe it was because I went to an all-girls high school.) Those friendships between girls and boys you see on the silver screen in American cinema aren’t so much a thing here, I think. I also see my Canadianness in my refusal imitate the Australians in cutting down the Tall Poppies (arguably one of the worst parts of Australian culture): Canadians, like most North Americans, I think, are a lot more encouraging and supportive of others. In Australia, if you talk about talk about your achievements, people think you’re boasting.

… but I am not very Canadian

It’s been over 30 years since I lived in Canada and enjoyed white Christmases. It’s been at least 16 years since I was last there and no doubt, a lot’s changed. For one thing, a number of people we used to know there have died. Obviously the country in which I was born is no longer the same, and my memories of it are of a particular time and place. While I still sound a bit Canadian, my mongrel accent also marks me as Australian, so I can hardly blame other Canadians for thinking I don’t quite belong. There is nothing about my appearance that marks me as a Canadian, and yet I am one. And the only way I can prove it to you is with my birth certificate and my passport.

Culture stress

Me and a lovely Totoro cosplayer at SMASH! in 2015

The year I was a student at theological college, I remember taking a subject on cross-cultural communication with Mike Raiter, who had been a missionary in Pakistan. He talked about this thing he called culture stress—the discomfort and strain you feel when you have to adjust to a new way of living in a new culture. He told us a story about coming back on home assignment and having a minor meltdown when a cashier innocently asked him if he wanted to pay by EFTPOS—a technology he was not familiar with, having lived in a place where it was unavailable for the past three years.

You’re probably familiar with this feeling by now, because you, like the rest of the world, have actually experienced it in recent years: Simon Gilham, Head of Mission at Moore College, pointed out most helpfully on the CCL podcast that during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, we were all experiencing culture stress:

[B]efore I went to be a missionary in Africa—so we were eight years in Namibia—before we went, we spent six months doing cross-cultural mission training. And during that training, we learnt a heap of things. But one of the big things we learnt was about adjusting to a new culture and the idea of culture shock. And you get culture shock because you’re in a world in a place that is so different to what you’re used to. And that difference is exhausting and it’s off-putting, and I used to know where everything was and now I don’t know where things are, and I used to know how to shop, and now I’m not sure how … and—and there are different languages and different greetings and different ways of communicating … and every single one of us is now living that experience.

So we’ve all entered a new culture, but with no training! And I think one of the things I’d like to say to everybody is if you’re feeling exhausted by this, yep: that’s about normal. You’ve got to expect that this is exhausting. There’s a whole lot of grief tied up in it. So I’m grieving the things that I used to know how to do, but now I don’t know how to do. I mean, even just think of going to the shops: I used to be able to go there anytime and I’d be able to pick up exactly the brand of thing that I wanted and pay my money and get back in the car, and it was—it was a simple thing. And now it’s not. And I used to be able to go out whenever I wanted—to meet up with people whenever I—and I can’t. So there’s a whole lot of grief. People have planned weddings—have planned big parties—there’s anniversaries—graduations. Cancelled. And all of those things bring grief and that grief with my new incompetence is exhausting.

When I first heard about that idea of culture stress, it really resonated me and made me realise that with my triple-barrelled cultural heritage, I feel like that All. The. Time. After so many years, it’s now more low-level, and most of the time when these things aren’t in competition with each other, it’s not a problem and I don’t think about it. But every now and then, it does take a mental and emotional toll. I constantly feel like I’m on the outside, even when I’m on the outside—that I don’t belong, even though everyone’s being very welcoming and no one is doing anything hurtful or racist or exclusionary.

I realised the difference the first time I went to SMASH!, the Sydney manga and anime show. I wouldn’t call myself a big fan of anime; there are movies and shows I like, but there are also masses of movies and shows I’ve never seen, and if you talk to me about Naruto or One Piece or Attack on Titan, I would be lost as I actually don’t know anything about them, aside from their titles. Even so, at SMASH!, I felt curiously at home—arguably the most at home in a public place I’ve ever felt in my whole life. It was partly because the demographics of con-goers was very multicultural and strongly skewed towards the Asians. It was partly because I was surrounded by the trappings of Asian culture I was familiar with, even if many of them were mostly Japanese—anime pop culture, maid cafés, karaoke, kawaii culture, craft tables for making origami and other little things. But also, it was also being able to be there in a very Asian space without anyone expecting me to speak in any language other than English.

Another example: when Crazy Rich Asians came out, I remember feeling excited and keen to see it, despite not having read the book at the time. Then I asked my father and stepmother when we were out at yum cha if they had heard of it and would go to see it, and being slightly discouraged by their lukewarm response. Then I realised why it mattered more to me than it did to them: they live in China and Hong Kong and see representations of themselves in mainstream media all the time, whereas I live in Australia where the only Asian on TV when I was growing up was Lee Lin Chin, a newsreader for SBS. When Neighbours introduced an Asian cast member in the early 2000s, I was shocked at how much I had never thought about it before, and when So You Think You Can Dance? Australia aired for the first time in 2008, I was bowled over because it was the first time I had ever seen the multiculturalism of Australia on full display on Australian TV. (It’s interesting that Simu Liu says something similar about Asian representation in media, growing up in Canada.) The night I went to see Crazy Rich Asians at the cinema with two Asian Australian friends in the middle of the city was amazing and reminded me of being at SMASH! The cinema was packed—again, a multicultural audience, but strongly skewed towards Asians—and even though we didn’t know anyone else in the theatre, I still felt like we shared an understanding, laughing at and identifying with the same (or similar) things in the movie. 

In contrast, I went to see The Farewell with one of those friends in a small indie theatre in Newtown in a theatre full of white people, and he and I laughed at things that everyone else didn’t laugh at (and they wondered, perhaps, why we were laughing), and I nudged my friend to point out the incongruity of the colours during the wedding banquet scene while the rest of the audience didn’t batt and eyelid.

It’s a shock, you see, for me to be somewhere and actually feel comfortable. I’ve spent the majority of my life feeling mildly uncomfortable—feeling that I don’t quite fit in, that I don’t quite belong, that I don’t quite match with the culture around me. There are certain friends in whose company this is not the case. But as for the rest of the time …

I am Christian

Me and baby on mission at Sawtell in 2012.

Of course in all the above, I’ve neglected one key thing in the cultural pile—the thing that is the true locus of my identity, which lies not in my race, but in my religion. I am a Christian, and Christianity brings with it its own pieces of culture that overlap with all the others. It’s not completely Western or Eastern, and it’s not completely Chinese or Australian or Canadian. But there are aspects of it that dovetail with aspects of those. It’s just that we tend not to realise what those are until we hear from missionaries.

For example, a missionary family in Africa that we partner with at my church talked recently about how looking to and respecting elders and teachers is a big part of African culture. This means that questioning them is a sign of disrespect, and the students at the Bible college where these missionaries were serving would never ever do it. However, our missionary friends were trying to teach these students how to read the Bible for themselves, encouraging them to ask questions of the text and then work out the answers together. They didn’t want to tell the students what the Bible was saying; they wanted the students, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to discover that for themselves using the tools of good Bible reading skills that they were teaching them. Furthermore, they wanted to normalise a culture in which it’s okay to say you don’t know something. The Bible is a large and complex book, and not even the most expert of experts knows everything about it. But in African culture, it’s unheard of for those in authority to say they don’t know something because it’s a sign of weakness.

I could go on. I could go on about Christianity’s egalitarian attitude towards humanity—that we’re equal in sin and equal in redemption (Rom 3:23-24); how racism is completely inappropriate because all nations were created by God under God (Gal 3:28; Acts 17:24-27); how gathering with other Christians is important (Heb 10:24); how singing is an essential part of worship (Col 3:16); how Bible reading and prayer are the non-negotiable activities of all Christians (2 Tim 3:16; 1 Thess 5:17; James 5:13-16)—and so on, but I fear I have tested your patience with the length of this post for long enough. Let’s finish up.

Where are you really from?

Me in Sydney in 2020.

I am pulling out all these examples and thoughts, and presenting them to you for your sampling pleasure. But to return to the questions from the beginning of my post, how do I feel about all this?

And I still don’t know.

Well, I know some things. I’m angry about the times when I was intentionally excluded. I’m tired of trying to make myself be understood. I’m constantly stressed, trying to navigate spaces and cultures where I still don’t feel 100 per cent comfortable. I’m exhausted with the effort of doing all that, and I’m resigned to the fact that things will, for the most part, continue to be this way.

That said, I’m overjoyed when I discover places and spaces where I feel like I fit. I love that I can talk about these things with certain people who are actually interested and who don’t mind my tentative explorations of culture and language and identity. I’m starting to embrace some of the benefits of being a child of three different nations/nationalities/cultures. I’m still learning to sit comfortably in my difference.

Is that a satisfactory answer? Does that help me with my novel? Hmm, good question.