One Australian’s Thoughts On Being Asian Enough

Growing up, I could never reconcile the Chinese part of myself with my everyday reality, says Joseph Lew.

Article by Joseph Lew

Photography by Juan Encalada.

I’ve never really known where I sit with my identity. I know that’s ironic to say when for the better half of a year my Instagram bio has read “Australian-Chinese”, but for much of my life, I’ve struggled to reconcile the two identities. When people ask me where I’m from, my instinctive response is to say I was born here. Further questioning leaves me flustered; self-identification surveys with their little drop-down boxes leave me stumped. I’ve never felt aligned to my Chinese heritage enough to consider myself Asian, but on the other hand, never felt able to label myself as quintessentially Australian.

Growing up, I had what many would describe as the typical first-generation Chinese-immigrant childhood. I spent every Saturday morning at Chinese school, reading pinyin and practising pronunciation through blurry eyes and weary lips. My afternoons had me allocated to a little weatherboard house in the suburbs, where a tutor would work with me in practising my arithmetic, writing, language comprehension and algebra. Any remaining time I had was spent at my parents’ restaurant helping out, which as a 10-year-old didn’t seem as controversial as it does now.

My Sundays, however, were the exception. My mother would roll me out of bed at seven and drive me across Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge to spend most of my morning at basketball practice — running laps and doing drills. Then I’d be ushered into the church next door, where I’d sit in the back row, sweaty and still in my basketball jersey, and be subjected to three hours of bible recitals and worship workshops. My mother had thought that raising me Christian would make my life in Australia easier, but the fact that I wasn’t Buddhist like either of my parents just made me all the more confused.

My failure in my schooling only added to my identity conflict. I struggled to fit in to the traditional mould cast for me — I found it difficult to wrap my head around atoms, mitosis and Newton’s laws of motion; I preferred to spend my time reading, drawing and taking photographs. Teachers would often compare me with other Asian classmates, and when I didn’t match up, my peers would question the authenticity of my Asian-ness. And so, when I was told in year nine that I was one of the lowest-performing students in the year level, I decided I didn’t want to be Asian anymore.

Photography by Oriento.

When I share my experiences with Dr Christina Ho, the associate professor of social and political sciences at the University of Technology Sydney, she tells me it’s something she’s seen often in her research. She introduces me to the concept of stereotype promise, a self-fulfilling prophecy of Asian-exceptionalism based on the notion that stereotypes of Asians being smarter and more hardworking actually enhances performance. Although this can manifest itself positively — research in the US demonstrates that Asians are disproportionately picked for gifted programs — Ho explains that this burden can also be highly detrimental.

“Education is a really important part of what it means to define cultural identity in terms of Asian-Australian identity today,” she says. “[Asian youth] have said that they’ve actually felt more distanced from their own cultural identities because they feel like they don’t belong, because they weren’t great at school and being great at school was such an important part of the identity.”

When the only thread tying you to your heritage is a brittle one, sometimes it’s easier just to let it go. Although the rising popularity of Chinese culture — greater presence in the media, dining and music — has inspired me to reconnect with my Asian heritage, I always hit a roadblock.

There’s always something I can pinpoint that makes me feel I’m undeserving of the ‘Chinese’ label. Perhaps it’s my inability to read my native tongue, Cantonese, my failure to grasp even the basics of Mandarin after eight years of Chinese school or my basic-at-most understanding of Chinese culture. And so, even though everyone around me sees me as Chinese, I, for some reason, don’t.

But self-acceptance doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There’s always a reason when people don’t accept themselves, Dr Jeffrey Hodgins, a social psychologist, tells me over the phone. He sums up the findings of his research dissecting belonging within migrant communities in a single sentence: “The key factor that differentiates the sense of belonging associated with being Australian was self-acceptance.”

Even though Dr Hodgins’ study focuses on Australian identity, particularly among Chinese and Irish migrant communities, it’s easy to relate his research to my own situation. Through speaking with him, I realise that it’s not my peers, my teachers or whether I supersede stereotypes that determine whether I’m Asian enough — instead, it’s a matter of me accepting my own identity first. Even if that starts with changing my Instagram bio.