I was having coffee with an Asian friend the other day who, over the whitest brunch imaginable (eggs benedict and a flat white), asked me if I felt comfortable being an “Asian writer”. By this she meant if I was okay with constantly re-asserting my Asian-ness in my writing, whether it was opinion pieces or fictional stories or a good old tweet. “Don’t you want to be known just as a writer?” she asked.
Okay, so. If you look at my history of the last few years, what my friend said may start to make more sense. During my very first semester of university, I took Sociology 101, where we were asked to write an autobiographical essay using a few key concepts. Most of my concepts surrounded race – internalised racism being one of them. Just last semester, I took a comic book class, where I did a little comic called “The Girl in Question” about growing up Asian in a white world. Asian diversity in Western media matters so, so much to me, and I am riled up enough to write-in to places discussing these Asian matters.
Rewind the clock back a bit to say, Year 2. Fresh off the boat from Malaysia, a tiny little five-year-old who sat alone on the very first lunch of her first day at school.
I quickly spun into erasing as much of my Asian-ness as possible, determined to be seen as a ‘real Kiwi’. I played netball. I shunned the groups of Asian kids who hung out together and only spoke in their own language. I tried so hard not to call my dad ‘Papa’ in front of my friends, even though that’s what I always had called him. I refused to learn Chinese (a decision I regret to this day).
Realising that I could be a ‘real Kiwi’ while embracing my Chinese culture was a long, slow process which took many years spent on the internet, reading posts and following blogs of other kids who went through the same thing.
It’s funny, because it’s not really this huge, angsty identity crisis that it may sound like on paper. Internalised racism isn’t obvious, and trying to undo it is also not always a visible process. It was really just teenage-me spending a shit load of time on the internet, reading everything that came along her screen. Lots of time thinking about why I liked it when people called me “not really Asian”, and then realising how fucked up that is.
So when I think about all of that, and I think about where I am now… I don’t really mind being the “Asian writer”. Do I want every single thing I write to be about being Asian? Do I want people to reduce me to an ethnicity? Do I want to only be given work that has to do with being Asian? Fuck no.
But do I believe in open discussion about Asian representation, Asian writers, Asian creators, identity politics, and, you know, just not being racist in general?