by BIHENG ZHANG
I’ve wanted to say this out loud for some time now. It’s a small gripe that I have, a bee in my bonnet, I suppose. On a scale between zero and starvation in war-torn countries, it’s probably a four. But here it is: I hate being reminded that I’m Chinese.
Don’t take this the wrong way – I am actually very proud of my heritage and history and will happily share a moon cake with you for the Moon Festival. If you’re into salted eggs in your sweets, that is. But rather, more accurately, I hate being reminded I’m Chinese by strangers when I’m buying milk or answering the phone or waiting for the tram.
I grew up in the inner northern suburbs of Melbourne in the 90s. I went to Northcote High School before the Government injected a whole lot of money at it, a time when kids got chucked out for dealing on the oval and portable classrooms were occasionally torched overnight.
You were proud if you came from Rezza and everyone spoke a little wog, if only to hurl the occasional ‘malaka’ at the teacher, who was Greek anyway. A lot of the kids’ accents had a hint of Nick Giannopoulos, including the Asians, but only the dedicated few could pull off the eloquence of Effie. Roll call took fifteen minutes every time we had a new teacher.
It’s fair to say that for the most part, growing up in my bit of Melbourne, hanging out after school at Norflandz (that’s Northland Shopping Centre for those who aren’t in the know) and going to my mate’s place the day before Orthodox Easter to find a whole lamb carcass in the backyard, we all felt kind of normal. Which is why, for a long time, it puzzled me when my name or appearance would become a topic of conversation.
As a uni student, I worked at Myer in the city. I was a salesperson in the Christmas shop, which basically meant that for three months of the year straight I had glitter permanently lodged in my hair, nostrils and ears and I still get a nervous twitch from hearing Jingle Bells being played on loop. It also meant that at least once a day I was being asked, ‘So, where are you from?’ by curious but well-meaning customers who saw me and my name badge as a conversation starter.
‘I’m from Brunswick,’ I’d usually respond. ‘Just a few k’s north from here,’ I’d add, if I thought they weren’t from Melbourne. If they persisted to ask where I was really from, I’d clarify that it’s technically Brunswick West. 3055. Occasionally, just for fun, I would tell them Womenswear, level 3. You know, for the other nine months of the year.
I still remember joining the 5th Northcote Scouts at the age of 10 and being assured by our leader Akela (think The Jungle Book) that when it came to reciting the Scout Promise and we reached the line, ‘To do my duty to my God’ that I should focus on the word ‘my’ before God.
She wanted me to know that the pledge could be as easily for Buddha if I wanted. I didn’t know, then, what the word was for atheist so I think I just nodded and wondered why all the other kids didn’t get pulled aside. I know, I know, how the heck did I find myself in Scouts? Best to save that one for another day.
And, of course, I’m often reminded that my name is different, unusual, noice (in a voice not unlike Kath and Kim’s). Actually, it’s just Chinese. If you want unusual, talk to Jamie Oliver’s kids. I have to admit, though, my name can be pretty cool, especially if I decide to become the next Cher or Madonna, minus the talent. As it stands, I can claim the twitter user name @biheng and a blog domain biheng.blogspot.com. I dare you to take a stab at my email address.
I’m not writing this to humiliate, accuse or mock anyone (ok, maybe there’s a little bit of gentle mocking). It’s important to acknowledge that a lot of these comments that I’ve encountered over the years have come from a good place. It’s never hatred or abuse or even judgement. Quite often, what I see is a genuine desire to connect and sometimes, even an extension of friendship. I have no ill feeling for anyone who simply wants a chat. But seriously, just let me buy my milk without having to tell my life story.
Biheng Zhang is a fundraiser in the non-profit sector and is currently working for an art gallery. She is a Melbourne-based aspiring writer and you can find her blog here http://biheng.blogspot.com.au/ and follow her on Twitter here @biheng.
Do you ever feel stuck between two cultures? What do you say when people ask ‘where are you from?’