Primary school was a real shock to the system. I had bad migraines for a couple of years, and my mum took me to the doctors to check my eyes and stuff, because they were so bad I’d get double vision. I’ve never had anything like it since, and I suspect it was the stress of moving to Adelaide, not living with my father any more, leaving the home and culture I knew, and coming to this cold place where people had a go at me.
School was, I’d have to say, a pretty difficult time in my life and in my family’s lives. I don’t want to overstate it, because we had parents who loved us, and food on the table, and there are many kids who have a harder life than that. But we did cop a fair bit about our race at school, and from one of the neighbours who just – she just had a problem. It varied from people who asked questions because we were new and different, to people who were obviously prejudiced.
I came to Australia in 1977, when I was eight, and we lived in the Adelaide Hills. The community wasn’t very culturally diverse, and my brother and I were the first Asians that I know of. We were certainly the first people of Asian background to go to that school.
The school I went to in Malaysia was completely different. It was diverse, very multicultural. It was an international school, and had kids from every background you could imagine; there were lots of British, Australian and Canadian expats, and kids from the local community whose parents wanted an English-based education, so lots of Indians, Chinese and Malay.
When we went to get enrolled at school in Adelaide, my mum and I walked across the asphalt, through the schoolyard, and the children literally formed a path around us and on either side, and commented on me. They were saying, ‘What is she?’, and someone said, ‘She’s Hong Kong-ese’, and I’m thinking, ‘There’s no such thing, what are they talking about?’ I realised for the first time that my race was something that people would notice, that it was an issue.
It was all about race. My sexuality wasn’t an issue at school, because it wasn’t formative. It was much later in my life that I entered a relationship with a woman. I get it a bit now, though!
I never like to talk about some of the things I remember. I’m not sure if it’s because it brings back how it felt to hear it, or whether it’s because I don’t like to repeat words of hate. It’s hard to talk about, and it’s very hard to talk about my brother. I think he probably had fewer defences than I did. People are born differently, and I suppose he was more vulnerable and gentle, which is a beautiful thing, but it’s harder in the world.
I dealt with it by trying not to respond. I tried to ignore it, and not show if it hurt. It was, ‘I’m never going to let you see, in any way, that this gets to me. I’m never going to let you see that I feel upset, or lonely, or shy.’
And I also did it by trying to be better than the people who were teasing me, so I have no doubt I became much more focused on studying, getting good marks, doing well on the sporting field, those sorts of things. I decided I was going to be better than them, and achieve in this field, and this field, and this field.
I was trying to prove that I could succeed no matter what they said to me, and no matter what they thought of me. That I could do well no matter what they threw at me. It wasn’t so much to get people to like me, to become my friend; it was that I wasn’t going to allow them to keep me down. My reaction was to want to get better marks in the test, or do well in the relay or pool.
I didn’t become insular. I’ve seen that happen with kids, but that wasn’t my response. I just pretended to be confident, even when I wasn’t. I learned to be steady and still, even when it felt very messy and difficult. You know, to hold yourself steady, even if your reactions are really strong and your emotions confused.
It wasn’t easy. It got better as time went on. I learned a lot. I learned how to rise above things, or at least pretend that I was. I also found that for most people – not all, but for most people – prejudice doesn’t survive personal relationship. Sometimes it would come out in different ways: ‘We don’t like Asians, but you’re okay’, which I always thought was kind of funny. But sometimes children say things and you can’t blame them, because they’re just repeating what they hear around the table at home.
My mum was a lot of support. She would come up with one-liners of varying degrees of utility. I think she found it very hard to have her children targeted, and to be essentially powerless to stop it. Like all you can do is love them and support them, and try and help them with strategies to handle it, but ultimately they’ve got to go out and handle it themselves. That was very hard for her.
And look, I was lucky. Mum’s from a family of five girls, and my aunts were really good, particularly Ally. She was great, incredibly loving and incredibly supportive, and the attitude was, ‘Don’t let them get to you, they’re not worth it.’ So I drew a lot of strength from my family.
I suppose in hindsight, I have learned a lot from school. It taught me you have to try and turn the things that life throws at you to good. You know, use negative experiences, and make the best of them, because sometimes you can learn from them in ways that do help you later.
I found high school a lot easier than primary school. When I went to Scotch College, I found there was a lot less racism. The teachers there were more supportive, and there were more things I could do, so I was able to engage more.
But, you know, because of my experiences at school, I know what it’s like to be different, and to be targeted because of it, and it probably influenced my decision to go into politics. I’m sure you can trace that desire in me to change things for the better to my childhood. If I hadn’t gone into politics I would have done something else consistent with those beliefs.
Interestingly, I’ve certainly not lived a life where I’ve avoided monocultures. In fact, if you look at the choices I’ve made around career, I’ve put myself into environments that were not particularly diverse at all, you know, whether it was the trade union movement or legal work or Parliament.
When I entered Parliament, there was me, Senator Tsebin Tchen from Victoria, and at that stage Michael Johnson may or may not have been in the Parliament – his mother was from Hong Kong – and there was the woman who worked in the library. In this huge building, that was it, apart from, you know, the cleaners. There are Greek and Italian MPs today, from the more settled communities, but we still don’t have a Parliament that’s as diverse as the Australian community.
I have no doubt it’s easier for me to navigate through that environment because of my school experience, because the hardest part of it is how you think about it internally, how you manage it inside you. I know I started to learn how to do that at school. In the end, politics isn’t that different from the schoolyard.
I absolutely learned pretty early on how things that are wrong can become accepted, and how important it is to stand against them. I still react when there are issues of race, where I think the other side are toying with the sorts of prejudices we know do exist. I do react, and there is a personal basis to that.
For people like me, racial discrimination is not an abstract principle, it’s about our lives. And I haven’t lived the hardest life – I’m a Senator and it’s an extraordinary and privileged life in many ways – but when you talk about prejudice or discrimination to someone like me, it’s different than to someone who’s had no experience of it.
It’s much less now – I think Australia’s a very different place from what it was like in the 1970s and early 80s. But on occasion, someone will still abuse me in the street, or something else, and whenever I’ve told my friends, they’re surprised it happens.
I once read a comment by an Aboriginal woman – I can’t recall who it was – where she talked about the concept of parallel universes here in Australia. She said, ‘The Australia I live in is not the one you live in; when I walk along the street, or when I go somewhere, how I’m seen and how I’m treated, is a different world to yours.’
I remember thinking, ‘I understand some part of that.’ Not as much, because I think Aboriginal Australians have had the most
sustained level of discrimination of any group in our society. But my experience of what it was like to be in this country was very different even from people who were close to me. Because they just couldn’t comprehend that people would be like that, whereas I knew they could.
It’s so important for political leaders and politicians to stand up on issues of prejudice, even if they’re not personally affected, because it’s about the sorts of values and ethics you’re backing in the community. It’s the easiest thing in the world to speak to people’s fears, and it’s the wrong thing to do. The positions we hold shouldn’t be used like that.
I try and bring the values I have, and the ethics in which I believe, to the job. They include a view about equality, and I was part of the pushing for the affirmative action changes inside the party. I think that people can be better, less willing to turn on others, more open-hearted and more open minded. That’s a belief I’ve brought to my political life.
Part of why I’ve always been completely open about my relationship [with Sophie Allouache], if not interested in having a long discussion about the detail of it, is I just thought it was important to normalise it publicly. To say, ‘This neither makes me less, nor more, qualified to do what I’m doing.’ Being open about it was a statement in itself, I think. Normalising being different is important, because being different is okay.
I thought it was really interesting, the difference between my first swearing-in and the second. For the first swearing-in they photographed Sophie and mum and it gets on the front page of the papers and people comment about it, right? The first time a same-sex partner goes to a ministerial swearing-in! The second time, not even commented on, not even a photo. I thought that was fantastic, like that’s a really good indication of a step being taken.
I think, ‘What do we aspire to?’ One of the things I aspire to is a nation in which we genuinely are judged – and succeed or not – on the basis of our abilities and our character, and not on our attributes. Not on where we were born, or where we went to school, or how wealthy our parents are, or whether we’re gay or straight or white or not. That’s where we should always be walking towards.
This interview with Penny Wong is an edited extract from Bully for Them: Outstanding Australians on Hard Lessons Learned at School, edited by Fiona Scott-Norman and published by Affirm Press (ISBN 9781922213198, RRP $24.99, www.affirmpress.com.au).