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Featured,  Lifestyle & Relationships

Growing up Wasian in Australia

Country of Origin: Australia

(Audio recording by Julianna Wages)

Yuvoice Duet: Check out Eric Mabry’s story here for a complementary perspective and a different experience of being biracial from another corner of our world!

After my first Chinese lesson as an adult, I called my Grandma to tell her what I had learned. I speak my mother’s language — the language of the country I was born in and the language of the country I live in now — but I have never been able to properly learn Chinese, despite being half Chinese myself.

My inability to speak Chinese has made me feel like I’m bad at being Asian. My dad didn’t raise me with Chinese traditions or send me to Saturday language school — though this is not his fault. Not only did he face the pressure of bringing up a child in a country that he himself was not raised in, but he also faced the influence of my mum’s Polish culture. I couldn’t go to Chinese school because that was when I had Polish school and I couldn’t study it in high school because we could only choose one language and I chose German. It was the easier choice since I was born there and it was my first language until I moved to Australia, so it made the most logical sense at the time.

In many ways it feels like I’m not just trying to balance being Asian and European, but Asian and European and Australian. Although I hate to admit it, the Australian side almost always wins. I’ve had family members ask me if I feel more Asian or Caucasian multiple times, which just makes me feel like they don’t fully accept me as part of their culture. 

When I was younger, I thought Caucasian meant mixed race because the word ‘Asian’ was part of the word. I’ve always seen it as a scale where every decision or ability adds weight to one culture. It shocks me that people who don’t see themselves this way exist. As I grow older, I try harder to equalize the sides.

My Chinese side, I noticed, seems to relate a lot to food. I’m learning how to cook basic Chinese dishes like fried rice with Chinese sausage or wonton noodle soup. When I was a teenager, my grandma taught me how to make spring rolls and curry puffs, which I tell myself I’ll make but never seem to get around to doing. An easy way out for me is adding bok choy and choy sum to a lot of my meals and we always have snacks from the Asian grocer at home. In a way, this is how I compensate for not knowing how to say these dishes in Chinese. 

I’ve only been to China and Hong Kong once, with my family, and although it was a lovely trip, it didn’t feel like a trip “home.” I didn’t learn about my family history or my roots, and the only Chinese I picked up was the symbol for exit 出 which my dad taught me to look out for.

I learned Polish until my final year of high school and it ended up being my best subject. I don’t know how to cook the food, but I speak the language with my mum every day and am fluent enough to be able to talk to my grandparents and family members without embarrassing myself. I’ve learned about the traditions and history, and I have also worn traditional Polish clothing and visited many times, especially while we still lived in Europe.

While my knowledge of the language and traditions helps me feel more like I am actually a part of this culture, it’s still quite obvious that I don’t look the same as my family members and I still have an accent when I speak. 

This is why I decided to attend a beginner’s Mandarin lesson at university. It was comforting to meet other Chinese-Australians who didn’t speak the language, even if I was the only half-white one and even if I didn’t retain much. It doesn’t help that Mandarin and pretty much all Chinese dialects are notoriously difficult for native English speakers. When we were learning how to say which hobbies we enjoyed, I found the word for reading too difficult and only remembered the word that my partner used, ‘pēng rèn’. So, when someone asks me what I like to do, I don’t know how to answer honestly but I can say “Wǒ xǐhuān pēng rèn.” 

Other incredibly useful phrases I’ve learned over some lessons in primary school are “Qǐng gěi wǒ yī bēi kā fēi” and “Wǒ bù zhīdào” and I can count up to 100. I guess no one that I speak Chinese to has to know that I feel pretty ambivalent towards cooking and that I don’t even drink coffee, but I find it strange how parts of yourself change or get lost in translation when you speak a different language. 

I notice this when I speak Polish and German, too. Although I’m becoming more fluent in both these languages and currently studying German at university, I feel like part of me will still never be as articulate, witty, or fast as I am in English.  Different versions of myself appear depending on the language that I speak, each version varying in complexity depending on how competent my language skills are. 

I eventually want to move back to Germany, but the idea that I will never be able to accurately express my thoughts, emotions, and nuanced opinions to people the same way I can in English scares me. I know being bilingual or trilingual is common and that many people who live in Australia speak English as their second language, but I feel like not enough people are talking about the power that language holds and how it impacts you daily. It’s a privilege to speak English as my first language and I’m grateful that my parents moved here and for my upbringing here, but it does mean my identity has always been, and always will be, split between different places.

I feel as though I’ve read many essays about being Asian-Australian. I belong in the club, but once everyone sees that I look white – even if my last name is indisputably Chinese – they will kick me out.

What scares me is that I can try my hardest to be Chinese, I can learn Mandarin and Cantonese and listen to Lan Ge and watch Wong Kar-Wai films and eat as much siu mai and har gao as I can want, but they will still hear my Western accent and see my face and not view me as one of them.

The experience of being othered is so ingrained in my existence that I find it so strange that not everyone like me feels split in half.

Thank you to Julianna Wages for their inspired edit on this piece and everyone else on the Lifestyle & Relationships team.

If you are interested in submitting a piece to the DG Sentinel, please visit our submissions page here.

Veronica Kwong is an English Writing and German student in Melbourne, Australia. Born in Germany and raised in a Chinese-Polish household in Australia she's been exposed to different cultures and languages and loves to write about those experiences. She's currently writing for her University's magazine, Farrago, and thinking of going on to study linguistics.

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