Where are all the nice Asian girls?

by Michele Lee

STUART PICKS ME up from the train station. Because we are in the country, everything is close by so it will take five minutes to get to the library and then after the talk it’ll take another five minutes to go out to his property. Because it is the country, he’s hospitable and has offered that I can stay the night rather than make the trip back into Melbourne after the talk. His wife, Ruth, will cook us dinner. We talk a little bit about his family. His children are half-African, as it turns out, because Ruth is Ghanaian. Because I’m Asian but I grew up in Australia, I feel an instant connection to anyone when I learn that they’re less white than I initially thought. I actually then think that they’re better people, which probably means that I experienced enough racism and intolerance growing up. The pert helpdesk lady at work who, on what I imagine are those days when she glares into the mirror and agrees today will be her spunky day, often wears red suits with a slightly dated cut and length. She mentioned in the kitchen the other day that her husband is Singaporean. I instantly liked her more, which was still not very much.

In late 2013 I had my first book published, Banana Girl (Transit Lounge). It’s a memoir. Because I studied creative writing and learnt the term ‘creative non-fiction’, I tried to pitch it to every independent small publisher as such but a standard ‘memoir’ is what it’s become.

And because of all of this, that I studied and began writing a book about my life, that my life is in some ways about growing up Asian in Australia and as such one piece of the publicity ran with a headline about me having written a book about growing up Asian in Australia, and because Stuart from the Broadford public library had Googled me when searching for unconventional authors for his monthly author talks at the library – yes, because all of this I am now a few minutes away from giving my first talk about my book. The library’s neither historical nor is it quaint. I don’t know what I was expecting. Something vanilla and antique, me spicy and contemporary. It’s a modern building but slightly dated, like the lady at work’s red suits. I wonder if she’s from the country. No one I know in Melbourne is from Melbourne. Everyone is from somewhere else, except for the black people. And I don’t mean Ruth.

ONCE I TRIED to write a play about Asian people and Aboriginal Australians. It felt ‘urgent’ – another term I’d learnt, not to label art but to justify it. Urgent. I’d read something about Australian race relations in the twentieth century, in the process of researching another play, and some line I’d read about Aboriginal people had stuck in my head. I, as an Asian, was part of a history of marginalisation just as Aboriginal people had been, bloodily so. Here was an overlap that I’d overlooked growing up. There weren’t many Aboriginal people around me as a kid or a teenager, well, not many that visibly identified as such. There were the Ingram sisters: lithe brown girls who were good at sports and always wore sporty windcheaters and sneakers, some athletic brand like New Balance. Their hair was curly and long, they had freckled cheeks and button noses. And there was Aaron, who wore baggy jeans, fashion sneakers like Nikes and swaggered like he was the original gangster. I guess he was more original than anyone else at Calwell High School. He was naughty and not just in a school detention way: he was getting into trouble with the police. So, sports and crime – maybe my little slice of Aboriginal Australia was adequately clichéd.

It was hard getting the play supported. I was even working with a theatre company. They’d commissioned me.

I sat across from an Aboriginal arts producer. We were meeting so he could suss me and my play out. He told me that it wasn’t only white people who appropriated Aboriginal culture for their own purposes. I was joining a queue of well-meaning non-Aboriginal people who wanted to have a say about black people. I declined to mention the shared marginalisation. Anyway, I couldn’t remember the exact sentence that had sparked my interest and I’m so bad at paraphrasing. And at telling funny stories. I tend to ramble. My book does too.

The play got to a mighty first draft, had one reading and then it sort of died. The arts producer moved to another organisation, in a completely different role with no producing responsibilities. There were official cultural protocols to follow if a project, like my play, had federal money behind it. I was waiting for the theatre company to initiate the protocols with someone else. They were waiting for permission to initiate. I don’t know if it was about blackfella time, but the time never came and so the play died by default.

SO I WROTE a book about my life. A rambling book. I tried to pitch it as creative fiction. I tried to pitch it as postmodern. Possibly post-race. So many new words to use. We live in complicated times. My book was to reflect this, and be oh so much more than a plucky migrant story. I had other labels to demonstrate. ‘Woman’, ‘Generation Y’, ‘Artist’, ‘Hipster’, ‘Melbournian’ – I am all these things and so the book would be rich with my richness.

And because I said it was these things, others who read it would also say it was these things.

By mid-2014 or so I stopped Googling reviews for my book (there weren’t that many – the publicity blitz lasted only as long as the publicist’s fee did and my book was released pre-Christmas and, I surmise, got lost in the lead-up to the holidays). There was an arts reviewer from Canberra, my home town – go girl! – who said my book was rambling. She seemed very frustrated by my book. A reader on Google Reviews called Helen had been so incensed as to post a short review. She’d heard me on the radio during the publicity blitz. She said I’d sounded like an interesting person so she’d bought the book. She hated it. It was shallow and self-obsessed. The interviews were a lie. Where was the stuff about growing up Asian? The family stories? The irreconcilable cultural dislocation that ultimately is reconcilable because Australia is so multicultural? All she got was an emerging playwright running around inner city Melbourne with an asymmetric haircut, name-dropping bars and cafés and having casual sex in some poorly articulated sex-positive version of Gen Y feminism. Blah.

At least Helen didn’t critique the rambling non-structure structure.

Mark’s dad read the book. I have no idea why. The context to my being surprised that Russell read my book is because he’d gone icy on me after I broke up with Mark. But Mark, my dear friend and my favourite ex, featured heavily in the book and I assume Mark had told Russell as such. Everyone’s such a narcissist, perhaps. They want to see themselves reflected, even if it’s by proxy via a son.

‘I wasn’t supposed to tell you,’ Mark said as he told me what he wasn’t supposed to be telling me, ‘but he picked it up at an airport and he hated it. He hated all the sex.’

The publisher had emailed me the day he’d secured the distribution deal with Watermark, which is one of the airport book distributors. It was a good thing to be in the airports. I understood the fortune of this. People wait in airports to go sit on a plane. Perfect time to buy a book. Not much choice. Buy the one with a nice cover. Not that I buy books at airports. I buy my books at garage sales or Readings or eBay. I disdain airport book stores. So commercial. I’m so obnoxious, even at thirty-four, unless I’m being ironic about it, like watching Katy Perry film clips.

Incidentally, the video clip for her single ‘Dark Horse’ feat. Juicy J was the most watched YouTube video clip in 2014.

I don’t know how my book has sold in the airports.

My book is a lie.

In the library, there are two copies of my book, which Stuart has bought in expectation that after tonight’s talk people will want to read my book.

No one has yet read my book. I did a local Broadford radio interview with Stuart the other week to promote the talk but no one has then gone and borrowed my book from the library. Stuart has only just scanned the book himself, at home, in between watching TV.

Stuart says not to worry about the empty chairs. He has a bunch of regulars who come every month and they’ll be here soon. I put my bags down, I have a drink of water and then, because I just had a drink of water, I have to use the toilet. When I come back the seats are filling up. The mean age in the room is about seventy. The mean ethnicity is various shades of speckled white. Ruth isn’t going to come tonight; she’s busy at the house.

MY ASIAN ACTOR friend, Arnold, might be auditioning for a TV show by Tony Ayres. Tony Ayres made The Home Song Stories (2007), an autobiographical film about his mother – a perpetual and tragic ingenue, plucked from a bar in Hong Kong to suburban life in Australia. Joan Chen played his mother, quite beautifully. Tony Ayres is making Benjamin Law’s memoir The Family Law (Black Inc., 2010) into a TV show. I haven’t read his memoir but I know it’s funny; I’ve read his articles and essays in the many newspapers, websites and magazines he writes for. It’ll be the first Asian–Australian TV drama. It’ll be history making. Meanwhile, over in America, comedian Margaret Cho had America’s first Asian–American show about twenty years ago and it was heralded as landmark then. One day, while Katy Perry-ing my way through YouTube, I took a break and I watched an episode of Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl in which Quentin Tarantino was guest starring.

All-American Girl was so awful. Especially because I wanted it to be so good.

Was it awful because it was in sitcom format? And all ’90s sitcoms are numbingly sedate? And Margaret Cho, a mouthy comedian, was on a cheesy sitcom set, quipping sanitised PG one-liners to the tune of a laugh track while Asian–American actors who were clearly culturally white were playing Margaret’s Korean parents? Quentin Tarantino seemed gimmicky. He was painfully portraying one of her boyfriends. He was no Joan Chen.

Eddie Huang wrote a memoir called Fresh Off the Boat (Spiegel & Grau, 2013). He’s Taiwanese–American. I probably first heard about Eddie Huang when watching his cooking show on Vice’s YouTube channel. I generally follow any stories of successful creative Asian people in Western countries. I like the dual hot feeling of extreme envy and extreme pride in learning of the talents and successes of fellow Asians. The sitcom version of his memoir comes out this year, in 2015, and will be the first Asian–American TV show since All-American Girl. Eddie Huang penned a long essay for The New Yorker about the complicated process of watching your book turn into a network TV show. A Persian–American writer at the helm, a white audience in mind, the chance for the entertainment system to spit out something progressive but still marketable, nothing alienating, so something fundamentally conservative.

Something commercial. Comforting. Constrained. Eddie’s book would be one ingredient in the show, to what degree was up for debate. By the end of his essay he recognises the historical nature of having his book made into a show.

Benjamin Law is making history in Australia.

Extreme envy. Extreme pride.

Recently someone mistook me for Benjamin Law’s sister. Not because all Asians look alike. Ha ha, cue the laugh track. But because her name is Michelle Law. She’s a writer too, and a second-generation Asian–Australian woman who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s. I’m Michele Lee. Writer, Asian–Australian, child of the ’80s and ’90s. Needless to say that, despite these similarities, I’m not his sister. I have met Benjamin Law a couple of times and we share a common literary genealogy having been printed in similar publications. Well, one publication that I was printed in once or twice over ten years ago. A youth magazine when I was still writing short stories. Now Benjamin Law has a public profile, like Margaret Cho does and Eddie Huang does.

I write plays that never get put on. Needless to say, no one has asked to adapt my book into another format.

Which is fine. It’s totally fine. I’m an artist. My book will retain its unique soul. I won’t sell out to the TV genre. I won’t be moulded into a nice Asian girl for the sake of a mainstream white audience (like, say, Helen from Google Reviews) who only want palatable and predictable stories that reinforce their notions of Asian identity: migrant children struggling to fit in but essentially fitting in; loyal daughters who work hard and study hard and dutifully become model mouthpieces for their communities. I won’t pornographify and simplify my ‘community’ into digestible half-hours of TV narrative so white people feel sympathy and white people learn about Asians and white people feel good about themselves.

Unless Tony Ayres asks me to.

MY ASIAN ACTOR friend Arnold had a crisis of integrity recently. He volunteered to perform in a community Chinese show as part of a pre-harvest festival in country NSW. Given Arnold is a professionally trained actor and would be performing in the community Chinese show as part of the festival, a local (white) director asked Arnold to offer his time as ‘General Massacre Member’ in the annual historical re-enactment of a Chinese massacre from the 1800s. I didn’t know that Chinese people had been massacred there. And every year, it seemed, the massacre was re-staged as a solemn reminder of past racial tension. Arnold is passionately proud about being Chinese and promoting Chinese stories, so he initially accepted the invitation to be a General Massacre Member. There were going to be horses involved and all the Massacre Members were going to be rounded up – I mean, ‘rescued’ – by a white man because, it seemed, that was what had happened in the 1800s. Before the rescue happened, a few Chinese people had been scalped. This was to be included in the re-enactment.

Arnold felt very uncomfortable the more he learnt about this story. He was to have no lines, possibly be scalped, and then be saved by a white man on a horse.

I should add that Arnold’s involvement in this occurred within an intense period of about forty-eight hours before the festival opened. So Arnold said yes, then he said no. A local Chinese lady who knew the local director was pressuring Arnold to stick to his word, and there was some other layer of local politics at the council level. Arnold was actually tormented because he’s a bit old-fashioned in some ways, and when he gives his word he finds it excruciating to go back on it. He called his dad, who told him to oblige and be massacred. He called an Asian–Australian academic. An Asian–Australian paralympian. Each person he called was progressively more famous and accomplished than the one before but the response was the same: toe the line. They were all from an older generation.

With his wife’s support, Arnold eventually extricated himself from playing General Massacre Member. That was, for him, the only way to hold onto his integrity. As it turned out the horse was not performing that day either, and though the massacre re-enactment went ahead, the horse, I believe, carried off the white saviour before he could rescue the scalped Chinese. Arnold was given the chance to make a speech, in which he asserted pride in his Asian–Australian identity and in telling stories rather than having stories told about him. His wife, who is white, was sitting in the audience and she said it was a beautiful speech. I imagine that Arnold would have been close to hot tears. He’s that sort of guy.

I DON’T KNOW much about the country so when I say ‘country’ town I’m highly aware that this can be a sort of meaningless term, the way that me using the word ‘white’ can be – do I mean someone with a Latvian Jewish grandmother, someone who has a Norwegian surname, someone with First Fleet blood, or all three? I grew up in Canberra and, unlike Melbourne, everyone in Canberra seemed to be from Canberra. I didn’t have friends who were from the country. And even now as an adult, I don’t really know where the country begins and ends. I don’t know which towns are provincial and cute, which towns are sort of backwards and racist. I have a vague idea about the country areas where city people have moved to for tree changes, and these are the places I am less afraid of. Growing up I had bad feelings about all of Queensland and all of Tasmania. I’m not exaggerating. I don’t know where this came from because I didn’t really watch the news or read newspapers, and there were Hmong people living in those states so it wasn’t as though I thought there were only white people there. When I was about eighteen, with my first boyfriend, I went up to the Sunshine Coast where his mother lived. I was nervous because, like I said, I thought the whole state was racist. I can’t remember if anything racist or bad happened, besides drinking XXXX Gold and getting head lice from his nephew.

I don’t know much about the country town of Broadford. I had visited in 2012 for a friend’s wedding – a colleague from work. Her parents had relocated from NSW and bought a property in Broadford, which is where my friend’s wedding was held. A hundred or so city people had travelled out and we sat around, picnicking under the warm sun on a private property. After the wedding was done, I was in a car and back in Melbourne within an hour and a half.

Stuart and Ruth have lived in Broadford for many years now. They moved out when he was still teaching in Melbourne. The commute wasn’t actually that far, which means that Broadford isn’t deep country. Stuart speaks fondly of Broadford. He had told me that there weren’t many Asian people living there. There are refugee women and unfortunately they wouldn’t be coming tonight.

There are probably about fifteen people in the room in the Broadford library. The advertised time for my talk was 7 pm and there are a few posters around with my pleasant little face smiling on them. I present in a way where one would assume pleasant things about me. My haircut has now become symmetrical, I don’t have scary facial piercings or facial tattoos.

Stuart has decided that he’ll run a Q&A-style talk, which will eventually open up to questions from the audience. He suggests that we talk a little about my ‘relationships’ (sex) but that it won’t be the main focus.

Stuart introduces me using the biography I’ve provided. He tells them I am Hmong, that I am a playwright, that this is my first book. The being Hmong thing is usually a time-killer because generally no one knows who the Hmong are and it takes time to explain. Talking about being Hmong takes up most of the talk, actually. I tell the story about my mother nearly drowning as she crossed the Mekong from Laos to Thailand by cover of night with my older brother, who was about three or four, and my older sister in her belly. It’s a pretty gripping story and a very dramatic precursor to me being born in the safety of a hospital in Canberra. This story isn’t in my book though. I just use it as a go-to story when confronted with people who want an interesting migrant story; it is top-shelf migrant porn. I read out an extract and, though I’d earmarked a few sections, I abide by the golden rule of knowing your audience and this audience is hooked on my Hmong-ness. The extract is about the first time I was in Laos and visiting a village where my mum’s half-brother lives. I was a fish out of water. It’s a hit, people in the audience are hmming and chuckling. Someone asks me if I feel like I’m two people, one Australian and one Asian. Another man, with a walking stick, pipes up and assures me and any doubter in the room that I’m 100 per cent Aussie. I try to make a point that identity is nuanced and layered, that I have gained privilege in some respects through my education, my income, my position as an artist, but eyes glaze over and someone asks me if I’m ashamed to be Asian.

Stuart addresses one question to me about the sex in my book. I think he frames it as me going on a lot of dates. It’s true, I dated. A lot.

The session runs its full hour. Because it’s the country, we stick around and have Arnott’s biscuits and tea afterwards. The local doctor arrives, to show support I think. He’s Chinese, and he came to Broadford many years ago as a recent medical graduate and never left. He’s laid his roots here, as many hundreds of Chinese people did in Australian country towns, and married a local white woman. They’re both very well dressed. He’s got a strong Australian accent. One woman has a Thai daughter-in-law, another has an Afghan son-in-law. So it’s not a completely white-bread town and I don’t feel the way I did when I was eighteen and about to go up to Queensland. I don’t think everyone is racist. But I do think I somewhat exploited my mum’s story of survival for gaining intimacy and favour with this group. I don’t know if that is an Asian thing but it’s certainly something I’ve always done when in a social panic. Don’t tell me anything personal – when I’m nervous I’ll talk about your secrets, embellished and analysed, to strangers just for something interesting to say.

My book is a lie.

Stuart told me that one of the ladies, whose name I can’t remember now, borrowed my book the next day. She returned it shortly after and remarked that it was so disappointing because I had seemed like such a nice girl.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 49: New Asia Now © Copyright Griffith University & the author.