At the end of my interview with Hannah Ahn, she told me that she was looking forward to reading my own answers to the questions around cultural identity. I hadn't thought about answering these questions myself, but I thought I would give it a go. All my interviewees had been vulnerable with me, and I thought it was only fair that I return the vulnerability.
What has your relationship with your Asian Australian identity been like, and how has it evolved?
Parts of my story have already been echoed in the stories of the people I’ve interviewed so far - which has been affirming and validating as an Asian Australian just trying to figure out my place in this world.
Personally I’ve been quite lucky to have always felt Australian. I never felt distinctly different because of the fact that I was Asian in the most part because I attended a very diverse primary school, and a high school that had quite a large Asian population. I also watched a lot of quintessential Australian TV growing up. In high school I remember I would religiously watch Neighbours every night at 6:30PM and discuss it with one other friend who would do the same. As a sociable child I always got along with my white classmates, but naturally gravitated more towards Asian or non-white peers where we would just have a better unspoken understanding of each other.
Interestingly, I’ve actually always been more at odds with my Chinese identity. I think it’s because, as a child, more of my life was concentrated at home - so I was always coming face to face with that part of me.
I remember in primary school, I was in a friendship group with 3 Cantonese girls. I was the only Mandarin speaker. Sometimes they would speak to each other in Cantonese as a group, and I would feel quite othered in that setting, funnily enough by people who were also Chinese. I couldn’t understand why my friends would purposefully speak in a language they knew I couldn’t understand. In that scenario, I didn’t feel Chinese enough because I couldn't speak Cantonese. I know the flipped experience actually happens more commonly - where Cantonese speakers often feel quite othered because Mandarin is the official language of China.
For me, language has always been a huge connector to my identity. This is especially because I love the concept of languages in general, and how it allows us to express ourselves. I would say my Chinese language skills are deceiving; I sound like I have a very natural grasp of the language, but as you talk to me more you’ll realise that the conversation topics and grammatical structures I’m familiar with are limited to the basics.
Over time, it felt like my Chinese nativity decreased the more fluent I became in English. But it was moreso like the older I got, and the more I started thinking about ‘complex topics’ which I could express perfectly well in English, the less I could express them in Chinese. And the more I felt like a ‘lesser’ Chinese person. Language and becoming better at a language is all about experiential learning, iterating and using a constant feedback loop to improve. But in my teenage years, I was such a perfectionist that I didn’t want to venture outside of my comfort zone of basic Chinese in fear of saying something wrong and getting mocked for it - so I kept my Chinese level at a plateau. I always felt frustrated that I couldn’t completely voice all my thoughts and communicate everything to my parents in their native language, and I felt so restricted by my language level that I definitely took it out on my Chinese identity and didn’t want to be Chinese at some points.
I became much more at ease with my Chinese identity as I unlearnt my perfectionist tendencies, and began to connect with my identity through more than just the language but through the food, the good friends I would make and connect from our shared Chinese-Australian experiences, and from going to China for two short-term exchanges and learning more deeply about the history and culture beyond what I was taught at home.
From there, I really grew to love my dual Chinese-Australian identity. Which has led me to starting this project today.
What is a significant cultural memory of yours?
I have a lot of strong cultural memories from each of the times I’ve gone back to China. But I have one memory that stands out that was actually quite recent - it happened on the first night that I moved to Melbourne at the beginning of February 2023.
It was around 10pm. I had just arrived at Southern Cross Station in Melbourne. My next tram was expected to come in 30 minutes, so I decided to pop into the nearest asian supermarket to buy some groceries (it was Crown Asian Supermarket on Spencer St). I lingered around the 3 narrow aisles, deliberately taking my time. In the end I bought a packet of japanese curry roux, a packet of neoguri which is my favourite instant ramyun brand and a bottle of Kewpie roasted sesame dressing. I obviously operate at peak health. Also funnily enough none of the things I bought were Chinese.
When I got to the counter the cashier asked me whether I was paying in card or cash in Chinese, and I responded quickly with “card” back in Chinese. This small interaction instilled a sense of calmness in me. The whole day I had been feeling quite uncertain - I was mentally preparing myself to live in a new city, thinking about how I would get started on this passion project (Quiet Achievers) that I hadn’t even told my parents about, and was definitely feeling anxious and uncertain about what was going to happen in the next few weeks. But this small, autopilot-like interaction somehow gave me a sense of familiarity. Even though I would be living in this new city with no friends, networks or family in it, this interaction showed me that there were still parts of it that were familiar to me - because of my Asian identity. And I was grateful for that.
What is your favourite food from your culture?
This is the worst questions for me since I can’t narrow it down to one favourite.
I have so many favourite Chinese dishes - a few that immediately come to mind are xiǎo lóng bāo 小笼包 (soup dumplings - the most classically Shanghai dish you could think of) and yú xiāng qiézi 魚香茄子 (stir fried eggplant in this hot garlic ‘fish sauce’ - it’s sweet, savoury and very saucy so it’s very good with a steaming bowl of rice).
Also shout out to any dim sim that you can get at yum cha - which is a Cantonese tradition. My favourite there would be fried mǎtí gāo 马蹄糕 (it directly translates to water chestnut cake but it’s essentially this gelatinous pudding with uneven pieces of water chestnut inside, that’s often served pan-fried).
Who is an Asian Australian that inspires you, and why?
All the people I’ve interviewed for this project. It’s a cheesy answer, but everyone’s story is so different, and has inspired me in different ways and at different stages of my own life too.