In 1977, we were the first wave of Vietnamese to hit suburban Sydney. My hair was the first thing the kids at school noticed. Thick, wiry, unencumbered by products, my plume fanned out like a black lacquered miso bowl turned upside down. It was a source of tactile intrigue; just about everyone in my class had a go at patting that bowl. Eventually most of the primary school had a go.
Once the novelty wore off, it was my eyes. Ordinary to me, but apparently they slanted — “socket head”, “slant eye”, “slanty eye”, “ching chong”, “slap head” — I bore the painful slurs and queer looks daily for the first few months.
Not content with patting my head, commenting on my eyes, now they wanted me to talk. The first questions were always, “where do you come from? China? Japan?”. Painfully shy, I always disappoint mumbling, “Vietnamese”. Blank look all round. Not knowing what to do, they decide on stretching out their own eyes and continue to cry “slant eye” until they got bored and walked off, leaving me a trembling mess.
Too often we rush to “call out” racism. But how much of that is ignorance?
Then in high school it was the gay thing: “you like disco, don’t you”, “you’re a faggot, aren’t you?” I’d keep my head down, hug my backpack and walk through them as fast as I could. Once I attempted to get fit by jogging around the block. Within five minutes, the lads in a passing car screamed out “you run like a faggot”.
This is where you’d expect me to call out Australia for being a racist and homophobic country.
I won’t. Because it’s not true.
Being Asian didn’t restrict my opportunities in Australia
Overwhelmingly, Australians have been kind, generous and afforded me a fair go. Neighbours, friends, school and uni mates make more of an effort to stay in touch than I do. As a child from a penniless family, I have benefited from public housing and free university education. Today, I run an advertising agency that is part of a global communications group.
I reckon being Asian didn’t restrict my opportunities in Australia. In contrast, my step-sister in Vietnam, during the darkest years, had to pick through the rubbish tip for scrap to sell. She didn’t get to go to uni. With a little help from us, her family is now in a much better place, though her health never recovered from those hard years.
So you think I’m one of the few exceptions, a strong-willed survivor? My partner will tell you I’m a wimp, that I have a ‘girly’ voice and that I’m overly sensitive — far from being a fine, survival-of-the-fittest specimen. There are many success stories judging by the names at the top of the HSC honours list. While I get around in a Hyundai i30, others in Cabramatta are floating past in beaming Mercs.
My partner’s grandfather isn’t a racist, though the first meeting was awkward. From Far North Queensland, Granddad fought against the Japanese in WWII. He hated the Japs and he wanted me to know he hated them. After visiting with us for a few weeks in Sydney, his attitude changed. He got to know someone from an Asian culture and found, surprisingly we’re not all that different. Years later, back home, during the rise of Pauline Hanson, he became a vocal defender of the “Asians”. It was the same at primary and high school, many of the “racist” students, once they got past the physical difference, became my friends.
Playing the victim gives them power. It’s defeatist, an admission that attitudes can’t be changed.
Too often we rush to “call out” racism. But how much of that is ignorance? Ironically, by rushing in with the racist slur, we divide rather than unite. It’s easier to revert to labels than to understand the cause — Is the person worried about their job? Do they understand other cultures and religions? It’s an easy option to call it out and disengage with them. I believe people’s attitude can change when they are engaged and when they are exposed to people of different cultures. One in three people in Sydney speak a language other than English — diversity is the norm for our children. They are already engaged. The future is bright.
For now, playing the victim gives them power. It’s defeatist, an admission that attitudes can’t be changed. When I was a local government councillor in Fairfield, the residents claimed the authorities and police were “racist” by containing the drug problem in Cabramatta. The improvements in policing didn’t come from labelling the authorities racist. It came when we united and engaged and successfully lobbied for a NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into Cabramatta Police resources in 2000.
While I appreciate well-meaning people calling out racism in solidarity, sometimes we need to think twice. Stephen Fry quit twitter recently, disillusioned because that community has become “a stalking ground for the sanctimoniously self-righteous who love to second-guess, to leap to conclusions and be offended — worse, to be offended on behalf of others they do not even know”. The current US Presidential race is a case in point. Despite seemingly anti-Latino policies such as building a wall along the US-Mexico border, Donald Trump won the Latino vote in the Nevada caucus (admittedly the exit polling sample was low). Howard’s anti-asylum seekers policy were backed by the Vietnamese community leadership because they believed them to be economic refugees.
When we visit my family in Vietnam, my partner is a constant source of attention. The children run up to poke his belly, stretch his chest hair and rub his head. Fluent in Vietnamese he frequently overhears people remark how obese and clumsy he is.
Racism? Or ignorance?
Thang Ngo served as a local councillor in Fairfield for nine years (1999–2008). He is managing director of IDENTITY Communications, part of IPG Mediabrands, and publishes the noodlies food blog.
Originally published at www.sbs.com.au on March 2, 2016.