Growing up all I wanted to be was white

This article was published on September 29th in Daily Life, a SMH online magazine about women.
I grew up in the suburbs of Melbourne at a time when back doors were never locked, when bikes were our wings, when we never had to tell our

parents where we were going. As long as we were back for dinner, no grownups cared.


Author Garbrielle Wang as a child.

There was a lot of racial prejudice around in those days but I was not conscious of it, not until the age of eleven. It was then that I noticed there were no other Asian students at my school. In those days you rarely saw an Asian face unless you were in Chinatown, and on many occasions, when we were out for a family drive and stopped at the traffic lights, kids in cars would point and stare. And while walking in the street, people would wind down their car windows and yell out racial abuse.

I would yell back, ‘Shut Up!’ in my most Aussie accent. I could not speak Chinese and knew nothing about Chinese culture so it incensed me not to be accepted as an Australian just because of my race. Moreover, my great grandfather had come to Australia during the Victorian Gold Rush in the 1850’s. My family had been here for four generations, longer than most white Australians. At that time my greatest wish was to be white like everyone else.

Growing up, my ambition was to be an artist. My box of 72 Derwent pencils held the magic of other worlds which were limited only by my imagination. Those delicious coloured pencils sat in neat rows in a handsome cardboard box that opened up like abook. Oh, how I loved them.

Pursuing my childhood dream of becoming an artist, I studied Graphic Design at RMIT. By the time I graduated, maturity had set in and I realised that living between two cultures was an asset, not a hindrance. But I still felt as though I did not belong in Australia. It took me six years living in both Taiwan and mainland China to know that I would never be accepted as Chinese either. Now I embrace the idea that I am a citizen of the world.

In 1999, I had a life-changing dream. In it, I was nine years old, walking down the narrow staircase of the shop our family used to live in. On either side of me are adults saying, ‘Go out! Go out into the light.’ Down below is the open doorway. I step outside and join a long procession. The feeling is one of happiness and celebration.

Suddenly, from the front of the crowd, a dragon rears its enormous head. It is then I understand that we are part of the body of this dragon. The dream was deeply symbolic. The next morning I wrote it down, and as I was writing it grew into a short story about a girl who loves to draw but is ashamed of being Chinese, about a box of magic pastels and a beautiful healing garden.

Before this, I had only written very bad angst-ridden poetry when I was fourteen. I also failed Year 12 English so writing this story was a big surprise to me. Three years later that story would become my first novel, The Garden of Empress Cassia. 

But, as most writers will tell you, publishing does not happen as easily as that. After writing the novel I sent the manuscript off to six publishers and one literary agent and was rejected by every one of them. Eventually I was lucky enough to be picked up by Penguin and The Garden of Empress Cassia was published in 2002.

For most of my teenage years, I tried to hide my Chineseness. There were no books that featured characters like me. A young reader once wrote to me and said, ‘Your books make me realise that it is okay to be different.’ Children need to see themselves in the stories they read. They need to be the heroes and heroines, not just token secondaries. Novels are powerful things. They can place us in our universe, or they can make our universe expand, to broaden its boundaries, until we find someone different who has become us.


Gabrielle Wang has written sixteen books for children and young adults. Her latest novel is The Wishbird published by Penguin Australia.

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