My greatest wish when I was young was to be white

I was born in Melbourne in an era when there were few Chinese. My great grandfather, like many of his compatriots came to the Victorian goldfields from China in the 1850’s to search for gold. When it ran out most of the Chinese diggers returned to their homeland. My great grandfather was one of the few who stayed. 

From a young age I was conscious of looking different from the people around me. We lived in the south-eastern suburbs where the majority of people were of Anglo Celtic descent. My sister and I were the only Asian faces in our school. At that time there was a lot of open racism. The White Australia Policy, whose aim was to prohibit Asians and Pacific Islanders from immigrating was in full swing. People would wind down their windows and yell out racist remarks. I always wondered what pleasure those people gained from yelling at a 9 year old walking alone down the street. (Those were the days when kids roamed freely around the neighbourhood.) Often well-meaning people would ask where I came from, or speak to me slowly in simple English which would always make me want to reply in my broadest Australian accent. 

I used to think that whilst my family had probably been in Australia generations longer than theirs, I would be an outsider unless I looked like them. 

It was not all bad. I had friends, boyfriends, colleagues and bosses most of whom were white and all wonderfully accepting. My family ran a successful business supported by the local community. Over the years societal and political views slowly changed and racism in Australia gradually declined. I began to embrace the way I looked, and while Australia was always home, it actually started to feel like it. 

As an adult I began writing fictional stories for children about my experiences. In my first book The Garden of Empress Cassia I gave the problems I had as a child to my young protagonist. My novels are adventure stories for 8 – 12 year olds but they encompass themes of acceptance, belonging, the definition of home, being proud of who you are and fitting in. Children who have similar feelings of being isolated and excluded or who are searching for their own identity, relate to these stories. But stories of this nature also allow a child who has never experienced racism or isolation to see the world through the eyes of someone who is different and thereby learn empathy. 

But every so often I am shocked out of my complacency. 

I was visiting a primary school last year to talk to the students about books and writing. My host, a teacher in her early 50’s picked me up from my accommodation and casually began the conversation with, ‘I’m not racist but my parents told me about the yellow peril. Australia shouldn’t allow so many Chinese in.’  

As we continued our conversation I came to realise that she really did believe she was not racist. Her comment to me, while hurtful was not intended to be. Instead she described it as ‘political’ and it was the look of a fourth generation Chinese Australian that brought her ‘political’ views to the surface. 

The current situation with the Coronavirus seems to have evoked the same response. The xenophobic undercurrent that is lingering from days gone by gets a chance to resurface, masked by legitimate concerns and fueled by irresponsible media coverage. Reports of ‘Panda-monium’ do not help this situation. Then I read of a Woolworth’s supermarket employee who told everyone of Asian appearance to leave the store, and a racist sign in a coffee shop in Sydney. The list goes on and on with reports from Chinese friends who have been singled out on public transport.   

So I am reminded again of how I stand out which makes me question if I should take the train this morning or drive. It makes me mindful not to cough when I’m with people, in case they think I’m contagious with the virus. 

We are all in this together. Just because we are Chinese doesn’t mean we fear the virus any less. On Sunday the amount of people who came in to Melbourne’s Chinatown to see the Dragon Parade for Chinese New Year was down by half.

It’s no longer my wish to be white, but I do believe in the goodness of people. I’ve heard reports of people dropping food and things around at the houses of Chinese who have decided to self-quarantine. This is the time when who you are, what you are, is exposed by the choices you make. No one chooses to have the Coronavirus, but a little thought and a sense of common human-ness can help prevent the spread of a longer-lasting and even more insidious contagion.

12 thoughts on “My greatest wish when I was young was to be white

  1. I cannot express my gratitude toward you Gabrielle. Finally someone has said the truth toward what has really been happening toward Chinese Australians. A beautiful piece of writing straight from the heart. This has honestly made me feel whole again. For days I’ve felt heart broken and wondered what some Australians have come to, but this, well this has restored my faith again and has reassured me that everything will be ok. As an 18 year old ABC, I just want to say thank you. Thank you for doing this for not only the current generations of Australian Born Chinese but for the future generations of ABC’s.

    1. Dear Monica, Thank you for your lovely words. One day I know there will be a more tolerant Australia. It may be slow in coming but it will come. Gabi xx

  2. Thank you for this beautiful piece. I wish I could say the world was a better place…I can, however, say that for many people, there is no “us and them”, just “us”. Huge hug, Mati

  3. Thank you so much for writing this beautiful and apt account of how it feels to be an ABC (Australian Born Chinese) right now. I was feeling quite isolated, but your words really describe how awful things can be at the moment. I am a 3rd generation ABC and grew up like you did in a predominantly anglo environment and experienced the same mixed feelings growing up in Brisbane. I have never been to China though I respect my Chinese heritage.

    Your “school story” brought back memories of when I was in Grade 5 back in the seventies and was picked on by one of my teachers. Fortunately, my school was trialling a new form of open classroom teaching and she became only one of three teachers, not the only one as is usually the case. I was very sad at the time as I liked my teacher (she came from a European country so was new and interesting) but I couldn’t understand why she disliked me so much. What had I done? I think it is the unfairness of being judged without reasonable cause that scars to this day.

    Also, I remember the “I’d like to teach the World to sing” song that I used to hear on TV and at the movies (maybe even on the radio) that I would sing to myself often.

    I’d like to build the world a home
    And furnish it with love
    Grow apple trees and honey bees
    And snow white turtle doves

    I’d like to teach the world to sing
    In perfect harmony
    I’d like to hold it in my arms
    And keep it company

    I’d like to see the world for once
    All standing hand in hand
    And hear them echo through the hills
    For peace throughout the land
    (That’s the song I hear)…

    I still wish for this kind of world with the heartache (and hope) of my inner child…

    FYI Here is the wildly popular Coke Ad version
    and the song performed by the New Seekers


    1. Dear Helena, It is lovely to connect with someone who has experienced this ongoing pain and isolation. We ABC’s are in a group all of our own. What a wonderful song to hold in your heart. Thank you for sharing it. Gabi xx

  4. Dear Gabrielle. Such a sad but thought provoking post. The media has much to answer for. But so do individuals. Who could think that degrading a nine-year-old about their looks and heritage is acceptable?! And yet it happens. People can be stupid, ignorant and cruel and some feel that the Coronavirus legitimises their feelings. I am sorry Gabrielle, that such psychological violence has been done to you and many others. X

    1. Thank you Judith for your support and kind words. It will be an ongoing problem for Australian born Chinese unfortunately especially with the sudden rise of China. Gabi xx

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