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.