The last time I felt like I culturally belonged was over 15 years ago, and I don’t remember it.
I’ve been trying to deny my heritage since before I can remember. My first words were in Mandarin, but now I long to be able to form one sentence in my original language. I grew up with Chinese food, words and a few traditions but it wasn’t until recently that I caught myself publicly pretending like I didn’t know what Chinese culture was. The evident problem with Asian representation in Australia made me believe I needed to suppress that part of my culture, to conform to an assimilated Aussie one. Now, as the rest of the world seems to be adapting to the many different cultures in the world today, I still feel as if I am the problem. I’m not trying to deny I have white privilege, born and raised here with a white parent – I grew up extremely privileged financially. But that tore me. Am I the culture that gave me everything or am I the external culture that I biologically am that will get me teased and stereotyped? It’s extremely difficult to be both. Yeah I am white, but how can I be both the problem and the victim?
I have travelled to China with my mother on multiple occasions and never thought much of it. It was just spending time with my family I love dearly, and going shopping. It never felt like I was exploring an unknown place – until I came to uni and learnt truly what Australians think China is like. Earlier this year I decided to travel to China on my own for the first time and it was as though it was my first time. The first encounter I had with a local was immigration in Beijing airport. The attendant spoke to me in Chinese and asked me what my Chinese name was. Travelling on an Australian passport with the last name Hogan, I assumed everyone would think I was white, but my middle name is Chinese. I told her my Chinese name and it felt made up. Even my closest friends probably reading this right now wouldn’t know that I have a Chinese name – it’s Pei Rui by the way. For those who don’t see my middle name on my passport, so nearly every other person in China, would treat me like a foreigner, which I am. But travelling through North Korea, Russia and some places in Europe I would be spoken to in Mandarin. Most of the time I can understand what they’re saying and formulate a brief reply, but it felt wrong, What seemed like the appropriate response was to pretend like I didn’t understand, although I did, to prove that I was from the western world.
It wasn’t until I met my friend Zoe, who is half Chinese-Malay from Sydney, that both halves of my cultural identity had been attacking each other. Coincidently I met her during my first solo trip to China which is when it became an immersive study into who I really was. I didn’t realise until I befriended Zoe, that I had never really had a half Asian, Australian friend due to my constant suppression of my cultural background. My lifelong identity crisis was finally conceptualised through an almost cultural mirror of myself in Zoe. We are both Australians who were never Aussie enough because of our middle names or the food our mothers fed us. It’s hard to prove you’re Australian when you eat fried rice on Australia day. My white family are not in my life due to violence, and this kind of commonly observed white behaviour seems like it should deter me from wanting to be associated with this but the half-caste is not ethnic enough to defend her own heritage. Parallel to this, is too ethnic to be treated like an equal Australian. Differing from the racial inequalities and injustices to other minority groups in Australia, the battle of a half-caste is with one’s self each side being attacked by the other.
A half-caste culture is hard to connect to and observing our globalising world I wonder if this type of identity crisis will continue into the future. I love a Carlton Draught at the pub but I also grew up eating seaweed as a snack, the two don’t seem to be able to combine. Everything I know about myself seems like oil and water, in the same cup but never mixing, besides that my white dad was the maths professor.
Words by Rebekah Hogan