THE ILLITERATE GENERATION

I hated our Chinese satellite TV.

In 2004, it was a gigantic, awkward thing mounted to our roof, a tangible reminder of the fact my parents were never going to assimilate to Australian culture, to the point of being at home in it. How could they be convinced to watch the Simpsons, Australian Idol or Saturday night movies when they had Phoenix Television and CCTV?

I grew up in an era that produced the 'illiterate generation' of Australian-Chinese children. We were the children placed, linguistically, right on the hyphen between our dual identities, able to speak Chinese when necessary - in varying dialects and to varying degrees of fluency usually to well-meaning grandparents - but we were also children who would not dream of speaking Chinese with any of our friends, even if (almost literally) all our friends were other Chinese-Australians. At five years old, I fought my parents tooth and nail to stay out of Chinese school and won, mostly because they were too busy and too considerate of my feelings to force me. The Chinese language was not yet the in vogue second language of choice for rich CEOs, or one of the second language options in high school, but an awkward, half-dying remnant of the heritage we were told we were a part of but very rarely felt.

There's a part in Benjamin Law's 'The Family Law' where he describes being sent to a Cantonese language course and how "the only people this Cantonese language course catered for were the children of Hong Kong migrants whose guilt was starting to play heavily on them, or whose grandparents were dying".

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For many of us, this was the attitude towards Mandarin as well. I never stopped to question why this disdain for China did not extend to Japan - where my love for manga, purikura and Jpop, at one point, placed my Japanese skill above my Chinese - or, later, to South Korea's shiny, fresh-faced boybands, until the summer before I began high school. That summer gave me a triple whammy of new school, new house in a new suburb, and a temporary lack of internet, which meant a lot of time in front of the TV, a new, tennis-watching obsession and, once that ended, a grudging agreement to watch this new singing show with my parents on the Hunan channel.

It was called 超级女声- 'Super Girls. It was an extraordinarily pink version of Australian Idol, filled only with girls as contestants, and it saved my Chinese.

Many people speak of the power of finally 'seeing themselves' on the screen, of being represented and visible. Nothing as coherent as that ran through my mind as I eagerly tuned in every week to watch and cheer on my favourite contestant - Shu Fei, nor did I imagine myself on the screen in her place. But what I do remember is how, slowly, Chinese stopped being a burden. I stopped fighting with my father about using English with him. As I watched along with my parents, I wanted to know what the joke was, or what that particular word was. I wanted to search up what songs they were singing - I couldn't precisely understand the word but it didn't matter because this cool girl, with her cool outfit and coolest hairstyle, was singing it and it sounded good.

And maybe there was also a part of this show that resonated with me. A part of the show that said the other side of the hyphen was not an ancient land confined to expired tradition, but something thriving and, just maybe, something worth paying attention to. All because of one show, which then grew into slightly more interest, and a plane ticket or two.

The Chinese government and relevant censors promptly cracked down on the show after 'our' year, and the show dwindled to a pale imitation of its once-national glory. But that's a different can of worms, labelled 'China'.

 

One of my favourite pieces of writing recently has been this one on Gone Girl by Steven Wolf. In it, Wolf writes that the answer to the question of what Amy Elliot means for women and what she's saying about them is...nothing.

"Amy is just a character...she is not a stand-in for women. Amy feels like one of a kind, so we want to interpret and assume she’s meant to be a comment on women as a whole."

Benjamin Law's growing up experience - depicted in both book and TV show versions of 'The Family Law' - was completely different to mine, though we probably share similar levels of Cantonese proficiency, and a family that shows affection for one another in slightly unique ways. It's not intended to be the same. There are parts that make me laugh out loud, parts that make me groan in sympathy, and parts I recognise. It's witty, humane and unbelievably entertaining.

Most importantly, its existence tells me that while this series may not have captured my experience growing up, it is an indication that the odd, sometimes amusing and sometimes painful mishmash of cultures that made up our childhoods can be great stories, and stories that are worthy of being shared.

Maybe I'll even write mine.

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