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. Soft power is a great and powerful thing, and for many Asian-Australian kids, the disdain they might have felt towards their 'mother' country and tongue did not extend to Japan, which provided us with manga, anime and Jpop, or, later, to South Korea's alluring hallyu wave of shiny, fresh-faced boybands and girl groups. We used to clamour to familiarise ourselves with the language, back when established channels like Crunchyroll and SBS PopAsia didn't exist and where you had to rely on the kindness of internet strangers to get the latest releases. 

Then I began high school and 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, reflecting on the accusations of internalised misogyny and sexism in its representation of the titular female character. 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."

Like with Amy, there is no single experience that will entirely capture the collective experience of growing up Asian-Australian. The few stories that exist now, told authentically by those who lived it - like Benjamin Law's recent 'The Family Law' book and TV show - carry slivers of familiar, shared experiences for me, perhaps swathes of similarities for others. They are not meant to speak for everyone, only speak out to them. The only way to get closer to capturing the multifaceted, contradictory, hybrid life that we lived is to tell more stories.

Here's where representation steps in, because in featuring these stories, granting them accolades, time and eyes, you are telling people like us 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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