This year I’ve had the lovely opportunity to talk at a few schools about my piece in Growing Up Asian In Australia. I’m so pleased this anthology is on the VCE English curriculum, as I think it makes for great reading. There’s such a wide range of stories in the book; writers of all ages and backgrounds telling some very personal tales.
I remember when I first heard the call-out for this anthology I was desperate – desperate! – to be included. I was Asian! I was Australian too! I hadn’t had any books published at that stage, but I had been lucky to get quite a few short stories out there in the wider world. They had all been fictional though, and this had to be memoir. I thought that because I could write fiction I would be able to write non-fiction – I was wrong. Writing my story, `How to be Japanese’, was an agonising experience. I had to drag every recalcitrant sentence out, word-by-word. I worried about how much to tell, how honest to be, and what people would think. My words were plodding and boring until I finally learned to think of myself as a character in a story, in effect to write non-fiction as if it was fiction.
Given that the anthology has been out for a few years now (it was first published in 2008), and because I know students are sometimes asked to read and comment on my story, I’ve jotted down some of my thoughts in case they are of help.
- I bet for some of you, when you first found out this was a text you had to read for English, you groaned. Why should you have to read about being an Asian-Australian, when that might not be your background? Of course, when I read the stories in GUAIA, I relate to them quite strongly. But I think everyone can relate to them. The stories aren’t really about being Asian-Australian per se, they’re about more universal questions, like: how do I know who I am? what makes me feel like I belong? what does it mean to be different? what does it feel like to be different, or the same?
- I always think it’s a bit funny when I go into schools to talk about GUAIA, because FFS, I spend most of the first page discussing my boobs (or lack of boobs, really). Saying the word `boobs’ in front of students usually gets one of two reactions: laughter or deathly silence. Both are fine. Here is a photo of my imposter Photoshop boobs, and the ad I discuss in my story:
- I have changed my feelings and opinions quite a bit since I wrote this story, even though it was only four years ago. While it’s hard to quantify and describe, I feel a lot less hung-up about how people, especially men, regard my looks, and what it might or might not mean in terms of cultural/gender stereotypes. These days I just think, meh, whatever (you can put that in your essay if you like, `meh, whatever.’ Teachers will love it).
- My lasting feelings about my story revolve around how easy it is to judge people on how they look, or how they present themselves. I know I’m guilty of it all the time, and I find myself having to be constantly vigilant on what judgements I make (even what appear to be small and harmless assumptions). I often show students this pic:
and say, while I may not choose to dress like this, all I can really say for sure about this young woman is that she really liked cats.
And then I tell them about this really fabulous performance butoh performer Yumi Umiumare does where she gets a Hello Kitty bag stuck on her head and dances to techno, and somehow becomes a demonic cute Hello Kitty creature. THE END.