The Chinese section is over there

the chinese section is ov

Today I encountered a situation I thought I knew how to handle.

My friend and I decided to go to the library because she wanted to find something to read over the Christmas break and I wanted to check out some Gustav Klimt art books. I headed to the art section and there was an elderly couple fussing over some watercolour books. They noticed me standing behind them and the woman said, “I’m sorry, are we in the way?” and I said they were fine where they were. Then the man said to me, “The Chinese section is over there” and chuckled to himself. I felt my smile fade and was left kind of speechless. They walked away and I grabbed my books.

Now, I can’t stop thinking about this encounter. I’m disappointed in myself for not calling this guy out. Even a simple, “Dude that’s racist” is better than being mute. I always thought I’d be someone who would say something in these sorts of situations but I was just so shocked by it because he seemed to think he was being friendly and funny.

I feel like I’ve contributed to racism by not speaking up and it really bothers me. I’ve talked about this before: racial microaggression is fucked up because it can be so subtle and easy to brush away. The best thing to counter it is to make some noise about it, which I didn’t do.

So yeah, I’m kind of kicking myself about it right now.

Where are you from?

I’m lucky I’ve never really been aggressively abused because of my ethnicity (I’m a Chinese-born Australian). I’ve never been told to go back to where I came from, been called a terrorist or anything that awful. I don’t think you need to be so violently vilified to feel the whip racism, though. Racism is layered like any kind of prejudice and it can be subtle enough to dismiss.

A few weeks back, artist Suzanne Nguyen wrote a great blog post about why asking the question “Where are you from?” is kind of racist. The conversations on Facebook and Twitter about the topic were somewhat divided, but the general consensus was there’s nothing wrong with asking the question, depending on the intent and the context. I think this can be true to an extent. If you teach English to migrants, then the question might be something you ask you’re students.

In high school, I went to several university open days. I was waiting for my bus when this man started talking to me. He asked me where I was from and I said, “Doncaster” which was where I was living at the time. He chuckled and shook his head. He didn’t press the question further.

The more I think about it the more I dislike the question. It implies I don’t belong to wherever it is I am, especially followed up with ‘where are you actually from?’. I’ve also been getting a lot of “Are you local?” questions, which might even be more infuriating than “Where are you from?”. They’ve singled you out because don’t look like you belong to whatever environment you’re in, but something about you is “local” and it throws them off. Context does play into these situations though. I’ve been guilty of asking this question too (although I hope I’ve never asked someone if they are “local”) and I try not to ask this question.

This July, I was dropping Liam off at the airport. He was on his way to Vietnam for work. His work neglected to organise his visa for Vietnam and therefore was not allowed to check in. The woman at the counter made a flippant comment, saying, “You can’t board without a visa but YOU could easily”. By YOU, she was referring to me. Being Asian, she assumed I was Vietnamese or all Asians had a free pass into a fellow Asian country. I knew she didn’t mean any offence in making that comment, or most likely, she didn’t realise it was a bit racist. She should have know better because she works for an international airline.

During the Melbourne Comedy Festival this year, I went to see Michael Hing‘s show and he was talking about how he got a job because his employer thought ‘orientals’ were really hard workers. He was obviously terrible at his job and yet his boss kept promoting him. This positive racism is really messed up because its foundation lies in racial stereotypes.

What I’m trying to point out is racism doesn’t have to knock your teeth out or spit on your face. It’s a lot of ignorant, flippant comments, subtle enough for us to just dismiss, but it lingers around until it becomes part of the norm. I guess that’s why we should challenge it so it’s not hidden any more.