When I recall my past experiences, it’s unsurprising that the memories of my early-age migration come to mind. I was five years old when my family moved permanently from China to Hurstville—a predominantly Chinese suburb in the south of Sydney. In spite of how jarring it was to encounter different physical surroundings and social practices in Australia, the community here was also reminiscent of China. I was surrounded by faces like mine everywhere I went; by people speaking a variety of Chinese dialects; by a primary school population, which was majority Chinese and from a non-English speaking background. At that age, during which we barely ventured outside of our suburb, this world was the only one I knew.
For a long time, I found it difficult to articulate the nuances of how this community had shaped me. Yet over the past year, three books by authors of Chinese and Taiwanese descent I read prompted me to reflect upon these experiences—both the positive and more difficult aspects.
First was the fantasy novel Caster by Chinese-Canadian author Elsie Chapman, in which the sixteen-year-old protagonist, Aza, joins an underground magic combat tournament in order to support her family and protect their legacy. After reading an introductory letter from the author, I was intrigued to learn that the story’s urban fantasy setting was based on Vancouver, and that the protagonist’s home, The Tea Sector, was a ‘re-imagining of Richmond, a suburb that is minority-majority when it comes to its Chinese population.’
I later realised that the setting shouldn’t have been so surprising in terms of the connections between Sydney and Vancouver. In his 2016 post in Peril, ‘Tell a Wider Story’, Chinese-Canadian academic Chris Lee reflected on the links between Australia and Canada, and mentions the two cities as being comparable from the perspective of his family in Hong Kong. In his parents’ migration histories—that they were students who were granted permanent residency in Canada—I found echoes of my own heritage.
In Caster, I found a similar sense of familiarity with the setting and connection with the protagonist which permeated throughout the book. Furthermore, the story was strongly affirming of Aza’s home and community. Aza reflects on how a ‘certain kind of culture is unspoken truth’ in her sector—and unlike her family, the city’s authorities do not understand these intrinsic parts the way they do.
As I finished, I reflected that it was the kind of story I’d really needed when I was around Aza’s age. In my teens, we moved to the opposite side of Sydney, where almost none of my peers had even heard of Hurstville, and I started internalising people’s expectations and erasing parts of myself in the white dominant environment. When I started writing seriously around then, initially my characters were nothing like me at all—something I’ve heard from many Asian diaspora authors in regards to their early writing.
It would have made a huge difference then to have seen a Chinese protagonist in this kind of ambitious, high-stakes story which I’d thought was reserved for white characters. I appreciated how Aza’s Chinese background wasn’t the sole thing the plot in Caster revolved around, and yet her motives reflected cultural nuances of familial loyalty in an uplifting way, helping me to connect with her all the more. What made it particularly powerful was that it took place in speculative fiction: when nothing around me seemed to be going right as a teen, I’d found escapism in my imagination, which was unlimited and freeing—in everything except for my inability to see myself in heroes.
Yet, it’s impossible to express the evolutions in how I’ve felt about place and identity without also discussing earlier challenges I’d faced while growing up in Hurstville. Along with Caster, two books prompted deeper reflection on such experiences: Stargazing by Jen Wang, and Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert—both of which are in contemporary US settings. In their depictions of Chinese diaspora communities, I found stories which were strongly resonant and spoke across their particular locations—despite being set somewhere I’ve never been.
Jen Wang’s graphic novel Stargazing centres on two girls, Moon Lin and Christine Hong, who live in the same majority-Chinese and Taiwanese American suburb and find unexpected friendship in each other. Picture Us in the Light is set in Cupertino, California, and follows the story of high-school senior Danny Cheng, as he is faced with unravelling family secrets and challenging dynamics amongst his friends.
Simply the fact that these authors depicted a variety of perspectives within the one community was refreshing, in contrast to how often Asians in general are homogenised or only have tokenising appearances in stories. Being the only person from Hurstville for my first few years of high school, I’d felt that same uneasiness with the way my peers’ perceptions of that community were entirely based upon me.
In Stargazing, Christine faces the pressures of her family’s expectations and her own perfectionism, as well as feeling unremarkable amongst her friends. Moon feels isolated because of her family being different from everyone else’s, her religion, and her artistic tendencies. In Picture Us in the Light, Danny appreciates his parents’ support of his artistic dreams, yet recognises this isn’t the case for everyone, and his friends’ conflicts are given detailed attention as they are torn between future paths they are compelled to follow. His best friend visits Taiwan regularly and speaks Chinese fluently; in contrast, Danny’s never been to China, and his parents’ pasts in Wuhan have always been murky.
These representations challenge the idea that minority cultural communities are monolithic. They also reminded me of the source of my insecurities when I was younger—the lack of space that my peers had given to my own differences. Jen Wang, who described Stargazing as a story of personal healing, said in her Afterword:
I grew up in a region with many other Chinese and Taiwanese immigrant families and their American-born kids. But the more you’re expected to share with a group of people, the more you obsess over the ways you are different […] If I wasn’t like the other Asian American kids, who was I supposed to be like?
In Stargazing, Moon tells Christine she has visions of what she believes are celestial beings, and is convinced that her ‘real home’ is another world in the stars, where she’ll find those who truly understand her. When reality unfolds, she’s disappointed to find that there wasn’t a secret answer to why she felt so different from everyone else after all: ‘All along I’ve just been a weirdo. And I’ll have to live on this earth for the rest of my life.’
Her story captured much of how I’d felt surrounded by people from the same culture as I was, yet struggling with low self-esteem and social anxiety: the insidious feeling of being an outsider that I was unable to shake, of being preoccupied with the idea there was something inherent about me which I had to fix—and never being able to figure it out.
Of the many contributing factors, a prominent one was the focus on academic achievements above all else amongst the hyper-competitiveness of several Chinese families I knew. This created an environment of constant pressures and feelings of inadequacy. While I have friends who’d thrived there, I personally hadn’t. Leaving that behind as we moved out of the area had initially been a relief for me, but the complexity of how I saw that Chinese immigrant community was something I’d been unable to reconcile. On the other end, through the media and in my white peers’ attitudes, I saw only how such Asian-majority schools were demonised based on double standards and resentment. Soon, I absorbed and internalised this too.
Picture Us in the Light, however, showed the utmost empathy for Chinese-American teens subjected to similar pressures, putting their voices at the forefront. While validating those with ambitious mindsets, it also explored how the same environment ultimately led to devastating impacts on one character in terms of mental health. These impacts then extend to the whole community: Danny reflects, ‘the places you once believed were safe—your school, your world—feel hostile and fragile and uncertain’ as things are turned upside down, and his friends try to support each other in a new way.
I’ve continuously circled back to these three stories because they contain the messages I really wish I’d heard at the time: that there were others like me who felt we were outsiders in our own cultural community, that those feelings were valid, and that where I’d come from could still be a source of pride. Considering the deep connection I feel with them, then, what is the significance of the fact that none of these were set in places I actually knew?
When I was younger, the lack of Australian literature that I could relate to was a constant source of disappointment, and I longed for my specific experiences to be represented. Chinese New Zealand author Rose Lu, after exploring Asian-American and Australian literature, discussed how she sought more Asian voices from New Zealand as there was ‘the particular sense of isolation in Aotearoa’ absent from overseas stories. Her sentiments resonate with me in terms of experiences that are specific to Australia that aren’t reflected in stories elsewhere, but also to Sydney and various parts of it. For example, a higher number of selective schools in New South Wales influences different social dynamics, and perceptions of class and race, compared to Victoria.
Now, however, my perspective has expanded in terms of seeking stories that feel ‘close to home’. The conversations around, and experiences of, the Chinese diaspora is a global one. As I reflect on the similarities and differences between myself and characters from my cultural background, parts of my own identity become clearer.
Sometimes I wish it hadn’t taken so long for this to happen, but perhaps the most powerful impact these books had on me was how they allowed me to find my voice; to see more possibilities of experience that can be related through storytelling, ones that are localised as well as transnational.
Stories of being in a classroom of Chinese Australians at the age of twelve, thinking you were leaving them behind, then seeing their faces at orientation in university eight years later. Of your entire high school education supposedly coming down to a single number at the end of it, and navigating what that means for you both before and afterwards. Of travelling an hour and a half back to the suburb you grew up in and not knowing your way around the now-altered streets and stores, but still feeling like a part of you had always remained there—a part which feels at home.
Wendy Chen is a Sydney-based writer whose work has also appeared in Verity La’s ‘Discoursing Diaspora’ and the anthology Meet Me at the Intersection.