Reviewed: Funny Ethnics, Shirley Le, Affirm
Shirley Le’s debut novel, Funny Ethnics, follows Sylvia Nguyen, the only child of Vietnamese refugee parents in an off-beat and comical coming-of-age story that will be all too recognisable for many second-generation immigrants of colour.
The story opens with Sylvia informing her parents that she intends to drop out of her law degree and pursue a career as a writer. Her mother begins pleading with Buddha and her father promptly bursts a blood vessel. While the drama is high, the scenes hilarious and the characters vibrant, Sylvia remains passive. The reader watches on as she experiences the world around her instead of actively participating in it.
Creating an experience not unlike reading a memoir, Funny Ethnics jumps through snapshots of Sylvia’s life from childhood to young adulthood. These recollections are packed with similes: a voice is described as having ‘a low raspy quality tinge like the person had just finished coughing out crispy shards of bánh mì that has been lodged in their throat’, while the larger-than-life tutor ‘Sir’ has a voice which ‘rumbled like a semitrailer down the highway’. The novel is also filled with references of 2000s Australia, such as Sylvia’s definition of ‘effortlessly elegant’: ‘Cargo pants from Just Jeans and a Fiorucci T-shirt with Renaissance cherubs from DFO’. It’s an outfit uncannily similar to my own Year 5 disco fit.
Throughout Le’s novel, child Sylvia acts as the reader’s eyes—we see her desperately attempting to fit in to (White) Australian society, all the while continuously being rejected by it. This paradox is highlighted in a scene where Sylvia comes home from school and sees an episode of We Can Be Heroes on telly, where ‘a white man in a black wig’ plays a character named ‘Ricky Wong’. As Sylvia eats her noodles, she watches performer Chris Lilley present a painful mockery of Asian Australians on the same show. Watching these depictions, she thinks to herself:
Those weirdly smart Asians were just silly creatures utterly incapable of any real creativity or individuality, forever losers who were only useful to Australian society as human calculators. Except. I wasn’t even smart.
From Opportunity Class exams and selective school tests, Sylvia’s childhood is filled with attempting—and often failing—to meet her parents’ uncompromising academic expectations. As a self-proclaimed ‘average’ student, Sylvia struggles to become the model minority her parents need her to be. As she develops friendships with other girls at her high school and becomes best friends with a fellow Vietnamese-Australian girl named Tammy, she discovers there are many things she cannot learn from books. Tammy instils in Sylvia lessons of womanhood and the intense dieting culture of the 2000s (‘the most revolutionary thing she taught me was how to eat’). Among the struggles that accompany adolescence, she finds a love in creative expression and begins to wonder whether the path set for her is the right one.
Much like an experience Sylvia undergoes in Funny Ethnics, where a tutor claims a review she writes for a university journalism assignment lacks objectivity and ‘centred her biases’, my reading experience is also biased. As a child of immigrants who also went to school in the western suburbs of Sydney, the landscapes and settings described by Le felt all too familiar. The brown of the bricks, the sounds of the city, the trips to the Cotton On outlet in Market City in the CBD, the smell of old train carriages on the Bankstown line, and even the ugly brown of certain Sydney private school uniforms. But what resonated the most was the casual racism of Australia and the way it plays out in the day-to-day interactions of those of us who are not White. Although my background and experiences differ from Sylvia, I couldn’t help but identify with her and her journey.
A humorous, intelligent, and beautifully pitched story of growing up in Western Sydney, Funny Ethnics is a thoughtful expression of how being a child of immigrants can be so fraught, as your experience of growing up differs greatly from that of your parents. While low in plot, Funny Ethnics paints a vivid picture of a young woman learning to live for herself—not for her community, family, or country.