Reviewed: On Not Speaking Chinese: Living Between Asia and the West by Ien Ang (Routledge, London, 2001; paperback edn, 2004).
In the mid-1980s, within living media memory, the Australian people had a frank and robust exchange with itself on Asian migration and multiculturalism. Kickstarted by a benevolent, mild-mannered historian, the debate was taken on a trail-blazing nation-wide tour by the radical powerhouse who would give us the ringing prime ministerial cry of 2001: ‘I don’t want people like that in Australia!’ The spirit of that rebel yell had a test-run on earlier arrivals from the dusky north. Once more I was excited to be shouted at from cars—the tired and perfunctory accusation of ‘Poofter!’ had been upgraded into a daring and precise provocation: ‘Go home, ya fuckin’ gook!’
It occurred to me around then that the multicultural passage we were passing through was just the middle of an arc stretching from monocultural to what I thought of as ‘pan-cultural’. What that last meant I’m not really sure but it did conjure up the garish cliché of a rainbow above us, with the end behind us all bodgy grey and the one before us radiantly neapolitan.
Lately I’ve been reading a book by Ien Ang, a postcolonial (henceforth ‘poco’) diasporic intellectual residing in Sydney’s western suburbs. Her meditation on multicultural life in 1990s Australia is subtitled ‘Living between Asia and the West’. A properly raised academic, Ang admits that she runs the risk of being ‘autobiographical … resorting to personal experience as a privileged source of authority’. Craftily apologetic, she quotes the poco brand-name, Stuart Hall: ‘But in order not to be authoritative, I’ve got to speak autobiographically.’
Ang is a good person to read on the subject of living between East and West, between here and there, as that blurry space has been her lifelong habitat. As a teenager on holidays ‘in Spain or Italy or Poland’, she would have amusing encounters like this:
‘Where are you from?’
‘No, where are you really from?’ And so on.
Ang was born in Indonesia in the interestingly bloody years after independence. When she asked her Peranakan mother to teach her Chinese, she was told ‘No, I don’t want you to speak Chinese because that will only make you stand out more and be more vulnerable.’ Ang grew up speaking the local bahasa. She remembers the first time she was yelled at: ‘Why don’t you go back where you belong?’ Which was confusing because ‘to my own best knowledge as a 10-year-old Indonesia was my own country’. The Peranakans have been having their hot dinners in Java since the seventeenth century but they were still targetably Chinese. Two years later Ang’s family packed up and relocated to the Netherlands—’the former coloniser!’—to escape ‘rising ethnic tensions’.
When Ang arrived in Perth in 1991—achieving triple diaspora!—with her doctorate and practice from old Europe, she was dazzled by the prospect of a Western nation that actually wanted to be Asian. Dr Ang had been cool, ‘fascinated deeply’ by pop culture and mass media—one of her books is titled Watching Dallas: stuff that did not ‘implicate [her] personal identity’. But the patio door in Australia opened straight onto that hot and crowded hunting ground: identity politics.
In 1992 Ang was ‘elated’ to be invited to a conference in Taiwan, a place she had never been. She was gaily preparing her talk when she looked up to see the bull in the china shop. ‘In Taiwan I was different because I couldn’t speak Chinese; in the West I was different because I looked Chinese.’ So she wrote and delivered the essay ‘On not Speaking Chinese’, which gives her book its title.
Its point is old-fashioned, yet poco: Are you Chinese if you look undeniably Chinese? Can you think Chinese thoughts if you can’t think in Chinese? Is Chineseness by descent only, or also by consent? (And are there truly blue Australians who don’t speak English—who ask for the footy score in Vietnamese, shout rounds of drinks in Slovenian, abuse offending drivers in Malay? In her book on first encounters with migrants in Australia, Dancing with Strangers, Inga Clendinnen, in high good humour, calls the British the British and the Aborigines the Australians. So, here’s a puzzle: if your parents are Australian and you can’t speak Australian, what are you?)
In The Hmong of Australia: Culture and Diaspora, co-editor Gary Yia Lee, quintalingual ex-Colombo-Plan student from Laos and ‘the first Hmong PhD in anthropology’, is quoted as saying: ‘”But a lot of us have been trying very hard to be Australian!” And not being accepted as such …’And it seems few of the young can or want to speak Hmong. Watching the bridges burn, Lee asks, ‘After the first generation, will their children still retain enough of their Hmong cultural heritage to be called Hmong? Or will they be Australian in their hearts and minds, and Hmong only in their appearance?’
Itch-making paradoxes abound: Are you Aboriginal or Australian? Can you be Asian and Australian? Can you be English and Australian? If Eurasian, why not Australasian? And how many generations before home is home?
Ang’s ‘self-interested euphoria’ of an imagined ‘postmodern and postcolonial, transnational … Australia as “part of Asia” … turned out to be premature and short-lived’. It came to a screeching halt at the brick veneer of One Nation.
People like Hanson started to feel more than just marginally marginal, and resisted virulently that felt marginalization. Worse, she has pointed the finger in the direction of those who, from her point of view, are the progenitors of her marginalization and decentralization: all those who are the representatives and promoters of the forces of ‘globalization’ … This means, logically and emotionally, that I represent all that Hanson is fighting against!
In March 2002, shortly after On Not Speaking Chinese was unleashed, the author gave a ‘lunch’ interview to the Bulletin. Maxine McKew reported:
Ang has some sympathy, though, with the view put by Labor MHR Mark Latham: that in the west of Sydney ‘the acceptance of refugees is not a principle but something that has to be accommodated every day on streets already filled with Turks, Lebanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Somalis, Tamils, Iraqis and Fijians’.
Far away in that colourful outpost of civilisation, the Middle East, the Israeli novelist and peace activist David Grossman has written: ‘The Jewish majority’s explicit desire to retain its numerical superiority is one that, when it comes down to it, beats in the heart of every nation … I don’t want to be part of a Jewish minority in Israel.’
Ang likes to say that in the migrant life what’s important is not ‘where you’re from’ but ‘where you’re at’. Therefore, ‘I have become increasingly reluctant to join the chorus celebrating the idea of diaspora … it is important … to recognize the double-edgedness of diasporic identity: it can be the site of both support and oppression, emancipation and confinement.’ Having slam-dunked multiculturalism and ‘diasporism’ into the too-soft basket, she aims for a more ‘pragmatic response’:
I would describe myself as suspended in-between: neither truly Western nor authentically Asian; embedded in the West yet always partially disengaged from it; disembedded from Asia yet somehow enduringly attached to it emotionally and historically. I wish to hold onto this hybrid in-betweenness …
In a paper from 1993, poco-mama Ang was already polishing her hybrid thinking, the shiny cutting edge of her book:
a critical cultural politics of diaspora should privilege neither host country nor (real or imaginary) homeland, but precisely keep a creative tension between ‘where you’re from’ and ‘where you’re at’ … This is a practice and spirit of turning necessity into opportunity … perhaps most eloquently expressed by Salman Rushdie: ‘It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can also be gained.’
Let me give another simple example … ‘Westernised’ Chinese people are often called ‘bananas’, a term of abuse, meaning ‘yellow skin, white inside’. Perhaps it is time for bananas to stand up for themselves, and attach positive meanings to banana identity!
Yes, we have some bananas. And some coconuts—brown outside, white inside— too. Postcolonial fruits on Western soil. Stir and enjoy: migration, translation, imitation, miscegenation. Banana republic, coconut nation. All rise! In the words of another hybrid, the sainted Carmen Miranda, salute your new world: ‘How do you do, I’m sure; I’m fine thanks.’
Image: Aleksandar Pasaric