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The First Thing People See

10 October 2017

I think it all started at the airport. You know those security scanner bits that you have to go through before you can go to the boarding gate? I think it all started there. Right there. The security scanners in T2 at Melbourne Airport on a cold, July morning.

To be fair, he was just doing his job. Plus, it’s not like there aren’t at least a couple of actual Chinese tourists who can’t speak English, leaving the land of Vegemite and Tim Tams through international departures on any given morning (what, with long-term visas being harder and harder to get these days). So maybe I really shouldn’t have snapped at him. Blame it on my early-morning crankiness.

But when the scanner thingy angrily beeped as I tip-toed through it (as if this was somehow less likely to trigger said angry beeping), this man looked me dead in the eye, squatting awkwardly to meet my gaze. He made some strange and very deliberate motion of patting his pockets, while s-l-o-w-l-y repeating, “SHOE JEE.”

I was so baffled by this display that I didn’t actually realise he was trying to speak Chinese to me, slightly mispronouncing (read: butchering) the Mandarin phrase for mobile phone. In retrospect, I do feel like I need to somehow address some of the assumptions which might’ve fuelled this display.

Dear airport security man: no, this is not my first time flying; no, my phone was not in fact in my pocket; no, I’m not an idiot (I can even understand words being spoken to me at a moderate and slightly less condescending pace – gasp!). And yes, I can understand English in the first place.

But at the time, I kind of just barked this last sentence at him, he somewhat sheepishly apologised, and that was that.

Except for the fact that I couldn’t stop thinking about this incident on the flight. It wasn’t that I was particularly angry at him or feeling bad for yelling, but it was just a very sudden and very acute awareness of my ‘otherness’. No matter how proficient I was at the English language (which I’d like to think is fairly proficient, thank you very much), my skin colour will always call that proficiency into question.

And yet, when the plane finally landed in China, I felt no more at home. Somehow, somewhere along the line, I had stopped behaving like a Chinese kid, and though this wasn’t exactly apparent to airport security man, my grandparent’s neighbours managed to identify me as a “waiguoren” (a foreigner) within seconds of bearing witness to my demeanour – atypical, since locals were supposedly brash and brassy. Their suspicions were confirmed, perhaps explained, upon hearing my hesitant and broken Mandarin. Sure, I tried speaking a little more loudly and confidently, but this probably only exacerbated how different I sounded, how different I was. In conjunction with the airport incident, this made it two times in the same week that my identity had been sharply called into question. I was (and still am) in this strange middle ground of being too white to be Chinese, whilst still being too Chinese to be white.

Ask any immigrant – it’s definitely a weird spot to be in. And I think the historical norm for me has been to err on the side of the privileged; I even went through a phase of saying “mate” at the end of about 110% of my sentences before realising this was slightly uncomfortable for me and everybody else around me. I sometimes still catch myself speaking with a more pronounced Australian accent deliberately in order to make it completely crystal clear that no, I am not a tourist.

To put it bluntly, it’s bloody bizarre. It’s bizarre to negotiate an identity as both a Chinese and an Australian when you’re not exactly either but also kind of both.

But I’m getting there; I’d like to think I’m increasingly at peace with the fact that the first thing people see when looking at me is my Chinese-ness instead of my Australian-ness – which isn’t always a bad thing, because most people are nice, but it’s literally just one of those unavoidable things since my ethnicity is written all over my appearance.

At the end of the day, I don’t want to seem too “waiguoren” to be Chinese, or look too Chinese to be Australian. The middle ground is just plain awkward to occupy sometimes. It’s fine if the first thing you see is my skin, but don’t suddenly assume things about me because of it. It’s fine if my Mandarin sounds shit to you, but don’t treat me any differently because of it. The middle ground does exist, and I exist within it. It’s not that simple, but it really should be.