I headed to an Asian Australian meetup the other night. The people there were a mix of asian australian academics and writers, most of whom if not born in Australia were very westernised anyway as they were child migrants. I came over at the age of 18 and that made me one of the few 1st generation migrants there. Most were 2nd (born here) or 1.5 (child migrants).
The evening made me think again about my ethnicity and culture, about the choices I’ve made in terms of identity.
I have a good idea of what it means to be a proper Asian person, especially a proper Asian eldest son. That knowledge which is effectively a knowledge of its underlying values is the closest thing to an intuitive culture I have. It’s pretty much a predictable if not stereotypical picture of confucian conservatism. Behave responsibly, respect authority, care for one’s parents, work hard, earn a good living, breed. Add in a particularly difficult language and rather nice food. But other than that, not very different from good old fashioned protestant beliefs. Not very far from what most cultures would consider the values of a solid upstanding citizen either.
At that meetup, I came to realise that when I say I’m not particularly Asian, I really mean that I’m not particularly conservative or materialistic in a flashy way. I actually mean that except for the earning a living bit, I’m pretty much against all the other values I listed above.
It took me a little while to understand that when others say they’re not particularly Asian, they actually mean that they’re not particularly able to speak or understand an Asian dialect or that there are knowledge aspects of the culture they do not intuitively understand, for example the whole heaty food thing or gift exchange protocols or the slapstick humour within hong kong movies.
I dont get the slapstick humour myself but a lot of everything else is there. When I walk through very asian parts of town, I can place a lot of the immigrants there in their original context. I recognise the elements of business and culture they’ve brought with them and have a rich set of memories associated with the majority of stimulus – faces, smells, shopgoods.
That epiphany didnt really do much to shift my identity or my values. But talking to some of the people at the meetup who grew up feeling that they’ve never really been accepted here, never been totally comfortable with Australia and wondering if there is something else out there, it made me appreciate that I do actually know where I’ve come from. Sure I’ve rejected most of it (except for the food) but I have actually had the luxury of being able to do that.