The irony of not wanting to be seen as a 'typical Asian'

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Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

Had a show like [The Family Law] existed in my teens, with a charmingly awkward protagonist whose life looked a lot more ...

Had a show like [The Family Law] existed in my teens, with a charmingly awkward protagonist whose life looked a lot more like mine, my arrival at the final destination of not only accepting, but wholly embracing my heritage may have happened much sooner.

At nine years old, I had it bad for a boy in my class. He'd moved to Sydney from a northern surfer town, evident by his tanned, freckled skin, and his fringe swooped over his dreamy brown eyes. In a bid to win him over, I befriended his sister, who had a name I loved – Ebony. I decided it was my new middle name, and I wrote it all over my belongings.

"Why is my sister's name on your rubber?" he asked one afternoon, eyebrow cocked. Flustered that he was even acknowledging me, I stammered, "Well, actually, it's my middle name." I don't think he believed me, but for a second I felt like I fit in with someone like him, and my heart swelled.

I grew up hating everything about not being white, from the cute white boys I liked not returning my affections, to my lack of Western middle name (Sylvia was another frontrunner), to the fact that I wasn't allowed to go to sleepovers. I was embarrassed to bring Vietnamese food to school for lunch – my classmates would gawk and ask what it was, or tell me it smelled weird. I so badly wanted a packed Vegemite sandwich.

"Only now that I'm older do I fully recognise how troubling my younger self's attempted erasure of cultural identity was."

"Only now that I'm older do I fully recognise how troubling my younger self's attempted erasure of cultural identity was." Photo: Stocksy

It intensified when I moved to a private school at 10, where I stayed until the end of Year 12. Unlike my primary school, where there were many Asian kids, most of my new classmates were from affluent white families. It became clear quickly that, to my peers, I stood separately from "the Asians" – the international students. "You're a cool Asian, not an Asian Asian," they said. "You're a banana – yellow on the outside, white on the inside." I wore this backhanded racial epithet like a badge of honour. I wasn't like the others. I was cool.

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As a teenager, my interests were not Asian Parent Approved™. I idolised Sid Vicious, wrote angsty poetry and abandoned the classical music of my upbringing for loud bands and louder gigs. I swore I'd never date an Asian guy, mocked the "fobs" for taking photo booth pictures in Chinatown. None of my friends looked like me, but we had the same interests – "white" interests. All the songs I loved were written by white men; all the shows, books and films I devoured had beautiful white girls front and centre, with the Asians relegated to stereotypes and background roles. I didn't want to be in the background – and I believed my background was holding me back.

Only now that I'm older do I fully recognise how troubling my younger self's attempted erasure of cultural identity was. By vocally decrying my heritage, I enabled my friends to participate in racist microaggressions that I laughed off, because I was the "cool Asian". But the fact that I wasn't an "Asian Asian" wasn't meritorious on my part – it was due to the arbitrary fact that my parents had emmigrated before I was born. I'm no different to any other Asians, and I was certainly never any better than them. The fact that I took such pride in separating myself from people like me, because I thought it was the quickest route to social acceptance, is as staggering as it is heartbreaking.

I was thrilled to see the first episode of Benjamin Law's wonderful new show, The Family Law, last week – for the first time, an Asian family is front and centre on Australian television. I see parts of myself and my childhood in Ben and his family – the hilariously charismatic mother whose sometimes inappropriate antics I found embarrassing as a teen, but endearing as an adult; the two languages spoken at home (always English between siblings, though); the dorky orchestra rehearsals.

Growing up between cultures, I was confused about who I was and where I fit in – I wasn't white so I couldn't be fully Aussie, but I was too "white" to be fully Vietnamese. Had a show like this existed in my teens, with a charmingly awkward protagonist whose life looked a lot more like mine, my arrival at the final destination of not only accepting, but wholly embracing my heritage may have happened much sooner.

I'll admit I sometimes still flinch when someone innocuously asks what I'm eating – old habits die hard, after all. But some of my closest friendships as an adult have come from bonding with other non-white people about the way we grew up and how it influences us now, and at the start of the year, I made a decision. Goodbye Ebony, goodbye Sylvia – these days I write under my full name, including my Vietnamese name, which sits proudly in the middle. Call it absolution or whatever you like, but after years of trying to make the blood that runs through me invisible, I never want to hide again.