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Doing away with stereotypes

Today marks Chinese New Year, so Happy Lunar New Year everyone! – Gong Xi Fa Cai!

One of the proudest things I am of being Australian is the way we celebrate other people’s cultures – including the Lunar New Year in February, Diwali in October and Oktoberfest in (ironically) September. We’re a nation of migration and multiculturalism. All we have to do is walk down Swanston St or Smith St in Melbourne to satisfy all our dumpling, souvlaki or butter chicken cravings – cuisines which have become more ‘Australian’ in many parts than BBQ’ed sausages and beer.

Travelling Europe, I once found what seemed to be the only ‘real’ Vietnamese restaurant in Budapest. Needless to say, I was pumped. A small group came in and couldn’t contain their excitement at seeing Phở on the menu. Amidst squeals of ‘ermahgerd!’ and ‘it’s been sooo long since I had Phở’, I thought to myself ‘those guys are clearly Australian’. Only Australians would tramp around a European city in search for some good Vietnamese. I was spot on, but who was I kidding – that’s the reason I had found it too.

Australia has been a multicultural society for several generations, ever since the First Fleet settled at Port Jackson. Different waves of migration throughout the 20th century has meant that many of us have a diverse background with our ancestors from different countries all over the world – except for the Indigenous People, we are all the descendants of migrants.

Despite this, some of us still get asked ‘So, where are you from?’. Even if people mean ‘where is your family from?’, it still means the same thing – ‘you don’t look like you are from here, so where are you from?’. As someone who grew up in Australia, being consistently questioned about my background is really frustrating. When this happens, I often ask myself, do people who were born overseas but look the part experience this as much? I think the answer is, probably not.

Conversations that begin with presumptions are also equally frustrating – I have had so many conversations with people who assume I enjoy spicy food, that I’m good at maths or that I have overbearing parents. These are the obvious stereotypes, but there have been plenty more assumptions that aren’t as obvious but are a reminder that you’re different. I don’t need reminding that I’m Asian. I’m proud of having an Asian heritage and I’m proud of being bilingual – but, I don’t need a constant reminder of it in conversation. In the same way tall people don’t need reminding of being tall, or brown-haired people don’t need reminding that they have brown hair. They know it.

To me it all boils down to perception. In his excellent TED Talk, Jason Katz talks about our association with certain words. When you think of the word ‘gender’, you think of women. When you think of the words ‘sexual orientation’, you think of gay or lesbian. When you hear ‘ethnic’, you think of Asian, African, Arab etc. Like many others, I’ve been guilty of these associations. But men do have a gender, heterosexuals do have a sexual orientation and Caucasians do have an ethnicity and are for sure not immune to racial issues. So many of our perceptions are socially constructed – we are shaped by the society we grow up and live in.

But we are all individuals, with a unique combination of what we identify with. I identify with being Chinese Malaysian Australian – my ethnicity is Chinese, my family is from Malaysia and I grew up in Australia. What I don’t identify with is being only one of those things – I’m not just Malaysian and I’m not just Australian. I also identify with being a woman and a feminist, but in much broader terms than what society places on them. I believe in gender equality, which to me means equality between women, genderqueer, men, genderfluid, and the many other terms you might identify with. I refuse to be placed in a box of stereotypical identifications and work very hard to not place other people in boxes too.

We each have the power to choose and be proud of our own identities, regardless of what other people think. On the other hand, we also have the opportunity to challenge all the underlying perceptions of people that we might have, because if we’re honest, we all have them. Rather than merely focusing on our differences, we can choose to celebrate how these differences enriches our one, but colourful society!

Yee Chan is a proud Chinese-Malaysian Australian and Melbournian, currently based in Germany as an English teacher. She has an academic and career background in International Development, and has a passion for coffee, reading and travelling. She is still searching for the best Phở in Dresden.

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