I identify as Viet-Australian. This is very easy for me to do because both my parents are Vietnamese and I was born in Viet Nam. My family became refugees when I was two, and we arrived in Australia when I was three. I am not literate in Vietnamese, although I can speak it conversationally (provided the conversations are about neutral topics such as food and family; conversations about politics and history are beyond my Viet language abilities). When I was travelling in Viet Nam recently, I made a most amusing faux pas. Instead of saying my Vietnamese was “not very good” (do), I said my Vietnamese was “naughty” (hu). After that I said my Vietnamese was “nothing special” – binh thuong.
I also use the terms Asian-Australian and Asian to identify myself, in relation to others. Generally speaking however, I am resistant to pan-Asian terms.
Throughout the past few weeks I have been making notes about why this is. Having never articulated it clearly to myself, I decided a process was required to gain an answer. The question has been stewing throughout a week of my interactions with the world; as thoughts surface from the bubbling miasma of my everyday life, I try to capture and record them. One weeknight was set aside for handwritten stream of consciousness note taking. And then I spent a day attempting to make coherent those disparate thoughts and musings. I decided to let the post simmer on, becuase I was not yet happy with it.
Some other posts I read, and the comments made in response, also provided fodder for my pontifications.
Jenn of Reappropriate found herself defending past dating habits, as a reaction to persons who – so it appears to me – are spuriously attacking her failure to ‘support’ Asian-American men by dating non-Asians. I wish I could more easily dismiss these people whose personal attack on Jenn is incredibly repulsive. The position that a female Asian’s failure to date Asian men is somehow racist strikes me as ludicrous. There may be a level of internalised racism in some Asian persons’ dating habits (Bao Phi writes an excellent piece about his epiphany of his own racism -read Introductory Essay), but limiting your loves to only other persons who are the same race as you is racism of a different order.
I don’t know Jenn at all, other than what I read on her blog and even then I’ve not engaged with her via her blog, and I don’t always agree with her, but her posts are often complex, sometimes angry and always well thought out.
Sume also writes of her difficulty with the concept of identifying as ‘Asian in General‘. Her post made me wonder about what comprises the notion of a particular culture / ethnicity / race. Some of the comments in response to Sume’s post raised ideas / concerns about belonging and community, and not merely identification. Some of the comments devolved into concern about ethnocentricity; but saying “I am Viet / Asian” does not equal saying “Viet / Asian is best” – and this is very much connected, as I see it, to Jenn of Reappropriate’s arguments about fighting sexism within the ‘Asian Community’ (whatever that is).
Sume also made the very accurate statement:
or is that just a term incorporated into the American Salad
by people who simply couldn’t tell Chinese from Japanese from Vietnamese, etc?”
As with all my thinking, I don’t consider my view fixed. Rather, I expect my reasons will wax and wane in their cogency and I will accordingly be more, or less, persuaded by myself as I age.
The overarching theme that emerged about why I resist a pan-Asian description of myself (and other people) is that I am concerned about what I (and probably others) have elsewhere called Diversity in Otherness. This theme was reiterated in my readings of the various blogs I visit throughout the week.
Not being of Anglo-Saxon or Northern European Caucasian appearance, I am a ‘minority’ to mainstream Australia. I am an Other.
Asia encompasses so many countries with vastly different cultures and of vastly different appearances. For some from the United Kingdom, ‘Asian’ might conjure up images of people of Indian and Sri-Lankan background. To rather too many mainstream Australians, ‘Asian’ conjures up an image of the dreaded northern invaders – the Japanese. ‘Asian’ also too often is perceived to be persons of Chinese background, possibly because the Chinese have had a lengthy and geographically wide diaspora. The outsider Asian – of whatever origin – will be the perceived racialist stereotype commonly held by the mainstream: the Curry, the militant Jap, the Oriental.
It is quite apparent that persons from the white mainstream can have complexities in their backgrounds but, to the mainstream, Asian people become all the same. There are experiences and descriptions that might be common to all Asians (that “Where are you from?” moment for eg, or having a white person assume your differently Asianed friend is your sibling); and to all Viet people (I can’t think of anything right now).
These common experiences stem from the group’s otherness from the mainstream, not experiences that unify them as a group. The experiences might structure an identity and interests that allow for the formation of a community – eg the web-based and what appears to me academia-oriented Asian Australian discussion forum – but do not, of themselves have any universal application to all Asians, or all Asian-Australian.
I found this while reading backwards through the Asian-Australian discussion forum, and it is a more articulate and eloquent rendering of what I am trying to say:
In the short time of composing this post and being happy enough with it,
I have not succeeded in locating its author.
I apologise for not properly attributing and would be more than happy to be corrected. *
** Tom, also from the AA discuss forum, has kindly advised that the authorship of the above quote is:-
Heyes, Cressida, “Identity Politics”,
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2002 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) **
I am trying to educate people, but the mainstream in particular: by calling myself Viet-Australian, I am making a clear statement that the Viet form a separate and distinct group from ‘Asian’. I do not however suggest that the Viet form a unified or monolithic group. By being myself and proudly Viet, the moment when that person thinks (or, as occurs rather too often for my liking, *says* to me) “Gee, she’s not very Vietnamese,” is also the moment when they acknowledge diversity within a group – whether they realise it or not.
There is, of course, the concern that descriptions like mine will become clunky. If my partner and I have a child, will it be described as Viet-Irish-long-time-Australian? And what if we migrate to another country, will I become Viet-Australian-Candian (insert other country)? In some ways, this is moot because one is and should be self-described and self-identified. The continued need for tags is, in itself, racist and leads to the awful question of: is there a minimum requirement of ‘blood’ to allow one to identify oneself with a culture / race / ethnicity? I do not want an answer to this question. I do not think it is an appropriate question.
Perhaps there is a requirement of some kind of connection: what the criteria of that connection must be, I do not know. But I do believe that criteria should be multifaceted and fluid, and, in the language of logic, each criterion should be sufficient, but none should be necessary.
The mere existence of difficulties and complexities does not mean one should cease to attempt complex, accurate and fulfilling self-descriptions and cultural identity. I am willing to be wrong – I am eager for cogent arguments that would persuade me to alter my position. I hope that I will always be engaging with my self-identification and with how others identify me. And I seek community, I seek people with common experiences because I believe I can learn from them, and others can learn from me, and we will all be enriched.