tevere: Jihae, solemn with hint of smile (Default)
The new year didn't start particularly auspiciously, with a death in the family. It was my maternal grandmother, but we've never been close-- my mother disliked her, so the only memories I have of her is as an undifferentiated part of the Cantonese-speaking adult presence on the other side of the lazy susan during yum cha and family gatherings. I'll fly back next week for the funeral, home again two days later, and I suppose that will be that.

I always get annoyed when people say, snidely, "You can't even talk with your grandparents?" as if my inability to speak Cantonese is a personal moral failing. You want to know why I can't speak it? Why is because my Chinese-Malaysian mother was raised in a post-colonial society in which English was the language of privilege. She was educated in English, which her parents believed would give her better opportunities. She was forced to go to university overseas, because Chinese were systemically denied places in the Malaysian higher education system. She married a white man, and settled permanently in the west. When she had children, she was told by western educators that raising them bilingually would result in a lesser command of both languages, and if she knew one thing, she knew that if you were to succeed in the west you had to speak perfect English. When her children occasionally asked her to try speaking Cantonese to them, so they could learn, she'd say, "What do you need that for, here?" Mandarin, on the other hand, was useful, the acknowledged language of the future, so that was taught, but only later.

So it's not that I'm lazy, I have no respect for my culture. I don't have the language of my grandparents because it was withheld from me for my own good by parents who otherwise strove as mightily as they could to give me every educational opportunity.

I remember the first time I went to Hong Kong, I was startled and delighted by how it sounded like home-- a bone-deep familiarity that was, nonetheless, still completely incomprehensible. And now, over time, as I gradually learn more Mandarin, Mandarin has become familiar and (occasionally) comprehensible, and the sounds and characters of Cantonese increasingly alien.

I casually mentioned to a Cantonese-speaking friend that perhaps I'd like to learn one day, at least enough to get that lost sense of familiarity back, but she snorted and said bluntly, "You're too old. Mandarin, maybe, but Cantonese? Adults can't." True or not, I do know deep down that I'll never learn; I have a hard enough time keeping my current languages in my head, and of the Chinese languages Mandarin is more useful.

In the not-too-distant future, everyone in my family who can speak Cantonese will be gone, and I guess that will be that, too.
tevere: Jihae, solemn with hint of smile (Default)
Usually for Chinese New Year my extended family go out for a reunion dinner and call it a day, but now that I have a kid, and having experienced a truly beautiful Christmas at [personal profile] isilya's in December, I thought this year I'd have some family and friends over and try my hand at some traditional foods. So I researched a bunch of recipes, I called my mother, I called a friend from Guangdong who knows how to cook, I made forays to Asian supermarkets armed with a Chinese dictionary app (since my accent is so bad nobody ever knows what I'm saying), I made a couple of disastrous practice attempts and ate them all, I found more recipes, The Boy and I yelled at each other as we struggled to get multiple time-sensitive dishes cooked at the same time while the guests waited-- and after all that, it actually turned out really well! We had:

- Yee sang
- Pan-fried lor bak go (radish cake)
- Spicy hokkein noodles with tofu and snow peas
- Mushrooms and hair moss with smoked oysters
- San choy bau with a filling of fried tempeh, enoki mushroom and water chestnuts
- Tea eggs (contributed by someone else)
- Some kind of traditional Taiwanese mixed vegetables (contributed by someone else)
- Battered, pan-fried nian gao (sticky rice cake)
- Pandan hun kwee (mung bean) jelly
- Almond biscuits (from the store)
- Mango white tea

(Next year someone else is hosting, though.)

Rather typically, by the time I realised I hadn't any photos of all the finished dishes laid out on the table, it was far too late. The hordes had already descended! The only reasonable photo I have is, ironically, of the one dish that doesn't hold a particular emotional connection for me. I never ate yee sang growing up-- my sister thinks it caught on in our community after I'd already left home-- and I've had it only since going to reunion dinners as an adult. Yes, the version we made didn't have any fish (the key symbolic element). Yes, it didn't have the traditional 27 elements. Yes, we used packet fried noodles because we couldn't find the proper auspiciously-shaped crackers. It was still fucking delicious. I did tell people not to toss it too high, because I didn't want to be picking shredded vegetables out of the furniture, but we managed to toss it pretty thoroughly.

Yee sang
Red cabbage, zucchini, bean sprouts, pickled ginger, lime, pomelo, carrot, cucumber, fried noodles, peanuts, sesame seeds

The most tricky dish, and the one I was most keen on making, was my childhood favourite: lor bak go, a savoury, steamed cake made from rice flour and white radish. You can get it at yum cha, pan-fried to crisp deliciousness. When I called my mother to ask how to make it, she tsked at me and said, "Too difficult!" and "Vegetarian? Impossible!" My mother is prone to hysteria and exaggeration, but she was partially right: it was a gigantic pain in the ass, even if that was mostly the learning curve rather than the actual process. But after much experimentation, and a temporary relinquishing of my vegetarian principles, I'm pretty happy with the final result:

Lor bak go
We fried and ate the leftovers for breakfast. I know, those slices are way too thick.

Recipe with step-by-step photos )
tevere: Jihae, solemn with hint of smile (Default)
Hairdresser: My, you have such a lot of hair.
Me: Mm-hmm.
Hairdresser: Such thick hair. [Pause] You know, it's kind of like Asian hair.
Me: [mental sigh] My mother is Chinese.
Hairdresser: Really? [LOOKS SUPER-HARD AT MY FACE, THEN AT MY HAIR, THEN AT MY FACE AGAIN] Is this your natural hair colour?
Me: Yes.
Hairdresser: NO.
Me: [gritting teeth] Yes.
Hairdresser: Oh my god, you so don't even look Asian! No way could I even have guessed! [LOOKS AT MY FACE REALLY HARD AGAIN] Hmmm, but actually-- now that I'm looking, you do kind of have Asian eyes. But your hair! And your skin!

I have had this conversation literally every time I've been to get my hair cut in Australia (okay, with the exception of that one time my hairdresser was Deaf; we couldn't talk, because she couldn't watch my mouth and her hands at the same time). Today there was even an interesting twist, because my hairdresser was originally from China herself. She kept carding her fingers through my hair while saying, "It's so weird to hear you talking about going home for Chinese New Year when your hair looks like this!"

Then she castigated me for not ever brushing my hair, and for tying it up while it was wet.

I mean, the really stupid thing about all of this is that not all Chinese people have thick, coarse hair, anyway. It's common in my family, but I've had friends who had super-fine hair. (And in fact, not all Chinese people have pitch-black hair, either. There are lots of hair shades classified as 'black', and I clearly got gingery recessive genes from somewhere!) Individual people are individual; it's shocking, I know.

On the subject of 'things people have said', earlier this week I went to get my driver's licence swapped over to a local one. Although the woman was very sweet and efficient, she looked in consternation at the 'middle name' section of my completed application form and said, "I can't fit this word onto the licence. Do you mind having it left out?"

Word? You mean... my name? (Which is, incidentally, the world's most common surname.)

Ah, Australia. Sometimes you make me feel more Asian than I ever felt while living in Asia.

And now off to find an obscure, 20 year old piece of paper fossilising in my mother's garage, because somehow being in possession of an Australian passport is insufficient to prove to Births, Deaths and Marriages that I am an Australian. This despite the fact that it's clearly easier to forge a citizenship certificate -- a piece of embossed paper that came out of someone's desk-top printer -- than a passport that's the product of millions of dollars of anti-forgery technology. *resists obvious Mossad joke*
tevere: Jihae, solemn with hint of smile (sunshine)
Mixed Kids are Not Prettier by CVT (and here on Racialicious with different comments).

You know, this whole thing hurts and exhausts me so much that I don't even particularly want to engage on it.

Mixed race people are not labradoodles or cockapoos or crossbred animals. I wish people would consider what they're saying when they gush about how novel and exotic and beautiful their friend's African-Asian or White-Pacific-Islander baby is, because I sure as hell don't think those people want to hear a discussion about which parts of their own phenotypes are 'racially typical' and how they contribute aesthetically to the whole-- so why on earth do they think it's acceptable (a compliment, even!) to do it to us?

Consider that there is an unspoken 'right' and 'wrong' way to look if you're a mixed race Chinese-Caucasian (I'm obviously most familiar with this example). A way of figuring out this unspoken rule is to find mixed Chinese-Caucasian individuals and in each case ask yourself, "Is this person 'exotically beautiful' or simply 'weird-looking'?" Consider why that distinction exists and what it says about racial hierarchies and standards of beauty in the countries we live in.
tevere: Jihae, solemn with hint of smile (Default)
Currently back in Saigon after a few days in central Vietnam-- more on that later!

So, for Yuletide this year I wrote a story for Liz Williams' Inspector Chen series: This Sweet and Bitter Orange Mood, which is about Inari finding her way home. I want to give special thanks to [livejournal.com profile] the_grynne for her super-speedy help and beta services, and to [livejournal.com profile] bantha_fodder for reading my initial draft and pointing me in the right direction!

I don't think the series is that well-known, and the only place I've ever seen any of the books in a bookshop is in New Zealand-- I had to resort to Amazon to buy the first in the series, 'Snake Agent'. The premise is fabulous: a world in which the Heaven and Hell of traditional Chinese belief are real, their demons and deities coexisting with the human world. Inspector Chen Wei forms a reluctant (and mildly slashy) partnership with his counterpart from Hell's Vice Division, Zhu Irzh, to solve supernatural mysteries and occasionally rescue Chen's demon wife, Inari, from Hell's clutches.

That said-- with no criticism intended of my Yuletide recipient, or of other fans of the series (including those who left wonderful, thoughtful feedback on my story), I have to say: as a mixed-race member of the Chinese diaspora, I find the series deeply, deeply frustrating. Don't get me wrong: I love the idea of fiction based on Chinese mythology, traditional beliefs and religion-- it's what made me hunt down the series in the first place and start reading with such glee. Fantasy novels! Set in Asia! About Chinese people!

...Except, as it turns out, not so much about Chinese people. I mean, I get it: it's hard to write characters from a culture you're not familiar with. But what really hurts me-- what makes me boggle-- is the fact that while the author has freely borrowed from Chinese myths and beliefs and religion (and again: fine with that!), she has clearly chosen not to make the effort to write characters who think, act, or even live in the same physical and cultural environment as actual Chinese people.

It hurts me, and it makes me angry, that when writing about us an author can so thoughtlessly overwrite our food and replace it with her own (kale, chocolate, chowder); who can replace our cultural and pop-culture references with her own (repeated references to dated American TV shows-- to the exclusion of any references to Asian literature or media); our language with her own (characters explicitly searching for and using Western proverbs and sayings, when Chinese equivalents exist); our names with those of her own creation (why use keymash constructions when Chinese demons traditionally have Chinese names, e.g. Yan Luo, Meng Po); who can randomly insert elements from other Asian cultures into a supposedly Chinese narrative (why does Zhu carry a katana rather than a jian?); who replaces our own bureaucracies with foreign structures and concepts (SWAT units, guilds, Seneschal, American police ranks e.g. Captain Su Sung); and who blithely makes statements that are just factually wrong and/or culturally inappropriate (Chen telling Ma that Hell is called the Yellow Springs because it's named after an actual yellow spring; "Little Pearl Tang, trussed like a sacrificial chicken"; "The thought of Tang's freedom chafed him like a yak-hair shirt").

Perhaps, with the feelings I have towards the canon, I shouldn't have offered this fandom in the first place. But at the same time-- isn't fanfiction the chance to at least try and make some things right again? I hope my Yuletide recipient enjoyed the story anyway, regardless of why I chose to write it.

If you are a fan of the series, or read it in the future, please just be aware that while it is a story about Asian characters (which is always fabulous to see in fiction, especially fantasy and sci-fi), those characters are seen very much through a white, Western, American lens. [ETA: Apparently she's British, which makes the constant Americanisms perplexing as well as infuriating.]

If you like Chinese tales of the supernatural, I love Pu Songling's classic Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. These tiny old-school stories are touching, perverse, instructional, and often have a surprisingly frank eroticism-- two of my favourites are the tale of a relationship between a young male fox-spirit and a human scholar, and a delightful and tender threesome story about a man who accidentally marries both a ghost and a fox-girl.

If you like Chinese crime series, I like Qiu Xiaolong's Inspector Chen series (yes, confusing; there are two Inspector Chens). These are smart, political crime novels set in Shanghai, and Qiu's modern verse translations of Tang and Song dynasty poems (scattered throughout) are wonderful. [ETA: [personal profile] bravecows also thinks The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang looks good.]

ETA: For YA fantasy based on Chinese myths and legends, [personal profile] jonquil recommends Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon, and [personal profile] holyschist recommends Laurence Yep's Dragon of the Lost Sea series. [personal profile] jhameia recommends giving A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts by Ying Chang Compestine a try, if you don't mind some horror and gore, and [personal profile] starlady says she loves Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin (for the somewhat younger crowd).

Happy new year!
tevere: Jihae, solemn with hint of smile (Default)
These days I find myself getting mild culture shock whenever I travel back to Australia. It seems that it takes being away, and then coming back, for me to really notice how things are here: the shiny consumable nature of everything; the beautifully reliable infrastructure and social services; the fact that Australia, as depicted on TV and in the glossy magazines at my sister's house, is completely and utterly white.

I mean, I never think of Australia as particularly white, and it's certainly not what you see on the streets. And it's when I visit Adelaide that I feel most Asian: staying with my sister; seeing my mum; going to family dinners at the suburban Chinese restaurant where the staff speak Cantonese to my family, my family speak Cantonese to the family at the adjoining table, and the menu's in untranslated Chinese.

And yet, this morning I was paging through my sister's In Style Australia magazine (March 2009, with Kate Winslet on the cover), where everyone in the photos looks dead-eyed and airbrushed and vaguely inhuman, and I realised that apparently 'Australia' means blonde-haired Natalie Bassingthwaighte (who, according to the article title, is 'Turning Japanese' by celebrating the launch of her album at a Japanese restaurant), and we should all be looking towards (white) America for style inspiration. I mean, I could count the POC in that magazine on my fingers and toes. No, actually. Take a look:

  • Chanel Iman ('Ways to wear', small photo, pg 36)
  • Penelope Cruz (double-page Loreal ad)
  • Seal (alongside Heidi Klum at Oscars, big photo)
  • Jessica Alba (small headshot, Oscars)
  • Penelope Cruz (single-page Loreal ad)
  • full-page ad for www.thedesignerswarehouse.com.au, Indian model
  • Eva Longoria Parker and two Latina girls (full-page ad for Desperate Housewives)
  • Team of Slumdog Millionare (half-page photo at Golden Globes, 4 out of 7 are POC)
  • Seal (alongside Heidi Klum, tiny photo from Oscars afterparty)
  • Eva Longoria Parker (tiny headshot in 'beauty' hairstyle section)
  • Rihanna (medium headshot in 'beauty' makeup section)
  • Full-page ad for Bobbi Brown, model maybe of part-Asian background
  • Small headshot and testimonial from Korean woman ('Debbie') in SK-II advertisement
  • Small photo of one of Angelina Jolie's children in ad for Who Weekly magazine, and minuscule photo of a Who Weekly cover with Barack and Michelle Obama on it

I used to read magazines like this all the time, so guess I always knew this. It's only now I'm noticing it. The only woman who even remotely looks like me or my sister in this 200+ page magazine -- which must have more than a thousand photos of people in it -- is an unnamed model in a Bobbi Brown ad. Way to go, Australia.

Meanwhile, last night my sister and I sat on her couch and laughed and smiled at a book I bought for her in KL: Part Asian, 100% Hapa. (Actually, there's an interesting essay on the Asian appropriation of the Hawaiian word hapa here, which is worth reading.) A whole book of photos of people who look like her, or look like me, or who don't look like either of us but are still like us. It's kind of sad how excited we both got about it. We shouldn't have to buy a special book to see pictures of people who look like us, you know? Why are the 20% or so of non-white Australians just invisible in the media? Why is the Australian Embassy in East Timor staffed only by white people? Why does the New Zealand Army presence in East Timor consist of a fairly even distribution of white and POC soldiers, whereas the Australian Army is white-bread central?

What angers me is that it just doesn't have to be this way. Why can't In Style just have one photoshoot with POC in an issue? Why can't they feature one non-white designer in their 'let's look at the houses of famous designers' feature? How hard can it BE?

I guess it's time for me to write a letter to the editor, huh.


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