“My mum survived the Vietnam War and came from poverty. She lost a lot of opportunities after that war and came to a country where English is a third language and people didn’t respect her.
Strangers on the street and service people didn’t respect her because they didn’t understand what she was saying.”
Saturday 28th August, 2021
Lisa and I are sitting in the shade under a big, leafy tree. The morning sun is out, we can hear birds chirping and Lisa has brought some treats with her - homemade mandarin cake with icing, fresh strawberries and I've brought a croissant and two coffees. We’re having a little picnic in Highgate Hill park in Meanjin, which has a nice view of the city.
E: Lisa, can you tell me a little about your cultural background?
L: My mum is Vietnamese, from Ho Chi Minh in Saigon, Vietnam which is a really hot humid place. My dad is from Tasmania and his parents are English and German.
E: Can you describe your connection to your Vietnamese culture?
L: It's mostly connected through my Mum and has definitely changed over time. It feels like as an adult, I still don't really know that much about my culture as I'd like to, in terms of having difficulty understanding the language, not having consumed much media and the history. It's all very linked to my mum and the time that I spend with her. It doesn't feel like I have a personal connection to it outside of her.
As a kid, I went to a Vietnamese school on Saturdays. I wanted to enjoy it but also found it really challenging because a lot of the other kids came from families where both parents were Vietnamese. They were all fluent in the language and I felt that I was quiet behind and I couldn't really keep up. My mum was really pushing for me to go, but my dad wasn’t at the time. He was the type of parent that was like ‘if she doesn't really want to do this then we shouldn’t force her to.’ At the time it was great but as an adult I wish I was forced to because outside of talking to my mum, I still talk like a child in Vietnamese (laughs).
E: Did your mum maintain a strong connection to Vietnamese traditions or culture after moving to Australia?
L: The reason my parents moved to West End in Brisbane was because at the time there was a big Vietnamese and immigrant / migrant community. Although, she didn't really connect with or find other Vietnamese people that she could build that sense of community with here. The friends she made were white people from her workplace, but in that environment she also experienced racism and mistreatment. It was really hard hearing about her experiences as a child
E: That must have been really challenging for you to hear as a child. Did this have an impact on how you saw your Vietnamese identity?
L: Definitely, I think it influenced my sense of internalised racism and assumptions around being ‘too Vietnamese’ like it was a bad thing and not socially accepted. I definitely identified more with being Australian. I really loved the food that my mum cooked and certain parts of my Asian culture and aesthetic, but there was always this message that being white would be easier and instantly accepted.
I loved going over to Vietnam, but there was always the sense that it was inferior. It sounds crazy to me now, but just growing up I felt that Vietnamese things were tacky, lower grade or less superior than things made in Australia or things Australian people liked. There was a real sense of assimilation in that way.
E: What do you feel have been some of your primary challenges growing up mixed Asian?
L: Whenever I think about my challenges, this part of me comes up recognising I was privileged as I’m white passing, I have light skin and have never been attacked for the colour of my skin. Another part of me acknowledges that it was really hard and there was this constant feeling of otherness. There were so many examples of this growing up in terms of socialising at school or boyfriends in high school.
E: Was your school culturally diverse?
L: It was quite a diverse school, but I think the classic white passing mixed-Asian technique to assimilate would be having only white friends. It wasn’t that I saw other Asian people as a threat, but I thought if I was around more Asian people then I'll be easily identified as Asian.
I sometimes wondered if I would have a different perspective earlier if my whole family was Asian and I think I missed out on huge parts of culture where you're surrounded by a big lively Asian family of aunties, uncles and you share food. There's a lot within that stereotypical dynamic that a lot of my Asian friends experienced growing up which I never had but wish that I did.
E: Did you feel at home when you would visit Asian friends' houses for family gatherings?
L: It definitely felt like something I'd missed out on or something I really wanted to experience. I always wonder how this would have impacted my sense of identity and connection to culture if I had more of that presence of a bigger Asian family. Even outside of my Asian friends, with my Greek or Lebanese friends who had big families, it was just the most exciting thing to see everyone so connected and proud of their identity. It was always something I was compelled and intrigued by.
E: Did you have many Asian friends when you were younger?
L: All through school I didn’t really have any Asian friends, it’s only been in my 20s that I've been drawn to people who I see myself in. I have so many Asian friends around me now that I'm able to connect with and have a deeper understanding. I have Asian friends that went to the same highschool, existing in the same cohort of people and having very similar experiences separate from each other.
E: Did you ever feel being Asian was something to be embarrassed about?
L: Definitely, with friends coming over to my house and there being little Shrines with all my ancestors (laughs), there’s incense burning and there's a fruit offering. Now as an adult I think that is the most beautiful thing. My mum would drag us out when it’s the lunar new year or the anniversary of my grandparents death and you would do a prayer. She’d guide us through it each time and in hindsight I'm so glad I was still able to be a part of that culture, even if I wasn’t fully accepting or grateful of it and how beautiful it is being exposed to those types of rituals.
Our house was like this dingy little house (laughs) so socio-economic things came into it too, you know being embarrassed that there's no aircon, a tiny TV, there's not much to do. My dad tried to DIY everything himself so it meant that there were holes in the walls. The bathroom was just this open black mould bathroom that had not been tiled for 10 years and had some plastic over it (laughs).
Even just the comparisons that I would find myself making with other people and their relationship with their parents. My mum was quite a traditional Vietnamese mum who had very high expectations of me based on everything she'd sacrificed moving to Australia. She had ongoing mental health problems so it was a really strained relationship in the way that I was not particularly in a child role and was looking after her, translating things, helping her fill out forms and when we’d go out I’d do the talking. She was quite a verbally abusive person and very strict. I think not having a very warm and nurturing relationship with my mother was something I’d compare to people with white mums and associate that with race, which I know now is not necessarily always the case.
E: How do you think these experiences growing up with your mum impacted you?
L: It was really difficult because both my parents had the traditional Asian parenting style which was quite authoritative. There were high expectations but low levels of warmth. I was provided for, I had a house to sleep in, I went to a really good school that I could walk to, there was always food, but it just meant that I internalized a lot of those messages and emotions. There wasn’t a safe base and I couldn't understand how to talk to anyone, or adults, and that I was really needing to have someone that I could trust and rely on to talk through things. Me and my brother tried to work it out ourselves. It’s probably why I was so awkward as a child, I didn't know how to talk to people (laughs). I have a really close relationship with my parents now, but that experience of having an Asian mum and those high standards meant that I had certain ideas of how my body should look, how much I should eat, what I should be like and what I should be doing.
E: Is it common for Vietnamese parents to have this parenting style?
L: I think it is a common thing to be quite strict and have high expectations of your children. I’ve also heard from other Asian friends with migrant parents, there is this experience of being made aware of how much your parents had been through, all the opportunities they didn't receive and what they gave up so you could have those opportunities. There’s this pressure to be really grateful, honour that sacrifice and not let them down.
For my mum, so much of her challenges of assimilating here was that she was mistreated and didn't have much of a purpose in her job. It led her to have these strong racist beliefs around Australians and white people. At the same time she’d be mistreating me using that kind of terminology like ‘that’s such an Australian thing to do’ or ‘you're not my child you're just an Australian.’ It was this constant conflict of feeling really hurt and angry at my mum because it felt like I didn't have someone that I could trust. It was someone who was quite cruel to me and had really high expectations.
At the same time I understood that my mum survived the Vietnam War and came from poverty. She lost a lot of opportunities after that war and came to a country where English is a third language and people didn't respect her. Strangers on the street and service people didn't respect her because they didn't understand what she was saying. I can understand how exhausting that must have been for her, but I also felt really hurt that she took so much of it out on me.
E: It’s so interesting how our relationship with the parent who is Asian, can impact our own experiences of connection to our identity and culture. How do you feel the challenges you have gone through have shaped the person you are now?
L: It’s definitely made me more resilient and given me that sense of unexplainable understanding for people who come from a mixed background and their experiences. I'm really grateful for having that compassion and understanding the experience of being othered, people’s hardships and how that can impact how they treat others.
There was a lot of resentment towards my mum all through my childhood and my teen years. I didn’t have a place to put those emotions so it took it out on myself, my body and had a lot of mental health issues growing up. Through that journey I found a language for how to identify how I was feeling and it’s really helped me feel a lot stronger in myself. I’m really proud of my identity and to have that connection to culture.
It's impacted how I am in relationships and bringing people into my life that I feel very safe and comfortable with and knowing boundaries. There’s so much I'm really grateful for now and what I've learnt about myself.
E: I agree, it helps us to connect with each other by opening up and being vulnerable. It makes someone else not feel alone in their experience.
L: Exactly, even though there is a lot of pain that comes from having to go through those experiences, it seems like there's so much self-discovery and empowerment that comes through that. It feels so nice to be able to be in a place where you can reflect on that, connect with other people, but also normalise that it's not okay and it was also a form of oppression and self oppression that we’re doing. By having this discussion we can help to heal that little voice that might have been fueling that oppression.
E: What are some aspects of your culture that are most important to you?
L: I think definitely food (laughs), because it’s so delicious. It was a real way of being able to connect with my mum and for her to be able to show me love. She would make me my favourite Vietnamese dish..
E: Which is?
L: Ah they’re all so good, she's a really good cook. Because she’s Buddist she would make a lot of vegetarian food, so I haven’t eaten a lot of meat based Asian dishes. She would make this amazing vegetarian bánh xèo, which is a type of mung bean pancake. It’s really crispy and you put different types of bean sprouts and fried tofu inside. You have this delicious sweet soy sauce on top and use lettuce leaves to pick it up to eat… it’s so delicious.
I've had some others before but they’re not as good as my Mums, it takes me back to my childhood. So yeah, definitely food and wanting to learn some of those recipes from my mum, as they were recipes my grandmother showed her.
I also think of other traditional methods of artmaking or even symbols for Asia that I really love. I started growing lotus flowers because I wanted to learn how to grow an aquatic garden. I really love Lotuses but they are a lot of work and maintenance until you understand what they need, like most things in life. I have loved just learning about all these different processes that people have in Vietnam to grow them in pots. They have these isolated little ecosystems within these tiny pots that grow amazing flowers.
Also learning how to approach things in a really intentional and mindful way.
E: It seems like as we get older we want to connect more with our Asian identity, and food is the universal language to learn something new and connect to culture. Do you also feel like your mum practicing Buddhism has given you a different perspective?
L: Definitely, and valuing the ancient and human rituals that are repeated for generations for good reason. As a kid I didn't really understand what it meant. These intentional actions to take care of something and upholding a tradition that her mother did, her mother’s mother and her ancestors before. I think it’s such a beautiful way to connect to that sense of identity and culture. That’s something that I really value now as an adult.
E: It’s such a beautiful way of seeing the world. Within your identity now, what do you embrace about being mixed Asian?
L: When it comes to concepts of beauty, my sense of self and the things I value about myself, now it’s more about who I want to be rather than how I present myself. Now I really embrace everything about how my body presents, my hair colour, my eye colour and even the way my face looks. I know that this is something that identifies me as not being white. I don't look like I'm fully white and that was something I really hated about myself growing up. That’s one thing I really embrace now are all of these features that make me mixed or Asian. That ability to be the duality of both things, having this understanding and experiencing the best of both cultures.
I really love being connected to this beautiful culture that's so different to being Australian. Even though being Australian is great as well.
E: It’s so true you embrace both cultures at the same time and that’s something that should be celebrated. Just by being mixed makes us more open to different ways of life and perspectives. Growing up with your Vietnamese mum and Australian dad, having two different perspectives and cultures, that’s really beautiful and you’re the result of those two people.
L: Definitely and realising how special that is and who we are now.
Lotus Flower: They’re such a classic symbol because they grow from mud and water, pretty much out of nothing, yet from these seeds grow some of the most beautiful and useful flowers. They have many practical uses, in cooking you can fry up the root, the leaves can be used in weaving, for medicinal purposes, and the smell of the flower is amazing. The rainbow lustreware vase reminds me of my Australian grandmother’s house.
Ao Dai: The pale blue Ao Dai belonged to my mother and was one of four costume changes at her wedding (diva moment).
Khan Dong: A really thick headband Vietnamese women wear that looks like a little aura. I remember anything I'd see that was an Asian wedding or something, I'd immediately default it to being tacky. I see it now as aesthetically beautiful and a work of art. I really value the craftsmanship that goes into it and how it's a distinguished symbol of Vietnamese culture. My Mum has one from when I was little, so I wanted to wear that as a way of honoring that connection now.
Other: Clothing pieces made by my friends from Homejob; Emika Kazama and Wendy Ma. Their artisanal designs usually blend Asian and Western influences and I feel they really embody the story of this project.
“People would say ‘how can you still have an accent even though you’ve lived here for 20 years?’
I get really self conscious about it, because people mention it a lot. It’s like you’re not doing good enough, because you still have an accent after you’ve been here for so long.”
Sunday 29th August, 2021
Ruby is finishing teaching a ceramic class in New Farm, Brisbane. I spend time admiring her incredible ceramic sculptures and vases on the shelves until she finishes up. We walk down to a lake nearby and find a nice shady spot in the park. We lay out a rug and begin chatting, observing people walking their dogs along the footpath.
E: Ruby, can you tell me a little bit about your cultural background?
R: I was born in Taiwan and moved here when I was 11 years old. I didn’t speak any English until I came to Australia and I've been here for over 20 years. I feel more Australian in a way than being Taiwanese, as I only spent the first 10 years of my life in Taiwan. There’s a lot of memories from Taiwan that I really cherish and it does affect who I am today. Sometimes it feels like you're not Taiwanese enough, or Australian enough, you’re kind of stuck in between.
I have Chinese heritage because my grandparents originated from China, but my parents and I were born in Taiwan. How many generations until you feel like you’re not associated with China, even though you still have cultural traditions and influences from China?
E: Where did you first move to in Australia?
R: Brisbane - My mum moved here in the year 2000 and my brother was born in Australia that same year. Brisbane temperature is very similar to Taiwan which is a big reason why a lot of Taiwanese people immigrate to Brisbane.
In school I just followed my classmates around, the first year was grade 7 and it was a bit confusing. I had ESL (English as Second Language) teachers and my mum made me do extra work outside of school to catch up. She bought every single book from the newsagents, you know how they have those stands with all the green and blue activity workbooks. I’m pretty sure she bought every single grade and then made me do them after school for an extra 2-3 hours trying to catch up on english.
Grade 8 was super confusing, I went to Brisbane State High and it was a massive school. I didn’t have many friends and felt pretty alone. I tried to write down everything the teachers said in my diary but it was just so hard. I just kind of wandered between classes, and at lunchtime the music, art block and library is usually where I'd go.
E: Do you have a strong connection to your Taiwanese culture?
R: I think through food. Within a lot of Asian cultures, food is such a main part of your culture. We have the Moon Festival and Dragon Boat Festival, there are all these different things to do with the season. Particular food is associated with each festival and it's usually the time when your family gets together and celebrates.
My grandma taught me how to make Zong Zi 粽子, which is glutinous rice with pork, peanuts, and you wrap it in banana leaves and string to be steamed. A lot of my childhood memories in Taiwan are of food. My dad used to go out in the middle of night because food is still available, and eat soup dumplings. It is so good, I remember the taste and I can’t find anything that tastes as good here. Another memory is going to the market with my grandma, not like supermarkets but more chaotic markets where people yell out things and bargain.
I remember going to the butcher and I knew where my chicken came from, because they sold them alive and when we got home it was not alive (laughs)... things like that. And my grandma would be like don't ask, we don't do the butchering.
E: Do you have many memories when you lived in Taiwan?
R: Taiwan is two thirds mountain, so most people live on 1/3 of the land. I lived in the middle of the countryside, close to a mountain and a tea house. It wasn’t a fancy tea house like you imagine in the movies, it was just a building. Older people would go there to do some exercise in the park, drink tea and chat. The playground was literally a metal bar shaped like a horse, that’s all I'd get (laughs). There’s a massive slide as well, that’s made of stone and carved into the mountain. It's really awesome.
I’d get to eat Taiwanese Tea Eggs with my grandpa on the weekends. Because it’s a tea house they use the tea leaves and cook hard boiled eggs in tea, soy sauce and flavouring. I still make them now because it was such a big part of my life when I was a kid. You boil them a little bit, crack the shell, put it back to boil in this tea soy sauce brew and keep it brewing. It forms all these really nice patterns from where the eggshell cracked and it’s stained by the soy sauce in the tea. When you open it up it's like a marble egg - It's very Taiwanese.
E: Was there much of a Taiwanese community when your family came to Brisbane?
R: I think so - we had family friends but it wasn't big. I have a lot of family friends now who I grew up with. My friend’s mum used to help me when my mum wasn't here. She would cook me extra lunch and get my friends to bring it to school. I just feel like I had so many mums. So nowadays, I pay for them to do some art things together and have them over to my house for tea.
A really good (Taiwanese) friend of my mum’s - we met when I was in primary school. We’re still in touch and I treat their kids as my younger sister and brothers. They call me big sister. So it's nice to have that kind of connection, especially in a foreign country where you don't know anyone. It is easy to make connections and try to help each other.
E: Are your mum and dad still strongly connected to Taiwanese traditions and culture?
R: I think they are both connected to Taiwanese and Australian culture. Maybe that's also why I got Ruby as a name, because that wasn't my birth name.
E: What's your birth name?
R: My birth name is Yu-Lu. It's hard to say but even my mum and dad don’t call me that anymore. Everyone just calls me Ruby. It just became part of me, and my Chinese name is my middle name. I really try to make sure I put my middle Chinese name in when filling out forms. The more you do it, the more official it becomes. People say ‘why is your name so hard to say?’ There's still some workplaces that make up names for you because they can't say your Asian name. Unless you're the one who says ‘I don't mind if you call me this name,’ then it’s fine. But if you just decide for the person, then it’s not okay.
E: What do you feel have been your primary challenges growing up?
R: I think learning English and making friends. As a new immigrant family we had no connections and venturing into art was pretty adventurous for me. I didn't know anyone doing art and none of my family knew people doing art. I couldn’t have imagined getting to exhibitions and curators inviting me to do exhibitions. I just think it's amazing because I had no connections. I think part of being an immigrant family is making connections, making your own circle and finding your way into society. Initially, you would just stay within Taiwanese communities, but then you start venturing out a little bit more.
I remember going to Melany with my family and someone assumed my husband was our tour guide, because we're all Asian and he isn’t. I just said back to the person ‘That's a little bit racist.’ My mom told me to keep quiet if someone says something because they don’t like confrontations. I think it's very typical for Asian people to do that. We’ll stay quiet, have no trouble and have a peaceful life. Even if you face a little bit of racism but you don't have other big troubles, then it's better.
I find we (Asians) are more sensitive. We're actually more aware of our environment and actions as a minority. You have to be mindful about where you are and your surroundings, because you feel like you're responsible for your community. Everyone is a representation of your community.
I knew there was a bit of anti-Asian when Covid-19 first happened and I was trying to stay away from people because I didn't want them to be like ‘oh, stay away from me because you’re Asian.’ I was preventing confrontations. It's interesting because I told my husband Marcel and it never occurred to him that I was paying so much attention. It's just my experience growing up here and preventing more trauma.
There's so many things that you’re more aware of as a Person of Colour and female, whether it’s knowing where the closest exit is, or people thinking you’re exotic - it's layers and layers.
I’ve had white guys come up to me and just start speaking different languages, and ask ‘What are you? Which one are you?’ And I'm like, ‘What? I can speak English.’
I had a camping experience where my husband and I went further out into the Australian countryside, which is usually when you get a lot of interesting comments. This white guy at the campsite was just having a chat with us and we told him we’re from Brisbane. He asked which part, and at the time my family was living in Sunnybank, which is so typical - all the Asian food is there. The guy said ‘Oh yeah, I grew up in Sunnybank, but then moved out because it got taken over by you people.’
It was weird, he was so nice to me though and didn't realise what he said. It was just casually in conversation. People don't realise that racism doesn't just have to be people yelling ‘Go back to your country.’ That’s part of it but most of the time, it's just casual comments.
‘Oh, you don't look Australian, you have an accent.’ I get that a lot because I still have an accent. People would say ‘how can you still have an accent even though you’ve lived here for 20 years?’ I get really self conscious about it, because people mention it a lot. It’s like you’re not doing good enough, because you still have an accent after you’ve been here for so long.
A really common one is ‘Oh, wow. Your English is really good.’ When I say yeah, I've been here for 20 years, they ask ‘Oh, but you still have an accent.’ It’s like, what do you want from me?
E: How have some of your challenges impacted you today?
R: How I’ve met you and other Asian kids growing up in Australia, when you start talking it’s like ‘omg I had similar experiences to you.’ My friends who are caucasian would not understand or say I’m just being over sensitive, but I did experience it. When I talk to my Asian friends it’s like ‘oh yeah my family did this’ and I'm like ‘yeah my family did that too!’ You feel more like you belong. You can talk about things that no one else understands.
I was lucky because my school was very multicultural so it was easy, people could easily find their little groups. It was a big school so you had more population in the school to do that. Obviously in the beginning it was hard for me because I couldn't speak English, but eventually I did find my quirky group.
I had a friend who told me she was really emotional throughout her time growing up in Australia, because she just wanted someone to look like her and understand how she felt. There was a period of time where she wanted the support but couldn't get it. But now we are in our 30s and you can find your own support and people who understand you.
E: Yes because you’re still trying to form your identity. Already being a teenager is hard, then adding all these other complexities on top of that is really difficult.
R: I think it’s amazing for my friends having kids now, there are so many diverse, mixed race couples and when their kids go to school it’ll be so cool because it’s much more diverse. They will have more community for themselves because they can grow up with someone and ask ‘oh what do you have (lunch)’ and they can say ‘pasta with dumplings’, or ‘curry with spag bowl’ (laughs).
The kids now are so lucky because people recognise same sex marriage, schools embrace queer identity, or making sure if kids want to change their name or have pronouns to ask them. I do a survey as well, I just ask the kids what’s your preferred pronoun. I get a lot of kids saying ‘I prefer this pronoun but please when you talk to my parents use the normal word.’ School becomes a space where they can talk about it and the teachers try really hard to stick to what the kids want.
E: What do you embrace about your Taiwanese culture?
R: I think food; bubble teas from Taiwan.
E: Where’s your favourite bubble tea spot?
R: Hihi Desserts in West End, Brisbane. It’s so Taiwanese, because in Taiwan there's a lot of students that go and get bubble tea, study after school and hang out, so that’s the space they’ve created. I usually get Oolong milk tea with pudding. If I feel luxury I add grass jelly, I actually grew up with grass jelly and rice milk.
E: Within your identity now, what do you embrace about being Asian and growing up in Australia?
R: I think we live in a good era and there's a bit more people wanting to connect. I'm quite open about it, I have people come up to me and say, I really like how you share on social media about how you feel and your experiences. Someone told me yesterday that they found that really encouraging. Instead of feeling like I don't fit in both, now I feel lucky because I have both. I don't completely feel Chinese. I don't completely feel Australian, I'm just both.
Being oversensitive is not a bad thing because if you are empathetic and understanding, that's how you make the world better. I feel like all these negative experiences I've had, even though I wouldn't recommend people to go through it, but if I didn't have them maybe I'd just be a really arrogant person (laughs).
Jade bracelet: The jade bracelet given to me from my mom. It's not as common for girls to wear it now, but in traditional Chinese culture, parents give Jade to their daughters as protection. It's something you get given as a kid, it grows with you and the jade will change colour. You don't let other people wear your bracelet, it's yours and your parents give it to you. In Taiwan when you marry the daughter out, you get all the jewellery you can find and they wear it on their wedding day. That's their private treasure. My family was not so traditional in that aspect, but my other Taiwanese friend who got married said she almost died from the heaviness of all the jewellery her mum put on her (laughs). I think it's because in the old days when you marry out, you don't have your own money, so if something happens the jewellery is yours.
Ceramics: This represents who I am now, doing art. My mom told me last year her family was originally from a part of China that was a famous pottery town, Jingdezhen 景德鎮. Her great grandfather was a potter and did production pottery and it's what her family used to do back in the day in China.
“Where I'm at now, I'm proud to be here and to have made it to this point. I no longer feel bound by those beauty standards, I don't feel bound by my brownness and what that means.
I'm not afraid to speak my truth anymore or who might feel uncomfortable with it.”
Monday 19th September, 2021
I'm with Natasha in her cosy loft home in New Farm, Meanjin, surrounded by a large collection of music vinyls. We are sitting on the couch eating some snacks and sushi.
E: Can you tell me a little bit about your cultural background?
N: I am half Indonesian, a quarter Armenian and a quarter Hungarian. Both my parents met in Australia and I was born here.
My dad is Indonesian and he has a huge family. My mum was an only child and didn't really have any family around here, whereas my dad had seven or eight brothers and sisters, he came from a very big Indonesian family. Interestingly, they all lived in a big family home well into their adult life. All of his brothers and sisters were living together in this one house. I've only been to Indonesia once in my life to visit them in Jakarta, I think I was six years old.
E: What are your memories of being in Indonesia?
N: My Auntie Sandra, she was this beautiful Indonesian woman, just a vision. I remember she was gorgeous and I really looked up to her a lot. She was working as a TV anchor at that time and I have these very random memories of her house. She had this big wall of all these people that she had worked with, it was a little Hall of Fame with photographs of her with people like Richard Gere. I remember seeing that and thinking, Wow my auntie is just so amazing.
I have a very distinct memory of walking around the neighbourhood to go get some fruit and vegetables from a little cart. I just remember the trip being very family oriented and everyone was together. Many of my aunties and uncles have now passed away, but it felt very much like a cultural thing to all stay together, live together and be this one big unit rather than disperse and do your own thing.
E: What were some things that the family would do together?
N: Auntie Sandra loved to throw a good party. Parties were a big family event and our cousins would come. My brother, sister and I all loved my dad's family, but we didn't have the strongest connection to them because we didn't see them very often. There were big family dinners, big family events and bringing in all the cousins, which was all so foreign because we lived in Australia. Our life was very isolated, it was just our immediate family and that was it.
E: Where in Australia did you grow up?
N: On the Gold Coast. My mum was raised by a single working mum and lived a very humble life, they didn’t have a lot of money. It was just her and her mom and that was it, there was no family really, she was an only child. My parents had these two very different lives, my dad came from quite a prominent Indonesian family, so it was two different worlds essentially. We would go to Indonesia and experience this very different world that we weren't used to, it was exciting and fun.
E: How did your mum and dad meet?
N: They met in Sydney. My dad left Indonesia when he was about 18 and all of the stories he heard was that he was this little rebel. He couldn’t wait to leave Indonesia. His father had set up this job for him as a bank manager and said one day ‘you start on Monday, you better go.’ My dad was like, ‘I don't want to do it.’ So he ran away and came to Australia with $100 in his bank account.
I wish I could talk to him now and be like, Can you clarify this for me? (laughs) Because it doesn't necessarily add up. But he was definitely that kind of spirit, just wanting to travel and felt really contained in a very traditional Indonesian, prominent family. He didn't feel comfortable, so he came to Australia somewhat illegally. I remember he was a waiter, worked on a cruise ship and that's how he came to Australia. They stopped in Sydney, got off the boat and never came back (laughs), which is just so my dad, he was very cheeky, fun and just a real free spirit. He was the most charming man as well.
My parents met in Sydney and obviously back then being in an interracial relationship was mind blowing. It was a very big deal. I think just existing in Australia at that time and being an interracial couple, it was definitely hard for them. It's interesting because I remember my mom detailing a lot of what we would now call casual racism. I think it definitely had an effect on them.
Even just the fact that they were an interracial couple, dad was a Person of Color and we were all mixed race kids. We didn't have many open discussions about what their experience was and what that meant for us, which is really interesting now when I think back to it because it's major. I also think it's kind of that generation where these discussions weren't had. Specifically thinking about my dad, I can definitely recognise now how much effort he put into being as Australian as he could be. It honestly devastates me thinking about that, it really makes me feel so sad for him that he felt that he had to do that.
E: How would you describe your connection to your Indonesian growing up to now?
N: It's very disjointed and complex. I used to beg my dad to teach me Indonesian and he just wouldn't. It's very interesting because a lot of my Asian friends or mixed friends have this experience where they get so much of their culture through their parents. But what's really interesting with me is that, my dad was visibly a very Indonesian man and he would eat everything with his hands, but he never really passed that on to us or connected us to that. So I've had a very disjointed relationship with my Indonesian heritage. I think growing up and experiencing that, it made me feel like I had to be white.
Dad would definitely tell us stories, especially about his family and his upbringing, but the cultural aspect of what it meant to be Indonesian, we are so disconnected from it. Now that both my brother, sister and I are older, we definitely feel that heaviness of not knowing where we come from. It's definitely been something that we've all explored a bit in our own way, but it's hard to know where to start. I think we've all felt imposter syndrome really strongly because of the way we were brought up.
E: Did you want to embrace your Indonesian culture when you were younger?
N: I was the darkest of my brother and my sister and the most visibly Indonesian. It's quite interesting because I feel like we've all had a different experience because of that. My brother looked the most like my mom and I looked the most like my dad. So I naturally had more of an inclination when I was younger to really connect with our Indonesian heritage. I'm visibly brown, I want to know where that comes from.
E: What do you feel have been your primary challenges growing up mixed Asian?
N: I have very sporadic, distinct memories of when it started to hit me that there is a difference that is noticed by people, that I have no control over. I remember being in grade one at school and this little boy came up to me and said 'put your hands like this if you want to be my girlfriend (puts hands above head in a cross) and go like this if you don't (puts hands down).’ He kept repeating it to me and I kept saying, ‘No, no, no, I don't want to be your girlfriend.’ I just remember he goes 'whatever, you're too brown for me anyway' and walks away. It's never, ever left me, that one interaction and it's weird because I distinctly knew what it meant. He was actually saying, you're brown and that's a reason for me not to want you. That's obviously coming from his own conditioning, but it definitely was something that I felt from a very young age. The fact that I was this chubby little brown girl in primary school, I definitely felt like the other. I could tell I wasn't the same as everybody else.
There would be so many more instances that would have hit me subconsciously as well. It's so real, so prevalent and not easy to talk about.
E How was your experience in high school?
N: I got a full scholarship to a really nice school, which was completely whitewashed. There weren't many brown kids or brown teachers. Even if no one's saying something to your face, there's still that strong feeling of being the other. It's very hard to not feel it subconsciously. I've got lots of memories, especially the boys in my school asking very inappropriate questions. There was this one boy who was a friend of mine making a massive joke over the fact that I probably have brown nipples and how ugly that would be, and 'show us your nipples.' Just really inappropriate. Then you're also being told it's just a joke, lighten up. It definitely can start to affect how you navigate the world and perceive everything. I was a good student, then I started to flunk as soon as I got to high school. I couldn't really focus on my grades. My priorities were about pleasing my peers and trying to be this version of myself that was very accepted and celebrated, that's all I cared about. I hate the fact that I was so consumed by that, but it's very evident to me that I was so confused, I was desperate to be accepted and to fit in with everybody in a predominantly white school.
I wanted to be the whitest version of myself that I could be, which is so sad. I had this knowing that I would never, ever be or feel beautiful. I got to this point in high school where I thought, no one's ever going to find me desirable, I need to be this funny girl. I started to overcompensate in other ways because I felt I had to double prove my worth to people and was a massive people pleaser. Now that I think about it, it had quite a severe effect on me. The beauty standards especially had a real impact on me growing up because of the lack of representation. I remember Harry Potter coming out and thinking, I could never be in that. I used to do acting and would think that I could never really pursue it because there would never be roles for someone like me.
E: There was no one we saw ourselves in, so of course we didn't think that was the ideal beauty standard. We didn't think we were beautiful because we couldn't see anyone that was like us. The closest person in popular culture or movies would have been Lucy Liu in Charlie's Angels.
N: Totally 100%, and just even having people come up to me and ask, ‘where are you from?’ Or instantly telling me, oh you must be Spanish / Indigenous / or this. The guessing game was constant and the hardest thing I started to realise was that my skin colour will be the first thing anyone will ever see.
It took a while for me to see my skin colour and heritage as a positive thing. Back then, I struggled with that a lot because I was so desperate to fit in and couldn’t escape it because it defined me. People put that on me and there was never any consent with it.
Being a child going through that, it's so hard. Even now I feel it's taken so much in me to really get to a place where I can feel proud of my heritage, and that I can hold space for it. Being so young and going through all of that, then also just feeling so disconnected from my heritage, it was like a real whirlwind.
E: When did the shift happen for you?
N: When I moved to Melbourne. I got through high school and I suppressed a lot, even though I definitely thought about it and was aware of it, but I rarely had the conversation. I would sometimes talk to my friends, and their response was, aren’t you overreacting a little bit? Or they would dismiss it. I don't think they were bad people, but there's such a lack of understanding as to how it really feels to go through all of this. I experienced that from adults as well and the few times that I would feel inclined to talk about it, the response was oh, ‘you know people don't mean it like that.’ Just like microaggression vibes.
When I left school, that's when everything started to shift. The internet really started to become a thing, representation started to slowly change and the conversation started to slowly become this thing. In 2010, that's when you really started seeing this shift, but I was right at the end and didn't necessarily experience it.
Moving to Melbourne, which is so multicultural and the communities that exist down there are so strong, it honestly changed everything. It was the first time in my life that I ever had experienced feeling very beautiful. I went from feeling like I had to do everything to diminish my Asian heritage, to then all of a sudden I had won the lottery. There were so many beautiful POCs and amazing communities down there that it was a total 180 for me. That even sent my brain spinning a little bit because it felt so foreign to me, I didn't know how to navigate being around all these multicultural communities. It felt so amazing but also I didn't feel equipped for it.
E: What impact did that have on you?
N: As someone who definitely didn't grow up with a very strong cultural identity, that's when the imposter syndrome really started to kick in because I was seeing all these incredible POCs that were living their truth. They're the real thing, they're embracing it and they've had that in them their whole life. I'd grown up on the Gold Coast, which is a surfy town, everyone's white and blonde. It was confusing and really jarring. But it was definitely the first time that I started to understand my beauty. I saw girls that were me, who were killing it and were creative, smart, beautiful and doing things. That was game changing and gave me the confidence to pursue the things I wanted to do, know that I could do them and that I had value beyond trying to be something that I wasn't.
E: Did you have any Asian friends growing up?
N: I didn't have many at all when I was growing up. I definitely had friends, but I was so whitewashed and disconnected from my culture. I wish I embraced it more when I was younger because I really missed out on having that community, having mixed friends and sharing my experiences with them. I always loaded it onto my white friends, which is interesting that I would do that and not seek out a community that would understand me.
E: What was the biggest change for you in Melbourne?
N: The biggest thing was feeling more comfortable in who I was and how I looked. It was probably an age thing as well and being exposed to creative communities that were solely focused around being POC or being black. That was everything for me to see that existed. I was in Melbourne for five years and that's when diversity started to become a talking point, especially being in such a left-leaning, progressive state. It was great to see that and friends that were in modeling agencies that were only for POCs. It was so cool.
I remember being down there and thinking I'm never going to leave this place, this is where I belong. I see my people and this is where I should be.
E: What brought on the decision to move back to the Gold Coast?
N: Well, also I'm painting Melbourne in this really positive light, but there were still interactions I had with people that were not great. I had dated someone and I remember the topic of calling someone exotic came up and he said, ‘I don't get it, it's a compliment.’ I've now recognized that I experienced a lot of that in Melbourne. I've definitely experienced becoming a fetish to certain men and how problematic that is. That's what started to happen in Melbourne, I felt so accepted but then how much of this is genuine? It could also just be my own perceptions but if someone was giving me some kind of attention, I was thinking about their motives for wanting to engage with me... It's very complex. I had reached the end of Melbourne and I knew I had to come back to re-centre myself. Melbourne is a pretty crazy, wild, fun place and I was there in my early twenties, so I knew I needed to come home to feel more grounded. As amazing as Melbourne is, it can kind of gobble you up if you're not keeping your head afloat, which I think I experienced.
So I moved back home but I was honestly terrified, because I knew I was entering back into this somewhat traumatic experience that I'd had growing up in Queensland, which was the complete opposite to what Melbourne was. I'd say mostly these problematic behaviours I experience now actually come from an older generation. I'm not saying that it doesn't exist within our generation as well, but I really notice with my friend's parents and things that they say. It's definitely still there. Down in Melbourne, you don't get away with anything, people will call you out and they'll school you on the spot, there's no apologies. I feel really blessed that I was able to experience that, it gave me more confidence in knowing who I am, being proud of it and not shying away from it, even if it's someone older.
E: Was there a particular reason why you wanted to move back to the Gold Coast?
N: I needed some healing. My dad got pretty ill while I was down in Melbourne, so there was this need to be closer to him. I felt like I needed to be able to see him if he needed me.
E: Did this time with your dad allow you to connect with him a bit more?
N: Yeah, I feel like the story with my parents is really sad because they both passed away before I had a chance to really connect with them about where they came from. My mom passed away when I was 21. Dad passed away last year (2020), but his decline started happening many years before that and by the time I had moved up, he was not really himself anymore. I got to that point of really wanting to know about my culture and my heritage, but it was just a bit too late, which is really sad. Now I have so much I wish I could ask and connect to it more, but it's just my story. I've kind of gotten to a place where I can just accept it for what it is, and it's just my own journey to embark on myself. It's definitely left me at a point where it's hard to know where to begin.
E Just thinking about your dad, even though you have that disconnection to your culture, you still had your dad and that connection to him as a person. That's very meaningful, is he the catalyst for you wanting to connect to your culture?
N: Exactly. Yes, I'm really glad I moved back because he ended up moving back to Indonesia shortly after that. My brother, my sister and I decided that dad really needed to be with the family in Indonesia, because we knew that he would have really good support there. We were all kind of dispersed and busy, my sister lives in America, my brother was down in Melbourne, so we felt dad needed to be with his family. That was a challenge because it was hard for him to reenter Indonesia, he had revoked his citizenship and was no longer an Indonesian citizen, he was an Australian citizen. I don't know why he didn't choose to do dual citizenship, but that was my dad.
He was such an Indonesian man, it's like who are you fooling dad? (laughs). The way that he spoke, the way that he ate his food, the food he would cook, he cooked only Indonesian food. He was like an amazing cook and you just look at him and he's this tall Indonesian man. It really breaks my heart that he felt he had to go to such lengths to really prove that he belonged here. It's hard because I haven't been able to have that conversation with him about why he really did that, but I feel like it was this desire to belong and be accepted. I remember having conversations and dad felt ashamed, and it was hard for him to go back to Indonesia when he was sick. He really left that life.
I feel like a lot of the identity struggles that I've got, I've definitely inherited from him. I think he felt it too and really struggled just embracing himself as he was.
E: What do you really embrace about your identity now?
N: I'm proud to be at the point that I am now and all of the experiences that I've had, both good and bad. I used to be really ashamed of how I previously reacted to things or that I wasn't more in tune with being Indonesian and not speaking up in certain instances. Where I'm at now, I'm just proud to be here and to have made it to this point. I no longer feel bound by those beauty standards, I don't feel bound by my brownness and what that means. I'm not afraid to speak my truth anymore or who might feel uncomfortable with it.
Losing a parent, it throws a very different perspective on things and makes you reflect a bit more. Losing dad made me realise that I'm not connected to Indonesia at all and it's really made me want to find that connection. Dad's funeral was in Indonesia but I wasn't able to go because of COVID. Experiencing my Indonesian father, that was my experience of Indonesia. Now that's gone, it's really on me to go and explore that side of me and to find out more. I'm right at the beginning.
E: What does that reconnection look like to you?
N: I would really love to go to Indonesia. I used to beg Dad and be like, can I please come over? For whatever reason, he just never opened up that side to us and it's hard to understand why. But now I think it's really important for me, my brother and my sister to all go to Indonesia. It's a bit hard at the moment because I know Indonesia's really going through it with COVID. I also want to spend some time living in Indonesia, I'm at this point where I want to allow myself to know that culture, how my dad grew up and what it was like. I want to connect with it.
I'm still undoing certain things that I've grown up with as well. The shift in energy surrounding diversity and race is very fresh and I'm still unlearning a lot of things that I grew up believing. Even doing this with you today, there's still a part of me that feels like I don't deserve this. I know that's not the case, but I'm right at the start of my journey.
Having connections with people that really understand you and what you've been through, that's been so positive for me. Doing something like this project as well, is my first big step into doing something that's strongly about my Asian background. It's an amazing push from my inner self to share my experience and embrace what it means to be mixed and have Asian heritage.
Doing music and having the radio show, we have quotas, it needs to be 50% Australian, it needs to be this, this, this. But we've really challenged that and I've really tried to represent black and brown artists on the show. In the world of music, especially dance music, it's turned into this white male thing. When I was in Melbourne, I really wanted to start djing, but I was going up against these white dudes and you weren't seen. So even just existing in a creative space as a PoC woman is doing everything in itself.
I've kind of gotten to the point where even showing up and me putting myself in this position, that's doing everything. I'm so excited to be a part of a community of women with mixed heritage where you can be whoever you want to be, you can do whatever you want to do, you can express that creatively. There's just so much more to look up to now. There's still so much more work that needs to be done, but I can't believe these conversations exist now. In Queensland, I think it has a long way to go in terms of really embracing community and showcasing diversity. The only way it will happen is if we all come together and make it happen, or if those opportunities are there and exist for us, otherwise it's just never really going to happen.
E: Are there any aspects of your Indonesian culture that are really important to you, or what have you learned so far?
N: I don't think I know yet. I have so much to learn and discover. I've taken a really long time to grieve and mourn the passing of my parents, which has been at the forefront of everything. Now understanding they're gone, I've turned inward and asked myself, who am I? Who were these people and where did they come from? I don't know a lot and they really raised us in Australia. It's interesting that they came here, really wanting to assimilate and didn't give us their culture. They didn't pass that on to us, so I've yet to find that out.
Batik Fabric: The only thing I had a strong connection to was Batik Indonesian fabric, which my dad used to fill our closets with piles and piles of this beautiful Indonesian fabric that he had from home. When I see it, I get such a strong connection to my dad.
“Even though I was born here and I'm Australian, everyone always likes to remind me that I don't belong. ‘Where are you from?’
I felt more connected in Thailand than I do in Australia, just because I felt accepted. I was surrounded by people that I looked like, how rare is that? I felt at home.”
Saturday 28th January, 2022
Wanida and I are sitting within her cosy home, on the couch with Romeo and GG (her two kittens). We just ate a whole heap of dumplings and soup.
E: Wanida, Can you tell me a little bit about your cultural background?
W: I’m half Thai and half Turkish. Both parents immigrated here when they were around 20. I was raised by my mum in a Thai household and saw my dad on the weekends.
E: Do you know much about your mum’s upbringing?
W: My mum grew up in a country town just outside of Bangkok, Thailand. She grew up really poor, they didn't have any electricity and she ended up dropping out of school at year five because she couldn't afford to go to school past that point. She's one of the oldest siblings and would take care of the younger ones. She ended up running away from home at 15 and eventually came to Australia.
It was only 30 years later that she returned back to Thailand, reunited with her siblings and found out that her parents had passed away. That was the first time I'd gone to Thailand when I was 15, so that was a really big trip.
E: What was it like for you visiting Thailand for the first time?
W: It was different. I don't think I was able to really take it all in because I was at that young age. I just remember not liking the food (laughs), which is so polar opposite to now. I just remember not loving it because it wasn't mum’s food, she cooked traditional food as well, but it was just different and I was used to her food. I remember it being really, really difficult to eat and then we were staying at one of her friends' really small apartments. It was just really squishy, really hot, really muggy. I really wanted to go to the islands and we didn't get to go.
When I went back to Thailand as an adult, that's where I really appreciated everything. Even the people, I think just from dealing with my mum and being raised in a Thai household, I feel like I know how to talk to Thai people because they're sort of blunt and straight up.
Even though I was born here and I'm Australian, everyone always likes to remind me that I don't belong. Like, where are you from? Or what's your ethnicity or what's your background? I was born here, I was born at this hospital here. But when I was in Thailand, automatically people started talking Thai to me. They just assumed that I was Thai and I was like, Oh, I don't speak Thai. Which is another reason why next time I go back, I want to learn Thai. Yeah, I found it so crazy. I wasn't born in Thailand, I'd only been there one other time and automatically people were accepting me and talking Thai even though I do look mixed, I was like that's cool.
I felt so deeply connected to the people and the culture. I felt more connected in Thailand than I do in Australia, just because I felt accepted. I was like, Oh my God, I'm surrounded by people that I look like, how rare is that? I felt at home.
E: Was this trip the first time your mum had been back to Thailand after 30 years?
W: That was the first time and it was really emotional for her. I didn't know what to do when she broke down and stuff, I couldn't really take in how she was feeling. She knew that her parents had probably passed away, but there was no confirmation. At that time my mum and I had a very strained relationship anyway, so I just wasn't emotionally connected to her in general.
E: How would you describe your connection to your culture?
W: I definitely feel connected because I was raised in a Thai household. We always ate Thai food and sat on the floor. My mum still speaks Thai, I don't understand her, but I can pick up the gist of what she's talking about. I do feel like my experience was definitely cultural, but then on the other hand, I feel disconnected because I don't speak the language.
E: Did your mum ever teach you Thai when you were younger?
W: No. So because my mum's Thai and my dad's Turkish, they were like cool, English is the middle ground and we live in an English country, so let's just stick with that. Obviously that sounds really smart, but as I've gotten older I'm like, damn, I really wish they taught me their languages. Everyone that I know that's Thai, speaks Thai, and I'm the only one that doesn't. It's just so frustrating, but one of my goals is to learn the Thai language.
E: Was there much of a Thai community where you lived with your mum?
W: All mum’s close friends are all Thai. So that was just the community I was surrounded with. Then when we'd go to Songkran (Thai New Year), you would see the community at the temples. When I was younger we did big camping trips, gatherings and parties. I think as I got older I just wanted to stay home, you know when you become a teenager you're like, I don't want to go.
E: Do you feel like you had any challenges growing up?
W: I definitely felt from a young age that I was different. More so with beauty standards, I felt like all the boys liked my white friends. Back then it was a big deal, I mean, it has translated in the same way as an adult, but in different ways where it's jobs that you get hired for.
I definitely felt really excluded, lots of people name calling, just for 'jokes,' but it was straight off the bat racist. I remember this one girl in my friendship group would always call me the N-word, because I was brown. She wasn't doing it in a way that was trying to hurt me, but it was such a racist term.
And then there were other things like my mum not being educated, so I really struggled in school because I had no one helping me. I just did all my assignments and everything myself, but I didn't really know what I was doing. I didn't have any help. I did tutoring for a few years when I was eight, which helped with things like timetables and math, but when it came to English, it was really hard for me to do well because I had no help.
E: That's what a lot of people don't realise is the privilege of having parents who grew up in this country, are fluent in english and well educated. Whereas when you're from a different cultural background, with some parents immigrating here, it's a different story. Sometimes you're more educated than your parents.
W: Yep. The crazy thing is, I didn't even know until I left school that people's parents helped them with their homework. I didn't even know that was a thing. The teachers didn't care, they just marked what you had and that's it. They would just sit at their desks and didn't care. I always thought I was dumb, because I always did dumb English and dumb maths. I mean, my whole adult life, I thought I wasn't academically smart and that's why I never tried to go for art grants up until now. I thought i'm never going to get it, or that I was so bad at English. It's not until now that I actually began to believe in myself, I actually can do it, I'm good at it once I get some help and know what I'm doing. I can do this.
E: That's so important, especially when you're a kid, when you're young, to have that support and help. When you're in school and there's teachers that just don't care, that can impact your confidence. Did you go to a culturally diverse school?
W: I would say it was culturally diverse. I went to Springwood State High and I don't think I knew any Thai people, but there were definitely lots of Pacific Islander, Asian, Indian, European people. So quite diverse, lots of white people too though.
E: Did you have a lot of culturally diverse friends in your friend group?
W: I had a few, yeah. It just depended on what grade I was in and who I was closest to at that time. But the teachers, no, I don't remember any teacher being a Person of Color. I remember all my teachers being white.
As soon as I left school, I was completely drawn to other People of Color and didn't even realise it until later on in life. Up until early adulthood and especially in high school, I really tried to fit in and fit the mould. I remember not wanting to go out into the sun because I wanted my skin colour to be lighter, I bleached my hair from a young age as well. I didn't really clock why I was doing these things until later, that I was trying to fit in and be Western.
E: Yeah, because that was considered the ideal beauty standard at the time. We also weren't getting a lot of popular culture or celebrity role models. We couldn't really see ourselves in any of the stuff we were consuming. So all of the celebs, the female icons, the movies and posters and all that, they were all white, blonde, blue eyed and beautiful.
W: Yeah, there was no representation.
E: Looking Asian was something that wasn't considered beautiful. Therefore, you try to change yourself to fit in. I would even try to straighten my hair, do anything to look as white passing as possible, but it's very obvious that you're not.
W: Exactly. Even at my lightest skin colour I'm still really brown. I did all of that, I really tried, straightened my hair, bleached my hair, stayed out of the sun, and felt like I still wasn't fitting in. It was more about how I looked, I never pushed away my family.
E: When you enter adulthood, you start to realise, actually, these are my strengths and you start to learn more about yourself. From those challenges and experiences growing up, how do you feel it's impacted you now?
W: I went through a period of realisation, because I still tried to fit in for a long time in my early twenties. My industry is heavily focused on appearance as well, being in the entertainment world. So now it was more about booking jobs and getting gigs. Again, I tried my best to fit in and I did all the same things that I was doing, straightening and bleaching my hair. I hadn't seen my natural curls in such a long time because I bleached and straightened my hair for so long.
Then I went through this period of change and self-acceptance around my mid-twenties, and I realised, I'm never going to fit the mould. Ever. I just wanted to be accepted and treated as equal to everyone else, why is that so much to ask? I realised, actually, this is really unfair. So I really leaned into who I was. I made the change very quickly, dyed my hair back, which was the first time I'd been natural since I was a kid.
E: Do you know if there's anything that triggered it? Was it this gradual transition?
W: I think it's more just an age thing. Even where I was going in my career, I started working for myself more, doing my own projects and leaning into myself. Yeah, I think it was just time and I'm that type of person. When something clicks, it clicks and I like change. I'm just a bit of a radical personality (laughs).
That's when I started Pink Matter. I also had a breakup and I was wanting to lean into my womanhood, wanting to be around my friends, be by myself and just be me. That was a big life change. I decided to be more outspoken about how I was feeling. I started to talk to my friends more and they felt the same way because they were POC as well. Weirdly enough, they were going through the same thing, feeling that sense of impatience and being fed up.
I remember changing my Instagram bio, which is still there and it's so small, but for me it was a sense of reclaiming myself publicly, putting the first line of my bio 'Thai Turkish.' That's who I am. All my community followed me and I wanted the first thing that they saw was my identity and who I am. That was a moment of reclaiming myself.
From that moment onwards, everything I do now, my cultural heritage and my identity is at the forefront.
E: That struck a chord with me because I went through the exact same thing and that's when everything started moving in the direction it needed to go. When you find your path and you're on that path, then your community comes to you. How is your community meant to come to you if you're trying to be someone that you're not?
W: I was getting in my own way by not leaning into who I was. I blamed people for not being inclusive and upholding these beauty standards, systematically I think it's still their fault. I think there are opportunities for everyone in all spaces, and if you're not being yourself, you're not going to get those opportunities. Sometimes it's up to you to also make space. I think everything that I've done up until this point, I made space for it, but I wasn't able to do that until I truly knew who I was.
E: Seeing you have that intersection of your cultural identity in your practice and showing who you are, for a lot of people like myself it paves the way and affirms that, if she can do it, I can do it. What do you embrace about your identity now?
W: Before, I didn't like the way that I looked. Now I love the way that I look and I love that I'm different. Being a woman of colour and I'm proud to be all those things now. I love that I was brought up in a Thai household and I have that experience. Even just the small things like my mum cooks so much and forces me to help her. Even when I see her now, all we do is cook all day and I just want to relax, but she's next level an amazing cook.
E: What does your mum cook that brings you comfort?
W: She definitely was big on the stir fries, all different types. She's just good at everything, honestly. One thing that I always go back to when I'm feeling sick, because it's comfort food, is rice porridge. I know other people call it congee, but I just cook it whatever way my mom did it. I remember every time I was sick that was on the menu, so now whenever I'm sick I make it, it's just a funny little thing.
We would share everything and have a spread where everyone just picks and eats. It was definitely a weird concept to me when I'd go out with Western people and everyone would order their dish and that was their dish, because that's just not how we'd do it. We even used to sit on the floor, not anymore because my mum has a table now. But throughout my entire upbringing we only sat on the floor. I still do that actually, sometimes I sit on the floor to eat.
E: Would there be any other little things that your mum would do that are traditionally Thai?
W: Just little random things, like I'm not allowed to step over her feet or legs. I wasn't allowed to pick anything off the floor with my feet because that's very disrespectful. Every time I'd do it, she'd get mad at me. My mum's so weirdly Asian, but also Aussie. She has a hardcore Thai accent, but also drinks beers and says Aussie slang. It's pretty funny. We did have a lot of traditions, but on the other hand she's not hardcore.
There are things she didn't pass on and didn't expose to me because she chose not to. My mum's Buddhist, but she never raised me to be Buddhist or have any religious belief, which I'm thankful for. I love that about my upbringing because for most people I know, whatever family their religion is, that's what you're expected to be. I didn't even know that was a thing until I started talking to people. I just completely grew up with no religion and I would go to temples and we'd get blessed by the monks, do the whole thing when it came time to do Thai New Years, but there was no expectation. I remember asking my mom when I was older, 'oh, am I Buddhist?' and she's like 'Oh you can be whatever you want to be.'
All Buddhism is, you just do good to people and you accept people. If you want to be Buddhist then be Buddhist, if you don't then don't. I love that I have no religion and didn't grow up with one. That's why I'm also glad that my mum raised me, because she always told me whatever makes you happy, do that. Whatever you want to be, be that. She 100% supported my dancing and took me to all the classes, drove me wherever I needed to be. When I was young, she was at every one of my concerts and she would watch them multiple times. She did all the sewing, all my makeup and was a hardcore dance mum. I am very thankful about the openness and putting no restrictions on my creativity and who I was as a person.
There was no family pressure to be someone. Until I saw my dad, he's totally the complete opposite. He didn't raise me so I didn't have to abide by his rules.
Gold necklace with two pendants: My mom gave this necklace to me when I was really young. It's gold, I'm a very gold girl. I have a little pendant heart from my Turkish grandma who I've only met one time when she came to Australia, and that's the only grandparent I've ever met.
Thai jewellery: Gold Ear piece worn in Traditional Thai dance.
Orchids: Mum is a real green thumb and loves to do the garden. That's actually been a really weird one that's circled back around to me, where now I love gardens and flowers because she has a veggie garden and heaps of flowers. We would always walk out when particular ones were blooming to look at it and smell it. It's this connection that I didn't realise was a thing until now.
This tattoo here is Orchids (points to her arm tattoo). Mum had all different types of Orchids, these ones are really tiny and only bloom every now and again. They smell like hectic vanilla and are called Sharry baby. So I love flowers now and I love the garden. Even my dad, he's really into veggies and has a green thumb as well.
Tattoos: My tattoos are very representative of who I am. My back's the most meaningful one because it's a traditional sacred Thai tattoo that was done by a monk. When I went to Thailand a couple of years ago, I knew I wanted this, so I looked up this tour and you get a Thai guide who sets up everything for you. I knew that I didn't want to go to the monks at a temple because it can be really unhygienic and I didn't want to risk anything. The Thai guide picked us up, they took us to the master's house, and he had this full set up. We did a ceremony to begin, which was repeating after him and doing the full prayer, then you consult with the master about what you want. Because its sacred and has powers, you tell them what you're looking for in your life and I said creativity, success and career. Being a woman, you're not allowed to get tattoos below your waist because it's not appropriate for men or monks to touch you in that way. That's the other thing, when you go to the temple you're not allowed to touch the monks. They're not allowed to touch women, It's just not appropriate. Anyway, the upper middle back is a sacred spot where it's open to your soul, so I was like, yep great. Love it (laughs) I was just down.
It was really crazy because normally with tattoos, it's a tattoo gun, but with this one I had to have two guys hold me down and stretch my skin manually. The master then went in with the hand poke tool and the most painful thing that I've ever had. This is the card he gave me (pulls out a small card) is a prayer you say to make sure your tattoo is connected to it's powers and keeps it strong.
“I’ve realised that growing up it was always about being Asian and having proximity to that and feeling the disadvantages of it, whereas now I can see the proximity I have to whiteness too.
I understand now that I have the privilege of both sides and there's things that I have to keep in mind within that as well.”
Saturday 18th September, 2021
Mika and I are having a little picnic at Mount Coot-Tha Brisbane Botanical Gardens, sitting by a lake having some coffee and eating blueberry banana cake from the farmer's market.
E: Mika, can you tell me a little bit about your cultural background?
M: I'm Filipino Australian. I was born and raised in Ipswich, but I've been in Brisbane the last 10 years. My mum's Filipino, but her parents are a mix of Filipino, Spanish and Chinese. Which I only found out this year (2021) and I was like, How did I not know about the Spanish and Chinese ancestry? (laughs)
Dad's Australian. I think his parents were born in Australia, but his mum is from a German background and dad is from a Scottish background.
E: How did your parents meet?
M: Really cute story actually, didn't work out for them because they separated (laughs) but it was at Expo 88 in South Bank and mum came to Queensland with her friends for it. Mum and her friends went into an elevator to go up to the pavilion, and dad was with his friends going down but mums friends noticed him checking her out before dad got off at his stop. Dad and his friends went back up to the pavilion where they bumped into mum and I think from there mum hung out with dad and they exchanged numbers. After mum went back to Sydney they would call and write to each other.
E: That sounds really cute, catching eyes in the elevator (laughs).
M: Running back to get her number and she's like, who's this Australian man with a really wide collar and a chain (laughs).
E: What was it like going to school in Ipswich?
M: It was fine mostly. Looking back at it, I see how my environment perpetuated my problems with self image. I guess back in the early 2000s, we weren't as progressive and nuanced with racism and how we accepted people from different backgrounds. So I just copped a lot of 'friendly' racial jokes constantly. I was never bullied in a traditional sense, I wasn't forced into lockers or anything really hard like that. It was just a lot of jokes, a lot of casual racism
E: Did you have a diverse friend group?
M: No. My friend group was very white, there was probably two other Asians in my cohort. We had a lot of Indigenous Australians and a lot of Samoans and Islander people there, which was really cool to be able to get to know those cultures on that kind of front. I feel like when I talk to a lot of people now, they're like, Oh, I've never been around First Nations people. High school was diverse compared to other schools which I’m so appreciative of, but I missed out on having Asian friends.
I had Mum's friend's kids and my family in Sydney that I could relate to, but back then all I wanted to do was assimilate with white culture even though I felt at home within my filipino culture. Whereas now if I see anyone that's Asian I'm like Yeah! Bestie! (laughs)
E: Yeah, that's a common thing. When you see each other, there's this mutual, deeper understanding. I don't know what it is but you're drawn to each other, instantly there's a connection.
M: It's probably partly because you're both in Australia and you look different to the majority. So you instantly have at least some experiences that are similar, and you can connect on that.
E: How would you describe your connection to your Filipino culture?
M: Growing up I saw my Filipino Sydney family more and was around mom and her friends all the time. Whereas now I don't have that as much, but I feel connected through the media I consume, filipino foods I still eat and finally experiencing the motherland in 2019. My appreciation for it is deeper.
E: What was that like?
M: It was for my Lola who passed away, so we all went to the Philippines and did a celebration and burial for her. It was really cool because I got to meet my ginormous family for the first time, my Mom's from a family of 12. Just seeing all of the family in Australia go to the Philippines at the same time and attach to all the family that's in the Philippines. There's this giant crew (laughs). It was really nice to finally meet everyone.
I was only there for a week so I didn't get to delve into the country of the Philippines. I just saw a lot of family, visited relatives houses and of course eating, eating, eating (laughs). Near the end of the trip we rented this big Airbnb, got drunk and had a boodle fight, which was a lot of fun. You get palm tree leaves and lay them out on the table, cook a bunch of food to put on top and everyone sits there and uses their hands to eat. My mum and her family are from Manila.
We mainly went to my Lola's house that one of mum's sisters lived in. The Airbnb was an hour's drive out of Manila, we were all in a hooded ute and there were 12 of us squished in the back for like an hour and it was really hot so everyone was just sweating on each other (laughs).
E: Did your mum teach you a lot about Filipino culture growing up?
M: I dont remember her actively teaching us about the Filipino culture, or teaching us the language aside from some words. From what I perceived she felt like she couldn't express that side of her in a way. She told me that someone once said, 'How are you going to be a good mother if you can't speak proper English?'. So I think her being in QLD and away from her family / culture made her feel like it was a negative thing to teach us that side of our culture.
In saying that we did get a lot of that culture and experience from going to her Filipino friends' houses or they would come over, as well as our Sydney family. One thing that I always wished was that we were bilingual.
E: So any features you thought were quite Asian, you didn't like?
M: I feel like growing up, it was always about being Asian. That was the significant thing that set me apart. I wanted to assimilate and not have the attention of being different. I did the nose peg thing to make my nose smaller even though it's not that big. I'd try to widen my eyes by constantly trying to keep them really open.
It's funny because even though I wanted to be more white and fit in, I was also really shy so I kind of liked the attention of being asked 'where you're from' or 'what’s your ethnicity.' It became part of my identity to have that attention. Even though I didn't like why I was different, having that extra attention of being asked 'where are you from?' made me feel like I was fitting in.
On one hand getting attention felt positive… though I didn’t have the thought back then that I was maybe being fetishised or anything like that and I assumed it was normal for older men to stare at young females and ask them questions... Then on the other hand, I've had partners where their friends would say, 'Oh, couldn't you get a real person or something like that?' It's so extreme on both ends and you're just constantly torn between, okay, is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing?
E: What would your partner at the time do when those things were said?
M: He was actually really good. He probably like told them f*ck off or something (laughs). He would always stand up for me, but still, to hear those things really sucks. Like what do you mean i'm not a normal person? It kind of made me feel like I could never fit in or I was a lesser person. I always felt there was a hierarchy of I'm down the bottom and all the white people at the top, and I could never get there.
E: Do you feel like your mom also had some struggles fitting in and assimilating?
M: Yeah, totally. She copped a bit from people about not being able to speak fluent English. I could see her dealing with racism from people not talking to her properly in English. It's like 'she can understand you.'.
Mum didn't really share a lot of her experiences with it. I don't know if it was like a way of protecting us or she just wasn't comfortable with talking about it. Nowadays I try to go out of my way to ask specific questions and when I do, she does share. But growing up, mom would never share anything about her childhood, she really kept that quiet.
E: Do you feel like now you're embracing more of your Filipino culture now?
M: Yeah, so much more now. Ever since 2019 I feel like I've just gone on this huge journey of consuming more Filipino news and shows, or going out of my way to learn more about it. Growing up I always tried to find my identity within the Western culture, but it was never there. Now looking at the other side and trying to find it within my mum's ethnicity or culture, I'm able to kind of fill that void and situate myself a lot more.
E: What was the catalyst?
M: I was already trying to figure out that journey and I just didn't know what path to take, but after going to Japan and the Philippines in 2019 and being surrounded by people, who I didn't look entirely like, but more so than in a western country. It opened my eyes up and felt really nice to feel like I visually fitted in more than where I grew up. That created a shift and I started to feel more positive about my mixed heritage and to learn more about it.
E: Does your mum cook a lot of Filipino food?
M: Yeah, I feel like I never really missed out on the Filipino food train, that was probably the one thing that was always there. Mom cooking Filipino dishes, us going to her friend's houses or parties and they'd all cook. It's such a strong Filipino trait (laughs).
E: What are some comfort foods or dishes that your mom would cook?
M: I love Sinigang. It's like a sour soup, pork dish, but you eat rice with it as well. Its basically just pork, tomato, onion, bok choy and then tamarind powder sauce but you can add whatever veggies. We’d always put more powder in to make it super sour. That was definitely a highlight.
E: What are some other typical Filipino dishes?
M: There's Dinuguan, which is very controversial because it's cooked in pig's blood. For me, it tasted really good (laughs). Then you've got Bagoong, which is shrimp paste but we’d add fish sauce and lemon to scoop it up and eat it with green mango. It's so good!
E: Do you have many Asian, or mixed Asian friends now?
E: Yeah, I actually live with two Asians now. Minori is Japanese, she was born in Japan and grew up in Cairns, and Luis is Indonesian who was born in Indonesia but grew up around the Gold Coast I think.
E: What's it like living in a house with these different Asian cultures?
M: I love it so much, it's so warming and you feel like you have people around that you immediately have a connection with. My Vietnamese friend Linh Chi just moved out (Luis replaced her) and we'd always cook dishes from our cultute for each other. And Minori and I actually had a 2 hour chat about culture the other night, so that was really cool as well. I just feel more at home when I'm around other mixed cultures (laughs).
E: Yes, because everyone needs community.
M: Oh, yeah. No matter where you're from, it's probably like the most important thing I think, having a community and having people that you can relate to. Otherwise, it's so lonely.
E: Within your Filipino culture, do you have strong family values or religious values?
M: Yeah, mum raised us to be religious but it never stuck (laughs). Filipinos and mums family have really strong values in Catholic religion. It's funny because whenever we went to Sydney, there were big celebrations of family being together, which was always nice and I’d feel like I was a part of a community. But my dad's side was completely different… it was really interesting to have both dynamics
E: Did you ever rebel?
M: Yeah (laughs), I was probably the most rebellious out of me and my 2 siblings. I had a really big emo stage in year 8 and 9 but I'd call myself 'scene' not emo, it was really funny. I think I was really angry at that point and was actually cruel to my mum. I probably rebelled because I felt restricted growing up… nothing was allowed. I had anger towards the way I looked and how I couldn’t do much about it, being raised by a single mum with a low wage, how we lived and what our family dynamic was like compared to some of my peers, and just everything.
The first time I was exposed to a 'normal' family was when I was with a partner in 2010. I'd go to his house and I'd be like, what is this… a mum and dad who show affection in front of everyone, communicate to each other and articulate well, the family sit down and have dinner every night… I was like, what is going on? I've only seen this in movies and didn't know it existed.
I was still fighting this anger towards how I was brought up and so forth until my early twenties. Now I really appreciate my mum and what she had to go through… not having her Filipino family around, separating from dad, raising 3 girls on a low income, navigating racism and not being able to speak fluent English. I know she did the best she could.
E: Is your mum more confident at speaking English now?
M: She's much better, but she still constantly stops as she can't think of the right word or way to phrase. There's nothing worse than when you feel a certain way, but you can't communicate it. I think I even struggled with that a lot over my twenties, particularly because I was extremely shy growing up and I just didn't really talk at all.
I'm still quite shy, but then I'm willing to put myself out there for certain things like performing. But it's a controlled environment, it's rehearsed when you’re performing. I just don't think I could do it otherwise.
E: What are some of the things that you embrace about your mixed Asian identity?
M: I think the ability to explore a culture that you didn't necessarily explore growing up. Like, now I have the ability to explore the Philippines and its culture as an adult, and I think that's really fun because it’s a part of me.
Over the last two years (especially where there's been a lot of movement within Black Lives Matter and diversity) I’ve realised that growing up it was always about being Asian and having proximity to that and feeling the disadvantages of it, whereas now I can see the proximity I have to whiteness too. I understand now that I have the privilege of both sides and there's things that I have to keep in mind within that as well. It's like, sure, I'm Asian, but I also have the privilege of having whiteness. The years 2020 and 2021 were really when I was able to delve deeper into these things, I think because it was exposed to us in such a large movement.
Filipino Fan / Umbrella: These items are significant within the Filipino culture because it's so hot and humid. I actually shocked myself when I walked out of the Philippines airport as the air was so thick that I was worried I wouldn’t be able to breathe. I was eventually fine. The fan in particular holds a special place in my heart as the family all carried one during our trip and growing up mum would decorate with the woven fans. All the items would also be in my mum’s friends’ houses.
Lola’s (Grandma) Dress: Lola made this Filipiniana dress and it was passed down to mum. It was significant that I included it in the shoot as Lola is where all of the family who live in Australia come from and I wanted to pay homage to that.
Filipiniana Bolero: I got this bolero from mum which she would wear for special occasions. The shape of the sleeves has a strong identity in the Philippines and is known as ‘butterfly sleeves’.