This essay is part of a series commissioned by the Australia-Indonesia Centre, with leading writers and commentators from Indonesia and Australia each looking closely at their own society, cultures and political situations. Bahasa Indonesia
When you are about seven months pregnant, your husband and you go to a local hardware store. When you return twenty minutes later to the carpark, someone has put a folded piece of paper on your windscreen, held down by the wiper. You think it’s just an advertisement, but when Nick unfolds it to take a look, he grows very agitated. “I’m going to see if anyone else got this on their cars,” he tells you, and returns a few moments later. No one else has anything on their windscreen except youse.
You take the paper from him. At first it seems like a badly photocopied advertisement: a picture of a black boy and a white girl, both around ten years old, well-dressed, perhaps a promotional shot for an American 80s sitcom. The children are inside a circle, which you think is the frame of the picture, until you realise that the image inside is cut into quarters by a large thin cross. In large capital letters on top of the picture are the words: STOP RACE MIXING. Then you realise – the kids are targets inside the barrel of a gun.
“Don’t worry,” you say to your husband, “I bet that STOP RACE MIXING person has a whole collection of posters he carries around, so when he sees men holding hands he probably pulls out his STOP GAY MARRIAGE and when he sees red-heads with eating bagels he takes out the STOP GINGER-JEWS one.”
You find the incident harmless enough. Some cowardly moron is probably sitting in their car waiting to see your reaction. You imagine them grinning a nicotine-stained smile, smoking their taxpayer-funded cigarette and thinking, ha! that’ll teach those miscegenating fornicators a lesson.
When you tell your friends at the university college where you live and work, they are incredulously horrified and outraged. “Clearly mentally ill,” they say. Or, a little self-righteously, “Who are these people? They don’t represent me or my country.”
But you know who these people are. Oh yes. STOP RACE MIXING and you go back a long way. When you are a sixteen-year old sales assistant at your dad’s electrical appliance store, old ladies would come in and say, “can I have an Australian salesman, thanks.” And you would dutifully go and find Joe the Italian or Jim the Macedonian.
When you are ten, mum walks you home from school and sees a man mowing the lawn across the road. “Go ask him how much he charges to cut grass,” she tells you. Mum speaks no English and the only literature she reads is the Kmart and Bilo ads that come in your letterbox every Tuesday. You do as she asks. The man, an older man with a face like beef jerky left out of the packet for too long, hollers at you: I DON’T DO YOUSE! You report to my mum, “He doesn’t cut grass.” “Of course he does, I’ve seen him doing the other lawns around here. Go back. He can’t hear you through the lawnmower noise.” You go back. He yells at you again. GIT LOST I DON’T DO YOUSE. You are mortified and ashamed, and at that moment you hate Beefjerk but also your mum for not getting it.
“‘Cheapskate Chinese,’ mutters thirteen-year old Corrina, the mongrel half-Australian…”
Your mum does not care if you are literate or not at school, her greatest fear is that soon you will not be able to speak to her in the same language. You, your brother and sisters already talk to each other in English. Your medieval dialect of Teochew cannot convey certain wonders, such as the pros and cons of each Teenage Mutant Turtle’s ninja powers and personality. So your parents sent youse off every week to learn a third language, one that can be an intermediary.
Mandarin school goes for only three hours every Saturday morning, with a half hour break in between for recess. Because you are all grouped according to your oral and written abilities, there’d often be other fifteen year olds among the small Mainland children, so you don’t feel too out of place. And compared to real Chinese school for children in China, you are on a perpetual holiday. During the summer, you all bring along water balloons and in that hour drench each other so profusely that the last hour of class is hell for your poor, refined Mainland teachers who have to deal with a class full of wet, dripping, feral Western hoons.
During the school holidays, so many of youse fail to do your homework that the principal, Easter Wu, begins offering cash prizes to students who have. $2 for the best writing in class, and $1 for the three runners up. “Cheapskate Chinese,” mutters thirteen-year old Corrina, the mongrel half-Australian in your class, and then she turns to the small seven year-old next to her: “Hey kid, I’ll give you a dollar if you say I don’t wanna be a chinga!”
James’ eyes shine: He can spend hours copying the plotless stories in the textbooks written and sold by the Principal, all about offering various fruit to your elders – Grandma, eat this strawberry! Thank you, small child. Grandpa, have a banana! Here, let me peel it for you! Wah! What a good child. – and making lovely accompanying illustrations of filial piety, or he can just take Corrina up on her offer.
“I don’t wanna be a chinga!” grins James. “Heh heh.”
“Here you go, have a dollar.”
To those poor hardworking Mainland Chinese teachers, Corrina probably represented a very good reason to STOP RACE MIXING.
You grow up with grandparents who survived the Chinese famine, uncles who survived the Cultural Revolution, a father who survived the Killing Fields of Cambodia and a mother who lived through the aftermath of the fall of Saigon, and you learn that to survive means to blend in, to try and render yourself invisible to any targets. You never know when the targets will change depending on the whim of political leaders, and you bide your time and wait for the aim of the gun to hopefully bypass you. When you are eight, someone chucked a rock through your window but your parents never got it repaired. Your mother just permanently lowered the blinds and quietly went about her work in the garage.
You grow up in a factory town that never recovered from the 1980s recession. Vacant commission houses become a common sight along the streets of Braybrook, like a row of teeth rotting at an alarming rate. Old families move to more rural areas to find new jobs. Because rent is so cheap, new families begin migrating to this working-class neighbourhood that now has no work – Vietnamese, Tongans, Cambodians, mainland Chinese. But the new migrants are resourceful. They work as seasonal fruit-pickers, or in far-flung suburbs where other factories are running, or sewing in their poorly-ventilated garages out the back. They don’t mind spending four hours of their day on a bus. They don’t mind eating instant noodles for two meals out of three each day. Some even save up enough to start small businesses.
“…how come the government are helping refugees and not them? This is an outrage!”
Meanwhile, the factory closures reduce once-proud working-class white families to their second or third generation of welfare-dependency. Like your own mother, the only literature these folks read are the supermarket ads, and the only news they see about yellow or brown people is on TV, on ‘A Current Affair’, about dodgy Southeast Asian drug dealers, illegal immigrants coming here to steal their jobs and Indonesians locking up fun-loving Shapelle Corby. The other thing they watch on TV is ‘Neighbours.’ In 1993 the first Asian family appears, the Lims from Hong Kong, who are then quickly accused of barbequeing a beloved neighbourhood dog.
But the old families in Braybrook barely see their Asian neighbours to know whether they cook family pets or not. Then a decade later they notice that those chingas have a new Toyota Camry parked in their driveway. When no one in their own families have ever owned a new car, and they’re still putting advertisements in letterboxes to earn a buck, how come the government are helping refugees and not them? This is an outrage! The next day, after work, your dad notices that someone has made a deep angry scratch across the silver paint of his car boot.
A few years ago, you are in line at a shop in your home suburb. “Here you go, sweetie,’ says the sandy-haired woman behind the counter with the dangly triangle earrings, handing you your change and towels in a bag. You are still loitering at the store looking at discounted socks when you notice the next man at the counter. Dressed in the dignified two-decades-out-of-season suit of newly arrived migrants, he very politely asks for a bag. He’d bought polyester bedsheets in a slippery, clear plastic package. “Nope,” says the woman definitively, “We don’t have any bags.” What she could have said was, we don’t have any big enough. What she could have done, as other sales assistants had done, was offer to wrap two large bags together, or use string. But she doesn’t.
And there it is – the moment you know that you are safe, that you have blended in so completely because there is a black Sudanese man behind you. The relief you feel, but also the guilt and pity – which is not a word we like using these days – towards the new arrival, is enormous. You are now an invisible watcher, and your invisibility has come at the expense of someone else.
The man lowers his eyes and head, and then tries again. “Sorry, I have to take this on the train. I cannot carry it like this. Please can you help?” This tall, regal man reduced to begging for two plastic bags. You cannot bear it. She throws them across the counter at him, and turns away to tidy up the till.
Years later, you are out of Braybrook and you have a job where the most dangerous workplace hazard is getting a papercut or scalding yourself with tea, not losing your forearm to a careless foreman in a factory. You get to write about your childhood and talk about race in public forums, and because you are in a position of comfort and respect, none of it seems so bad anymore. You can even laugh at STOP RACE MIXING while you are onstage with a barrister and a broadcaster at a writer’s festival discussing Australia’s national identity. The barrister says that the Australian identity has nothing to do with the Australian people, who are largely, decent people: “It is as if we live our lives simultaneous to these lives that the media project.” The broadcaster announces that “Racism in Australia has a lot to do with class, and unless we address class difference, or our perceptions of the working class, xenophobia and racism will not change.”
“No-one would be racist towards their Chinese family doctor…”
We need to have these conversations about the shape of national identity, everyone concurs during the Q and A minutes allocated at the end of the panel, We need to start these conversations, as ordinary Australians, to show the world we that we are not racist. But you know that back in Braybrook, no one is starting these conversations. There is a Burmese saying about not wasting your time playing a violin to a buffalo. But to the people with whom you grew up, your working-class friends and family members, who has time to play a violin when the fields need ploughing?
Your husband and yourself do not talk about STOP RACE MIXING except as a funny anecdote to share with others. These days, STOP RACE MIXING barely has any effect on you, because you are insulated by the kindness and decency of your new friends, many who’ve never even heard of Braybrook. No one except the mentally-ill would be racist towards an employment rights lawyer who might help them with their unfair dismissal claim, they tell you. No-one would be racist towards their Chinese family doctor. Woe to the poor sod who was dumb enough to put such crap on a writer’s windscreen! This piece is going to be published, and you’ll be paid for it. Meanwhile, STOP RACE MIXING may never get out of sordid suburbia, never have a voice beyond their self-funded poster campaign. Joke’s on them, sucker! But in a way you know that you’re also cowardly – STOP RACE MIXING and you are fighting a paper war, the only difference being that you have wider distribution.
The truly brave are your friends who transcend the need to conduct The National Conversation, and go to direct action. Your Chinese school classmate Corrina would have hunted down STOP RACE MIXING in the carpark, taken down his numberplate, yelled out “Fuck you inbreed bogan”, and later arranged for some of her Lebanese boyfriend’s homies to rearrange his/her car and/or face. No further words necessary.
Alice Pung is an award-winning Australian writer whose books include Unpolished Gem, Her Father’s Daughter and Laurinda. She edited Growing Up Asian in Australia, a collection of stories which has now become a high school textbook, and Unpolished Gem has been translated and published in Indonesia, German and Italian. Alice’s books have also been published in the US and UK. She is currently the Artist in Residence at Janet Clarke Hall, the University of Melbourne, and writes frequently for Australian magazines and newspapers. In 2016, Alice was RMIT’s Established Writer on the Writers on Cultural Exchange Program to Sun Yat Sen University, Guangzhou. She is an Ambassador of the 100 Story Building and Room to Read.