Sick at Home or Sick for Home

Like steam from a freshly brewed cup of tea, tensions against Asian and Pacific Islander people visibly rose during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, we’re not spilling any new tea here and with our ever-shortening attention spans, this tea feels like yesterday’s news. 

For those who grew up in multicultural communities, whether you’re an international student or an Australian-born ethnic person, our childhoods have been steeped in racism. For many Australian People of Colour (POC) internalised racism was how we coped with the clash of cultures, but I’ve met plenty of peers who have found ways to unlearn and unite their internal conflicts. 

Society is geared towards finding the ingroups and outgroups, and we have not quite progressed from the idea of “us” versus “them”. Humankind has always survived as a pack, so it is completely natural to find yours. Unfortunately, sometimes that means we tend to look for what makes people “other” to us, leading inevitably to some form of social exclusion. 

 In this search, we are looking for a sense of belonging - even if it comes through finding others who refuse to belong to the mainstream. To use Avatar as a metaphor, we all want an Uncle Iroh to guide us through life, but that means that we are all definitely Zukos in some way or another. If you have been burned by other egos (racists), set on a path of revenge to gain acceptance (internalising racism), or have become uncertain about where you stand in society (road to redemption), then perhaps you need to find your Gaang.   

One year after the big Queensland lockdown, we reached out to our Asian student community to discuss homesickness and how they coped with the internal conflicts of growing up in a multicultural environment. 

Celine is an international student who struggled to adapt in Australia until she found friends through UQ Street Groove, a UQ Club and Society. She explains,

“I’m Malaysian, but I’m born in Brunei, and I went to Malaysia to study in 2017-2019 (those were the best years), and then came to Brisbane during July 2019. Of course, after having such an amazing time in Malaysia for two years, I felt really homesick in Australia. I didn’t think I could blend in well enough or even be accepted by the culture here. Since I didn't have many Malaysian or Brunei friends here, my homesickness grew worse but after joining Street Groove, I met a lot of nice people. I thought I wouldn’t be able to blend in with them but eventually I became closer to them and I’ve grown to really like being here.”

 Heilyn, another UQ student who had difficulties adjusting to the Australian life after moving from the Philippines, recalls,

 “Moving to Australia after growing up overseas gave me a sort of cultural identity crisis. I felt like an in-betweener, unable to fully embrace Australian culture nor let go of my Asian upbringing. There wasn't anyone who shared these feelings growing up in Australia, and I felt alienated. Joining BSA (Brisbane-Asian Student Association) gave me an opportunity to feel less alienated and connect with people like me. I've met people who also grew up overseas and just knowing that there are people who share my journey is a small but most welcome comfort. 

I've also met people from my culture and talked about things I never could with my friends who weren't from my country. I didn't realise how comforting it would feel to talk about things like ice cream flavours from my country - as if they weren't from some distant fairytale land - until I was able to. I think the best thing about joining BSA is that I feel validated in my in-between identity, and feel encouraged to embrace both cultures. I've found my sense of belonging in just knowing that there were people like me.” 

 As an Australian-born Vietnamese, Jess says,

 “Growing up in Australia was always very difficult because I went to a Catholic primary school and a private Christian all-girls school. At both schools, there were only a handful of POC students, and even fewer Asian students. One time, at a school assembly, a school leader made a joke about how Asians were bad at driving and the whole school laughed, including the teachers. Jokes are meant to be funny, not damaging. I grew up with a lot of internalised racism because of the environment I grew up in where small things like that kept happening and it was hard to find someone that was also experiencing the same thing.

 Eventually, I joined many social groups and found many like-minded people, in the process realising my self worth and the importance of my identity. When I started university, it was easy to connect to people through several UQ clubs such as UQKISS, BSA, and Street Groove. I’ve made lots of friends in all these clubs because many of us experienced the same cultural struggles growing up as a POC in Australia.”

 Chantelle also describes a similar experience where she grew up with internalised racism and feelings of exclusion. She reflects,

 “Since I was made fun of for being Asian for many years, I just didn’t want to be Asian anymore. I slowly began distancing myself from my cultural identity and in the process, stopped feeling like myself as much. After being made fun of for being Asian in a predominately white-Australian high school, joining BSA (which consisted mainly of Australian-born Asians) changed my life massively because I was able to relate with a lot of the other members as an Australian-born Asian (e.g. struggling to speak our native language, having strict parents). I was able to see that there were people like me that went through similar experiences and shared a similar culture. I began to feel more comfortable in my skin and felt like I wasn't being judged for my race.” 

Life in Australia as a POC can be a bittersweet experience, one coloured by prejudice and small cruelties. One of the crueler moments in life for many Asian-Australians and international students is being snubbed by the very people you call friends. They may not be raging racists but even “harmless” jokes can be rooted in a social ignorance that everyone in society needs to unlearn. Even POC themselves. 

 We are not damaged, but we can only take so much damage so it’s important to be kind. This goes out to everyone: be kind to yourself and be kind to your fellow peers. Perhaps, then, we may all become Uncle Irohs. 

 By Dianne Mai