Sydney Morning Herald articles

Interning at Fairfax Media in Sydney Morning Herald Entertainment for five weeks.

NEWS:

Summer Herald

SPECTRUM/ARTS/ENTERTAINMENT

SUN HERALD

ESSENTIAL KIDS

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Sydney Morning Herald

Offence is no defence

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 12.46.35 pm

Ada Lee had an emotional Facebook conversation with the self-professed ‘soldiers’ of the Australian Defence League.

“Fuck anyone who defends Islam. They don’t deserve life, to defend those who align themselves with a death cult that has snatched life and joy and basic human rights away.”

It’s a hate-filled message, wrapped in the proclamation of defending human rights. This is one of the last things the Australian Defence League soldiers (ADL Soldiers) say in our Facebook conversation.

Inspired by the English Defence League and set up in early 2010, the ADL is a loosely defined group of extreme, anti-Islam advocates in Australia, best known for their provocative presence on social media. A quick Facebook search uncovers dozens of different pages, with different location bases and sometimes, different leaders.

ADL Soldiers was created to be a “more hard-hitting… information page”, according to Ralph Cerminara, page admin and President of the ADL. With almost 3000 followers, the ADL Soldiers page features videos of ISIS atrocities, declarations of war against Islam, Andrew Bolt reports, and defensive words about why they are not racist or bigoted despite what “loonie left wing mates” might say.

Our Facebook interactions are tumultuous, as multiple ADL members reply from the same account. At times, it feels like tiptoeing around an angry and volatile child, one that could snap
in an instant.

At one point, Cerminara reassures me that he hates racism and loves Asian people (“I am married to an Asian girl”). But when I ask if the ADL identifies as neo-Nazi, another user takes the reins and tells me his war veteran grandfather would shoot me if I asked him the same question.

They emphasise that they are not condemning a race but rather, an ideology they perceive as “a religion of war, of deception and slavery, of sexism, of paedophilia”. In organising a Sydney meeting, they remind followers that the ADL welcomes people “from all racial groups and from all religions excepting the death cult of Islam”.

As we have seen in the rising spate of Islamophobic attacks against Muslim women and mosques, more and more Australians are using the atrocities of Muslim extremists to define and justify punishment against all Muslims. For ADL Soldiers, there is no such thing as the moderate Muslim.

The group insists they “have never attacked anyone,” yet they do not condemn those who do. “If people verbally abuse people then that’s them, they are sick to death of islamists raping young girls, planning to blow up people at the AFL grand final, Sharia law, marrying underage girls, it goes on and on,” Cerminara says.

Just last month, Cerminara posted a video on YouTube (now deleted) threatening, “another Cronulla is coming, and I can’t wait until it does, because this time, we’re going to show you who’s boss”. He posted it after five Muslim men allegedly attacked him in Lakemba because he was taking photos of women in niqabs and posting them online.

Cerminara frames the 2005 Cronulla Riots using the discourse of war, emphasising the gang rapes and attacks on lifeguards that preceded it. “All wars have civilian casualties…Aussies had enough,” he says. “Bad thing like any war is there were acts that were not called for, but that’s war, and when a foreign body comes to your country and rapes your women, tries to blow up your buildings and more, we are at war.”

Maybe we are at war. When the West invades the Middle-East, when we hear endless stories of women in hijabs and niqabs being harassed on the streets, when we see images of 5000 flag-wavers attacking people of Middle-Eastern descent in Cronulla, it breeds the perfect climate for people from either side to recede further and further into the shadows of extremism, polarised and marginalised from the demonised Other.

At the end of the Facebook thread, there is a battle among page admins arguing whether to stop speaking to me. The words reek of paranoia, insularity and intolerance of criticism.

“Fuck anyone who defends Islam … We will never stop. We will never stop learning about this death cult.”

Published in Honi Soit, 21 October 2014.

Leave a comment

Filed under Honi Soit, Opinion & Letters

Not your Asian fetish

Screen Shot 2014-10-07 at 10.07.50 pm

“I’ve always had a thing for Asian women,” a British man writes to me on Tinder.

“I’ve always dreamed of sleeping with an Asian woman – will you be my first?” a French guy writes.

On Tinder, and life generally, any woman is bound to be subject to feeble sexual propositions. But these racialised gems tend to be saved for women from minority groups. There is nothing more empowering than knowing someone is attracted to you because of your race. As I told the second guy, it is every girl’s dream to be objectified and fetishised for her race.

Not.

Online dating studies of heterosexual interactions have found Asian women are one of the most popular groups – while Black women tend to rank the lowest. Conversely, White men are the most popular group among women, while Asian men rank the lowest. It’s easy to simplify these findings to mere physical preferences. After all, you can’t help who you’re attracted to.

But, after watching a cringe-inducing episode of SBS Insight, I’ve started to realise that our preferences are often shaped by power dynamics and gender stereotypes.

It’s not uncommon to hear of the middle-aged Aussie bloke who travels to Bali or Thailand to find a (significantly younger) wife. John Carroll sits in the SBS Insight studio with his Filipino wife, explaining why he prefers Asian women: they’re “very attentive,” he coos.  “One of the stereotypes is Asian women treat Western men better than a white woman. Yes, I believe that to be true,” he says. Thanks for the seal of approval pal.

He’s not the only one. At an Asian women speed-dating event, one guy admires how “Asian women definitely look after the partner.” Australian expats in Bali with Indonesian wives tell The Australian how, “Asian women treat men like men.” One 44 year-old explains the difficulties of dating Western women: “It’s because of the independence, the nagging – they’re high maintenance. It’s much easier with an Asian girl”.

According to sociology expert, Jennifer Lundquist, there is a desire among some Western men to find women who come from more family traditional cultures and who subscribe to more conservative gender roles.

The attitudes of these men reflect Patriarchal assumptions that Asian women are domestic and docile. But don’t worry, John Carroll is here to defend us from the misguided stereotype. Peering over at his wife with a fawning grin, he says, “as far as Asian women being docile, I’m sorry to disappoint you but they’re not docile, they’re definitely not.” I’d rather not imagine what he means by this.

In the arena of stereotypes, the Western conception of ‘Tarzan masculinity’ is defeating quiet Asian masculinity while docile Asian femininity is winning against loud Black femininity.

I’m not saying every guy who’s dating an Asian girl has some Patriarchal complex. Nor am I saying every guy who’s dating a black girl is looking for his own Beyoncé fantasy. There is nothing wrong with interracial couples or being attracted to certain attributes. But there is a fine line between appreciating difference and fetishising someone for their race.

Most of us aren’t from a generation where the fantastical ‘Other’ exists only on some remote, exotic island. More than ever, we have grown up alongside different cultures and from this, we’ve learnt to respect and embrace diversity. Still, it remains important that we question the historical power dynamics and gender stereotypes that shape our attraction towards some and our exclusion of others.

Published in Honi Soit, 7 October 2014.

Leave a comment

Filed under Honi Soit, Opinion & Letters

Racing to save the Reef

aycc-gbr-nemo

Nemo waited at the edge of the City2Surf starting line, desperate to save the Great Barrier Reef. Instead of a fish tank of friends, Nemo was accompanied by almost 40 Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) volunteers calling on Westpac to pre-emptively declare it will not fund the Abbot Point-X coal port expansion in the Great Barrier Reef.

“Nemo’s got nowhere else to run if the Great Barrier Reef is destroyed,” said Ella Weisbrot, NSW Co-Coordinator of AYCC. So, armed with flyers, 1,500 stickers and a large banner, the environmentalists spoke to thousands of people about the dangers facing the reef, collected 5,000 open letter signatures and even made a brief appearance on Sunrise.

Despite having their banner confiscated by security, the response they got was overwhelmingly supportive. “Australians just think it’s madness to risk something as special and as a beautiful as the Great Barrier Reef,” Ms Weisbrot said.

In addition to the City2Surf, which was sponsored by Westpac, AYCC volunteers have been visiting Westpac headquarters regularly and meeting with 275 branch managers across the east coast states. They have received support from many staff members with 100 branch managers committing to raise an internal question over Westpac’s stance on the AP-X project funding.

With international banks like Deutsche Bank, HSBC, RBS, Barclays and Credit Agricole all declaring their refusal to fund the project, the AYCC is hoping Australia’s big four banks will follow the same path. Early this year, Westpac was crowned the most sustainable company in the world; it is this company culture that AYCC is appealing to. “It’s in no way a smear campaign,” Ms Weisbrot said. “We’re really calling on Westpac to live up to their excellent sustainability reputation and be the first Australian bank to publicly make the declaration that they won’t fund coal ports on the reef.”

In February, the young activists claimed a huge victory when major property developer, Lend Lease, withdrew its bid from the AP-X expansion after a six-month AYCC campaign. This, along with earlier withdrawals from BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, has left GVK Reddy and Gautam Adani as the last remaining major developers of the AP-X port.

Adani’s $16 billion Carmichael coal project in the Galilee Basin has already been rife with difficulties due to falling coal prices, lack of funding and the controversy surrounding plans to dredge three million cubic metres of sediment into the Great Barrier Reef. AYCC’s current appeal to Australian banks is a further attempt to block funding from a project that threatens to destroy the reef for future generations.

Ms Weisbrot said it would be “irresponsible” to sit back and hope companies will boycott the AP-X project without public pressure. “As young people, our future is really important to us so we really need to make sure that it’s at the forefront of the minds of decision-makers because nobody else is making that point for us right now.”

Published in South Sydney Herald, September.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under News, South Sydney Herald

Georgian villa delays student housing development

georgian-architecture-student-housing-usyd

The discovery of historic architectural remains has halted construction on a student housing project, writes Ada Lee.

The remains of an 1859 Georgian villa have been discovered inside St Michael’s College, bringing student housing construction plans to a halt.

Owned by the Roman Catholic Church, St Michael’s College is an 80 year-old abandoned building on City Rd, with broken windows and graffiti on the greying walls.

Plans were underway by private contractor, Urbanest, to transform the decaying site into an 11-story accommodation building with 80 percent of beds promised to students.

Heritage architect, Otto Cserhalmi, discovered an 1859 Georgian-style villa known as Cyprus Hall encased within the college. His discoveries included an Archimedean spiral balustrade, a Georgian revival fireplace and mantelpiece, and a French door.

”Within 20 minutes we realised we had a building within a building,” Cserhalmi told the Sydney Morning Herald. ”[The Georgian building] would be considered of heritage significance.”

Project managers indicated that construction plans will be pushed back by almost a year with completion date predicted to be May 2015 instead of July this year.

Lack of affordable student housing has been an ongoing concern for students and the University of Sydney. Under its Student Accommodation Strategy, the University is aiming to deliver 4,000 affordable beds to students within the next three to five years. Difficulties with St Michael’s College construction apparently should not affect this target. A University spokesperson told Honi the college is a “separate project”.

Projects that are incorporated in the University’s strategy for affordable student housing include the Queen Mary Building and Abercrombie Precinct.

Published in Honi Soit, p. 6, 3 June 2014.

Leave a comment

Filed under Honi Soit, News

The Hires and Lows: The aspiring actor

waapa-actor-youth-unemployment

It’s a familiar story: the young actor leaves his small town for the big smoke, with hopes of making it big. But instead of Hollywood, Declan Burgess moved to Sydney. The small town he left behind was Perth.

Now 21 years old, the recent graduate is a self-confessed shy guy – but underlying his quiet demeanour is an undeniable passion that emerges whenever our conversation moves towards the arts. He seems rather idealistic, but perhaps that’s a quality that every artist needs. “I think it’s so important to do what you love,” he says. “There’s a lot of people in the world who are depressed. They work in these stuffy offices that have no windows, and it’s such a clinical environment. Humans weren’t conditioned to be numb and manufactured like in factories.”

Declan also comes off as incredibly driven: he has no ‘drama teacher’ backup plan, and says that being financially unstable is a risk that will only motivate him further. At the same time, he doesn’t hide away from recognising the competitiveness of his industry, and he is not without fears. “The concern is getting to 40 not having done anything in your career or not being at a place where you can make your living off your profession,” he says.

After completing his acting degree at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) in October last year, Declan confronted the looming question faced by all university graduates: “What do I do?” Many of his peers had resolved to ditch performance and study something else, or to stay in Perth for another year to save up money. But armed with a little bit of saved-up cash, Declan decided to “hit the ground running” and move to Sydney.

“OK I’m here – what do I do now?” he said to himself upon arrival. Armed with few contacts, Declan could only really rely on himself. “I’ve just got to make it happen and get myself out there,” he reflects. “It’s a scary feeling knowing that my support network is much greater back in Western Australia than it is here.”

Employment opportunities were the main reason behind Declan’s move. “The work prospects in WA for an actor and a singer were completely miniscule,” he says. Now in Sydney, Declan’s week consists of working at a Dan Murphy’s call centre to pay the bills, attending auditions and recording his music in a studio. Back in Perth, he would sometimes struggle to get four auditions a year; since moving almost two months ago, he’s already had seven or eight auditions with two callbacks.

At a recent audition, the judges were optimistic about his future career – but they wanted him to have more practical experience. Declan has both unpaid and paid theatre and film experience from school, university and other projects in Perth. But in an industry that demands practical work there’s always more to be done.

Of course, when starting out with mostly unpaid or low-paid work experience, it can be tough to find time to make money for life’s basic necessities. Living out of home, Declan is forced to juggle paying for rent and food with work and auditions. But he’s set on avoiding government payments like Youth Allowance and Newstart. “Personally, I would hate to have to depend on the government to give me money,” he says. “I think everyone deep down always wants to be able to earn their own.”

Life for performing arts students may soon become more difficult. Following government plans to deregulate university fees and decrease funding by 2016, expert analysis shows the minimum annual cost of a visual and performing arts degree is likely to rise from $6000 to $9000. Declan is concerned about the impact on an arts industry that already lacks funding. This is especially important, he says, because art – whether it be through music or film – impacts so many people.

Declan is aware that the entertainment industry is a tough nut to crack. “Because there are so many people vying for that one spot, it’s quite hard,” he admits. Yet rejection only motivates him to push harder: “With my mindset and how I have my life planned out, failure is not an option.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Feature, Hijacked

The dark side of political life: Sandwiches, name-calling and “assault”

pyne-tony-abbott-protest

Being a politician is not for the faint hearted. Whether we’re talking about student politics or an Australian federal election, those in public life are often subject to ridicule, insults and angry protests. This reality was made clear this month, when several current and former Liberal politicians were confronted and even allegedly assaulted by angry university students while visiting several uni campuses in Sydney and Melbourne.

Early last week, student protesters disrupted a lecture by former Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella at the University of Melbourne. This was predated by students yelling at Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop when she visited two Sydney universities this month. Education Minister Christopher Pyne has also seen his fair share of student activism – first on a now famous episode of Q&A and then again last Thursday night, when he attended the Howard Debating Cup at the University of Sydney.

Pyne was quick to label students’ approach to Bishop as “assault”, though many dispute this. Disagreement and dissent are healthy to democracy, but as shown in the latest series of student protests against the Liberal government’s cuts to higher education, the level of acceptable dissent against politicians and other authority figures can polarise opinion across Australia.

Defending the Q&A protest

When you make promises to the public – when you are elected on those promises and when you wield enormous power over the nation’s future – your actions and your policies are justifiably scrutinised. “That politicians would become the focus of intense public scrutiny and intense emotions is to be anticipated to some extent”, said Dr Peter Chen, a politics lecturer at the University of Sydney, to Hijacked.

Dr Chen said we should recognise that politicians are people with human emotions, but that the power and responsibility they hold is exceptional. Dr Chen defended the chanting Q&A protesters and pointed to the power imbalance between students and politicians. “On the one hand, it would be good to engage in civil policy-oriented debate, and I think in general people do agree to that, but that position assumes we are in an environment where all people can participate in civil debate [equally] and I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case,” he said.

Throwing shoes and sandwiches

When your voice is ignored, when your letters are answered only with regurgitated statistics, and when forums like Q&A become more and more scripted, how far should you push to be heard? Some people draw the line further along the spectrum than others, and throughout the years, politicians have been subject to some pretty humiliating and threatening demonstrations.

During his reign as Prime Minister until 2007, John Howard had shoes – an old school form of spectator disrespect – thrown at him twice over “racist” policies and the Iraq War. Australia’s first female PM Julia Gillard also had sandwiches thrown at her during two separate school visits and she narrowly missed a flung egg in Perth. Even in New Zealand, MP John Banks was recently sprayed with a bucket of mud over charges for failing to declare high profile donations.

Dr Chen says that throwing things constitutes as violence. “Everyone should have the right to participate politically without the fear of violence, and it does no good when violence is used as a political strategy by any side of the political spectrum in a democracy,” he said.

Name-calling and ridiculing

If an average person experienced the amount of name-calling and ridiculing that politicians face in the media and on the street, people would not hesitate to call it extreme bullying.

During her time as Prime Minister, Julia Gillard was called a bitch and a witch. “Take that, you dog,” is one line shouted before a group of Greens supporters threw shoes at somebody dressed up as former PM Kevin Rudd. Last October in Melbourne, students burnt an effigy of current leader Tony Abbott outside Victorian Parliament, and it’s not unusual to see young and old Australians wearing t-shirts or holding signs that say “Fuck Tony Abbott” or “Tony Abbott eats poo”.

When we don’t know a politician, it is easy to idealise them as an ultimate hero or villain – much like the way we sometimes forget that celebrities like Kanye West or Kim Kardashian are actually real people. Some people say that putting yourself up for criticism is a price to pay for public power. But should we still take into account a politician’s emotions, the impact on their loved ones or their basic human rights?

Some people realise that politicians aren’t just talking heads on a TV screen. Georgia Hitch, a student from the University of Sydney, went to school with Kevin Rudd’s son. Kevin Rudd was mostly just the dad who showed up to his son’s tech shows or held a charity event with the school. “He was first and foremost a dad, just like the rest of our [parents],” says Hitch to Hijacked. “At the end of the day, politicians really are people with emotions,” she says of the effect of Rudd’s ousting on his family.

Like the rest of us, politicians deserve the right to feel safe from harm, to be free from persecution based on sex, race and religion and – dare I say it – to be allowed freedom of political communication (to the extent that it does not incite hatred, violence or significant harm against others).

Ineffective protest strategies

Some people say that violence, profanities and abusive slogans like “Fuck Tony Abbott” are not only crass, but that they also undermine the effectiveness of the movement because they overshadow the issues and peaceful nature of protests.

“The ambush of Julie Bishop made the protesters seem erratic and abusive and potentially undermined the cause and their motives,” says Hitch. “Considering how critical the media are being towards protesters [we] all have to think very carefully about exactly how we choose to get our message across [and not] through profanities, shoes and sandwiches.”

In a protest of thousands, it is often the small and apparently violent group that will make front page news. It is the violence, the egg and the shoe – not the issue or peaceful protesters that we remember – that are often latched onto by tabloid newspapers or those with an agenda to push.

Dr Chen says the protesters face a difficult paradox when dealing with the media. Violent protests can distort the focus of an issue, but peaceful protests like March in March are often under-reported. “While a more rambunctious style of protest may be somewhat counterproductive, it may be less counterproductive than getting no coverage at all,” he said.

Politics is not an easy job and sometimes it becomes intensely personal. While protesters are disadvantaged when challenging powerful politicians, it is still within their power to determine their personal actions and decide what kind of social movement they want to create.

Published in Hijacked, 26 May 2014.

Leave a comment

Filed under Feature, Hijacked

Cooking up racial expectations

honi-soit-mkr-shannelle-uel-multiculturalism-asian

Chefs can find it hard to escape cultural stereotypes, writes Ada Lee.

The doorbell rings. You wait at the strangers’ door, not knowing what to expect. When it opens, two small Asians stand timidly before you, their eyes bright with excitement and fear. You might not say it or even think it, but your tastebuds are expecting oriental dishes for dinner tonight.

“Talking to all the other contestants, they all expected, the minute they saw us, that we’d cook Asian food,” says Shannelle Lim, recalling her team’s first round instant restaurant on reality TV show, My Kitchen Rules (MKR).

Advertised as the “Newlyweds”, Shannelle and Uel Lim were the only Asian team on MKR 2014. They represent a small but growing minority of people of colour making their way onto Australian reality TV.

Despite expectations, they cooked Western food in the first two rounds. Both times, they received poor marks. That’s when the “hints” from judges, Pete and Manu, started emerging.

“They kind of said, ‘Cook from your tradition, cook flavour combinations that you’re comfortable with,’ so we kind of thought, you know what – if you really want Asian food that bad, we’ll cook it for you,” Uel says.

I asked them what food they actually are more comfortable with. “Well, now, Asian food,” Shannelle says.

From then on, their Asian cuisines received high praise, taking them as far as the top nine.

Shannelle, 23, was a North Shore private school girl, born and raised in Sydney by Indonesian parents. Uel, 25, was born in Singapore to missionaries and spent half his life in Tasmania and Spain before moving to Western Sydney 10 years ago.

As embodied through their lemongrass soufflé and Uel’s recent photography exhibition, the “Modern Australian” is from a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds.

“We thought we’d be able to break out of the mould and cook a variety of different things but I guess on a whole, even looking back on the journey, our Asian food was received a lot, lot better,” Shannelle says.

Uel agrees. “I think after a while, you’re kind of afraid of cooking anything but Asian food because you’re not sure if they’re going to take it well and Asian food just seems to work.”

This expectation seemed to weigh heaviest upon Shannelle and Uel. No one assumed the Greek twins, Helena and Vikki, would cook Greek food. In fact, when they did, they were sometimes criticised for playing it safe. Similarly, no one ever questioned why the two Caucasian surfer dads, Paul and Blair, often decided to cook Balinese cuisine.

Shannelle and Uel, when asked why they think this was the case, share a long pause. “I don’t know,” Shannelle finally says. “I think the twins, no one really expected them to be the Greek twins that cook Greek food and because of that [lack of] expectation, people were like ‘Why are you always cooking Greek food?’ Because it’s not as blatantly obvious in terms of appearance and things like that maybe.”

Overall though, Shannelle and Uel loved being on the show. When Queensland contestant David asked early on why they weren’t cooking Japanese “Tem-pan-yaki”, they laughed it off. “I didn’t really feel offended by it by any short stint,” Uel says. He seems optimistic about Australia’s multiculturalism. “I think the racism, in Sydney particularly, has been broken down to an extent. Maybe not in the wider Australia but in Sydney particularly, I feel really comfortable calling myself Australian.”

Published in Honi Soit, p. 10, 29 April 2014

Leave a comment

Filed under Honi Soit

The problem with small town racism

small-town-racism-rda-18c

On the Easter long weekend, I took a trip with my family to a place three hours down the coast from Sydney. The water was crystal blue, the white sands were beautiful and live music filled the town street at night.

But something tainted my escape from the city: small town racism. It wasn’t from everybody, and it wasn’t necessarily vicious, but it was there.

On Saturday night, we were walking back from dinner when six teenagers walked past. The only boy in the group started waving profusely, and with wide eyes said “good morning”. I smiled at them, and my sister replied “good morning?”

It was night time.

It seemed pretty innocent until I heard one of the girls say to the boy: “oh, they speak English!” They then all walked off giggling. Sorry to shatter your small-minded stereotype of Asian people.

I don’t know whether they thought it was wrong or even racist, but it does touch on issues regarding the government’s proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act. The reality is that it can be difficult for the dominant race to identify when something is racist, which is what makes the proposed subsection (3) so problematic.

The subsection states that whether an act is reasonably likely to vilify or intimidate is “to be determined by the standards of an ordinary reasonable member of the Australian community, not by the standards of any particular group within the Australian community. In other words, not by the ethnic group being vilified.

The question is who is the ordinary Australian? If ‘ordinary’ means the norm, and the norm is white people, then we could have a problem, writes Waleed Aly. “Plenty of white people (even ordinary reasonable ones) are good at telling coloured people what they should and shouldn’t find racist, without even the slightest awareness that they might not be in prime position to make that call,” he says.

I don’t think the small town boy’s remarks warrant legal punishment under the Act. Even though I was offended, I think, to an extent, people should have the right to say stupid things. But there must be a limit. The idea that the market will automatically self-correct itself and oppose racists is flawed because it overestimates Australia’s tolerance and underestimates entrenched inequalities within the system.

To me, my coastal weekend experience indicated a deeper entrenched racism that has the potential to manifest into the humiliation, vilification and intimidation of people because of their race. This potential is especially ripe if the standard of racism is to be determined collectively by people who have not experienced it. And I’m not just talking about white Australians. An Asian may struggle to understand how racism affects Aboriginal people. Likewise, a person with a Middle Eastern background may have different experiences to a European.

Most of all, it’s the victim’s voice that matters.

As a person with Malaysian-Chinese heritage that was born and raised in Australia, this is not the first time I’ve been faced with racial slurs. But I must say it hasn’t happened in a while and I wasn’t expecting it. It wasn’t terrifying or extreme. I didn’t fear for my life. But these nuances of the small town frustrated me. It made me wonder for the Chinese kid growing up in a rural school or for the Korean tourists who are mocked behind their backs. It certainly made me realise Australia isn’t the multicultural nirvana that I sometimes think it is.

After that incident, I walked the streets hyper aware that I was one of the only Asians in that town.

This is understandable. The town has a population just over 700 people, and according to local statistics more than 80 per cent of them were born in Australia. Only 0.05 percent of its population were born in China (the only Asian country represented) meaning this small town probably doesn’t encounter Asians very often. When they do, it’s most likely to be international Korean and Indian tourists who dress differently, speak loudly in another language and seem to take up a lot of space during tourism season.

Lack of exposure is a problem in Australia, but it’s no excuse. There comes a point where you cannot blame the small town society that shaped you for the wrongs you commit.

Mostly, what they said made me wonder whether I would have been treated worse if I’d turned out to be one of the Korean tourists. If I don’t speak English well, or I don’t share the same cultural norms as the locals, does that make me more fair game to be mocked? I found myself feeling – not for the first time in my life – that I had to prove that I was a westernised Asian, that I was well-spoken in English, that I had the Aussie accent, that I dressed like an Aussie and that I was from Sydney.

Even growing up, I remember how the few Asians that did appear on TV were usually ridiculed stereotypes, like this guy:

Flynn on Australian Idol was so popular he go invited to sing in the grand finale. But, if we’re being really honest, we weren’t laughing with him. We were laughing at him. Only in hindsight have I realised how depictions like these influenced my perception of my own ethnicity. The message from both the small town teens and Australian Idol was this: Asians are people with funny accents who are oblivious to how silly they look.

The cultural implication that my ethnic roots are inferior or sillier than Western culture is, quite frankly, offensive. The implication that I need to disassociate from my heritage in order to be cool or accepted, I find offensive. When I was a kid, I was more inclined to believe them. Now I know better. Cultural diversity is to be celebrated not mocked, and no one should be made to feel like they are worth less because of their race.

Published in Hijacked, 24 April 2014.

Leave a comment

Filed under Hijacked, Opinion & Letters

Modern day thought police

north-korea-thought-police

“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” – George Orwell.

You sit at your dusty desk at the Ministry of Truth, where your job is to alter historical records in favour of the Party. The Ministry is currently implementing a new language called Newspeak where certain words are deleted from the dictionary.

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

Thoughtcrime is the worst crime of all. Wherever you go, Big Brother is watching through telescreens. Wherever you go, there is the irrepressible murmur of political propaganda in the airwaves. The outside world is your enemy. Food is scarce. The torture of dissidents is rife.

Everything is great. Because that is what they tell you and this is all you know.

“The masses never revolt of their own accord, and they never revolt merely because they are oppressed. Indeed, so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware that they are oppressed.”

It sounds like a fictional story because it is. This is the world of George Orwell’s 1984. But it is also harrowingly similar to the world of today’s North Korea.

“I had to be careful of my thoughts because I believed Kim Jong-il could read my mind. Every couple of days someone would disappear. A classmate’s mother was punished in a public execution that I was made to attend. I had no choice – there were spies in the neighbourhood,”writes Yeonmi Park, a young woman who escaped North Korea.

In Nazi Germany, it was the Gestapo. In Orwell’s 1984, it was the thinkpol. And now, the mental and physical repression of the masses in North Korea is nothing short of a modern day thought-policing system. Both the past and the fiction exist in today’s reality.

For the first 15 years of her life, Yeonmi Park grew up in North Korea literally believing Kim Jong-il was an omniscient god. “I never doubted it because I didn’t know anything else. I could not even imagine life outside of the regime.” Earlier this month, she appeared on SBS Insight to share the harrowing reality of the North Korean regime.

“It was like living in hell. There were constant power outages, so everything was dark. There was no transportation – everyone had to walk everywhere. It was very dirty and no one could eat anything.

“It was not the right conditions for human life, but you couldn’t think about it, let alone complain about it. Even though you were suffering, you had to worship the regime every day.”

When her father, a government worker, was accused of doing something wrong, he was sent to prison for three years. The regime’s policy of generational punishment meant that Park’s entire family was exiled from Pyongyang to the countryside near the Chinese border.

The UN Commission has also heard many testimonies indicating there are currently 120,000 political prisoners in North Korea. Many are systematically starved and instructed to burn dead bodies into fertiliser. Mothers are forced to kill babies that are of ‘impure’ blood.

As a teenager, Park fled the dictatorship, crossing a frozen river and a winter desert to get from North Korea to China to Mongolia and finally, to South Korea. After years of brainwashing, it was difficult for her and her mother to let go of their indoctrination.

“I realised that everything I thought was a lie. I had not been a real person – I was created for the regime to work for them. If they ordered us to die, I would’ve died for them,” she writes. It took Park three years to overcome the brainwashing.

“My mother took longer than me. When Kim Jong-il died she couldn’t believe it…she said, ‘he can’t die because he’s not a human, he’s a God!’”

While Park may have escaped, some of her family and many more North Koreans have not been so lucky. In 2014, it seems unfathomable that this could be a reality for anyone. But it is.

Published in Hijacked, 23 April 2014.

Leave a comment

Filed under Feature, Hijacked, Opinion & Letters