Tag Archives: Race and Culture

Not your Asian fetish

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“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.

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Cooking up racial expectations

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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

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The problem with small town racism

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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.

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Racism on Public Transport: The ‘Real’ Australia?


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Ada Lee

A woman will face court after she launched a racist tirade against an Asian schoolboy on a Sydney bus.

Inside the bus

Video footage, recorded by an onlooker, went viral across mainstream and social media earlier this month. The video shows a 55-year-old woman telling an Asian schoolboy to get a passport and educate himself after he refused to sit down. “Go back on your f—ing boat and f— off, ” she said. “There’s a lot of Aussie passengers on this bus and I’m telling you, they’re totally not going to agree with you…and I’m one of them… Come to this country, you [think you] can do whatever you want. Well you know what? You can’t!”

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