Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Different

As someone who spends a lot of time looking past the grey swarm and “seeing people”, I get annoyed when people only see me in one way. That is, when they only see “Asian”, “Girl” or “chick who likes fashion”. It affects me professionally, socially, romantically. Melbourne writer Benjamin Law wrote about race-based attraction on Grindr and as a single looking for that someone special whilst out and about in the city that I love; I can add that it was character-building to so often be met with prejudiced eyes.

I love being Australian. I’ve lived overseas and goodness, you should see how I wave the banner for home by sharing Barbeque shapes, Tim Tams and showing “the right way to have Vegemite” – just a smidge over lusciously-buttered bread. However, I also know that despite being born here and being so proud… on home ground the sense of comfort that I have in being Australian can be whipped out from underneath me at any time with a  “so, where do you come from?”

A few years ago now at work, a senior staff member asked me to give a team presentation about Chinese New Year. Because you know, I’m Chinese. What they didn’t know is that my heritage is Indonesian Chinese; my Opa (that’s Dutch for “Grandfather”) sent his daughters to Australia because the Indonesians under Suharto were curtailing Chinese rights. My parents’ Chinese schools, the Chinese-language newspaper were closed down, Chinese people were required to change their surnames to Indonesian ones to stamp out Chinese culture.* I had to Wikipedia the presentation.

However while fuming to my friends about the presentation, I was taken aback when one of my well-meaning friends exclaimed, “yeah Chezzy, why you? You’re not Asian, you’re Australian!”


There’s been much ado online about this interview that Herald Sun Fashion Ed Kate Waterhouse held with the insanely fabulous, Christina Hendricks. As a fan of the TV show Mad Men, I am also a very big fan of Hendricks’ portrayal of feisty Joan who at the point I’ve watched up to (end of Season 4), seems to be realising that men aren’t the answer and she’s gonna have to save herself to have the life that she wants. Anyhow in this interview that has gone viral, Waterhouse asked Hendricks’ "what it was like to be a role model for full figured women" and "to tell a story, to give an example to show how." Hendricks took offence at the question, shut down the interview and later called the question “rude”; which got me thinking.
Being "different" can have its downside but... 
Tell me if it's different but I related to Hendricks' reaction; I find it disappointing when people choose to focus and constantly refer to my being Asian in the way Hendricks might feel constantly being seen and referred to as “full-figured”. There is a shitload more to each of us. But for some reason, society or the people in positions like Waterhouse can only see how we're different, to them. And to be fair, it's not just Waterhouse, in an interview with the cast of Charlie's Angels, Rove McManus asked Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz "how hard was it to learn martial arts for the film?" indicating that he didn't need to ask the third Angel, Lucy Liu. Liu quipped, "why? because I'm Asian?"

We are different to the norm. Hendricks has her figure and I have colour. And it is the first thing that a lot of people see. Tina Fey wrote in her book, Bossypants, that she could tell a person based on how they treated her after seeing the scar on her face. You know what they see, it's always interesting to see how they respond.  I try to stay calm so that I can tell the difference between rudeness and ignorance and try to react appropriately. The difference between some drunk guy in a bar yelling, “KONICHIWA” in my face and the staff member asking me to give the presentation on Chinese New Year: the first instance, rudeness; the second, ignorance. 

I also don't believe in the level of political-correctness that we've come to in some places; to the point that we also don't reasonably call things as they are. I’ve been reading Layne Beachley’s biography and she talks about the teasing that she used to cop from the boys who surfed on the best part of the beach; where she wanted a go. The boys dished out the teasing and Beachley learnt that she liked standing up for herself.  Sure Waterhouse’s posing of the full-figured question (seriously "tell me a story" - come on, Kate!)  to Hendricks was clumsy and came across to me as condescending coming from one so (as she puts it herself), “slight”. I do feel though that Hendricks could have reacted in a more sophisticated way with a clever answer that would’ve had us fist-pumping. Like “only the full-figured ones? Only women?”

So regardless of whether we've dealt with the way that society looks at us, why should Hendricks, any person, even have to be a role model? This question was posed by Melbourne writer, Clementine Ford, in her reaction to the Waterhouse/Hendricks interview. Now, I’ve referred to Ford in the past as her pieces often express how I feel about a situation, albeit with far more advanced writing skills and facts and stuff. See how her work is quoted by Hugo Schwyzer in this piece on Jezebel. Such good brains. So much so that I was getting ready to defer all critical thinking to Ford until she wrote this piece on the Waterhouse-Hendricks saga.

Christina Hendricks isn't the first female celebrity who's had to bear her actual career being sidelined for the less interesting pursuit of Professional Role Model, and she certainly won't be the last. We have this incessant need in our celebrity obsessed culture to turn potentially unwilling and often inappropriate people into ‘role models’.

And why do we reward women for modelling good, conservative behaviour to young girls and punish those who refuse to play the game?

I’m tired of being told that I need role models to look up to, particularly when they reinforce very limited versions of womanhood. I agree that we need to showcase more diversity in the media, but offering patronising squeals about impossibly beautiful women isn’t the answer.

I grew up in the suburbs blaring Bon Jovi. I loved “Sleep when I’m Dead.” The video clip of a bunch of cheeky, womanizing rockers inspired me years before I really understood what their songs were about. I don’t believe that we can choose who we influence or are role models for. I believe that there are folks who work in the public eye who genuinely want to do a good job because they know that they have the skills and talent; the attention they get is a by-product that comes with the territory and which is something they have to go on and manage. While I was photographing Winter Olympian Steven Bradbury last year, I was struck by how many random people would stop and wait to shake his hand for something that he did a decade ago. A bloke stopped with his family, pointed out Bradbury and told his kids about the gold medal. Bradbury, an athlete will tell you that he worked damn hard and persevered against all odds to achieve what he did but people will always see him as a fortuitous accidental winner (even though he'd worked for 12 years, represented Australia a bunch of times and also won by accident in the semi-final in the lead up to the final). Bradbury uses that profile to speak on the motivational circuit and showcases his own cheek through the jokes that he makes that may shock the audience but drew lots of laughs the two times I've heard him deliver them. 

Which brings me to my next point that  I also disagree with Ford’s assertion that we necessarily have to, “behave”. I agree that Disney infantalises its female talent such as Miley Cyrus etc. but Disney does not have a monopoly on creating role models and neither do conservative parental groups. We're never going to please everyone but I do believe that with the rise of self-publishing, "the different" are able to put out their own stories and grow a readership to such an extent that there has been a shift in the public conscious. I feel that the public eye is ready for the less-angelic - where it is humble, self-aware more authentic and therefore, resonates. Take Gala Darling for example, creator of the Radical Self Love Project. If you haven't already - make the time to watch her TEDx talk below: 
Lady has been through a lot, what a trooper. But she battles through things and in doing so, shines a light for others to live their authentic selves. And she's one of gazillions of people who do this everyday which goes to show how widely we can take inspiration/role modeling from when we choose to look past what's shown to us on TV. Another "different" role model is blogger Carly Findlay who amongst many other things (like our mutual love for Bon Jovi) blogs about her life living with skin condition ichthyosis.

For those of us who know that we’re different…Society isn’t going to get over our being different to the “norm” any time soon. So for the most part we will be token representations of “our kind”, we will have to answer the most inane questions. I know that Findlay cops an obscene number of comments from perfect strangers. It's tiresome. But once we get over our being different, we get to move on and shift focus to our other talents and work. It’s up to us to shape our own paths and not buy into structures that will package and market us out as things that we’re not and in the case of Disney starlets; at an age when we’re not sure what we are, just yet. And it's not just for ourselves or other people "like us", it's for everyone. 

In case you're wondering about what I did with the presentation; I ended up seeing the latter as an opportunity to do what I enjoy the most; create engaging content to educate and entertain. I got Caucasian Nick to deliver the presentation in Chinese and I in English. It was well-received although the senior staff member seemed to think that I took the piss a little. Yes I was but I like to think that it made the point that there was more to Nick; unexpectedly fluent in Chinese and knowing about the traditions as he’d studied and lived in China; and more to me as people expect me to be some sort of compliant little Asian girl without spark. Ha.

Being different. How people respond to you says a lot more about them. That said, how you choose to deal with them or let it affect you says lots about you. And if you can use it for good, why wouldn't you?

*Dad was able to switch back to his Chinese name when he reached Australia because it was on his original birth certificate but we no speak the Chinese. But before you feel sorry for our loss of cultural heritage, it's not all lost; we still get red packet. woo.

1 comment:

  1. Cheryl this was such a brilliant piece of writing. Thank you for your insight and thank you for the mention.
    Being different can be a burden or a blessing - its up to us about how we will use our difference. And once people 'get over' our differences, they need to see us as a whole person - skills, personalities, interests and emotions. Because we are not just an exterior appearance.