We Are Not the Same: Growing Up Without Asian Australian Role Models

Not all heroes wear capes or yellow full body tracksuits. These heroes aren’t necessarily martial artists or warriors of folk tales from bygone eras. Although Western societal stereotypes of Asian minorities are becoming more and more associated with contemporary ones, not all role models are doctors (or playing one), dancers or high earning data crunchers. This was the reality for myself and a generation of Asians that were born and/or raised in Australia during the 80s and 90s. We grew up feeling our identities siloed – you’re either Asian, or Australian – with little sense of what occupying the in-between meant.

Some of my earliest memories of childhood were popping on Channel 10 before school, my eagerness ramping for cartoons, cereal, and toast with all the cliché “Aussie” condiments. The television program of choice titled “Cheez TV” was presented and hosted by Jade and Ryan, two Caucasian male high schoolers who myself and many teenagers across the nation saw as representations of our generation. Here were two youthful, seemingly carefree, individuals presented as apostles of fringe culture. The program showcased socially relevant sketch humour and cartoons to fill out the 90 minutes. Although I directly identified with the hosts, I was hooked every morning by the selection of cartoons on offer – primarily Japanese animation, “anime”. It was a strange connection that I made between the hosts and these international cartoons I had grown up with. Their enthusiasm for series, such as the Pokémon and Sailor Moon franchises, that were far lesser known in the Western market at the time bred a sense of acceptance in me. I was subtly aligning with the outsiders view of experiential Asian culture.

Prior to Cheez TV, only SBS (Special Broadcasting Service) offered what were considered ‘international programs’ during the era of free-to-air television, including foreign cinema, news media and the aforementioned anime. Although this included European film and UK television shows, SBS was colloquially known as the “Asian channel”. My first identification with a flesh and blood media personality of Asian ethnicity was Lee Lin Chin, an Indonesian born television and radio presenter, and journalist. From the 80s to the late 2000s, Chin was a pillar of Australian media having a historical tenure as lead anchor of SBS World News. I noticed that my parents would flick over to this news program from time to time, after watching the earlier time slot news programs occupied by more nationally mainstream media outlets. It was also the only news program on free-to-air television my grandmother watched. Over time, I proxied the connection to identity my parents had made with Lin Chin’s show, the same as I had made with my morning cartoons. 

The clear separation of international and domestic media/pop culture content and personalities triggered a contradictory exercise for Asian Australians where it was about more than the amalgamation of Vegemite and SBS. Promoting ties to our interaction with cultural clichés that were labelled as stereotypically “Australian” became the window dressing for a subtle form of assimilating a brand of societal norms. The media fostered a paradigm that, while not unique to Australia, that was and still is a proponent of splintering cultural diversification in this country. Particularly in the 80s and 90s, it was difficult to connect with the content of Asian media. It was presented to us as if there was always a sense of being on the inside looking outwards. Is it possible that today, we’ve superseded this point by adopting the divisive nature of our racial identities? With the boom in popularity of Asian media worldwide, from the arts, music, television and film – or within sports and even business and politics, is accessibility to these proxy cultural milestones so much so that we’re nonplussed about what is happening here in Australia?

Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, Michelle Yeoh and Chef Martin Yan are all household names – at least, to me and my family – that are solidified in iconography within the Asian-Western canon. But when the Australian mass-media champions Chris Hemsworth’s new Hollywood blockbuster, or Isla Fisher’s latest appearance in an ING commercial, the relatability outside of the subtext itself, is one that’s made to appeal to all Australians. However, myself and many other Australians of migrant descent know that we are no them.

It wasn’t until my high school years that I had what I would consider Asian friends – peers who had similar upbringings to what I had with shared values around family and life. Specifically, I began watching Hong Kong cinema and so in a very short time, there were characters who became relatable heroes and role models – at least, as they were portrayed. My siblings and I were raised in Cantonese traditions. So my introduction to a parallel universe where the mainstream wasn’t the trivial and tumultuous relationship dramas within seaside suburbia ironically foreign Particularly in films, I saw sprawling food markets, boxy cars parked bumper-to-bumper, roasted meat hanging on hooks in windows, all lit up by neon lights and shrouded in steam and smog. These were things I identified with from childhood. They resembled the areas in Sydney where our parents would take us for meals out and the people we’d interact with. I felt a deep sense of empathy for male personas that harboured guilt and pain tied to their flawed natures, and values of family and work. Looking back now, it was a connection instigated by the fact that I physically looked like these characters. Growing up I wanted to be Jade and Ryan. As I matured, I saw myself more in Andy Lau or Tony Leung. They gave me a whole new meaning to the phrase “just like in the movies”. Except I, and many other Asian Australians, are still escaping the Australian mainstream in search of identifiable characters to inspire us and to aspire to. This search went beyond movies, extending to all facets of popular culture – art, music, business, politics and sports.

Why is it that our lens for Asian representation within Australia mostly exists within an exclusively Asian context? For instance, we’ve seen first generation Asians such as Jeremy Lin and Naomi Osaka achieve incredible success in America and be championed for both their talent and being upstanding role models for Asian Americans. Why do we not see the same for Asian Australians who achieve a similar level of national recognition and success by the media here? 

The lack of substantial precedence hardly instills confidence that more authentic representations of Asian Australian identities will succeed in Australia. Rare cases such as creative polymath, Anh Do, or chef and restaurateur, Luke Nguyen, achieved career milestones which put a spotlight on genuine instances of the Asian Australian identity. Do’s autobiography, “The Happiest Refugee”, won Australian Book of the Year in 2011 and his paintings have received multiple nominations for the Archibald Prize. His starring role in the 2006 film “Footy Legends” portrays a Vietnamese Australian man obsessed with rugby league and trying to escape the trappings of his socio-economic situation, a reality that is shared amongst many migrant communities based in Western Sydney. For Nguyen, his litany of television shows bore a distinct focus on the roots of his culinary identity and how this was informed by his upbringing in Cabramatta, the largest community of Vietnamese migrants in Australia. While Do and Nguyen are great examples of how unique the migrant culture is to this country, there are so many other pockets of Asian Australians that are still underrepresented, in Australian mainstream media.

At the time of writing this, the nation is just days out from Australia Day, with Lunar New Year celebrations just beyond that. The juxtaposition of how myself and many others feel towards one of these events from the other gives rise to some apposite questions surrounding the Australian identity, in particular how we feel as Asian Australians taking part in a society that has alternated its stance between inclusion and exclusion of those it deems as ‘outsiders’. It is then perhaps upon us, the Asian Australian Community, to champion our role models as we take on the challenge of paving the way for a more diverse portfolio of “Asian Australia” domestically, while still codifying exactly what that encompasses.

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