From West to East: Reading with an Asian lens

By Charlene Behal 

When I was younger, I was an avid reader. Literacy was my favourite subject in primary school, and English my favourite in high school. Writing and reading quickly became my passions, even before I was conscious of it. As a sheltered Asian kid, my experiences were limited but I always sought stories that I could relate to – stories about school; and stories I could fantasise about – stories about romance.

In my later high school years, I was taken over with anxiety – and later, depression. The internal and external pressure of Year 12 manifested into immense stress, which made things that were once easy tasks became harrowing, difficult ones. One of the things that I could no longer understand was reading for pleasure. I only read the compulsory books we had to read for English and Literature – ‘read’ used as a very loose term (sorry to my English teachers). The Australian English curriculum itself lacks diversity. I couldn’t relate to any of the characters, which made me lose interest. Since high school, I stepped back from reading for pleasure with no intention of coming back to it.

During this time, I was also introduced to K-pop (specifically Stray Kids) and became a fan after finding out two of the members were Asian-Australian. As an avid pop music fan, this was a representation I’d never seen before – I had only ever idolised non-Asian people, because this was all that I was ever exposed to. 

And after travelling abroad as a teen, this identity of being Asian between cultures became apparent to me, and it was something that I resonated with deeply. Being outside of the environment I was in all my life allowed me to hear my Australian accent more clearly and see my Asian appearance – and it helped me realise that both of these parts of me live together rather than exist separately. I wanted to start that journey of exploring this huge part of myself that I didn’t know existed. Focusing on media created by Asian people hadn’t occurred to me up until that point. 

When I graduated from high school and suddenly had a lot of time on my hands (especially being a uni student who started in the pandemic), consuming media by Asian creatives became a fun quest for the time I lost consuming only white, Western media growing up. I was opened up to a whole new world of media I could actually relate to, rather than be an outsider to. Consuming K-pop content was a big part of this. It was more than just music; seeing people who looked like me (especially the Australian idols) gave me an unprecedented feeling of belonging as an Asian-Australian. 

After I changed my major from Journalism to Professional Writing and Editing, it became apparent that I was the odd one out in my class. I liked my first major, but not having the ability to be creative made me feel trapped. I was glad to finally be in the right major for me, but I also began to feel ostracised when my classmates talked about the books they read – because I had absolutely no knowledge of the sort under my belt. The novel industry is a predominantly white sphere, just like most of the industries that exist in this country. Now that I was in a better mental state, I was inspired to start reading again – only now, the difference was that I made a conscious effort to read from Asian perspectives.

I don’t remember how, but I made the life changing discovery of Amplify Bookstore –  a bookstore based in Melbourne with the sole purpose to elevate BIPOC authors. Finding this bookstore sparked a new light in me, and inspired me to start reading again. And now that I have started again, I feel unprecedented emotions when reading. It’s an even better experience than when I was younger. I didn’t realise it back then, but reading stories solely from a white perspective hindered my sense of identity. 

Authors with white backgrounds have historically been the ones in power in the publishing industry, and they are the ones who can choose the stories that make their way into the forefront; and can easily reject stories if they don’t appeal to their values. In 2020, the Diversity Baseline Survey conducted by Lee & Low Books found that 76% of the publishing staff, review journal staff and literary agents were white. Unfortunately, stories by POC authors are more likely to make their way to the forefront if race is not prominent. An example of this is when author of The Kiss Quotient, Helen Hoang, used an illustrated cover to ‘slip unconscious bias’ – to tell an Asian love story without race being the biggest part of it.  

Being able to relate to the characters so deeply is such a sacred experience for me now. Themes of isolation and redemption through an Asian author’s perspective made me feel a sense of belonging I never felt when reading. Experiencing Asian protagonists being worthy of love and friendship was powerful. I only ever saw Asian characters as the sidekick – if they were even included at all.

But especially now, we are seeing a movement of Asian authors showing the world that our stories are valid, and are more than worthy of being told. Asian authors, and BIPOC authors in general, deserve to make their way in the mainstream. As a kid, if I saw a book on the shelf with an Asian name on the spine and characters who looked like me on the cover… I can’t tell you what that would’ve meant to me. 

It would have not only validated my identity, but show that it’s something that deserves to be celebrated. I always thought the family and friendship dynamics in books were so unlike mine, which made me think I was the only one who was different. Kids regularly sneaking out, going to parties and getting grounded – contrasted with being told to focus on my studies, regular fam jams and aunties pestering you about whether you have a boyfriend yet. (Of course every Asian-Australian’s experience is different, and this was mine as an introverted Asian “nerd”). 

I felt so abnormal because I thought that being White was the only way to be ‘normal’. When in reality, I am living in an Asian household in a Western country – a common experience I think many people can relate to. But because I was only reading about White experiences exclusively, it made me feel like there was something inherently wrong with the way I lived my life. I didn’t feel a connection to my Asian culture for a long time because of the whitewashed literature and media that was available to me. 

Asian kids deserve to feel like they belong. We should not be made to feel excluded or like we don’t belong because we don’t feel seen in the novels we read. Reading can be an escape, but it can also be a comfort – and being able to relate to stories and characters is a comfort. We should be able to read stories that we can relate to, and our stories deserve to be told — so the whole world can experience and learn about our culture, too.

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