Words || Sheriden Goldie
The question of ‘Yeah nah, but where are you reeaally from?’ follows me everywhere. My mother is Chinese, but she was adopted into a white family. I was born in Australia, and as much as I am a product of my ethnicity, it doesn’t match my cultural upbringing. For some reason, that confuses people.
My mother was abandoned as a baby – she was found in a waste basket in a hospital in Hong Kong. Her birth certificate has only an approximate date of birth, and no names are listed for her parents. Her name was assigned by the hospital: Yuet-Sheung Cheung. At three years of age she was adopted by the Carrington family and given a new home in Christchurch, New Zealand.
She was renamed Dawn. My grandfather, Poppa, said they chose it because she was a ‘radiant light from the east’. When the family emigrated from New Zealand to Australia in the late 19605, the family was faced with inquiries such as, ‘Yes, your wife and three sons are okay to immigrate Sir, but what’s with the girl?’
“boys would pull the corners of their eyes with their fingers, spouting nonsense words that sounded harsh and guttural. I hated it.”
Mum arrived in Sydney with the family in 1968 after some heated negotiations and, family rumour has it, some string pulling. Even as an adopted member of the Carrington family, it was clear that outsiders thought that my Chinese mother did not belong.
When I was born, my grandfather said to my mother that she was no longer alone in the world, in that she now had a biological relative. I remember my mother telling me about that moment, and I think that was the first time I realised that there was so much about my mother’s experience that I didn’t know, and that I would perhaps never understand.
Poppa made sure the family celebrated Lunar New Year each year. Mum and I still do to this day. As a child, I loved the food, but I was terrified of the Lion Dance. My mother was the opposite; she always tells me that the drum heat awakens something inside her heart. Poppa would give me a beautiful Ang Pao every year, but my friends at school didn’t get one. I would ask them about what they did for Chinese New Year, and they would say, ‘That’s only for Chinese people’. Oh, the worldliness of seven year olds!
In 1996 my mother took me to Hong Kong. I was only eight years old, however I still remember feeling foreign. I remember holding the rough hand of my white Australian father. We were in the busy markets, and I was feeling scared and out of my depth. I saw my mother’s joy in those crowded streets, and her similarity to the people around us. Even though I also looked like those people, I didn’t feel like I was like them. I was glad to come home to Australia.
When I started at a new school in Year 5, my Asian-ness suddenly became the butt of all jokes. It was a predominantly white Australian school. In class, the boys would pull the corners of their eyes with their fingers, spouting nonsense words that sounded harsh and guttural. I hated it. I was born in Australia and I spoke English. I wanted freckles and blonde hair.
I tried making friends with the Chinese kids. I found trouble there too, because I was ‘raised white’. I was unable to relate to the home life of my Chinese friends. We didn’t wash our rice before cooking it, and I had never been to yum cha with all my aunts and uncles. I was a ‘halfie’ who didn’t feel comfortable in either camp.
“In high school, I was exotic to the boys I dated, and suddenly they became boys that liked Asian girls.”
Poppa would often ask my mother, ‘Does she understand her heritage?’. She would gently pat the back of his hand to reassure him, ‘Yeah Dad, I think so’. But my mother and I cannot speak Cantonese or Mandarin. When I revealed this to my Chinese friends, they would joke, ‘Well you aren’t really Chinese then’.
In high school, I was exotic to the boys I dated, and suddenly they became boys that liked Asian girls. I didn’t feel Asian, but I couldn’t write off my Asian-ness. I tried, but the jokes still came. I was learning that my Chinese heritage was a burden, something that set me apart for ridicule and spectacle.
To an impressionable and confused teenager, this kind of judgement is damaging. I began to feel that the ‘halfie’ tag was stuck on my back. I began to resent the culture that would put such shame on the bearing of female children. I objected to the culture that would accept abandoning baby girls in waste baskets in hospital wards.
It has taken years, but I have realised my Chinese heritage isn’t exactly going anywhere. I still get those questions, and offhand jokes like ‘Do you pull the Asian card when you drive?’ Unintentional or not, racism is racism, and my mum and I will continue to endure the confusion about our identities.
I have loved my mother as best I can through everything; even during the times I wished we weren’t Chinese. My mother is strong, and has put up with worse than I ever have. We love Australia, and there is nowhere else that we can call home. I know that one day, my Asian genes won’t matter to me. But they still do, so I will learn to defend and love them as an Australian.