Lost in Translation — An Asian growing up in Australia.

A personal reflection on being an Australian born Asian.

My name is Tom, and I am Australian with a Japanese background. I was born and raised in Sydney but growing up I have always had a disconnect of where my cultural identity lies. The question of whether I am Australian or Japanese has continuously played around in my head at several points in my life.

With the recent popularity of Crazy Rich Asians, a film which showcases media representation for Asian actors in Western Media, I’ve spent some time wondering and reflecting on what #AsianRepresentation means to me.

Visiting Japan

During primary school, I distinctly remember visiting Hiroshima for a family holiday, and there was one memory that still sticks with me. I was conversing with my brother in English and a group of teenagers passed by. They were speaking amongst themselves and as soon as they overheard us, they remarked:

“They are so strange. They look Japanese but are speaking English…”

I told them I heard them. Amused by the surprised expression on their face, I carried on. This was memory point number one.

Confusion during the teenage years

Growing up in a predominately white Catholic high school also added to the mix of not understanding what it meant to be Australian or Japanese. With approximately less than 10 Asians in the grade of 120 males, the teenager Tom realised it was best to reject his cultural roots and get along with everyone else. I would reject what it meant to be Asian from the neighbouring Asian selective school and would secretly pride myself on the colloquial term of being a ‘banana’ — yellow on the outside and white on the inside.

Banter was seen as the norm and was a necessary skill one had to sharpen during one’s high school days. Being prepared to take on any jokes about Saving the Whales or Pearl Harbour, were comebacks I had to prepare for. Ultimately I started to internalise that it was okay to be laughing and retorting back to these jokes in such a playful manner.

Going out during those times was also interesting. The glory days of the goon bag were immensely fun however at social gatherings, being the confused teen made me question my self-esteem concerning my appearance and cultural looks. I recall even having dreams of changing my eye colour to blue or just being ‘white’.

This isn’t to say that I loathed my teenage years. I enjoyed every minute of it, however, these were some distinct insecurities that I had about my cultural identity.

Adulting

Interestingly enough, I ended up in a university course which was predominately Asian and was very surprised to know so many people. Put simply, I didn’t know Asian people existed coming outside of my Lower North Shore bubble. I started to feel more comfortable where it was the norm to embrace and share common jokes about food, parenting and the similar upbringings we shared.

There is /was even a ‘scene’ which seemingly embraced such cultural environments through the regular convening at the Sanctuary Hotel on Kent Street and attending regular ‘electronic-music’ festivals such as Defqon 1.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/28/world/australia/young-asian-australians-carve-out-an-identity-of-their-own.html

Outside of my $10 Long Islands, I would often ‘study’ (i.e. procrastinate) by spending a lot of time watching TV shows and movies. From the days of Skins to Suits, I would indulge in these shows for entertainment purposes but with a subtle hope to see an interesting Asian actor in Western media that I could idolise. I distinctly remember searching on Google “Famous Australian Japanese people” only to come across a Wikipedia list entry of fewer than 20 people. With media and entertainment playing such a central role in our societal perceptions, this was an empty gap I could never really fill.

Growing up I only saw a handful of ‘extras’ being represented as the wimpy Asian or maths guy however within the most recent years, there has been more interesting Asian male representing characters outside of such norms.

Some notable people / TV shows are:

  • Jimmy O Yang from Silicon Valley
  • Alan Yang for directing Master of None
  • John Cho from Harold and Kumar
  • Justin Chon from 21 & Over
  • MyChonny

The present

Watching Crazy Rich Asian was interesting and a refreshing one. I can’t say I understood all the jokes, but for the most part, it was reassuring that I could relate. What may appear to others as a film with a full Asian cast, it was one that relates to me as a reminder to understand what cultural roots mean to me. It also shows progress in the way that more media representation is being shed from the average calculator nerd.

As a way to connect back with my roots, at the end of the year I’ve actually decided to go back to Japan for an X period of time to understand my language and culture further. This isn’t a decision because of one sole movie but a culmination of life factors. Growing up, there was a strong pressure to reject my own cultural roots due to the surrounding environment, but I think it was a great learning curve to progressively embrace where I am from.

Carving our egos and identities is a difficult one. From birth to our dying breath we are always trying to carve who we are as a human being so there is no real necessity to define labels as identities are all relative and subjective. So whether I identify as an Aussie or Japanese person, I haven’t really decided… but from reflection, I believe it’s imperative to be proud of both.