The identity of Chinese Australians: Yellow or White?

“Yellow or white, should it be a question?”

“Yellow outside and white inside, just like eggs”, which is an vivid metaphor for people like Chinese Australians.(image made by Xiayi Li)

Sunday morning, Melburnians always start their day with a cup of flat white in a lovely cafe, and my boss Kendy brought her son — a 6-year-old Chinese Australian — to the workplace.

Caitin was doing homework in his mother’s cafe. (photo made by Xiayi Li)

“Hi, how are you? What is your name?” I asked the boy, smiling.

“…$%$” He was mumbling, so shy, just like most of Chinese kids.

“Can you write it for me?”

He nodded and searched for a paper in his backpack, and wrote down:


Apparently, it is a Chinese name, but in English.

“Hi Caitin, can you write your name in Chinese?”

“No.” He said.

After having immigrated into Australia for 14 years, my boss, Kendy, a 35-year-old female now owns a Cafe in CBD, Melbourne. Her son was born in Australia in 2011, and currently studying in a local primary school. Kendy’s story is not an exception. The first wave of Chinese immigrants started to settle down in Australia during the “Gold Rush” in 19th century, and their family members as the second wave, came to Australia by their sponsorship. Nowadays, these people’s descendants, so called “Australia-Born-Chinese”, or “Chinese Australians”, thrived in the country far away from their hometown. Melbourne ranks No.2 in Australia with the population of 244,694 Chinese Australians.

“Yellow outside and white inside, just like a egg.”

It is an interesting and vivid metaphor for the minority. When looking at themselves in the mirror, the yellow skin and Asian look, but with western hairstyle and dress style. Deep Inside of Chinese Australians, they are actually confused about who they are.

Identity and Language

These Chinese Australians speak a mixture of Mandarin, Cantonese and English, and the last one as the major language, however, few of them can speak Chinese very well and even fewer can write. Language plays a vital part in cultural continuity and self-identity, learning Mandarin might be helpful for Chinese Australians to build up stronger connection between them and China.

Royal Rosary Primary School. (Photo by Xiayi Li)

Royal Rosary Primary School just commenced an elective mandarin class for those who are interested in learning Mandarin as a second language, and I am the teacher. In the 13 person class, there are 5 Asian children whose parents are from mainland China and Hong Kong. In the first class, when I asked the reason why they are here to learn Mandarin, they nodded and said:

“Because my mom wants me to learn.”

80% of them have the same response about this question, and the rest 20% kids are learning Mandarin out of interest.

“I want to go to China one day.”
“My aunt can speak Chinese, and I think it is cool!”
“I want to learn Kungfu, like Kungfu Panda.”
Ellie’s homework of Mandarin class, she was learning how to write numbers in Mandarin. (Photo By Xiayi Li)

One of student in the class, Ellie, a 6-year-old Chinese Australian, can speak frequent Cantonese at home, according to her mom, Teresa.

The immigration history of this family can be dated to 50 years ago, Teresa and her parents settled down in Melbourne to look after her sick maternal grandparents since she was 7. Then Ellie was born, she wants her to have stronger connection with her grandparents and other relatives back in Hong Kong, so she teaches her daughter Cantonese, and encourages her to study Mandarin at school.

“She is probably a bit young to have a strong preference either way, but she speak very well Cantonese at home.” Teresa said.
Similarly, Karen, a teacher of the school and also a Chinese immigrant said about her children: “They are not particular too keen on learning Mandarin, I think because they are not using it day to day, so they have no passion of it. Perhaps they might change their mind when they get older.”

As a matter of fact, there are a least two situations will influence on the proficiency and interest about learning Mandarin. For one thing, families like Teresa’s where both two parents are Chinese, their kids will be more likely to speak Chinese well, because usually these families have language rule where they will speak Chinese at home and speak English in public place. But if only one parent is Chinese native speaker, just like Karen’s, they have to solve the language barrier between the couple, and English always prevail, after all, we are in Australia where most of people communicate with each other in English. So it might be fair to say there is less fertile ground to let these Chinese Australian kids to pick up their mother tongue in Australia.

According to a study in 2015, over two-thirds of Melburnians speak only English at home (68.1%), and Chinese (mainly Cantonese and Mandarin) is the second-most-common language spoken at home (3.6%). For those Chinese Australians, the highly proliferation of English makes the proficiency in English become more vital than Chinese, especially in Melbourne, such a city of multi-culture.

6% Melburnians are Chinese Australians in 2015, and only 3.6% of Meburnians speak Chinese at home. (Image made by Xiayi Li)

Identity and Social Pressure

Moreover, the long-existing phenomenon of anti-Asian has not totally obsolete. Some conventional and narrow-minded nationalists convinced themselves Asian immigrants occupy jobs and resources that belongs to them, and they are the victims of Asian invasion.

The pressure comes from the English-speaking society has always been a burden for Chinese immigrants of Australia, which have rooted deep in the memory of the early generations, and that’s why their parenting tend to be very strict and high expectation. Undoubtedly, Language barrier is the first thing to tackle on the pathway to fit in fully Australian society. However, even though these Chinese Australians are totally brainwashed by western culture and education, and Chinese Australians record high levels of educational attainment that match and occasionally surpass the national average. It is reported that there is still a bias on society that they are labelled as foreigners because of the way they look, and they feel helpless to get rid of the trap under a bamboo ceiling.

Identity and self-choice

Identity is how you identify yourself by answering the questions who I am. When being asked “who are you”, the answer is usually like “I am Jack, I am a teacher,” your name plus your occupation. Precisely, one is given by your parents, another is chosen by yourself, so the most superficial identity includes both what you are endowed, and also the way you shape your own life actively.

As for Chinese Australians, the skin color and their parents are not things they can choose, but as they live in a country where western culture dominates, people love throwing a barbie, footy and Timtam, they unconsciously consider themselves as Australians, because it is where they were born and raised.

Mychonny is a Melbourne-based, 25-year-old, Vietnamese-Chinese Australian YouTube star. He have been making funny ‘Asianese’ videos of himself, friends, and family since March 2008, and talking about his understanding of his identity in his video “Being an Asian Australian”.

“Being an Asian Australian” is one of most popular videos made by Mychonny, where he was talking about how he’s feeling about being a Asian Australian in a funny way.

In the end of the video, he cried:

“Being Asian in Australia is normal, I feel equal to my neighbors no matter they are black, yellow, brown, white or purple, we are all born with same opportunities. So being an Asian in Australia is not different at all. Like most of people here, I consider myself 100% percent Australian anyway, because I am, Because I am, baby!!!”

For some of Chinese Australians, the confusion of identity might last for a long time. Perhaps a more open-minded and tolerant society will make them more confident to embrace who they are, feeling free to explore the culture that is so closed but also so strange to them.

“Yellow or White, it is not a question.”
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