Originally published in Ladies of Leisure, November 2016
The third segment of a three part series of conversations around cultural identity led by Tara Kenny and Ru Kwok. Images by Ru Kwok.
Tara Kenny: Hey Juanita! Firstly, how do you respond when someone asks where you’re from?
Juanita Ward: My general tongue in cheek response is “Kew.” I take offence to someone noticing that I look different and having this impulse to ask where I am from. It doesn’t take into consideration a sense of inclusiveness. I am from the same place that you are from, I just look a little bit different.
It’s weird to see that I look different to the people I surround myself with, because I don’t feel different. When I look in the mirror there’s a strange disconnect between the way I look and the fact that I don’t feel foreign. People guess that I’m Italian, Islander, South American; I definitely don’t look Thai.
TK: How do you rectify that “foreignness”?
JW: Going back to Thailand has been important. I was born in Thailand but came over here in ‘89, when I was one. My dad’s Australian; he was working in advertising in Thailand in the ‘80s when he met my mum. My mum didn’t raise me speaking Thai or practising Islam, so I had no connection to Thailand for most of my life. She’s from a big family of seven sisters from a very lo-fi Thai Muslim village. It’s basically just my family in this village of rubber plantations. It’s a different type of different!
I hadn’t been back in 20 years until I went there with my ex-boyfriend a couple of years ago. We didn’t call ahead, so my family didn’t know I was coming. We went to the village and I walked past this woman who had the same nose as me. She called out my Thai name; it turns out she was my aunt. It was this really beautiful connection. We ended up staying there for a week.
TK: Wow! That’s super amazing. Did you go back there with the intention of meeting your family?
JW: My hope was to go and connect with people. The sense of family and community there is really amazing and unlike anything I have experienced before. It’s a heavily matriarchal village, which is very different to common media portrayals of Islamic communities. The love and foundation of the family comes from the women, and the men almost feel obsolete.
TK: Sounds like heaven! Did being there change your understanding of being Thai?
JW: I never grasped the concept of a family bond until I spent time with my family…They don’t speak English, I don’t speak Thai, and most of our communication is via crude sign language and tonal exclamations.
I grew up in Kew and had a very western upbringing with my father: golden retrievers and white picket fences. Going back and seeing how rich that part of my life is was really great.
TK: Did an awareness of looking different or having another side to your identity come into that western upbringing?
JW: Kids are cruel and they say really weird and racist things without realising how hurtful they’re being. There was definitely a lot of that in my younger years in primary school and even in high school. I just didn’t feel beautiful.
Ru Kwok: How do you feel about being Asian in terms of dating and being approached by people? Have you ever had an experience that you’ve come away from wondering what happened and if you’re okay with it?
JW: I’ve definitely encountered guys who like Asian chicks, which is quite dismissive of the individual person. I don’t necessarily see myself as Asian though, so that attitude wouldn’t necessarily stop me from seeing someone.
RK: See when I find that out I 100% run for the hills, which isn’t necessarily fair. In terms of you just saying you don’t consider yourself Asian…
JW: I do and I don’t. It comes down to identity, right? I am Thai. I am Asian. I identify as those things, but…
Here’s an example: My dad lives in Malaysia and my grandmother is Malaysian; this is a Malaysian nose! I was walking through a mall in Sarawak and everyone was staring at me. Dad said it’s because I look like a local but I carry myself like a westerner. Even when my ex-boyfriend was riding me around on the back of a scooter, we joked that it looked like he was stealing a village girl.
RK: I get what you mean. I think about myself as at least part Asian, but in Australia I don’t navigate as a foreigner. But then when I’m in Malaysia with my dad and my brother – we’re all over six foot – we get so much attention. Old women come up and rub their heads on us because they think we’re some kind of good luck spirit.
JW: Oh my god! There’s this artist I really like called Abdul Abdullah, who has some really cool ideas about Australian identity that take into account how weird multiculturalism can be. He’s got descendants from the first fleet but is also Muslim-Malaysian, and really battles with what it means to be Australian. To say you’re “Australian” is a fallacy, for the majority.
RK: I have this friend who is part Indigenous, part Filipino who finds it quite strange when people tell him he’s “Asian” considering he’s Indigenous.
TK: It’s interesting how people use that terminology. People will say to me that Sri Lanka isn’t “really” part of Asia and it’s like, where is it then? It’s not China, which might be an Australian understanding of what Asia is. At the same time there is no single Asian identity.
The other thing I wanted to ask about is in reference to what you were saying before about not feeling beautiful. Non-Anglo Saxon beauty isn’t something that’s well represented in the Australian media. I’m wondering if that has impacted your self-perception?
JW: The fact that I didn’t feel that beautiful might have had less to do with my heritage and more to do with growing up in the 90s when thin was in. I’m just never going to have a butt that small… At the same time, when I was 13 or 14 I wore blue contacts and died my hair blonde which suggests systemic issues with cultural identity. Where were my role models? You’re in primary school dressing up as a Spice Girl and because you have slightly dark skin you’re Scary Spice. There’s no real connection between a Thai person and an African American person, but kids just choose the next best thing to “other.”
TK: Same. No one wanted to be Scary Spice at the time, which is fucked, but she was actually the coolest!
JW: I don’t think I understand the value of having role models that look like me. I recognise it as being important, but growing up in a western environment I don’t know if I would have identified with an Asian role model just because we look the same. We have the same skin colour, but not necessarily the same values or environment. There’s no cultural basis to my role models.
I think the real challenge today is religious racism. People look at Muslim people with such fear, and it just breaks my heart. They’re the largest religious group on the planet, and people are making judgements based on such a small group of people. Think about Christian extremism – the KKK, slavery and the stolen generation. Diversity is front and centre at the moment, yet people are still picking and choosing which groups to accept and integrate. I hope more fearless and honest attitudes and conversations can develop.
TK: Hi Damai! Firstly, what is your cultural heritage? I’m also interested in how you feel about being asked that question, or to be crude, “where are you from?”
Damai Syarifuddin: I’m half Indonesian, half Australian. I don’t mind being asked by another chick, but often it’s a creepy dude and I hate that so much. I’ve had uber drivers ask and it’s like, “Why do you care? Just drive me to the place!”
I can normally tell if someone is half Indonesian or half Asian so sometimes I will ask people, mainly because I can relate. I’ve had girls ask if I’m half Asian and we’ve bonded over that in a very positive way.
TK: Totally. I don’t often ask people, but being from a mixed cultural background I’m certainly more interested. Maybe it gives you a bit more validity to ask too.
RK: Sometimes if I’m in the street or I’m serving someone at work and they look part or half Asian, we have this look that says, “I know that you know that I know.”
TK: Ha, totally! Damai, can you describe your relationship to Indonesia?
DS: I try and go back every year to visit my grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins. In Indonesia a lot of people have huge families. My dad’s one of six and I’m one of eleven cousins, which is nice because I don’t really have that on my mum’s side.
I actually tried to live there in 2014. I was so exhausted by the time I got back. There’s so much we just take for granted, like how safe we are here. You have to watch your back much more there.
TK: Is it quite dangerous?
DS: Yeah, and unassumingly so. You can just get stuck in a really weird situation and wonder how you got there. My aunties and everyone were always worried about me going out.
I went out to get my haircut and go shopping in Jakarta and everyone was just staring me down because I was a lone girl without like ten other people. Indonesians take their whole family everywhere. You sort of get escorted around and I just needed my space.
I wanted to stay for six months, but ended up coming home after three and a half. I did an internship there so I was working a bit, but it made me realise how Australianised I’ve become.
TK: So you speak Indonesian?
DS: I do, but my accent still comes through. I try really hard but I’m still not a local.
RK: I’ve had that happen too. Even when people perfectly understand what you’re saying, they pretend they don’t because they want to make you feel foreign. It’s quite isolating.
DS: That’s the thing. Because I’m half, I’ll never be accepted as an Indonesian person. It probably would have been different if I had of grown up there. Even my family kind of laugh at me a lot. They joke and call me “bule”, which is slang for foreigner. A lot of the time my jokes don’t get across. I’ll say something stupid as a joke and people are just like “what”? They call each other fat and think it’s hilarious.
TK: Oh my god that’s exactly what happens every time I go back to Sri Lanka. People tell me I’ve put on weight and it’s like “Well, yeah, but like…”
DS: I’ve experienced real culture shock because of customs. You’d never speak to your father the same way Australians do. There are strict family roles. The father is the head of the family.
RK: I don’t know about your father but mine has a strong sense of filial piety and almost one-way Confucian respect; respecting your elders is paramount. I was very shocked when I went to friends’ houses in high school and saw the way they spoke to their fathers.
DS: Definitely. That’s gotten harder for me as I’ve gotten older.
My grandparents are super cute and I would never disrespect them. They’ve always lived in Indonesia and see Australian culture as quite alien. They’re really traditional, but they accept that I’m always going to be different after growing up in Australia. It’s the same with my cousins, who are also Muslim and operate happily within relatively conservative Indonesian culture, but don’t expect me to conform. I’ve learnt a lot about Indonesian culture from them. It’s really nice having that influence.
TK: My grandma is like that. As a result of growing up in a really conservative society she encourages my sister and I to do our own thing and not get married too early. She had an arranged marriage when she was 18, so she doesn’t want us to have that experience. It’s good that she hasn’t internalised those values.
What about within Australia? Does your exposure to a totally different culture make you feel differently about being Australian?
DS: I’m studying to be a teacher, and I think it has helped me understand kids and where they may have come from. I understand the different layers, because I’ve been balancing those layers since I was a kid.
It’s also made me more open to other people’s cultures and “their Australia” versus mine. That sounds so corny!
TK: No, it sounds so nice.
Juanita Ward is a digital producer for Aesop, working and living in Melbourne’s inner north. Juanita is a student of Visual Culture at Curtin University and pursues a variety of cultural exploits in her downtime.
Damai Syarifuddin is currently finishing her Master of Teaching, and hopes to live in Asia again in the future.
Ru Kwok is a multi-disciplinary creative. Since completing a Bachelor of Fashion Design at RMIT Ru has been collaborating and producing work concerned with female representation and identity. You can find her here and contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.