Originally published in Ladies of Leisure, October 2016
The second 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 Sophie! Let’s start with your response to the question “where are you from?” I’ve noticed that I always answer by saying I’m half Sri Lankan and never half Irish, because I know people are asking for the different half.
Sophie Scarlett: I hate that question! I always say I’m Australian and I always make them push it. I grew up in Australia. I used to go to Japan for a couple of months every year but I haven’t been in ages.
I probably get asked a few times a day. When I worked in Queensland it was so bad! They were like “You’re not Australian.” Sometimes it’s well intentioned, but it annoys me that I have to identify myself. There’s this funny video that sums it up; unfortunately this kind of thing actually happens. A guy called me an oriental babe and just couldn’t understand why that wasn’t really a compliment.
I used to roll over it a lot when I was younger and make jokes on the basis of being Asian, but now I think that just enables white people’s racism.
Ru Kwok: I have a lot of friends who are kind of benevolently racist. A friend of mine once jokingly called me a “banana”: white on the inside and yellow on the outside.
TK: One of my friend’s parents used to constantly make really racist jokes. My friend was always defending him as “not really racist” and “just being funny.” It was like, “I’m not white and this is not funny. Me laughing at this is a laugh of discomfort and internalised racism.”
It’s hard to pull people up. If you’re friends it can feel even more confrontational.
SS: Now I pull people up and it ends in a lot of fights. You’re always the politically correct killjoy. Most of our friends are “progressive”, but I actually think it’s easier to deal with people who are openly racist than raise these issues with people who consider themselves progressive.
RK: Totally! I sat down to dinner with some friends recently. The two six foot plus white men sat at the head of the table, the mixed race men sat on one side, and the two girls were on the other side. I knew no one was purposely claiming that space, but I didn’t think it was completely random. My friend who is also biracial was the only one who got what I was trying to say when I pointed it out.
TK: Entitlement is so deeply ingrained that it’s not even an active choice, which is one reason people get so defensive when it’s highlighted.
Anyway, do you feel a strong connection to your cultural heritage Sophie?
SS: My mum passed away when I was quite young and I haven’t been to Japan that much. Also, when I go to Japan people know I’m a foreigner and treat me differently. Japanese culture is very cool, but also very traditional in a negative way.
I know that when my mum moved here she felt like she didn’t fit in because she wasn’t Australian, but she didn’t fit in in Japan anymore either. It caused a bit of an identity crisis. It’s the same for me. People identify me as not being “fully Australian.”
TK: Yeah, I get that. Does that change the way you identify as Australian?
SS: I definitely identify as Australian. Australia is so multicultural and the general populace are all immigrants, which makes it weird that people still pull this all the time. Unless you’re Aboriginal, you’re foreign. I do identify as Japanese, but definitely not as much. I was about 16 the last time I went.
TK: Your perception would probably be so different now. Do you speak Japanese?
SS: I think I actually spoke more Japanese than English when I was little because Mum used to speak to us in Japanese at home. I’m losing it now, but if I went back I would probably be fluent again in a week.
RK: I remember the fact that I spoke another language at home was a point of difference in a negative way in primary school.
SS: In primary school people identify you as different in any way and just go for it. I grew up in East Gippsland, in this tiny little town of about 200 or 300 people. We were the only non-white people in a 60-kilometre radius, or something silly like that. It was pretty bad! I actually left my first primary school because of this one girl who bullied me for being Asian.
Then I went to Uni High, which was so amazing. The ratio of white people to everyone else is small. You cannot be openly racist. It was so much easier being around people who understood. When you talk about racism with white people sometimes they dismiss it.
RK: Until recently I’ve felt uncomfortable discussing racism in a way that makes anything about my life seem like a struggle, because I am so privileged. To even discuss any negative instance can seem a bit rich…Even when I had the idea for this series I second guessed it. Is this a discussion that needs to happen?
SS: Regardless of how privileged you are in other aspects, you will never be as privileged as a white, straight male in Australia. It is a form of oppression and you deserve to feel that.
TK: I think it’s always valuable to have these discussions regardless of how personal these issues can feel. For example, being a kid and not being exposed to non-Anglo beauty in the Australian media might seem minor. Did that affect you?
SS: There were definitely times when I was younger when I wished I was white and thought things would be so much easier.
Having mixed features means I don’t necessarily fit into Japanese or western beauty ideals, which can be confronting. When I go and get my hair done, they don’t know what the fuck to do with my curly Asian strands! Even something like putting on eye shadow is different, because the space under my eyebrows is flatter.
RK: I remember getting my makeup done for a formal and the girl just having no idea what to do with my face! Then when I go back to Malaysia I get complimented on my double eyelids.
SS: You can’t choose your DNA. It’s so unfair that people feel all this pressure to fit into such a specific beauty ideal.
TK: What we’re trying to do here is explore Asian Australian identities through informal conversation. A good entry point is the question “where are you from?” and your relationship to that question.
Tara Lama: I hate it when someone comes up to me and is like, “I like Asian girls!” I’m more okay with it if someone is genuinely interested, or if it’s another half Asian person.
To answer the question, my dad’s Tibetan and my mum’s Australian. My dad’s a Tibetan refugee in exile from the Chinese government and he grew up in northern Nepal. I’ve never been to Tibet, which is upsetting.
His family were in Kathmandu, and I visited them there a couple of times. After the earthquakes in Nepal they moved to New York where my other uncle and his wife and kids live. My other aunty lives in Paris, so I don’t have that much family still in Asia.
Having said that, I wouldn’t be who I am if I wasn’t Tibetan. I grew up within the Tibetan community in Melbourne. In the ‘90s there were probably less than 100 of us, but now there are so many that I don’t know everyone. I grew up with a really close group of Tibetan girlfriends who I saw every weekend. Now I go to big gatherings for stuff like Tibetan New Year and the Dalai Lama’s birthday.
TK: That’s so nice! It must be special to share those experiences with people who understand your background.
TL: It is, but I’ve always felt a little different because they’re all full Tibetan and I’m not. There are more half Tibetan people in Australia now, but for ages Tibetan people only married other Tibetan people! Now when you go to these events it’s more common for people to have white Australian partners.
TK: Did you feel that division?
TL: I fit in, but I didn’t. I don’t speak Tibetan. My dad speaks four languages and three dialects. When I was younger I couldn’t be bothered learning Tibetan; I wanted to fit in with all the rich white kids at my primary school. It makes me upset that I didn’t want that then and now I want it so much, but I feel like it’s too late.
RK: As a child you don’t want something else that makes you an other.
TK: When you were growing up did the Tibetan community feel really separate from your white friends?
TL: Completely! It was an alter ego. I always wished I was a white girl with blonde hair. To this day I wish I didn’t have to go to country towns with my dad and worry he’s going to get called a gook. It’s really upsetting.
Once I came home from school crying to my mum’s dad because someone said something about me being Asian. Grandpa was like, “You tell them you’re just as Australian as them!” He grew up in Botany Bay; you really can’t get more Australian than that. Then again he has absolutely no idea because he’s super Australian and grew up in the army and all that jazz.
TK: In terms of wishing you looked a different way, did consuming white washed media affect you? Also, being an Asian makeup artist in the fashion and beauty industry?
TL: I was listening to Alan Young’s Emmys speech recently; he talks about how Asian people get to be represented as Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles. Asian people are always represented as the funny, unattractive caricature. We need more Lucy Lius!
When I went to get my makeup done for my formal I took a photo of Lady Gaga in. She has huge white lady eyelids. The make up artist looked at my small eyelids and was like, “I can’t do this.” That was when I realised that I can’t look like Lady Gaga.
I’ve never felt beautiful. I’ve never felt like I’m happy with the way I look. I still wish I could get plastic surgery to make my nose look less Asian and get eyelid surgery. I think that’s all because of the media.
RK: I guess that’s part of why we’re doing this. To make people see what they should be seeing. It can be hard to find beauty in something similar to yourself.
TL: My Pinterest is full of half Asian models. I find them so stunning. I think that if I had grown up in Asia I would have felt more attractive.
I used to get really angry about being different, but I’m really grateful for it now. I get very angry and upset about what’s happening in Tibet. There are people self-immolating because they’re not allowed to speak their own language or go to their homes. I still can’t comprehend why the world hasn’t done something about this. People will tell me they don’t know where Tibet is and I’m like, do you even know who the Dalai Lama is? Are you serious?
The refugee situation in Australia really upsets me, because my dad was a refugee. Imagine if he was trying to come here now.
RK: My dad was an immigrant too. It’s about people wanting to be safe and alive and make a life for themselves and their families. The fact that our fathers came to Australia saved them and us, but also potentially the future of our families here and back home. There’s such a carry on effect. Refugees are framed in the media as this alien collective but migrant culture is a huge part of what this country is built on.
TL: In conclusion, free Tibet!
Sophie Scarlett drinks like a fish, works at a bank, and likes dark cynical fiction and dogs. She collects sneakers, loves eating out at places that she probably can’t afford, and knits in her spare time. Follow her on Instagram here.
Tara Lama is a makeup artist who lives in Melbourne. In her spare time you can find her crying over cute dogs and talking to her fish. She is currently in the planning stages of relocating to Canada. You can find Tara here and her work here.
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 email@example.com.