I am cleaning tables at the little CBD café where I worked through uni, when a businessman looks up from his coffee to ask me, “Where are you from?”
“Tasmania,” I reply. Tasmania is where I grew up, and if he accepts this answer we can have a great conversation about MONA and Cradle Mountain.
“Nah, but, like, where are you really from?” he asks.
“My mum is Australian and my dad is Chinese Singaporean.”
“Ah, I thought you looked mixed up,” says the man.
Satisfied, he returns to his coffee.
In reality, I’ve very rarely felt ‘mixed up’ or confused about my identity. There is this idea of the tragic biracial child, a perpetual outsider, who never finds belonging in any community. That may be the experience of some, but not me. Growing up, my day-to-day concerns were more along the lines of, “Why do pimples exist?” and “Will I ever understand derivative calculus?”
Then, in 2016, my Grandpa passed away.
I hurried down from Sydney to be there for his final hours, and again for the funeral. Grandpa was the last one to spend his adulthood in Asia. And now, without him, what “Chineseness” did we have left? Just genetics? Out came the photo albums, the memories and oral histories. But each story shared suggested hundreds more lost, sent to heaven with Grandpa.
“There’s a play in this,” I decided. And, with a twinge of guilt, grief gave way to the thrill of creation.
I found inspiration everywhere. Beginning with a family connection to the Opium Wars, historical research offered up a wealth of images and metaphors, just waiting for a writer to put them in a dramaturgically satisfying shape. I interviewed family and strangers, immigrants and second generation Australians. Their stories confirmed the need to explore this concept of cultural heritage, and made me feel like I was less alone.
To be fair, my loneliness was self-imposed. All my instincts told me to withdraw, to write without any third party’s creative input. How could I turn my Grandpa’s death into a benefit for my career, without also engaging sincerely and rigorously with the history that he knew?
A performance studies student at the time, I recalled the symbolic violence of anthropological fieldwork, the observer’s very presence rendering authenticity impossible. I’m a playwright, not an anthropologist, but the pressure felt the same. Be humble, but probe deeply. Make no assumptions, and let the truth reveal itself.
Like an alchemist that works with coloured Textas and index cards, I laboured away in secret. There was a lot of material to get through. It pained me to shave away at facts, dropping anything that had no meaning except as proof of research. Do you know how many stories there are about how tea came to Europe? I was particularly sad to cut a scene where Queen Victoria teaches the audience an exotic cultural activity: the Tim Tam Slam.
But there was another reason to be more than usually self-absorbed in the creation of A Westerner’s Guide.
It stems from the existing popular narratives about immigrants and Chinese culture. As a child, I read the classics: Mao’s Last Dancer, Chinese Cinderella, Wild Swans. Then there are the more contemporary screen references: Fresh Off the Boat, Crazy Rich Asians, The Family Law. Not to mention the exponentially popular Facebook group ‘subtle asian traits’, where members share memes about their strict parents and their love of bubble tea.
If you compare A Westerner’s Guide to the Opium Wars to any of these pop phenomena, it will come up short. At times, it feels like I have Asian Imposter Syndrome, because I don’t relate to the memes. I can’t compete with the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, the struggles of non-native English-speakers, or the particular atmosphere of an urban immigrant community. My family moved to Tasmania, remember?
But there is a story to tell here: one that I didn’t think too much about until it had been all but severed from this world. It’s a story of identity and belonging, something to which we can all relate. That’s why so many people are taking DNA ethnicity tests.
My Uncle Roland knew it too, and it’s through his genealogical research that we have a map of seven generations of family history. By focusing on the personal, I absolve myself of any duty to represent the Asian diaspora, an impossible task in any case.
The week before my initial development showing at the Sydney University Dramatic Society is a blur.
In my creative protectiveness, I had set myself up as writer, actor, director, set designer, costume designer, sound designer and producer. I was also dealing with a severely infected wisdom tooth.
Thankfully, some good friends were there to make sound recordings, program lights, stage manage, and pull me out of my bubble. And, when the time came, I engaged in some serious creative development with support from the Asian Australian theatre community.
There was an unexpected side effect to the whole experience. After holing myself up with books and interview recordings, and sitting at my laptop agonising over what life must have been like for Grandpa and Grandma, I have come to feel a stronger connection to my cultural heritage.
Now, when a stranger asks me, “But where are you really from?” I proudly reply, “I’ll tell you, but you’ll have to buy a ticket.”