Growing up with Racism

My childhood backyard

A year ago I visited the country and town I grew up in.

I left when I was 15 to attend boarding school in Australia. And have never lived there again. The last time I’d been to visit was more than 20 years ago.

And until this last visit, I’d largely forgotten what it was like to live there.

I had an idyllic childhood, a peaceful and innocent time. We all enjoyed a slower pace of life. We kids could cycle round the neighbourhood, catch tiny fish in large drains, fly a kite on the beach, eat a coconut from the backyard.

When I returned from my long weekend there, I was going to write about it but felt conflicted and decided to leave it.

I think it is right to write about it now.

However, I am afraid of their justice system where criticism of their government can entail a jail sentence so I will not mention the country by name and will refer to it as Country X. Plus I still have friends living there and do not want their livelihoods jeopardised either.

Systemic racism

What I’d forgotten about was the systemic racism in Country X.

And the effects that it has on the lives of ordinary people.

Citizenship is conferred by your parents’ citizenship. And most ethnic Chinese have never been granted citizenship. Therefore their children cannot be citizens, even if they are born in the country. They are effectively ‘stateless’ – they don’t belong to any nation.

Residents are categorised into three sections – each with a colour coded identity card (IC in short) – yellow (citizens), red (permanent residents) and green (foreigners).

Unless you hold a yellow IC, you cannot own land. As a red IC holder, you can buy a house but only hold it for 99 years. You are not eligible for government scholarships. Travel to many countries is out of the question because most countries do not understand that you do not hold a passport but a certificate of identity (looks like a passport but not a passport). You cannot own a business unless you have a business partner with a yellow IC.

Laws can and do change any time without warning, affecting your livelihood, how you practise your religion, how you must observe the state religion.

There are many ethnic Chinese families who have lived here for generations who still hold red ICs with no chance of getting a yellow IC. Citizenship tests are notoriously difficult to pass, with the language test standard set so high that most ethnic Chinese have no way of passing. And even if you sat the test, it may be years before you know the result.

The only way is out.

There was a mass exodus in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Many people left – mainly to Canada and Australia. But not everyone was lucky enough to obtain visas while some chose to remain.

My family’s story

Our family held green ICs – foreigners with a valid work visa. This is a transient population though some may stay for 30 odd years before moving back to their home countries upon retirement. Most fall in love with the lifestyle, living with the restrictions of religion and race but still living a fairly peaceful and sleepy life, nonetheless.

My maternal grandparents came to this country to look for better work conditions, bringing their children with them. Upon retirement, my grandparents moved back to their home country, across the border. My mother stayed, married my father who’d come to work too.

To make sure we would not be stateless, my mother went back to her home country to give birth to us, ensuring we were citizens of a country. To this day though, I have never lived in the country of my citizenship. I have been to visit family members, been on holidays. But no, I’ve never actually lived there, been to school there or held a job.

We always knew, even as kids that our life in Country X was temporary. It all depended on my father’s job, that he be able to renew his work visa. We lived in accommodation provided by my father’s company, with access to air conditioning, running water, sit down Western toilets – very luxurious at that time. But it could all disappear, at the stroke of a pen. There was no permanence, no security as such.

We went to local non government schools, with no access to higher education.  Our parents drummed into us from a young age that we must do well at school so that one day, we may study abroad in a foreign university. They saved hard, living on one wage – all with the aim of sending us overseas for further education. It was not possible to go back to our home country as it too has racial issues and university was limited to those of the majority race.

I came to Australia at 15 and a half years old to further my studies. Two years later, my family officially emigrated here.

How racism affects me personally

I have never lived in a country where my ethnicity is the majority ie I’ve always lived in a country where my ethnic race is the minority. Country X and Australia.

Most of the time, it doesn’t bother me.

But it’s always in the background.

I look different, I speak with an accent (albeit slight, but still there), I eat different foods for lunch at work.

Don’t get me wrong – I live an extremely privileged life, by any standards. Growing up, I always, always had enough to eat, a roof over my head, clothes and shoes and enough of everything. I am educated and have a job. I am very grateful for all the advantages in my life.

Sure, I’ve been yelled at in Australia – to go back to where I belong, made fun of at boarding school, sometimes felt uncomfortable when everyone around me is very White. These days, there is no overt signs of racism against me.

I can almost pretend it’s not there until it is. For example, the recent physical attacks of Chinese in Australia, with the perpetrators blaming them for coronavirus and telling them to leave Australia. My father was so worried about us. He kept sending us videos of racist incidents in America and here, warning us to be careful, warning us to stock up on food so we don’t have to go out as often (irrespective of lockdown requirements).

I brush him aside, tell him these are isolated incidents and go about my life as normal. There are always ignorant people in every society and I can’t live my life in fear, afraid that I will be the next victim.

And therein lies my method of coping with it all. Pretend it doesn’t exist, that it’s not my problem. I don’t dwell on it because I don’t want to be a victim. I just want to get on with living my life. Being a pragmatic person, I simply accept that being different is always going to be part of my life so why make it a big deal.

I don’t like conflict, even though I can be fiery. So I will ignore the racist comment and just move on.

But is that the right thing to do?

Growing up in Country X, I can’t help but be aware of the limitations of being ethnic Chinese. And the danger of speaking out in public – you can end up in jail or be deported.

As an adult, I’ve always treated others as who they are, ignoring their skin colour and their countries of origin. As a manager, I have hired many many people of various cultures.

I do love different cultures and am curious to learn more – about their food, way of life, cultural practices. And it is part of the reason I love travelling – there is so much to learn, see and explore in this world. I attribute this partly to growing up in an environment that heightens my awareness of race, of other cultures. Underneath our skin, we are all essentially the same.

Is that enough?

Woefully, no. As I reflect these past weeks on my behaviour, I own that I have not spoken up enough in the past about racism. Even if I accept it as an injustice against me, I should not accept it when it happens to others.

Nothing I’ve ever suffered is even close to how the Aboriginal community is treated. Daily. Or have been treated in the past.

I was very moved by actor, Meyne Wyatt’s Monologue on ABC’s Q and A program last Monday.

Silence is violence. Complacency is complicit.

While we are rightly angry over police brutality and the death of George Floyd in America, we are not doing any better in Australia.

This is another sobering read from The Guardian – Aboriginal deaths in custody: Black Lives Matter protests referred to our count of 432 deaths. It’s now 437

Back in 1987, the Australian Government established a Royal Commission to look into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Since then, 437 additional lives have been lost. That is 437 families in pain. It seems we have not learned anything from the Royal Commission. There is much work to be done in Australia.

Black lives do matter.

Final thoughts

While I have experienced racism personally, it is nothing compared to that experienced by our Indigenous community. I pledge to continue to learn more about their plight and as a start, to speak up against racism. Talk about it at work, amongst colleagues and friends. And to donate to charities that support Indigenous literacy, health and justice.

How have you been affected by racism? 


10 Replies to “Growing up with Racism”

  1. Hi Late Starter,

    I’ve been lucky to not have experienced much racism growing up. Vancouver is a very diverse city, and for the most part, everyone accepts everyone else.

    But like you, I have relatives from other parts of the world who’ve been discriminated against because they were Chinese. It’s very scary to live in a country where you can be persecuted for standing up for your rights.

    You and I are very lucky to live in Australia and Canada, where that’s mostly not an issue. However, like in Australia, our indigenous people have faced many injustices. I am so saddened by the struggles they’ve faced because of centuries of oppression.

    It’s so important for us to share our stories and speak out against racism of all kinds. The more of us who speak out, the more we expose the wrongs that are still happening all over the world.

    1. I have lived in Australia longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. And I’ve forgotten what it’s like not to be able to speak up.

      I remember once, criticising the country’s prime minister in conversation with my aunt while we were in a shopping mall – she shushed me quickly saying “You can’t say these things in public. We’ll talk at home” We were overseas.

      You are right that we need to speak up more. It is not just about me or my experiences. There is no overt racism against me. But there is plenty of injustices against our local Aboriginal community. And this is where I need to do better.

  2. Thank you so much for your post, Latestarter. It was really interesting to read. Like you, I learned to fit in to the majority culture. I was born in the U.K. and am a citizen, but being mixed race, we always stood out – the only minority children in our area, in our school, often at work. When you’ve worked so hard to fit in and thrive in a society, I realise it became difficult to speak out, to stand up and be counted. I did well academically and in my career, but as I get older, I feel more drawn to the Caribbean where my father was from. I vividly remember the couple of years I spent out there in my Late 20s. Especially in Martinique, which was a rich mix of cultures, for the first time I felt indistinguishable from the majority population (until I opened my mouth). It was an amazing experience to look the same. I feel inspired by the current protests, and sincerely hope it leads to actual change, not just warm words and a few old statues moved to museums.

  3. I hope it leads to actual change too, worldwide.

    That’s the problem isn’t it – we look different where we currently live but we don’t really belong back in ‘home’ country either – my command of Chinese is really poor so I stand out the minute I open my mouth too, haha

    Glad we can share our experiences with each other

  4. Thank you for sharing Late Starter! It’s fascinating to read your immigration story and the challenges that you and your family went through straddling multiple countries, languages and culture.

    Also thank you for sharing about the Aboriginal community and the systematic racism that they face in Australia. I wasn’t too familiar with their history before (as an Asian American), but your willingness to speak up is helping me to expand my understanding and knowledge. Thank you!

    1. You are welcome, Tae! We all have much to learn about how racism affects so many lives. Thank you for your interest 🙂

  5. Very heartfelt and yet objective piece LSF.

    Although I can’t share your personal experiences of racism, I can certainly empathise.

    As for understanding more of the plight of Aborigines here in Australia, I share your commitment to doing more.

    thanks again for encouraging me to think, and in this case, understand how others experience the world.


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