Going Banana Conference: Multiple Identities Forum
12 August 2006
Andrew Young Speech Notes:
Most of you will know the significance of the colour RED - a hugely symbolic colour in Chinese culture.
Red is a symbol of good luck and fortune;
The colour of celebrations
The colour of public pomp and ceremony
The colour of prosperity, power and strength
The primary colour of the Chinese flag
The colour of vibrancy and vitality
But for me, RED was also the colour of my shame of being Chinese.
Red was the colour of my face during teenage years
The embarrassment of being different
The embarrassment of feeling different
The embarrassment of being a first a generation Chinese New Zealander, from a working class immigrant family in a very WHITE world.
RED, the colour of the heated arguments I had with my parents, who felt I was becoming too westernized – even though they were raising me in a western country and expecting me to excel in this environment, against very Western standards.
I will talk more about this turbulent time, but will start with some context to better explain the source of my angst.
I was born in 1970, the fourth of five children.
We grew up in the peaceful seaside community of Plimmerton, north of Wellington.
It was a very complete early childhood in that we were a self-contained, insular family unit; quite unique in a very Pakeha community and very isolated.
But there wasn’t a feeling of loneliness because our focus was on the family’s fruit and vege shop, which our lives centred around. We were taught early on that it was our duty to work in the shop before and after school and during the holidays. Play was what lazy Say-Yun (or Pakeha) people did and was a waste of time.
We were therefore actively discouraged from having Say-Yun friends, going to their parties or having them around to our house. That would just lead us astray and we would learn their lazy ways.
We were to be the perfect citizens. School was there to teach us, so we could excel and do much better than the lazy Say-Yun.
Does this sound familiar to anyone?
We seemed to accept this without question – even if the lazy way seemed like a lot more fun.
The hiccup came during my teenage years, when I wasn’t quite so accepting.
I began to question why we were discouraged from having Pakeha friends or God forbid – even Maori friends.
I had become great mates with both Pakeha and Maori kids I went to school with, as there were slim pickings to hang out with exclusively Chinese kids in Lower Hutt, where we were then living.
I grew to resent working morning, afternoon and night in the fruit shop, with the constant drive to also do well at school, as university was the only option for me beyond school.
Being Chinese was becoming a real drag. It seemed like an endless ton of toil, keeping your head down, keeping your opinions to yourself, not making any trouble. And for what rewards?
We were to live modestly and not show any pretension of wealth, as that would cause jealousy. Or Maori people would come and steal it from us.
But this was the path of success and being better than everyone else, we were told.
My so-called lazy Say-Yun friends were meanwhile playing after school, learning to windsurf, meeting girls even and going to the beach. In the holidays, they’d be off on trips – whereas I was faced with 6am trips to the markets and long days in the shop.
And for so-called lazy people who wouldn’t get very far, they seemed pretty alright to me. Their Dads wore suits, their Mums didn’t were smocks and moccasins and kept their houses pretty immaculate and they drove perfectly nice sedans.
On that point, why did Dad have to park right in front of the school on rainy days in his rusty fruit shop truck? Couldn’t he go round the corner where the whole school couldn’t see?
Why did we have to eat rice every night, when normal families on tv ate with knives, forks and plates?
And did we have to kill live chickens in our backyard – what was wrong with picking a frozen chicken up from the supermarket?
Resentment grew; the feelings of being so different grew and the price of being different seemed so distant and unrewarding.
Teenage years are difficult for most of us. Conforming to the norm is important, standing out means being a freak. And that’s how I felt.
My relationship with my parents was obviously under severe strain. Here was their son constantly questioning their whole belief system, their values, the only way they knew how to raise a family.
Tensions had flared with my older siblings, who had also felt the same way and wanted so badly to fit in; to be like everyone else we knew.
My parents did encourage us to join the Chinese basketball association and we did meet good friends – but that was a Sunday morning experience which couldn’t replace the other six days of our week. Those other six days were what was largely shaping us.
I remember at school finding it hard to participate in conversations, because people would be talking about hit tv shows in the afternoon or early evening. In fourth form, I didn’t know what a Smurf was. Friends were constantly amazed that I was in some kind of vacuum – and I was – working hard in the back of the family fruit shop.
At about aged 17, I came to the decision that it was easier not being part of the Chinese community; and I remember being quite defiant about it – and I’m sure it really upset my parents – I had stopped playing the basketball, I had stopped going to the Chinese dances; I didn’t want to hang out with any Chinese people. For me it was my way of coping with my teenage years and trying to conform and trying to be, in retrospect someone who I wasn’t, but we all have our ways of getting through teenage years
But I did inherit some Chinese traits; one thing I was good at was earning money through working in the shop and taking on other after school work.
When I was old enough to get away with buying alcohol, I would openly drink beer in front of my parents - a cardinal sin in our tea-total household and a clear sign that I was succumbing to the Western way. I was becoming a demon Say-Yun.
The first two years of varsity were a blur. I was there more for the social life.
Still feeling the family pressure, I enrolled in a double degree of Law and Commerce. Subjects I had little interest in, but was studying them to keep some peace with my parents. And I drifted between lectures, the pub and a myriad of part time jobs to feed my cruisy lifestyle.
Flashes of RED continued at home, with regular run ins for being out too much, not studying hard enough, not getting high enough grades, hanging out too much with the wrong people.
Flatting of course was out of the question. We were told that’s what Pakeha kids did because their parents didn’t care for them enough – and soon it would be reciprocated with Pakeha kids not caring for their parents in their old age.
It was a pretty miserable time where I felt my parents and their culture were completely alien.
I was deeply ashamed of them, what they represented.
My way of coping was to pretend I wasn’t Chinese. I embraced mainstream culture. Country Road became my yuppie clothing of choice to wear to law lectures. LA Law was my favourite programme and Arnie Becker was my hero. I was so proud of my first pair of Sabago Docksider boat shoes. I spent all my hard-earned savings on an MG Roadstar convertible.
Yes, I was living some weird American-inspired dream, drowning in labels and pseudo status symbols which proved I was white.
No one would know that my parents owned a little fruit shop in Lower Hutt.
The sum total was that my parents grew quite ashamed of me. My mother was in despair and couldn’t figure out where she’d gone wrong.
In late 1990, she told me that she was paying for me to go on a trip, which she hoped would be good for me. I was going, with my younger brother, to China with some other NZ born Chinese.
Cool I thought. A trip overseas at last. Cool said my best friends – as China was quite radical, very edgy.
I had no idea my whole life outlook was about to be turned on its head.
What hit me hardest was going back to my dad’s village. I was completely unprepared by what I saw and it will probably remain one of the most emotional days of my life.
Firstly, my brother and I were blown away by the amazing welcome we got from our relatives, who we didn’t know. I think they were quite fascinated by us and treated us like royalty.
And secondly I don’t think we were quite prepared for the poverty and how primitive the village was. And this was emphasised when we were needed go to the toilet and we were expecting a flushable loo. They said to us do you want to do “number ones” or “number twos” in Chinese and that it took us aback – because we thought it was a very personal question, but there was a very good reason: if you wanted to do number ones you had to go in a big pottery urn in the corner of the room and if you did number twos you went out into the garden and dug yourself a little hole. So yes, it was quite a shock to us.
There was a second cousin who was my age and he asked me whether I had a girl friend. I was going out with Jennifer, who is now my wife, and I told him about varsity and how I owned a car and how I was doing my degree. It was such a contrast to his life. He worked in the rice paddy fields but was looking forward to a new factory opening in the village and he was hoping desperately to get a job on the production line.
He thought a factory job was his big ticket out of the field. I asked him if he had a girl friend and he said his prospects were very slim because there were too many men in the village and the few females around were hoping to marry city men.
To me he had comparatively grim prospects. Here we were, of similar age, and with totally different paths in front of us and I just felt incredibly privileged.
The other moving part was having a chicken killed in our honour, as part of the evening dinner. My relatives were so poor that they only ate chicken once a year. There was a family discussion and they decided we were such honoured guests, that they’d cook the chicken. Unfortunately when it came time to eat dinner, our air-conditioned charter bus arrived to return us back to our language school. It couldn’t wait, so we could not even honour their gesture by staying for dinner.
When it came time to saying goodbye, I hopped on the bus with my brother. As the bus pulled away, I had tears just rolling down my cheeks because when I looked out of the bus window I could see myself standing there. I was thinking how easy it could have been that I could was the one living in the village working this terribly hard life, working in the paddy fields and hoping for a job on the production line of a bag factory.
Having been back to China and my father’s and mother’s villages, and seeing what my parents have created, it has made me incredibly proud to be Chinese. I’m incredibly proud of what has been achieved here in a short amount of time and it has reinforced to me how important heritage is. Here we are on the other side of the world, but it is important for all of us to touch base with our roots.
In terms of helping me define my identity, the Winter Camp gave me a sense of my history, the struggle to get to NZ and why my parents thought and acted the way they did.
A defining moment in life – yes it would be right up there.
So, I returned to NZ with newfound pride, respect and an inner confidence that was never there before.
I had thousands of questions for my parents on what they and my grandparents had to go through.
My maternal granddad is Willie Joe Ling.
My maternal grand parents set up in New Plymouth, they were married in China and my grand father came out when he was in his twenties. Like many Chinese men he paid the poll tax, earned whatever money he could, then brought out my grandmother. By that stage they already had three children born in China, including my mother, who is the middle child. So my mother ended up coming out when she was 15 years old to New Plymouth to meet a man she didn’t know – her father.
It was decided because of my mother’s age, she wouldn’t go to school but would work in the fruit shop that my grandfather had set up. She therefore didn’t have the experience of school life and coping with Pakeha friends.
My father came out when he was six years old after his father, my paternal grand father, had similarly come out first from China and had eked out a living. My father was the eldest of nine children, living in Courtney Place in Wellington. His life was characterized by hard work and early financial difficulty.
I found all of this fascinating and I think my parents were relieved that the Winter Camp had had such a profound effect on me. I was actually interested in others, not just myself.
With this change came focus – I finished my degree and got accepted into the Diploma in Journalism. I spent seven years working for print publications in Auckland, including a NZ Herald, before joining the Starship Foundation seven years ago, where I’m now the CEO.
What I carry now is a huge sense of respect for my parents and the older generation. The Winter Camp has instilled an ongoing fascination in China as a place and of the politics that have occurred there.
We live in a country that has a predominantly western culture. I don’t think we can cling whole-heartedly onto our cultural assets and expect them to remain fully intact.
I think that is an unrealistic expectation and it goes back to what I said before about my parents being concerned that we were becoming western quite quickly – that we were speaking English fluently in school.
I don’t think my parents should have expected us to have come through without losing a lot of our language and culture as a result, especially since they had to work so hard themselves in the shop and focus on just earning a living.
I think that we have done very well considering all of the expectations placed on us, whether we’re a parent or a child, having come through and attained that model minority status.
I think a lot of young Chinese parents are in the same situation as me - committed to seeing our children going to Chinese classes to try and build back the cultural experiences that we want our children to have, experiences that we may or may not have had ourselves.
It’s trying to get the best of both worlds – having grown up here, having lost some of the culture and trying to find ways of building that back for the next generation – and I think that is really positive.
Red is indeed a colour that means many things
RED is my daughter’s favourite colour; a colour which makes her happy. I hope in time, it’ll symbolize her pride of being a Chinese New Zealander.