VCE Outcome 2: Identity and Belonging folio

“Only fools will judge a book by its cover.”

Within the pages of this book

You may discover, if you look,

A thousand things or maybe more,

It’s up to you to keep the score.

And if you search most carefully

It’s possible you may find me…

Such is (approximately!) the poem that introduces the reader to Graeme Base’s wonderfully illustrated Animalia, a colourful extravaganza of art and alphabetical categorization that I certainly adore. It is a visual menagerie full of odds and ends and surprises to constantly challenge any dedicated observer or lexicographer. The cover alone presents 28 windows to the assorted animals of the alphabet, as well as a glimpse of the beautiful and various pages within. Other illustrated books by the same author, such as My Grandma Lived in Gooligulch, present a far more Australian context, but the fantastic art of Graeme Base in Animalia spans both this world and others. Further, although the “me” pictured is a blonde-headed twelve year old boy we certainly appreciate that Graeme is an adult with a wide range of worldly experiences. One could read this book for hours and still discover something new, something lost, something found, and perhaps it is the child in the illustrator that imparts such a sense of delightful discovery.

    I describe Animalia because it’s wonderful colours, diversity and delight is comparable to that of the text Growing Up Asian in Australia. Too often, too many times indeed, I have encountered students (and equally damned teachers!) who approach Alice Pung’s compilation of short stories with foolish preconceptions. The title, apparently, speaks louder than the stories themselves, and prejudices the unworldly “Aussie” reader to assume its contents.

    I do not deny the white elephant in Australia’s great backyard. Ken Chan’s poetry seethes with angry challenges to any settler’s sense of ownership over the Great Southern Land; Uyen Loewald bemoans the attitude of “don’t be heard, don’t be seen” demonstrated by the dominant culture; James Chong expresses with confusion his “lonely sense of exclusion” during the parade in Anzac Day. There is something very wrong when a person’s racial appearance or background elicits prejudice – we call this R..A..C..I..S..M, boys and girls, and we teach you that it happens in our country to people who are not true blue. A is for Australian, B is for Boat people, C is for Chinese migrant… Lily, Fui-Chong, Tranh: are you ready to join the rest of the English class?

    What a crock of snot – racism is a form of bigotry and only one of many possible categories of hate made possible by exploiting differences. Australia is a multi-cultural society, and being Asian doesn’t exclude one from being Australian, so the title of the book can’t simply herald an exploration of the issue of race. To reduce individuals to their racial identity – to judge a book by its cover – is patently inequitable and ridiculous, as is shown several times over in the text.

    It’s equally ridiculous to reduce the targets of racial bigotry to the status of victims. Leanne Hall deliberately and cathartically endures “an exorcism of a seductive stereotype” in How to Be Japanese, and is stronger for the experience. She is certainly able to challenge any who attempt “to understand who I am from my appearance”. Sunil Badami in Sticks and Stones and Such-like is able to escape his unhappiness and redefine himself merely with the aid of an empowering lie about the meaning of his name, and it’s with a sadly wonderful and cynical smile that he learns later that he really is simply the “dark one”. We know that there are many fools in our country, but must we cut ourselves down and identify only the weeds of cultural experience? Growing Up Asian in Australia presents so much more…

      In many cases the stories demonstrate a genuine desire or need to define and discover oneself, and such explorations cover a range of influences. Titles such as The Relative Advantages of Learning My Language, The Year of the Rooster, and The Family Tree accurately signify reflections on the value of heritage, whether it is accepted or not, and (I believe) it is highly instructive that Simon Tong’s feeling of being “stripped of dignity and personality” in The Beat of a Different Drum was only as temporary as his failure of language and communication in a new society. Many writers describe (in different colours) the energy of their relationship with their family, often finding surprising forces at work, such as the submerged rip Oanh Thi Tran contends with in Conversations with My Parents or the unrelenting tide known by Diana Nguyen in Five Ways to Disappoint Your Vietnamese Mother. The three gay men in the section “The Hots” bear a form of bigotry of their families that have nothing to do with race, whilst the appropriately question-marked section “Unaustralian?” explores issues of cultural difference in A Call to Arms and Chinese Dancing, Bendigo Style in ways that bigots would fail entirely to comprehend (eg. “Am I more Asian or Australian?”). Given such a clear range of sections or influences considered in the text, it is wholly incomprehensible for studies of identity and belonging to focus on simple appearances! Instead, there are great insights to be gained by reflecting on the diverse experiences that compose individuality.

        Indeed, it is sometimes with a very special delight and sense of challenge that the writers explore the passages of their life. The impossible expectations of Perfect Chinese Children are contrasted with the final observation that “In her sacrifice, I see love” as the writer freely puts herself to rights with her mother. The possibilities described for one’s Destiny as an Indian Wonder Woman achieve a transformation that enjoys a culturally informed interpretation for one’s hero. Even in You Can’t Choose Your Memories Paul Nguyen knows that “What you can do is choose how they affect you.” As the reader turns the pages of these stories, they enjoy narratives that share wisdom, growth, balance and change from one state of being to another. In so many ways the writers are able to show how they have grown to be more than the identity they once knew for themselves, and sometimes the reflective act of looking back has even informed them of “the reconciling of the person I had been with the person I had become.” Such achievements remind us that the stories of our lives continue, and one can never assume to know oneself well enough.

        The prompt provided for this essay asks us by means of a metaphor to consider our prejudices in judging people by their appearances. Nevertheless, I’ve argued that it’s equally important to consider a literal interpretation of the topic when investigating Alice Pung’s text, because too many (in my experience) have trivialised the contents with respect to its discussions about identity and belonging, and have reduced our sense of “who we are” to unfounded racial determinants. In examining the stories presented by others reflecting on their childhood, and discovering the complex interplay of social, cultural and historical influences upon identity, we realise that who we are is constantly redefined and informed by a multitude of competing and ongoing interpretations. It is foolish to exercise a prejudiced perspective and to fail to engage with the contents of one’s life story, for appearances or first impressions hardly represent the sum of one’s experiences. Perhaps we should endeavour to admit the child pictured in Animalia in our considerations of others – he is part of the illustration, engaging with the members of the menagerie, his innocent position buried amongst the myriad of colourful images. Though he sees all that is around him, he knows better than to act the judge!

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