The first time I found myself in New York City, I was not a vegan (or even vegetarian), and the concept of self-serve frozen yoghurt was very new and exciting to me, despite the sweltering highs of minus five, and cravings hitting at ten at night – no matter, everything’s still open in NYC… Sydney, seriously get it together. One particular night, I was paying for my coconut-and-strawberry-drowned bundle of dairy joy, when the second guy serving behind the counter shouted “Hey, Asian!” in my general direction, to which I looked up.
“Oh, your name is Jen, too? Awesome!”
No. No, my name is not Jen. Whoops. Back to counting pennies.
“So… your name is Ben? So’s mine! What did you think I said?”
I thought you said Hey, Asian. Ha-di-ha-ha-ha-di-ha.
At which, the blood literally drained out of his entire body and the warm fuzzy buzz of 16 Handles dissipated into an epic fifteen-person dead silence. Poor Ben spent the next ten minutes insisting that he would never (ever) say anything like that, and he was so so sorry if I was offended. He gave me an extra scoop of dessicated coconut, and I walked the six blocks back to my apartment, fairly amused.
Why would I be offended? I was Asian.
There was nothing derogatory about the word itself, surely.
Back home, relaying the story to friends, I oddly found that people started to get uncomfortable, or try to change the subject. When I have jokingly raised ‘being the token Asian’ on a shoot, or an outing, or a group project, it has always been met with nervous laughter and shuffling feet.
Unlike Tony Abbott, and/or global warming, racially oriented conversations are something your average Joe likes dance around.
On the flipside, I will also be the first to admit that I’ve experienced my fair share of full-frontal racism in my twenty years, every single such incident has stemmed from sheer ignorance to the point of hilarity. Ahead of the 2007 Federal Election here in Australia, an old white woman stopped me on my way home from the train station, and demanded I go back to my country. I couldn’t possibly be Australian, because my hair was black. Her hair was verging on green. Go back to your hairdresser, I said. During my final year at high school, a guy who my friend was crushing on asked me if I had small eyes because my parents studied too much at school. It’s just not natural, he said.
I learned that there were bigger reasons for this racism than having black hair or ‘small’ eyes – indeed, there are bigger reasons (even bigger than ignorance), for any kind of discrimination towards any group of people, be it races, ages, genders, cultural minorities, sexual preferences, whatever. I also learned that defense mechanisms vary from person to person. I found it most enlightening to research high-achieving Asians, Asian-Australians, Asian-Americans (et cetera) in different fields, site some kind of Asian pride, and hope to one day reach the same level of success – not for being Asian, but simply for working damn hard.
So, when my buddies at Understated Leather asked what would be my ideal, aggressive back slogan for my ideal, aggressive vintage biker jacket, ASIAN PERSUASION was a no-brainer: I am Asian. I am persuasive, or so I would like to think.
Well thank goodness it doesn’t say invasion, said my Mother on this particular morning of Australian Fashion Week.
Oh God forbid, Mum.
I like the shoulder chain thing, and I think it should have said invasion, announced my brother.
I like the shoulder chain thing, too, kid. These guys mean serious business.
Recently, the student newspaper at my University swung a low-handed blow at yours truly for sitting on my laurels and schmoozing with celebrities over soy chai lattes, instead of hopping up at a picket line, vouching for the equality of Asians in fashion. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Asians are killing it in Fashion. There is nothing ‘token’ about them. Some of the industry’s most respected designers proudly raise surnames like Wang, Gurung, Lim, Choi, Som, and Wang again – not because they’re Asian, but because they’re exceptionally talented creative forces. Our top digital influencers, bloggers or not, are acing what they do, independent of their Asian descent, but of Asian descent nonetheless. And, our most valid internet source after Wikipedia, has gone out of their way to highlight Asian-Australians in fields other than fashion who are ‘making waves and breaking stereotypes’, beyond which there are countless ground-breakers internationally, doing more of the same, same, but different.
By all means, where there are clear injustices, speak out for change. But where everything is ticking over like racially-equal clockwork, nobody wants your breath of fire disturbing the peace with a twisted incarnation of affirmative discrimination, and a subsequent two steps backward.
This is not a perfect world. There are individuals who grow up with narrow minds, who end up in high places, and give people a bloody hard time. Have pity on them: you’re a better-rounded, more culturally aware human being, who has probably had the good fortune of being surrounded by open-minded people.
And this jacket is not about an Asian Invasion. It is simply a damn beautiful leather jacket, customised by a damn beautiful artist, with a back-slap to that age old Asian pride, as it would be Italian Stallion if I were Italian, or Australian Persuasian if it actually rhymed. I wore it to Fashion Week. I felt a bit badass.
Our intelligent society is, as far as I’m concerned, post-racial.
So, the rest of the pack can run and tell that.
photos by Sophie Learmont during MBFWA