An embarrassing story of racism

An embarrassing story of racism

00:00 / 00:04:23

This is an embarrassing story of racism that caused me to feel some shame.

  • A distinguished scholar tells me a story of racism in Australia
  • I’m embarrassed as an Australian
  • I was embarrassed as a Queenslander
  • You should read Mabel Kwong’s blog

This week I had the privilege to be involved in a multi-day meeting of experts in a field I feel quite passionate about. These experts came from many different countries. We also had a very distinguished guest. A man from USA, a full professor from a prestigious university, a man who is quite brilliant with a special knack to take very complex cutting edge scientific concepts and translate them into strategic policy for global consideration. He has the ear of senior decision makers in USA and the confidence of scientific giants.

An awkward conversation

He approached me during a break and we had this conversation…

“Gary, can I tell you a story?”

“Sure Fred*”

“I was in Sydney on a train, seated next to a window. A couple, a man and a woman got on, the woman sat next to me and her partner sat in the seat in front. I don’t think she really noticed me when she sat down.”

“Boarding behind them were a crowd of tourists from China. “There are too many of them in our country!””

Fred turned to the woman and politely said, “Ma’am, would you prefer me to move so you can sit next to your partner?”

The man turned around and said, “No, it’s okay.”

The woman sneered at Fred, “You don’t speak like them, but your accent is different.”

“Yes Ma’am, I’m American.”

“But you look like them.”

“Yes, Ma’am, I’m American born Chinese.”

The woman huffed.

Fred told me that after a while he could chat with the woman’s husband and found out they were from Brisbane. It turns out Fred’s assistant is from Brisbane so fortunately, he didn’t feel this woman was a typical example of a person from Brisbane.

Fred asked me if this was common in Australia.

Embarrassment Plus!

I was so embarrassed. I was embarrassed as an Australian that Fred had to experience this. I was embarrassed as a Queenslander, that people from my hometown had insulted Fred. Fred is well spoken and while I’m not a linguist, I guess his accent is more northeast USA in origin. Fred is also about ten years’ senior to me, so not old, but a mature man who has aged well.

We chatted for a while and we discovered our upbringing had similarities. At primary (or elementary) school, we both suffered at the hands of bullies. Usually, older boys who would pick on us. There were also high school experiences. Like when a history master told my class that the ‘Japs’ didn’t fly at night because they couldn’t see that well. The inference being that slant eyed oriental fighter pilots were somehow disabled by their almond eyes.

Fred and I pondered the current state of affairs in terms of global politics. I make it a policy of my writing not to comment on politics, suffice to say, the attitudes of people to others who look different and speak a different language appear to be more pronounced of late.

Fred’s a good bloke, I look forward to reading more of his published work.

Mabel Kwong

As I write this I’m reminded of a blogger friend from Melbourne. Mabel Kwong writes about her experiences as an Australian born Chinese. Like me, she’s an ABC. Fred also knows himself as an ABC although American born Chinese.

Mabel’s blog posts are always well thought out, considered and heartfelt pieces. If you like good writing and want to learn what it’s like for a young woman with a Chinese background growing up in Australia and Malaysia, please subscribe to Mabel’s blog.

Do people still see me this way?

So, I took this selfie and want to know, when you see me is it the Chinese that stands out? I’d prefer it was the multiple chins, although that does pose that funny but still racist joke about being called Dr Chin 😜 Given how much I eat, I’m surprised I don’t have more ‘chins’.

Gary Lum slant eyed Is this how people still see me?

I’ve also recorded this so for those who haven’t heard my voice on my Yummy Lummy YouTube videos#, you can hear my accent. The audio widget is at the top of this post or you can hear it on iTunes too.

*Not his real name. I won’t reveal his name or the nature of the meeting because it is work related. I am conscious not to discuss the details of my work on social media.

#The associated blog posts can be found at my Food Blog, Yummy Lummy


46 Replies to “An embarrassing story of racism”

  1. Mmmm, I just think it’s how people are brought up Gary, probably a whole other level of being simplistic about things (guilty as charged) but it seems to me rightly or wrongly they’ve been raised with prejudice and are too scared to have an original thought in their head. The real problem is people just don’t think for themselves anymore (yeah, sometimes I’m a 90 year old woman tut tutting about society).

    1. Anna, I’ve been thinking and behaving like an old fella since I was in school I think 😃
      There’s a lot to be said about how we’re raised and brought up. Hopefully respect for everyone no matter what they look like or sound like will be taught more.

  2. As an African American I experience the sterotypes associated with being Black so I understand the dilemma. When I first subscribed to your blog I could see that you are Asian but living in New York City I see and interact with Asians on a daily basis. I go to my Japanese friends Buddhist temple to meditate and listen to the sermons more than my own Christian Church.
    I am still extremely upset by the horrible way United Airlines treated the Chinese doctor. The video of Dr. Dao being abused was disturbing on so many levels. Supposedly the airline used an algorithm that arbitrary selected the Chinese doctor but personally I think he was chosen do to his race. Lately I feel that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr dream is getting further and further away.

    1. Thank you, Deborah. I agree, the United Airlines incident was hideous and I’m not surprised the value of their stock has plummeted. I cannot for the life of me understand how such a thing could have got that far. They must know that every action gets recorded and shared publicly. It would have been so much easier to increase the offers being made to persuade a passenger to take the next flight. Even if it cost a few thousand dollars it would be minuscule to what the incident has and will cost them now.

    2. Airlines need to stop over booking their flights just to make money in case of cancelations. The reason United Airlines wanted passengers to give up their seats was for the airline employees. Now United Airlines is not running out of planes so they could put their staff on another flight. I was mortified by seeing the doctor assaulted screaming in terror and the other passengers yelling in fear. This dedicated doctor just wanted to get home to his patients and now he is in the hospital. I know he is traumatized and the last news article I read the doctor plans on suing. I’m praying for his total recovery.

    3. I hope he makes a total recovery and wins a victory in court which will send a message to all corporations rethink their objectives in light of human decency.

  3. I don’t believe anyone who says they don’t see colour. The problem is not seeing it, the problem comes with what you do next with that information.
    Having said that I have never thought twice about your avatar. I just saw a bloke and my subconscious took in the bald head and a hint of colour. So much so that when I started reading this post I wondered why it was about Chinese people! So there you go.
    My main prejudice is stupid humans. I don’t mean people with little or no education through no fault of their own I mean stupid humans.
    Fred’s interrogator may well belong to that group.
    Perhaps he should have reminded her that Aboriginal people probably feel the same way as her.

    1. I like that a few people have now said all they noticed was my bald head 😃😃😃

  4. Gary, this post just led me to some intense reflection – I’m an American with a German husband and deal with different languages and cultural identities all the time – which long ago led me to conclude that I simply have to communicate with other fellow human beings. As to you: I think of you as that hilarious Australian guy who has some sort of enviable genetic make-up that allows him to eat ungodly amounts of delicious food and never seems to gain any weight…. I’m glad I got to start my week with your blog. Cheers (or, more likely, Guten Appetít) from Jadi

    1. Thank you very much Jadi 😃
      I wish I didn’t gain weight but I do 😂

  5. I noticed you were Chinese from your picture the first time that I saw it … after that, I never thought of again. You shouldn’t feel embarrassed about the woman’s rudeness/attitude. You’re not responsible for her behaviour.

    1. I giggle when people ask if I’m a south sea islander, especially when I explain my Dad was born in Fiji.

    2. Interesting note about your dad’s origins. I grew up in an area full of Italian and German immigrants. I first met anyone from the ‘far east’ in university. The highlight of the experience was being introduced to dim sum and Chinese bbq at a restaurant nearby. One of the graduate students in the dept was Indian and introduced me to the cuisine. To be honest … it’s all about the food for me. I know I’m shallow. 🙂

    3. Not shallow at all. All I ever think about is food 😃😋
      It’s not even lunch time and I’m thinking about what I’m going to cook for dinner.

    4. LOL … I’m going to be going to bed in a couple of hours so food isn’t even in my wheelhouse right now. 🙂

    5. I was in bed last night after over eating and was thinking about what I might buy for lunch today 😳

    6. Not at all to be honest. I still like yeast breads best but sourdough is a challenge. The starter makes great flour tortillas, crackers and naan though I prefer them to the sourdough bread.

  6. I am very sorry to hear your colleague experienced this embarrassing racist incident. I really don’t know what to make of the woman. On one hand, she does sound ignorant but on the other hand, maybe she had all but unfortunate experiences with Chinese tourists or those of Asian descent. Earlier this week I was on the tram on the way to work. Now, we all know you have to touch on your myki/public transport card when boarding the tram in Melbourne. At one point, about 30 Chinese tourists – all chatting very loudly – boarded the tram with a tour guide. Not one of them touched on a card. Everyone else on the tram – all kinds of Australians of all skin colour – were staring at them. Clearly stereotypical Chinese behaviour, and in that moment I was really embarrassed about being Chinese. Sure, I and many other Chinese don’t fit the stereotype, but we are also very proud of sticking up for each other and you know, being Asian and a part of the Asian community in general.

    But back to the woman on the Brisbane train. I’m inclined to think she does not know better and how she spoke to Fred, it sounds like she makes judgements based on face value at first sight. It’s not how we look or how we sound that determines our personality – more rather our experiences and where we’ve been. Good on Fred for handling the situation with a cool head. Who knows, the woman might have walked away with a different impression of the world.

    You are certainly right in saying not all Australians are like that woman. I live just on the fringe of the city in Melbourne and everywhere you go, you do see people of all shapes and colour. Every seems to go about as they please and more importantly, as they belong. Sure, you do see groups of Asians and groups of Westerners hanging around together in their own groups, all alongside different races mixing together. I think many Melbournians are sane and respectful enough to know that whatever background each of us comes from, that is us and who we are is a part of life here.

    I like your humour in this post with the image. So true. Some of our eyes are smaller than others, but it certainly doesn’t undermine our skills and what and who each of us can become. Making jokes about stereotypes and our culture is also more and more a part of our lives these days. Where I feel the line needs to be drawn at this, is when people intend these jokes to be hurtful or said in an ignorant, brash context.

    Thanks for the shoutouot, Gaz. Really humbled you thought of me. Takes forever to write a blog post. This next post I’m working on has already taken almost a month D: I really haven’t been writing many posts on racism or bring ABC of late…but I feel like it is time to do so again at some point 😀

    1. Thank you so much Mabel for commenting on this post. I really respect your thoughts and thinking on all topics.
      It’s true, I’ve noticed amongst my Asians friends we take a light hearted approach and it’s not hurtful at all.
      I sense that Melbourne has assimilated more cultures into a mix and I expect this is a strong distinction of being from Melbourne.

    2. Melbourne does have a good mix of cultures. There is still racism around, and each time it happens, I’m pretty sure we all feel embarrassed by it. Hope Fred’s remaining time in Australia went well and such an incident didn’t happen again to him.

  7. I read this via my emails and was angry. I was also enlightened by your words, but mostly angry. I shared this story with a friend on the phone tonight. I have to agree with ‘Just me’. I saw your avatar and thought, ‘oooh, sexy bald guy!’ And the voice I have heard fits you. Wanna read to me?? Not necessarily kidding. :o)

    1. Thanks, Kris. Someone on Facebook suggested I voice meditation podcasts. If only I did meditation 😃
      You’ll just have to make do with my YouTube videos 🤣

  8. Gary, as you know, I am a bit of an egg – outwardly white, but culturally very Chinese and, since I have a Chinese surname, this adds to the confusion. I am often interested in the experiences and background of people who are ethnically Chinese. But I am sensitive to not going up to someone and speaking in Chinese straight away, or asking them ‘where do you come from’. Actually I was in a 12 week intensive course last year and there was a guy whose family was from Shanghai on the course. We only started to speak out his Chinese culture after we finished the course, and only then because I talked about my interest in Chinese post-partum confinement and he started telling me what his Shanghai family cooked for his (white Caucasian English-background Australian) partner.

    Do I see you as Chinese or Australian? A bit of both. And you are most definitely a Queenslander!

    1. Thank you Serina for sharing your experience. Mind you, all I can think of now is a nice bowl of ginger vinegar pork trotters with hot steamed rice.
      Yes first and foremost a Queenslander and a food lover!

  9. Gary, in my experience the nature of “racism” expressed by the white Caucasian Oz citizen (WCO) reflects said WCO person’s upbringing with like. There has always been cultural barriers that seem to prevent their comfort around non WCO’s. Pauline Hanson is a fabulous example. I met the lady only weeks ago and asked her why she does it……she answered “I want my Australia back”. Like that is going to happen, honey. WCO’s really need to get over the fear of change and the cultural discomfort they sense and move on, but there is a minority like Pauline that can’t. They fear they are being squeezed out by foreigners. You won’t change them, just ignore them and let them die out.

    Maybe I was a lucky WCO. I went to a boarding school that accepted PNG kids. This was a rare event in the 50’s & 60’s. For me black skinned people, although rare outside school, were the same as me. I grew up with them, although I have always been fascinated by the dark skin, lighter palms and feet. But no racism feelings ever emerged. Also as a kid I went to the races on a Saturday with my dad. We went in the cheap seats (the flat enclosure….no stand to watch from and way from the paddock where the toffs were). I have two clear memories from those days in the 60’s. One, I used to play ball games on the racetrack lawns with aboriginal kids. They treated me as normal as I did them. They were just as black as the night. Their colour fascinated me. Two, the head honcho of the race club was a knight and a Wickham Tce specialist Dr Sir Clive Uhr. People would always speak in hushed tones in his presence. Every Sat, the man would find the time to come over to the flat to kick ball with us kids for a few minutes. The only toff I ever met to do something like that. He didn’t have to do that. That taught me, by his actions, it was OK to mix with other cultures.

    When I worked in the old LMP labs in the 70’s I met one of those dreaded boat people from Vietnam. The bloke was short as, looked like a chinaman, was a doctor in the South and fled with his wife and kids in a leaky boat. His English was fair but he sure had a funny accent. We worked together like a house on fire, and stayed in contact after I moved to PAH and RBH. We would have dinner a few times a year (always a Viet restaurant!!) and we both talk often in retirement. That’s 40 years of friendship. He even taught me how to pronounce the common surname Ng.

    Socially in the 70’s and 80’s I joined a service organisation dominated by Jews. Talk about Shalom. Great people and friends to this day. Just funny ideas about food though. Being a Christian, I would stir them about pulling up one prophet short of the finish line.

    Then at PAH I met this strange chinaman who was a path registrar. He could be a bit of an arsehole at times but that had nothing to do with his heritage. He was an ABC and got the arsehole trait from being Australian. We got on pretty well. By then I was totally comfortable with all racial cultures I came across. With this chinaman I even felt comfortable making cultural jokes like if we had a lunch in Chinatown I would remark about all his relatives being there (they all look the same you know). It wasn’t racist, and as far as I know it wasn’t taken as such. He would have said something if he took it poorly. We remain mates today.

    In the 90’s I employed an Afgan refugee at RBH. A Muslim for gawd sake. Didn’t give that act a second thought, in fact I felt good doing it. In return I was rewarded with loyalty, hard work and friendship. We remain friends and stay in touch today.

    When I had children, I always made sure Sesame Street was on in the mornings. Why? Not to amuse them, but to get them used to multi racism. The kids on that show were white, black, orange, yellow etc and they were equals and all normal in my kids eyes. So when they hit school age, different cultures were normal.

    Without trying to defend my racist WCO’s I can understand how some will find mixing with or accepting other cultures. My own mother had a phobia about Japanese that came from WW2. She would never change, totally unable to. When I first went to study at CDC in the 70’s I would catch public transport and was often the only Caucasian on the bus or train. I never held any fear, but it was unsettling. Why, I was used to a mix, but not being a small minority. I understood how strange my Viet mate would felt in those early days. You get stared at. It is naturally unsettling. Even with my background of acceptance of multi culturalism.

    So. Fred’s train problem is still common but quickly diminishing. It is real, we can’t change people like that, just hope they gain enlightenment as they get older. Even Jesus copped a fair bit of it as he trapsed around the middle east preaching change.

    Cheers Rodderick

    1. Rodderick,
      I’m glad I checked the comments folder in the dashboard to this blog. For reasons that escape me your comment was directed to the trash. Certainly not by me but possibly by the PC checks that a lot of software seems to have embedded it in.
      Thanks for your contribution to this discussion. I reckon that Chinese fellow you met at PAH must have been an awesome bloke!

  10. Ha, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you were talking about the esteemed Dr. Henry Lee! I’ve had the pleasure of his company at one of his lectures at my university. He gave me an open invitation to have lunch with him at his forensics institute!

    To answer your question, a while back I came across your blog.

    I saw your image and thought to myself, “Now there is an attractive fella.” I was delighted to see what an epic foodie you are, too! I’ve also heard your voice on a couple of your audio files and I enjoyed your accent. I never once thought that you didn’t sound like you should. I took you completely at face value and I’ve always appreciated you since, though we interact very little.

    Quite frankly, I’m very surprised to see that this kind of blatant (rude!) racial differentiation exists in today’s conversations, no matter where we are in the world.

    Thank you for the lovely insight into ABC’s. I had no idea this term even existed. One of my favorite professors in school is Chinese and though she’s been in America for 20+ years, her accent is still thick. I would feel angry at times when other students would rip on her, claiming they didn’t understand her and blaming her for their lesser grades. That was B.S. in my opinion. Sure, she has a thick accent and sometimes it would take me a couple times listening to my tapes of her classes as I transcribed her notes, but that was no reason to lash out at her. She deserved our respect just as much as our “white” professors did. Race should never even enter a person’s sphere of judgment. It’s 2017 for pete’s sakes. Haven’t we grown and moved past this yet?

    Wonderful post, Gary.

    1. Thank you very much for your lovely and thoughtful comment.
      It is not Dr Lee who I am referring to.
      Racism was not an issue for me for many many years once I got into university.
      The current political climate however is having an obvious effect and I hope my children are not exposed to the ugliness.

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