‘It’s not worth it, she’s only Asian!’ yelled the guy in the passing car. He’d been calling out to Steffen, my Danish boyfriend, as we were crossing the road in the city. I was upset, but more than that, I was mad that they had driven off so I couldn’t confront them. It was the late 80s – I’d completed high school and had taken a gap year to wait tables at the newly-refurbished Queen Victoria Building.
Since arriving in Australia, my resentment at being forced to move here had slowly given way to sympathy for my dad. He had been a Tai Chi master-instructor for decades in Malaysia (he was referred to as Tang Si-fu), and a respected businessman. Despite his age and not knowing any English, he chose to move here because he saw a better future, not for himself, but for his kids. It had been a humbling experience for him.
He took up a mortgage and paid it off working as a sewing machinist at minimum pay in a factory . This at a time in his life when he really should have been enjoying the fruits of all the years of tough 18-hr work days back home. To get to work, he had to catch a bus and a train, a 1 ½ -2 hour commute each way. One day, on the bus, he looked out and noticed a school kid trying to get his attention from the street. The kid pointed at my dad, then spat in his direction. I had had the exact same experience with a bunch of kids outside the school library, but I was more upset and disgusted about my dad having had to go through it.
I’m sure he must have encountered lots of other forms of discrimination and racist behaviour I’m not aware of. But being old and not speaking English, there was no way he could fight back. I, however, was neither; I decided to take it on myself to stand up to any perceived racism. If nothing else, I figured it would make the offender think twice next time they wanted to pull the same stunt on someone less able to speak up.
I didn’t always get the chance to confront the perpetrator; for instance, in that drive-by incident with Steffen. Or on another occasion when, walking down busy Pitt St in the city, this young, attractive and well-dressed blonde leaned into my ear as she walked past and whispered, ‘you’re ugly’, then disappeared among the crowds before I could fully digest what had just happened.
One of the first times I did try the confrontational approach, it nearly backfired. I was walking home from the bus stop after school when this kid, probably about 10 or 12, rode past on a pushbike and called out something nasty about Asians – I forget what exactly. I yelled, ‘what did you say?’ as I ran after him. I didn’t really expect to catch up to him but he rode into a dead end and was stuck. I walked right up and dared him to say it again to my face.
Then, from the corner of my eye, I noticed this brutish, redneck-looking man storm up with shovel in hand. He had been working in his front yard and whilst aware he’d been looking on while I chased the kid down, I hadn’t thought much of it until now. Suddenly, I realised they could be related. ‘What’s going on?’, he roared. Shoot, I thought; I can take on a kid, but a grown white man? I maintained my composure.
‘Is this your son?’
‘He was yelling racist stuff at me’
He turned to the kid, still on his pushbike. He raised his arm, then whacked him with his shovel. The kid squealed like a pig. I was horrified to say the least. I said, ‘Look, just forget about it’ – that didn’t stop him. He grabbed the boy and threw him to the ground and kept hitting him. I continued on home, shell-shocked at what I just witnessed.