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A grain of truth: Racism exists in New Zealand

Friday 13th December 2013

Chink, gook, slit eyes, nip, jap…

Words that have cut through me, and left an indelible mark that I cannot wipe away.  These words have caused me to hate my culture, reject my roots and have left me feeling abandoned and isolated.

I know that they’re only words, but they’ve come from people – children and adults – who don’t even know me, who would probably laugh if they only knew that I don’t speak any language other than English, that I can’t use chopsticks correctly, and that I have a Chinese name which I can’t even pronounce.

Sonia Sly says she learnt about racism and the shame of being “different” from a young age.

Luke Calder

Yes. I fail at being Chinese.

But while I’ve always considered myself a New Zealander, others may not see me in the same way, which is why I’ll always be on the periphery.

I learnt about racism and the shame of being “different” from a young age.

“Go back to where you came from, you f...ing chink!”

The boy with red hair and large freckles proceeds to hoik in my face. I struggle to wipe away the thick, green globule of mucous as it drips down my eye and onto my cheek. I am five years old, and it’s my first day of school. I had never known that I was different, never had a clue that I didn’t belong here. Until that day.

This was the first of many racist encounters that I’ve experienced throughout my life, and all here – in New Zealand, the place of my birth.

Growing up in white, middleclass Christchurch, I’ve been glared at by ladies out to lunch, and accosted by neo-Nazi skinheads, all because of my ethnicity. Each time it happens it comes out of left field; it’s unexpected, and reminds me that I’m not the same as everyone else.

More than ten years ago, prior to training formally as an actor, I was in Auckland searching for an agent, only to be told by one agency: “We’re not interested in having Asian faces on our books.”

I also recall, as a teenager, my then-boyfriend’s mother expressing her disdain whenever she’d hear Asians speaking “loudly, in their own language”, along with other passing comments – “All Asians have flat heads,” and “they shuffle when they walk”.

On these occasions I had to bite my tongue, but I always thought to myself, if this is one person’s view, then there must be others out there who think in the same vein. She would never have considered herself racist, but that’s part of the problem.

I felt uncomfortable if another person of Asian origin sat next to me on the bus, because it would illuminate my ‘difference’

I used to wonder where an inherent racism might derive from.

I discovered through experience that it’s a deep-seated hatred, a fear and loathing of ‘difference’ that percolates and accumulates over time.

There was a period in my teens when I found myself on the other side, internalising every racist remark that had ever been hurled at me. I began to hate everything about being Chinese. I even disliked seeing other “Asians” on the street  – I felt uncomfortable if another person of Asian origin sat next to me on the bus, because it would illuminate my ‘difference’, and the humiliation I experienced because of it.

Over time, this engendered ‘difference’ has forced me to question my identity in all of its facets, and it has been a source of inspiration, research and exploration.

I wish I could say that New Zealand is a land of equal opportunity and that racism doesn’t exist, but when I talk to an Indian taxi driver who also happens to be a highly qualified engineer but can’t find a job in New Zealand, I have to disagree.

I then find myself questioning how far along the tracks we’ve really come in terms of being a truly ‘bi-cultural’ or even ‘multicultural’ nation, when street signs are only ever in English, and people still complain that there are too many Asian faces on Queen Street.

It might sound harsh for me to say that racism exists in New Zealand, but it does, and I’ve had the misfortune of experiencing it first-hand. Whilst the hardest-hitting and most hurtful experiences have come in the form of blatant verbal abuse, racism doesn’t have to be so overt.

I’ve been asked numerous times, “Where do you come from?” And when I say “Christchurch”, people look surprised. “You have such good English, though,” they’ll reply. And I have to explain that I was born here, but they can’t get past my black hair, olive skin and my almond-shaped eyes. The funniest thing I’ve been told, is that I don’t “sound Asian” over the phone…

No one talks about racism here, and that perpetuates the myth that it doesn’t exist. In this country we’re too afraid to look at ourselves and accept that we’re not as wholesome, and as clean and green as our marketing might lead us to believe.

But racism is here. It’s rife. It’s maybe not part of your everyday, but I’ve felt it, and I’m aware of it, in mine. It’s the reason I’ll never be considered a real New Zealander – and why I’ll always be on the periphery, looking from the outside in.

This content was brought to you with funding assistance from New Zealand On Air.