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Not a geisha, nor a geek

Monday 9th December 2013

Fern Seto, 26, is a big fan of Cho Chang, one of the characters from the Harry Potter series. Fern likes the character because she’s athletic, smart, and her romance with Harry never mentions their different races. Fern is even wearing a golden snitch necklace.

Cho Chang crops up in conversation because she’s one of only a handful of Asian characters visible in popular culture that Fern identifies with. In movies, TV programmes, and comics, Asian characters tend to be geeks, ninjas or Madame Butterfly.

Fern says that the fact that there are so few characters that don’t play into the stereotypes of Asian people makes it hard to figure out her own place in the world. She can point to Asian characters on a handful of US shows – Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Walking Dead, Sleepy Hollow, and Hawaii Five-O – but, when restricted to the New Zealand mainstream media, she struggles.

An image of Fern Seto standing on Queen Street
“I’m crap at maths, I’m crap at science, I love languages, and I’m fluent in French,” says Fern Seto.

There’s the 3News reporter Kim Choe, and Grace Kwan on Shortland Street. “And there was another Chinese girl, who as far as I am aware was very much the diabolical Asian temptress – and the same character on Outrageous Fortune.”

Even in politics, she says everyone’s lasting memory is of Pansy Wong.

The only time Fern has really related to any kind of popular culture like that was a play called Chop/Stick – and only a handful of people will have seen it. “It’s so sad that, out of all the media, I can only think of one theatre performance that represents me.”

Her parents are both Malaysian, and migrated to New Zealand independently of one another in the mid-1970s – her father for his last year of high school in Christchurch, and her mother for Massey University, where they met. They’ve now lived here longer than they lived in Malaysia.

If she has to give her ethnicity, Fern ticks “Other”, and writes “Malaysian Chinese”. That doesn’t mean she identifies with Mainland China, or Hong Kong, or Taiwan.

She says Malaysia itself is a tangled web of racial tensions. Not a lot of people in New Zealand know about the race riots there in the 1960s, but they’re important cultural touchstones for members of her parents’ generation. The tensions run along three racial lines: Bumiputra, or ethnic Malay; Chinese; and Indian.

“Malaysian culture itself is such a mish-mash,” she says, adding that she identifies with certain parts of it, but other parts of it are completely foreign to her. The food, also a “ wonderful mix of everything”, she embraces.

Fern grew up in Mt Roskill, as “a little Asian kid with glasses, and short hair, and a real tomboy. I was often mistaken for a boy.” The families in her neighbourhood were Indian and Chinese, and she attended Mount Roskill Grammar, one of the most multi-cultural schools in the country. A flag was hung in the hall for each nationality that was on the roll, and there were as many as 80 flags. Pakeha kids were in the minority.

There was a period when my friends would refer to me as the ‘token Asian’, and that was fine

“So my New Zealand was kind of a diverse one,” she says. “It’s not like the rest of Auckland … Now, I live in Remuera with my boyfriend – and that’s nothing like Mt Roskill.”

As a student at Auckland University, Fern “rapidly found out” how diverse her upbringing had been. 

 “As I got further through [law school], recruiters started to come,” she says. “I don’t remember getting a speaker from a firm on recruitment day that wasn’t white. It did start to dawn on me that the law is a very white place.”

Looking at recruitment catalogues became a game of ‘count the brown face’, and there were definitely no Asians – didn't reflect the actual diversity of the student body. 

Fern says she doesn’t fit the normal Asian stereotypes. She’s not a “boffin”, nor an anorak. “I’m crap at maths, I’m crap at science, I love languages, and I’m fluent in French.”

Not being able to see herself in representations of people like her makes it hard for her to have a sense of who she is, she says, and that has manifested itself in her search for different ways of belonging.

Since she was 12, Fern has been heavily involved in online communities. She’s been involved in one of them, a fan site for the band Bloc Party, since she was 16, and even though the site has died, the group has continued on Facebook.

“I don’t know how would have gotten through certain parts of life without that community,” she says. “I identify more with them than almost more than any other group – other than my family.”

I ask my friends, ‘Why is it less acceptable to go to a party in blackface than it would be to dress up as a geisha?’ And it really shouldn’t be. There’s absolutely no difference

More recently, she’s gotten into comics and graphic novels, but that isn’t without its problems. “I identify with ‘geekdom’ as a larger group, but within the characters – I mean, we struggled to get a lady Avenger.”

She points out that while there is a couple of minor Asian characters in the X-Men comics, none of them are represented in the early 90s cartoon, or the movie franchise.

Fern has always been acutely aware of the stereotypes of Asian people, and struggled to navigate them. “There was a period when my friends – and I was perfectly happy with it, as well – would refer to me as the ‘token Asian’, and for a while that was fine.

“Then then I was like, “I don’t really want you calling me that. I laugh along, but that’s a label that you’ve given me, and I’m not really comfortable with it anymore.”

That’s why it’s painful that there are not more Asian people in the media, she says; Asian people never get to speak for themselves. “People kind of assume that we won’t.”

Traditionally, she says, Chinese people – and Asian people more generally – tend to be non-confrontational when joining white communities where they don’t speak the language. Not losing face is a big part of the culture, “so because of that, you don’t make a fuss. And a lot of the time, people don’t have the skills to do that”.

You have to pick your battles, says Fern. She remembers seeing on social media, after it came to light that Len Brown had been having an affair with Bevan Chuang, people laughing at a fake profile of the Auckland mayor for the dating site Tinder: “Len, 57. Interests: Chinese takeout.”

“I was like ‘Thanks, you’ve reduced an entire race down to one little like on Facebook, ‘Chinese takeaways’.”

Incidents like that are frequent, says Fern, and while she knows people don’t intend for them to be hurtful, they are. “But that’s the level of acceptance of racist stereotypes – particularly against Asian people in New Zealand.

“I ask my friends, ‘Why is it less acceptable to go to a party in blackface than it would be to dress up as a geisha?’ And it really shouldn’t be. There’s absolutely no difference.”