My Story

By Abhi Chinniah

Light skin, dark skin. The song of my childhood. Skin lightening soaps, creams, scrubs that would bleach and scrape my skin. You name it, I was given it. Scraping the dark off was a common conception of beauty when I was growing up. Fair was seen to be more beautiful, superior and in many instances it still is. It took a long time for me to be comfortable in my dark skin, and still at times not usually at my own doing. I feel my colour. 

BUT, WHERE ARE YOU FROM?
My parents were both born and bred in Malaysia with Jaffna Tamil Sri Lankan roots. My papa found himself in Christchurch, New Zealand in the 70s. He had a rough time in Christchurch, and was met with a lot of animosity. He will famously tell you about how he arrived in New Zealand with nothing but a thin jersey on his back. It came as no surprise then that after my birth in Christchurch I would too be met by racial intolerance. Being thrown down a flight of stairs age 6 at kindy and being called a “cheeky darky,” will forever be tucked away in the back of my memory. Nor will I forget my mother picking me up that day, carrying me home, just as upset as I was. 

This was the beginning. 

Eventually, we left Christchurch. I asked papa where the snow was, he laughed and said air conditioning would be my new life from then on! A lack of snow was the least of my worries, it turns out I would be a minority everywhere I went and Malaysia which has a clear hierarchal system for race made that crystal clear to me. You see, in Malaysia, we have the Bumiputera’s also known as the Malays, we have the Chinese and the Indians. Then we have everyone else. And I being Sri Lankan was everyone else. There were at times clear divisions; I was called MUKA HITAM which translates to blackface in my early years in public school. Turns out, being dark and moving to a small Malaysian town with a full-blown Kiwi accent would not bode well for developing friendships. I was bullied, hard by kids my colour and not that I now realize just didn’t understand me. Thankfully there were kind souls, many of whom I still call my friends today. 

It did not help that my mother is light-skinned. It was somewhat of an anomaly to people when they looked at my amma and then at me. People would say, “oh she looks like her father, so black lah”, with pitying tones. This of course at the time wasn’t hurtful, it was simply a way of life. It was normal and expected to have comments like this. I think for most of us, it’s only much later we realize it’s wrong.  Flippant comments handed out like mints at restaurants; of course, I interpreted it as “you are not better than, because you are not fair”.

Can’t say it did much for my self-esteem.

A decade later, I was shipped back to New Zealand. Time to learn some hard lessons, time to grow up! I was prepared for the onslaught of racism I may receive, it would not matter what I had to offer. I was told most people would not look past the colour of my skin. 

WHODUNNIT?
My university days were surprisingly free of racism. Experiences were cushioned in the cocoon only student life can provide. But the day would eventually come where I would need to claw my way into the professional world. On a work trip overseas, I was sitting at a table with much older Caucasian men when one of them started talking about a muddy lake in Australia. “Yeah, the colour of the lake was muddy,” he said gesturing at me – I stupidly laughed along. If I had stood up for myself, what would have happened? I would like to think something world-changing but the truth is I would have lost my job.

At a social event, I had to swallow back words as a man who decided he didn’t like me shouted “bye curry muncher” over my head as he left.

I now read situations, and if I can say something, I will.

EVER FELT YOUR COLOUR?
Have you ever felt your colour? It is a strange, inferior emotion. Sometimes I wonder if I looked more stereotypically “acceptable”, would that have opened up more doors for me? Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t change a thing about my upbringing and life. I had a great childhood and exceptional parents. We could all look at things a certain way and say it could be different. 

I would like to think we are progressing to see beyond skin colour. Change is a long way off. Unconscious bias, conscious, cultural, wherever it falls under the umbrella. Discrimination is omnipresent. It is in our magazines, it is on our screens, led by people who don’t want to understand, don’t know and won’t acknowledge that it needs to be changed. It is so often the people that want to change things don’t have the power to do so.

The best advice I can give is this – with whatever semblance of power you have, you can create change. If you are a woman or woman of colour in an influential position; help other women get ahead. I do not see this often enough. Change perceptions. This is not a competition; there is plenty of room at the table for us all to have a seat. Find your influence; find your power, however small or big. 

I found mine when I picked up a camera. And now I will tell the stories of women like me whose marginalized voices are not shared enough. 

Light Skin Dark Skin Exhibition
• 22 May – 14th June: Upstairs Gallery, Titirangi
• 13th June: Panel Discussion with Migrant Zine Collective
• 21 June – 5th July: Garnet Station, Westmere
• Available online at www.ramiistudio.com from 14th June 

A Seamstress and a Green Dress

By Ivanova Anjani from Unwritten Stories, 2019.

It was the early 70’s in Indonesia. In a military man’s humble home in Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan, a little girl had just made a wallet out of fabric scraps from her mother’s sewing projects. A large grin formed as she held her first ever labour of love, which she constructed by carefully following the instructions found in Femina (a popular girls’ magazine at the time). The modest wallet was a craft project for her elementary school art class. Surely none of my friends in class thought of something like this, she thought proudly to herself. 

Sewing had always been impressive in her inquisitive young eyes. She’s seen handmade clothes modeled in the magazines, on the telly, and even worn by her mother. One day she would like to make a dress for herself, but right now she’ll gladly accept the wallet, which was empty apart from the gratitude that she’s filled it with. 

It wasn’t until years later that the girl, now a young lady in college, was able to make her dress. She has graduated from the scrap wallet and tablecloths she used to make with her mother’s sewing machine, to pretty frocks and button-up shirts. It took her some time to get to where she was now. Forced into a gap year because she was not immediately accepted into the government universities she applied for, she sat wondering what to do before the next application period arrives. After finishing a short course on computer science, she wished to go to sewing school rather than university. 

“No,” her dad sternly said to her, effectively shutting down her idea. “What use is a seamstress?” 

Sometime later, the young, educated lady, who is now well into motherhood, was also interested in clothing someone else: her children. At this point, she had moved to the tiny town of Kisaran in North Sumatra after her husband had earned a promotion from his job in Jakarta. She looked forward to the days where she can go to Tanjung Balai to buy fabrics of all kinds by the kilo. From those she fashioned the clothes my sister and I wore when we were toddlers. 

The girl with the scrap wallet, Singer sewing machine, and two daughters clothed in handmade tunics is my mother. 

Growing up, I remember one of the most impressive things my mom did that even my six-year-old brain could acknowledge was how she made costumes for our kindy recital. With the help of her friend, she put together half-a-dozen dresses made of sheer green chiffon and ribbons for my sister’s dance routine. She was so thorough, she even made the headbands and lace corsages, and went out of her way to find matching socks for everyone. The design is reminiscent of the Princess dresses from the Disney movies my sister and I were fond of, with the puffy sleeves and two-tier skirt. 

Ever since then, my mum has finished many other projects, from cross-stitched flowers to colourful hijabs. However, I’ve hardly ever heard my mom say that she’s a skilled seamstress to anyone. Only a handful of people, mostly family, probably know how competent she is at it. I was lucky enough to have been taught how to do needlework by her, and from there I learned how to make embroidery myself. 

Although sometimes my mum and I clash, our common interest in crafting and sewing fills those gaps that can’t be filled by words. That gap between us has become wider and more literal in recent years now that I’ve moved away from my home in Indonesia to Christchurch, New Zealand. But I’m still really close with my mum and we talk about our projects from time to time. I also realize, from seeing her years of experience and just from being her daughter, how patient and humble my mum is. No matter how much of my mum’s skills I inherit, I can never match how careful she is with her projects, and how she easily forgives herself for making mistakes before trying again. That’s why I look up to her so much, and why I hope I can pass on the same skills and message to my kids in the future. 

My sister’s Green Dress still resides in my sister’s wardrobe in my teenhood home in Tangerang City, where I hope it will stay for more years to come.

Beware of the old white grandpa at point chev beach

By Aiwa Pooamorn from Have You Ever Been With An Asian Woman Before?, 2019. Full title: Beware of the old white grandpa at point chev beach, he walks there every afternoon.

If you go to point chev beach

the one with the glory hole toilet

an old white grandpa in a faded polo t-shirt

grey slacks and leather jandals will tell you he is:

  • lonely
  • single
  • divorced
  • neglected by his two kids

He will stare

through thick gold-rimmed glasses at you

you in your saggy warewhare one-piece

your half-empty bottle of $8 red wine

He will ask if you are:

  • Filipino
  • Malaysian
  • Indonesian
  • Chinese
  • Thai

He will tell you he knows Thai women:

  • Thai women they love to drink
  • Can’t roll their r’s
  • Thai women tell him they not ‘postitute’
  • They give him good massage
  • They ask to have a glass of his wine
  • They drink the whole bottle

Grains of Truth

By Roxanne Richards from GEN M #1 “Generation Migrant”, 2017.

One of the first things my dad sought out when he arrived in New Zealand were fellow Filipinos like him. When our family followed him a few months after, another thing he sought out were fellow Filipino families like us. It wasn’t until I was looking for a picture that captured my experience as a migrant child that I realized how important the community was to me.

I found that growing up with loyalties to two differing countries put me in a position of conflict. It often meant that I always felt different and never had my own sense of self. I could never fully relate to my cousins when I visited the Philippines, but I could also never fully relate to the experience of ‘growing up Kiwi’, whatever that happened to mean. Being told to ‘go back where I came from’ is an annoying puzzle. I could, in theory, because I was born in the Philippines and it’s ‘where I’m from’; but my whole family is here, I have nothing for me in my homeland.

To me, it felt like navigating my childhood and teenage years was like walking a tight rope, and a lot of the time it meant I just had to accept that I was just a Filipino who happened to be living in New Zealand, and not an established individual in New Zealand who happened to be born and bred Filipino.

Photo Context: Hosting the Wairarapa Filipino Society 15th Anniversary Celebration. Pictured with the then Mayor of Masterton.

But as I stepped into adulthood and saw the world through different lenses, I found that my point of view was unique. What once isolated me as a child became a bridge for two worlds to collaborate. Language barriers, cultural sensitivity and behavioral patterns opened my eyes to a critique of my origins. It allowed me to understand why Filipinos do things, and sometimes, why it’s not quite the right thing to do. I give back to my community not to berate my elders but to learn from them and pass their and my own knowledge on to a younger generation.

As globalization surges on, I know that many of my parents’ generation will say that my generation is abandoning our ‘distinct Filipino-ness’ for the appeal of ‘Westerners’. But that’s not true. The children of my generation, pushed into these ‘Western worlds’ for a ‘better life’ will be the carriers of an adaptable culture that will survive.

How Much Longer?

By Divya Gurung from Musubi “An Exploration of Gender in Hong Kong”, 2017.

As a child, she often outran the boys, my mother. Fearless, she was swift to protect herself, or to defend her elder brother from the tussles of tormenting neighbourhood tyrants. The first to swing from tree to tree, as she took on the persona of Tarzan, my mother was unafraid. She took on challenges with fervour, standing shoulder to shoulder with boys and refused to indulge in any constraints to her freedom of both body and mind. 

Yet tyrants never cease to exist, do they? They take on different forms and encroach your space unabashedly. With womanhood approaching, my mother found herself fighting still, with even more tormenters than from her childhood. Not only was she incompatible with the prescribed mould of expected behaviour and demeanour, her perspective too was questioned by the invisible strings that tend to control women. The looming cloud of expectations would smother her perpetually; a plethora of roles to fulfil whilst quelling her thoughts and voice. 

Decades after, her daughter persists to fight with such tyrants, albeit in a different form, a different flavour, but intolerable still. Despite long due strides of improvements, much still remains amiss. 

How much longer? 

How I Found My Name

By Linda Lew from GEN M #2 “移民一族”, 2017.

I had thought I lost my name. The one I was given at birth. The one written in Chinese. 刘凌达 or in Chinese pinyin, Liu Lingda.

It’s always been there, used by my parents and extended family who speaks Chinese. But after we moved to New Zealand and as was usual for new immigrants keen to assimilate, a new English name was chosen for me.

Linda.

“Oh, your English name is already really similar to your Chinese name! That’s so convenient,” new friends would tell me.

But not really.

The Mandarin “ling” chimes like a bell. The “lin” syllable spoken with a Kiwi accent falls a bit flat.

The first day I went to school in New Zealand – Hamilton East Primary – I was 9 and couldn’t understand any English other than “hello” and “Linda”. Or so I thought. People would call me and I wouldn’t respond because I was Liu Lingda. Linda was another English word I hadn’t yet learned how it sounded in my ear.

But children learn fast. Within a couple of years I was speaking accented but somewhat fluent English. When I met new people, I introduced myself as Linda.

Scared that I’d lose my Chinese, my parents sent me to weekly Chinese lessons once I grasped English. Along with two or three other family friends who were also sons and daughters of Chinese immigrants, we’d visit a church every Saturday where classes were held for a couple of hours in the afternoon.

On the first day Teacher Luo taught us, she asked us to write down our Chinese names for her and she would try to explain the meaning of the characters in our name.

“Your parents have big dreams for you, Lingda. See “凌” or “ling” is part of “凌云壮志” or ambitions that soared beyond the clouds and “达” or “da” is part of “到达” which means to arrive,” explained Teacher Luo.

I beamed.

“Linda” the name is Germanic and means soft or tender. It also coincides with the Spanish and Portuguese word for beautiful. The first definition I looked up in a baby name dictionary but the second definition I learnt from men who knew a bit of Spanish complimenting me and saying that I lived up to my name.

I smirked.

Dad properly explained the whole history behind the names of the Liu family to me at the end of high school or when I first started university. I couldn’t remember when because it just happened to come up in a conversation one day.

“We didn’t pick “凌” or “ling” because it meant 凌云壮志 or “ambitions that soared beyond the clouds”. It was already picked, a couple of hundred years ago. Our family follows this poem that the ancestors wrote and every generation takes one character from the poem and use it as part of their name. So your mum and I only picked the “达” or “da.”

“Oh?” I tried not to gape.

“You never notice how your sister’s Chinese name is Linghua, and your brothers are Linghao and Lingfeng?”

I had thought my parents were trying to be quaint and doing what would be akin to Western parents giving their children names that start with the same letter. A la the Kardashians. I bit my tongue because I didn’t think dad knew who the Kardashians were.

Dad wrote the poem down, which he had memorized by heart and explained what it meant:

“Our family began in the Ming dynasty, all the descendants would maintain our golden tombs. Every generation will contribute to the strength of the country, they will achieve prosperity.”

Chinese names usually have three characters: the family name, the middle character and the third character. Our naming convention was that children of each generation all used the same character from the poem as the middle character in their names. Parents would only need to pick the third character. Then the next generation would use the next character in the poem, the generation after that would use the character following the previous character, so on and so forth. This had been going on in the Liu family for…

“12 generations. I think they’re up to “宗” or “zong” now.”

Even having left China 10 years ago and living at the end of the world, dad was very up to date with everything that happened in the big, extended Liu family back home.

“Hang on, the character in the poem isn’t the same as the one in my name,” I pointed out “陵” or “ling” which sounds the same but is written differently to “凌” or “ling”.

“Yes, this “ling” or “陵” means tomb or grave. The ancestors thought it’s a bit morbid to be used in names, so they changed it to “ling” or “凌” He wrote (凌) in brackets next to the poem and two other characters that had also changed through time.

“I didn’t tell you this sooner because I didn’t think you were interested.” Dad looked a bit sad.

No ambitions that soared beyond the clouds, not even soft and tender or beautiful. My name means the tomb.

For Qingming or the tomb-sweeping holiday in May this year where you’re supposed to go clean the graves of your ancestors, I went back to dad’s hometown in rural Guizhou. I’m doing my Masters now in Beijing and thought I’d go pay my respects to granddad who passed away last year. My siblings have school in New Zealand and so my parents didn’t come back this time. I returned with my uncle who happens to live in Beijing as well.

Potou is a village of a few hundred people, one of the many poor villages that make up the underdeveloped Guizhou province in China. However, world-class high speed rail network has reached the region and it is possible to take an 11 train hour ride from Beijing to Guanling station then drive for half an hour to Potou.

The last time I visited Potou was when I was 11 for a couple of days, so I don’t remember much. This time, the village was still novel and fascinating as ever. I took photos of Chairman Mao and President Xi Jinping posters that hung on the wall, next to the family shrines where burning incense emitted wisps of smoke.

This year, the extended Liu clan decided to do Qingming as a whole family. They’d clean the ancestors’ graves together and prepare a community reunion meal. The day before Qingming, the adult and teenaged men in the family who returned for the holiday or happened to be in town gathered at the Liu hill in the village to clean up the gravesite. The women went to do grocery shopping for the reunion meal while the kids just ran around.

Uncle helped me to get acquainted by pointing out different relatives to me, this is your cousin, this is your uncle once removed, this is your nephew, this is your grand-niece – 

“Grand-auntie! 姑太婆!” The little girl politely called me.

I jumped. I had no idea I was old enough to be a grandparent.

“What’s your name?”

“Liu Zongting.” She answered. Suddenly, I realized the middle character of her name “zong” comes two places after my character in the family poem.

Then whenever I met a new relative, I’d start by asking their name. The middle character in their name tells me exactly how they are related to me in the family tree. I met a lot of “ling” cousins, a few “dai” nieces and nephews, some “Jing” uncles and aunts and the occasional “zong” grand kids.

When we finished the ceremonies of paying respect to our ancestors and granddad, and laying out the offerings, we sat down to enjoy the reunion meal on the hill. The clan filled out seven or eight tables. I challenged myself to the delicious yet very spicy local foods while the busy chatter of the Guizhou dialect was all around me.

It was magnificent.

It was belonging.

It was how I found my name. 

Home.

By Jasmin Singh from GEN M #1 “Generation Migrant”, 2017.

As a migrant and member of the Indian diaspora, I find the notion of home to be confusing and loaded. Disjuncture’s of identity are common to migrants and those from diasporic cultures.

Where are you from? Is often tied to difficulties in explaining my identity, I often pick the lie, the easy way out ‘I’m from Malaysia.’ But it’s never as simple as this.

Where do I belong? The question that is always in the back of my mind. The question gnawing at me as I prepare for a trip home this year.

I often call Malaysia my home. I say ‘I’m going back home for the summer’, but this is a lie. When I leave Malaysia, I have a sense of relief coming home to Auckland, a sense of comfort and home is often both places.

Home is Auckland and Ipoh and my mum’s village in India.

Taiye Selasi’s TED Talk ‘Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m local’ talks about how coming from a country, is suggesting you come from a changing concept. It is not based in experiences and complexities of belonging.

It is tied to notions of statehood. And often tied to notions of patriotism and nationalism.

It privileges conceptions of coming from a singular notion of a state as opposed to the large patterning of human experience that often forms the identity of migrants and members of diaspora

It resonated with my experiences of being asked where I’m from.

Often when Indian people around Auckland as if I’m Indian I respond, ‘No I’m Malaysian.’ Then they say but you look Indian and I retort ‘I am Indian but I’m from Malaysia.’

How do I explain an identity I don’t fully understand?

I don’t feel fully Indian, because I have never lived in India, but my mum’s family is from india, some of my fondest memories of my grandparents are from India, my cultural experiences are Indian.

I don’t feel fully ‘Kiwi’, I have lived in Auckland for 6 years and call this home, but for many I am a guest. But some of my most important formative experiences of being independent, learning who I am happened here in New Zealand. Most of my closest friends are from here. I am tied to this place through these.

I don’t feel fully Malaysian, even though my passport says I am. I again have fond memories of my childhood and adolescence there, I love the family I have there and I love the food. But even there I am unwanted, immigrant, foreigner, pendatang.

I am a jumble, a mix, a rojak, with my American accent, my crop tops, jeans and bindis, my love of rice and mee over chapatti.

The question of where are you from Selasi suggests is tied to power. Stating which country, you’re from tells people how much power you have. All these notions of identity are tied to nationhood and is something that migrants of colour need to learn to disentangle.

As Taiye Selasi says I am multi local, I come from my complex deeply layered experiences and not from the changing borders of nation states, but from the fragmented experiences of place that make me who I am.