by Sandy Burgham
I am half Asian, half Pākehā. But this is a fairly recent thing. I was born to a Japanese mother, and until say, 10 years or so ago, I had always thought of myself as half-Japanese. When kids at school found out Mum was Japanese — a fact of which I was, and am, extremely proud — some would tease and goad me with nicknames like “yellow belly”.
I was never bothered much as I loved drawing from that part of my culture, which I felt gave me a sense of identity, as I was never sure what my other side brought me culturally. As kids playing on a suburban street, a neighbour once said accusingly “My mum said your mum eats raw fish”. I was bewildered that this could be a problem. We ate fish both raw for Mum, and crumbed and fried for Dad, a corned beef-and-boiled-potatoes sort of guy. Dad is Pākehā, not that we said that back then. Confusingly, we used terms like “European” or “Caucasian” despite that side having no recent links to either Europe, or indeed Asia. Back then, saying Pākehā meant an uncomfortable self-referencing to Māori, and no one seemed to be into that in the 60s and 70s, let me tell you. Because my mixed race did not give an immediate snapshot of my identity, I could pass as a little bit Māori, but not too much for this to be a real social problem for me. When I wasn’t called “the yellow peril” and such like, some white kids would say I was a “waka blonde”.
Looking “a little bit Maori but not too much for this to be a social problem” worked in my favour in the 90s, when there was a cultural awakening to our bi-culturalism. And in the last decade, being “enough Asian” yet enough “not Asian” has also worked in my favour, as Auckland has turned on to the fact that whether it likes it or not, “Asians” will be a dominating force in its multicultural civic identity, economic future and personal familial dynamics.
I’m not sure at which point I stopped being part Japanese and became part Asian. Will all those future Aucklanders of mixed raced parentage be lumped in the same category as me — Asian or at least “a bit Asian”?
So now I’m half-Asian, a new state of being which I am just going with, do I get to blend into events with the other Asians – Diwali (Indians are counted as part of the Asian community) and Chinese New Year? I definitely should get VIP treatment at the Lantern Festival! Do I let the cat out of the bag that I don’t have a lot in common culturally with Indians? Or even with Chinese to be honest, bar the fact that I was brought up eating rice.
I am hoping Auckland continues to embrace Chinese New Year — or, if you’re not Chinese Asian, the Lunar New Year — not just as a nod to our Chinese, but for what it represents. Rather than the anti-climatic calendar New Year, with its heavy drinking and resolutions never to be met, Chinese New Year is a far more civilised 15 days of celebrating, feasting and deeply connecting with family and community. As a spring festival in China, it is a time of sweeping away the past and welcoming symbolic new beginnings. We could all do with a bit of that.
As I have reinvented myself as “half-Asian,” Auckland too has a tremendous opportunity to reinvent itself. We have serious issues and divides in this Super City of ours. While we no longer have a Chinatown, thank goodness, or indeed Koreatown and Japantown, as they do in so many US cities, we are not as egalitarian as we like to think we are. It used to be that Aucklanders were accused of not recognising anything south of the Bombay Hills, but for so many it seems that Sylvia Park is now the natural cut-off point. People talk of South Auckland as a mythical place where there may be ethnic communities reminiscent of Brotown or even Funkytown.
But this is Auckland. And what’s more, as we face a future where one-third of our residents will draw from an Asian identity, it’s time to drop problematic celebrations like Guy Fawkes and fully embrace Chinese/Lunar New Year as a celebration, not for them but for us.
In my second act, I’m not only taking on Chinese New Year with gusto, but fully intend to embrace Matariki with the same spirit. But that’s a story for another day.
— Sandy Burgham
This article first appeared in The Hobson Magazine January 2018