DR ADAM AITKEN: Reconstructing Experience
Dr Adam Aitken explores experience through poetry and prose. In Aitkens recent memoir One Hundred Letters Home, the two forms are brought together to deliver a delicate exploration of Aitkens own parents meeting and the hurdles they faced as an interracial couple.
Aitken’s developing understanding of his own identity in context to his parents history is weaved into the narrative and, as evidenced in The Pin’s meeting with Aitken, they were stories that came close to home.
MEET DR ADAM AITKEN.
THE PIN. Can you tell me a bit about your upbringing and where you grew up?
DR ADAM AITKEN. I was born in London, with some childhood spent in Malaysia and Thailand before coming to Australia and living in Sydney. My mother’s Thai and my father is Australian.
Was the culture within your family household different to mainstream Australian culture?
A. Not really, I don’t think so. I didn’t have many opportunities to compare. I wouldn’t say my mother was trying to bring me up in a particularly Thai way or Asian way.
In your book you talk about your father being a stranger to your family, ‘a man who embodied Australia itself but was not around to affirm it’. Do you think that understanding heritage and culture is important to the development of one’s identity?
A. I knew that I wasn’t the same as other kids when we arrived in Australia. I was about 8 years old at the time, and even though my family life was pretty normal, I was made aware of my racial difference throughout school. That made me need to understand a bit more about why I was being singled out as being different. In Perth I went to a very white school and then in Sydney I attended a school with a lot of kids from all over the place. Despite this, Asian kids were pretty rare. Growing up I wanted to know more about my mother’s culture, upon reflection, I don’t know why I wanted to as a kid; it wasn’t a conscious thought at the time but it was probably a subconscious need to understand my own background. I didn’t address many of these issues until I finished university and went to Thailand when I was 21. There I immersed myself in my Thai family culture, I lived with my family for six months, and that made me reflect a lot more about who I was. That’s where I realised that I didn’t really fit into Thai culture either!
Were there moments in Thailand where you felt quite Australian?
A. I was independent and just had a sense of freedom at that age. Yet when I went to stay with my family I felt like I was treated like a child and I wasn’t independent. I didn’t have my own place to live or a proper job. I was just lazy, hanging around, going on trips, not exactly a grown-up existence. I was in that limbo between being a teenager at home and being an adult on my own. I also think my attitudes were a lot more liberal about all sorts of things. Certainly I didn’t really have much faith in the Thai middle class emphasis on material wealth, property and university degrees. At that time I wasn’t particularly interested in any of those things.
I noticed the comments about purchasing new clothes in One Hundred Letters Hme...
A. That’s right, in the book I am reversing the Orientalist idea that Asian people are not materialistic; that Thais are all nice happy buddhists, when actually they are good at being modern people and being capitalists. They have the same materialist aspirations as most people. I was brought up to have artistic ambitions. I studied art at Sydney University, and when I did it there wasn’t much pressure to get an early career. My generation didn’t find it difficult to get jobs. So I didn’t have my career plan worked out, I just wanted to write books.
In the memoir you pivot around your parents meeting, exploring it through correspondence. Did the exploration of your parents relationship change your understanding of your parents and yourself?
A. Yes, definitely. Part of the writing process is to allow for your understanding to change or grow. The original perception of my parents has changed, but also developed. It was a reflective writing approach that I took; there was no plan, no map.
What I found interesting, as the child of migrant, was that I found my own mother within some of the scenes of the book. For example, when your father and another gentleman are mimicking their wives accents. Upon reflection of your parents relationship, do you think that interracial relationships would have been something quite difficult to work through, respecting cultural differences?
A. I think so. My mother was brought up as a Thai woman and there were obvious things that my mother couldn’t, or didn’t, want to excuse, allow or tolerate. On the other hand, there are lots of things that changed in her lifestyle and they changed her attitudes towards family life.
On my father’s side –see this is where gender differences are probably more important than racial or cultural differences– he was from a generation born at the end of the 1930s. My father grew up with the attitude of Australian men of that time and age group so when he’d be fooling around with his friends in Australia, he would revert to that behaviour. Not that he was always like that.
In Australia my mother and one of my father’s friend’s [Thai] wives were quite class conscious and looked down on other Thai women. What I am trying to explore is not what they had in common but what they don’t have in common. It’s more thematic. What I was really quite keen to do in my book was to complicate every stereotype that I could possibly express. Even the ones about migrant mothers.
It’s interesting, isn’t it how generations change, but also how certain things remain the same. Like cooking, of course! The other interesting thing is the difference between a migrant Asian mother and a white Australian mother, I didn’t really get to explore that in this book because she had few white European female friends who were her age.
There is a beautiful photograph in the memoir of your parents; your father is wearing a sarong and your mother is dressed as if she is going to go horse riding, as if they have switched cultural identities. Do you think that Australia is open to migrants being proud of their identity and allowing that identity to remain a part of their Australian experience?
A. We have to unpack this because there are two parts to it, and they are both important. My dad had always loved exotic stuff and exotic clothes, for him, he liked to have something outrageous or different to show off. For my mother, what I explore in my writing about that photo is that my mother feels she’s not showing off anything. She’s not attempting to be an exhibit, that’s just the way she is.
I would say a lot of that has to do with that Pauline Hanson kind of mentality and the old white/blue collar society that never sees see any value in migrants keeping the authenticity, if you like. Maybe I am generalising but every time I hear about a plan to make a mosque you also hear about a huge demonstration in Australia...
Twenty years ago if an Asian person wore a beautiful suit or beautiful Western style clothes and walked down to the pub, then they’d be noticed. That’s because at that time there was a stereotype that Asian migrants weren’t meant to look super elegant or rich. Nowadays that has changed. Just walk anywhere in inner city Sydney and you see people of all elks: rich, cool, whatever. But deep down, I think there is still a lot of pressure, on especially children of migrants, to not speak their parents language or refuse to speak it in public.
Do you feel as if you belong to more than one culture?
A. No. My life all seems to be a consistent and familiar routine these days, but that said I don’t know if it is exactly the kind of culture many Australians outside of metropolitan inner Sydney experience.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
DR ADAM AITKEN. I would tell my younger self to persist in learning the 'other' language and strive to understand your relatives. I would also tell him to try to understand his father. Overall, just to be less critical and self-conscious.
- This interview has been edited and condensed