Sticks and stones.
I first met Daniel Wee at a university library. I was the trainee scraping by on $15 an hour and he was a new team customer service team member who went against every stereotype of what a librarian is and should be. Tattooed and with a subtly excellent sense of humour, Daniel quickly became the person I would turn to when I found myself exasperated by the standards and procedures of working in a large educational institution.
While we worked together for over a year, race and culture were never topics we discussed, so it was a great delight to reconnect with Daniel over The Pin and learn something new about an old work colleague, who grew up urban and now lives outer suburban.
MEET DANIEL WEE.
THE PIN. Can you tell us about your own childhood, where you grew up, etc?
DANIEL WEE. I was born in Luton, England. Yes, there is an airport, and yes, it was once again voted the worst place in the United Kingdom. How do I feel about that? Well I guess a little bit of pride mixed with a little bit of shame. Admittedly, I look back at my seven years in England with fondness. All of the grey, all of the cigarette smoke, all of the alcohol, all of the concrete, and all of my mother’s family. I was very close to one of my aunties, who took on the role of day care provider while my mum and dad worked at the Vauxhall (General Motors) factory fitting doors to the iconic Bedford van. After several failed attempts to escape the Luton vortex, we were formally welcomed to Australia in 1987. At the age of seven we boarded a plane to Perth where some of Dad’s family had already set up residence. On our descent into Perth International Airport I looked over to Mum who was sobbing and repeating, “What have I done?” as she surveyed the brown expanse of Western Australia’s landscape. No problems though, after enduring two weeks of 40 degree weather, my mum coerced Dad into moving to Melbourne. Our first night in Melbourne couldn’t have been more different to the blistering heat, I remember the three of us huddling under the plastic sheet of our newly purchased double mattress desperately searching for some sort of middle ground.
As an only child I had a pretty lonely existence. I remember playing five-on-five basketball by myself. However, I knew that the move to another country was the right decision for my family. Mum and Dad were as happy as they could be, and I made friends quickly at primary school. Eventually Mum left Dad for a woman, which was no big surprise really. Mum did have an Irish girlfriend when we lived in England, who was terrifying, truly terrifying. I remember the first time I met her she made me climb up a rickety ladder to break into her double story house in Dublin. I also remember she let me walk her gigantic Doberman, which took off after another dog...nobody told me to let go of the lead. I also remember her mailing me an envelope of all the boogies I deposited on her bed-head. That was the last I saw of her.
Mum moved into a house in Canterbury just off Mailing Rd. She worked in a factory down the road soldering electronic components and didn’t really suit the Canterbury lifestyle. I remember when Mum told me that when she first moved in, three well dressed women came up to her at the front of her house and told her that they felt sorry that she had to go to work everyday. Her flirting with the upper echelon of Melbourne society didn’t last long. All in all, despite the loneliness, despite the weirdness of my family, I had a pretty decent childhood. One which, when I look back it now, I realise how much of what happened during that time, contributed to the kind of asshole that I am today.
Was race and culture a topic your family discussed?
D. I guess if you know anything about the Chinese it’s that anything that could be considered emotionally invasive should be avoided at all costs. The only time race is discussed, is to pronounce broad generalisations (much like my previous sentence) about the shortcomings of an entire race, including your own. This is of course as much of a sweeping generalisation as the former insertion. Maybe I am like my dad after all.
Do you recall when you became aware of race and culture?
D. Growing up I never looked at my mum and dad and thought she’s English and he’s Chinese. I guess as I didn’t really grow up around family I never really had to think about it too much. It was only when I started high school that I realised I was maybe a little different. I recall asking my mum about how they met and was somewhat appalled, not by their courtship, but by the way their relationship was received. The dating process wasn’t traditional and the respective in-laws were not impressed by this interracial love fest. Dad’s father called Mum a prostitute, Mum’s mother called my dad as many racial slurs as was then invented. Their's was a dirty introduction to the politics of interracial love and the issue of mashing together two starkly contrasting cultures.
Do you feel as if you belong to more than one culture?
D. In between the “do you know Karate” questions, I am often asked which culture I feel like a belong to the most. If I told you that I felt a close connectedness to my Chinese heritage I would be doing you a disservice. Failed attempts to reach out to Dad to try and improve my knowledge of my past and my culture are met with grunted brush offs. In a way I feel like Dad is ashamed of his own heritage. Having lived in a Western society for over four decades might do this to you. Trapped between the “them” and the “us”.
We’ve spoken with people whose own parents provided advice and encouragement on growing up bicultural/biracial. Is this something your parents or extended family ever did?
D. To a very small degree, Mum would offer me advice during my tumultuous teen years. Disgruntled, disenfranchised and full of angst, I was looking for reasons, or rather a solution to what was wrong with me? I quickly turned my considerable anger to being Eurasian and my unfortunate surname. Dad would say, “Don’t be stupid”, or “Idiot”, but I think Mum understood and maybe felt partly responsible for my resentment. At the time it seemed like the worst thing in the world, something to be ashamed of, and I wished more than anything I could have been Daniel Smith whose parents were brought over on the First Fleet. In vain, Mum tried to assuage my distress and it took me many years to overcome my unfounded shame.
Do you think it’s possible to be completely colourblind in a relationship?
D. Personally I don’t think it is possible. We all see colour. We are conditioned to categorise and define, rather than see people for what they are. I guess in a way it helps compound self-awareness and self-identity. To say, this is where I come from and this is why I am the way I am is easily defined when you can attribute these traits to race and colour.
What have you learnt from becoming a father, specifically to a biracial/bicultural child?
D. My kids are a quarter Chinese so maybe the role that race will play in their life will be a little bit different. Apart from their ridiculous surname, you would be hard-pressed to tell that they are of Asian heritage. As they are only 2 and 4 at the moment they aren’t aware of their heritage, well not to any great extent anyway. When I try to explain to my son that his grandad is Chinese, and that I’m half-Chinese and that makes them a quarter-Chinese, it isn’t unexpected that the general reply is, “No I’m not”.
But there are definitely aspects of their lives where ethnicity is more of a consideration. We moved recently to a less diverse area with a population that don’t necessarily have the same opinions on multiculturalism as I do. Altogether, it’s not a bad place to live, I am just used to living in areas that have higher percentages of ‘other’. So I need to think about where my kids grow up and where they will go to school. I also want my kids to be around and experience cultures other than their own. My wife calls this reverse racism on my behalf. Maybe it is.
Is there a particular part of advice or wisdom you wish to pass onto your kids on growing up biracial/bicultural?
D. To treat others as you would want to be treated yourself. If you want people to respect and understand your cultural background, opinions and beliefs, it is imperative that you model this in your relationships with others. I would like to think that we live in a society that is a bit more considerate and tolerant than twenty years ago. Of course, the widening margin between left and right is rapid these days, so this may not be the case.
If they do experience racism, xenophobia, hatred, and/or physical and emotional violence, I would like them to know that not everyone thinks like this. I would also like them to know those strong, emotionally charged feelings they have in high school and early 20’s aren’t the be all and end all. You do get to a point where you just stop caring what others say and think about you. I remember Mum telling me she just stopped giving a shit at about the age of 35. I remember hoping and praying that this was the case. I’m happy to report she was pretty spot on.
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?
DANIEL WEE. The only person who actually really gives a shit about the colour of your skin or the culture of your background is you. It is entirely in your power to realise that being on the end of racism isn’t your fault. It is not actually a reflection on the type of person you are, rather it is reflection on the type of person stupid enough to point out your differences.
- This interview has been edited and condensed