KATIE HO: Embracing Diversity
Katie and I first met at a house party in Melbourne. We were part of a really big and close-knit group of 20 somethings that would go to the same local night spots and hang out.
I used to run into her house pretending to be a spy, and we’d have a shootout in her corridor, normally ending in laughter. Our diverse heritage is something that has never come up in conversation. Maybe it’s because we understood the experience of it all without needing to talk about it with each other. The best thing about friends is that they always willing to help you out, no matter what project or endeavour you're on.
THE PIN: Growing up, what was your experience of an Australian childhood?
KATIE HO. It was pretty good. I grew up in a quiet pocket of a middle class, white area with lots of families, which meant that there was a real community feel. Everyone knew each other, everyone knew each other's family.
Did one culture play a part in your household?
K. It was kind of twofold because both of my parents weren’t born here. Dad is Chinese but he grew up in Papua New Guinea (PNG) with a mixture of Chinese and PNG culture. Mum grew up in New Zealand in a middle class, Anglo, religious environment, so her upbringing was more closely aligned to Australian culture. A lot of dad’s culture is based on how he grew up, like having no concept of time or rules. His parents and eleven siblings also eventually moved to Australia as adults, so I was fortunate to be surrounded by a large extended family. Nine of his eleven siblings married Asian people, and most of my cousins were raised with traditions I wasn’t as regularly exposed to. Growing up, I would spend a lot of time with my Chinese cousins and it was clear that there were a lot of structures and conventions for them that my parents didn’t adhere to. Sometimes I felt like I didn’t quite fit into either culture. At the time I didn’t realise how much my dad’s culture had moulded me. I remember starting school and using Pidgin (Tok Pisin) words for things – I thought I was speaking English.
Did you embrace one parent's culture over another, or Australian culture over both?
K. I embraced Australian culture more because I grew up in a predominantly Caucasian community. When I was young I kind of rejected or minimised my association with Chinese culture because I thought it wasn’t cool. I really wanted to feel accepted and wanted to connect with what everyone else around me had.
Do you recall when you became aware of race and culture?
K. Definitely. When I was still young my family would do all these things other kids wouldn’t do. We’d go to Yum Cha every Sunday with my extended Chinese family and there would be eating rituals that didn’t exist outside of this time together. We had a lot of customs for special occasions. On birthdays, adults would give money to the kids in red envelopes. On Chinese New Year, during the lion dance, the kids were given red envelopes and we had to hold them up as the lion went around, if we were brave enough. The lion would put its mouth over our hands and put money in the envelope. At dinner the youngest person is supposed to pour the tea and make sure everyone’s cup is always full. The younger people are supposed to serve the food. Like many other cultures, love is shown through the serving of food and making sure people are well fed. Cooking someone’s favourite dish is like telling someone you care about them without having to say anything. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know how to use chopsticks, and when I was at school other kids were so perplexed by the existence and use of chopsticks. My extended family would speak to each other in Cantonese or Haka which I was used to never understanding. I would also call my grandparents by their Chinese names; my grandma was Por-por and my grandfather was Gang-gang.
Were there people you looked to for inspiration in establishing your own identity?
K. Not really, because not many people had two distinct cultures or two identities. Most people in the area I grew up in were Caucasian so even associating with someone that was not a part of the dominant culture didn’t really happen.
Growing up, did you feel properly represented by media?
K. No. I don’t think so. I can’t recall anyone that I looked up to and thought was similar to me and my experience.
How do you feel about terms like mixed race, bicultural, biracial, interracial, lesbian and gay?
K. I don't hate those terms. I think they are useful to help people who want to associate with those who have had particular or similar experiences. Though, in the wrong hands I also think they can be divisive terms, used to separate or exclude people.
It depends on the context and whether it is a term someone is using for themselves, or whether someone is using it to label another person.
Do you get asked “Where are you from?”, and how often does this happen?
K. It used to happen a lot when I was younger, especially as a young kid. In the past 5 years though it has dropped off quite a lot. I still get ‘you look exotic’ occasionally.
How do you respond?
K. When I was a kid I used to say ‘I’m Australian’, which I used purposefully to throw people off. As a teenager, I embraced it more because I was in that awkward teenage phase where it was nice to be noticed. Now, I think that question is really annoying, and although I don’t find it personally offensive I can see how many people would. I’m not ‘from’ anywhere else, and even if I were it would be irrelevant. Where I was born, where my family was born isn’t something I need to explain unless I want to. When someone asks a question like this it is clear that I am being viewed as an outsider, whether it was intended this way or not.
Do you think it is possible for a person to belong to more than one culture?
In regards to sexuality, do you identify as something specific?
K. I identify with queer more than any other label at the moment. I came out a few years ago as queer, in the latter half of my twenties. Queer to me is an umbrella term that describes someone who doesn’t identify with gender or sexuality norms. I’m still exploring and learning about how different people express their sexual identity, about queerness, about my own identity and what that means. Sexual identity is really personal. An identity can be really important for some, for meeting people who share a similar experience, and finding/creating a safe space to express that identity. On the other hand, some people don’t want to be labelled, or feel like there isn’t a distinct term that fits them. It’s tough because society really likes labelling and stereotyping people. Labels are sometimes used to exclude and isolate people, or used as derogatory terms, so it is understandable why there is reluctance to choose or explore an identity, especially if it doesn’t fit the traditional mould.
Were there any cultural hurdles in letting your family know about your partner?
K. I was insanely nervous to tell my parents. I don’t know why, I know they are very inclusive so it was always going to be fine. Mum was a bit shocked and then the next day was like, “it’s really great and you don’t have to deal with shitty men!”. She loves it. She started outing me to everyone saying, “My daughter works for people who are homeless AND she’s a lesbian”. Dad had a weird but positive response. When I told him I am dating a woman, he was really silent and I thought, “oh no! This is going to go really badly”. Then all of a sudden he said, “who cares?! As long as you’re happy, who cares?!”. His tone was aggressive, but what he was saying was so nice it was a bit confusing at first and I couldn’t tell if he was on board or not. I can now safely say he is on board.
There are more hurdles in telling my extended family, some of which I haven’t really told. My mum told her side of the family proudly, and they have all been completely accepting. I wouldn’t have expected anything different. But my dad’s side of the family, the Chinese family that centres around his siblings, has been difficult to read and navigate. No one has actually said that my partner is a woman, however we have been to events such as weddings and Christmas where my ‘friend’ has been invited by the extended family. My mum, dad and I aren’t really sure how they would be if it was addressed directly. They are silent on a lot of issues and have been all my life. They don’t do confrontation and tend to not talk about ‘shameful’ things that happen in the family. They are conservative, believe in gender roles and traditional family structures, and are religious as well. The scariest part of telling them directly is the fear that they will shun my family, and shut my parents out for being open and accepting of my sexuality. I’ve seen them exclude other family members when they don’t approve of something or are worried about external perceptions of the family, so that is what I fear. I would hate for mum and dad to be rejected because of me.
Do you think the term multiculturalism is applicable to Australia today?
K. I would say it’s multicultural. I think Australia is filled with so many people who have brought their cultures here. In some ways we’ve embraced it but in many other ways we haven’t.
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?
KATIE HO. I’d tell my younger self so many things! I would definitely tell my younger self to embrace my diversity and use my position of being able to straddle two cultures to enthusiastically acknowledge that diversity is welcome. And not to use that as a way of receiving attention, but to actually embrace my culture and my family. I’d also say not to buy into stereotypes, and be more encouraging of those differences as opposed to trying to just blend into the status quo.
- This interview has been edited and condensed
Photo credit: Adam Schipano