I sit down in one of those plastic chairs in the food court of Merrylands shopping centre. My Dad has gone off somewhere and I wait for him with a coffee, nicely watered-down, from Michel’s Patisserie. I see mothers here with their prams, though the prams look more like giant toy cars that seem to enclose their smiling babies. As the day starts to veer toward lunch, office workers appear, in their belted pants and ironed blouses, to grab a quick bite to eat. In the food court there is so much choice: sushi, wraps, fish and chips, curries. I see some hesitant pensioners eyeing the fried noodles. By the afternoon there will be teenagers in their school uniforms hanging around and lining up at the McDonalds counter.
I had come back on one of my visits home to Sydney. I’ve lived away from Australia, in several different countries, for over fifteen years now and I return almost yearly to visit my family where they still live in western Sydney. Having grown up intensely disliking shopping centres, I am surprised that I actually enjoy just sitting here, watching people as I wait for my Dad. Back then, shopping centres represented for me everything that was wrong with western Sydney – soulless consumerism and dull suburbia. Instead I longed for music lessons, dance classes, even soccer games. But the limited public transport in the vast stretches of suburban Sydney meant that I had to rely on my parents driving me to places and they were mostly busy working (though they had time to drive us to Chinese school every Saturday). It felt like we were so far away from everything – at least from anything that was interesting, away from the places where things were happening.
Growing up, our family would never go away on holidays. Dinner in the food court was one thing that made me feel like our family did things together.
The geography of western Sydney shaped my experience of childhood and adolescence. My memories of that period and parts of my very identity seem to have been defined by shopping centres. They were the places where we would go to for a lot of things – not only for groceries, but also to go to the bank, post office, hairdresser. Some of the memories were good, like Thursday shopping nights when the centres stay open until 9pm. My parents would close the bread shop they owned in St Johns Park and then pack us all into the car to go to a Westfield, usually the one in Parramatta but also sometimes the Liverpool one. It would be our night out as a family, our only real time spent together, as most of the time my parents were busy working. Despite shopping night with parents being a daggy thing to do as a teenager, part of the appeal for me was spending time with my parents when they were not working. Growing up, our family would never go away on holidays. Dinner in the food court was one thing that made me feel like our family did things together. It was a treat we could look forward to.
In reality, those were rare moments of leisure. My parents’ shop was open seven days a week – they fulfilled the stereotype of hardworking migrants. Our family came to Australia as refugees from Cambodia, beneficiaries of Australia’s more lenient policy during the 1970s and 1980s of accepting refugees from Southeast Asia. It seems a long time ago now and a far cry from the country’s current stance on refugees and asylum seekers.
My siblings and I all grew up and worked in the family bakery – the kind of Asian bakery that will be recognisable to many – at a time when so many Southeast Asian migrants were opening bakeries across western Sydney. My family’s Asian-Australian version had lamingtons, meringues, apple turnovers, meat pies, and sliced white bread, but also Vietnamese pork rolls (banh mi thit). We lived in a house behind it and my father would leave every day at 3am, only closing the shop around 7.30pm. We children would spend time there after school, during school holidays and weekends, and when we had nothing to do or there were no customers, for fun we’d bounce a tennis ball against the wall of the supermarket or play handball in the parking lot. The smell of baking bread, the texture of dough and the heat from the industrial oven lives on in the cells of my body.
My Dad also had to go to the bank that was in the shopping centre once a week to deposit the cash earnings from the bread shop. I would ride in the car with him along with my brother and sisters; it was an outing of sorts because I could go to the library that was just outside the shopping centre while Dad was in the bank. Our parents prioritised us going to the library and reading books because they related it to our studies, which they saw as the key to us getting good jobs and never having to work as hard as they did. They didn’t care what we were reading, as long as it came in book form. That was how I first really discovered fiction.
I remember the excitement I used to feel browsing the shelves and choosing books; it was like being in a lolly shop, the book covers a range of colours and sizes that filled my library bag like an assortment of treats. I devoured the Young Adult section and discovered authors like Isobelle Carmody, Melina Marchetta, and Ursula K. Le Guin, amongst others. Afterwards, my Dad would often take us to KFC to get a Zinger Tower burger. I remember layers of bun, hash brown, bacon, and a spicy hot sauce that dribbled down my fingers as I held the burger.
These are nice memories, but my overwhelming feeling at the time was, is this all there is? A sense of limited possibilities and opportunities always dogged me, as if this was all that life had to give, at least to me. Growing up in a period where there was no internet, my imagination as a migrant kid was constructed by the mainstream media I consumed as well as by what I saw around me. And at the time what I ingested through books and TV did not at all reflect my life or my family’s. Some things have changed in the literary world, and now there are books by and about people from migrant backgrounds, including Asian-Australians, in libraries, but the mainstream media is still predominately white: take a glance at any of the main channels and their newsreaders, soap stars, and TV hosts.
I wanted more than what was on offer as a teenager but I was still unsure as to what it was that I desperately needed.
I grew up in the Fairfield area in the 1990s and came of age in a period dominated by baggy jeans, Boyz II Men, and Toyota Corollas. This was when Mariah Carey turned from ‘Music Box’ to ‘Honey’; when RnB was piped out of the school’s PA system, and all the Asians in the school listened to Jodeci or Tevin Campbell while the minority white kids had Silverchair and Nirvana stickers on their folders; when the only things that the other Asian kids were interested in were Science, Maths, and Commerce because most of us were told that the only goal was to get out of having to work as physically hard as our parents. I could not imagine that I could grow up to do anything artistic or creative. I thought you had to be from elsewhere, like Newtown, to do these things.
I wanted more than what was on offer as a teenager but I was still unsure as to what it was that I desperately needed. I could not separate this feeling of wanting more from the relationship I had with my parents at the time. I felt controlled by them in every aspect of my life and pressured to be the ideal Chinese daughter: from what I ate to what I wore to how I was allowed to be. In essence I experienced it as a control of my very being – a deep violation. This claustrophobia expressed itself as a longing for freedom, and freedom looked like options and choices that did not seem available to me; freedom looked like what I was not and never would be – the white middle class, the ‘cultured’ class.
I located this claustrophobia in the physical landscape around me: in the relentless suffocating heat bowl that the western suburbs becomes in the summer; in the never-ending houses extending further and further out, weatherboard fibros as well as shiny new ones that all look the same and lack, in my opinion, character as well as taste; in the assumption that no one walks anywhere so some streets don’t have footpaths. Not to mention the depressing, often dilapidated corner shops whose business and trade have been taken over by shopping centres – milk bars, fruit and veggie stores, kebab shops. I wanted the choice of hipster cafes, coffee beans from far flung places, a quinoa salad, being able to walk to my local bookshop (even having a local bookshop).Looking back, I think I was searching for some kind of meaning and a purpose to my life that the things around me didn’t seem to give. I couldn’t escape the feeling that something profound was missing, so I wanted to escape the place instead.
This was also the era when Pauline Hanson first appeared on the political landscape. When the media began to single out Vietnamese-Australians as criminals, simultaneously lumping all Southeast Asian migrants during that period into the category of ‘Vietnamese’ while ignoring all the Chinese, Cambodians, Laotians, and Thai migrants in the area. The media dubbed Cabramatta the ‘heroin capital’ of Australia and suddenly people who were trying to set up a new life for themselves and their families after experiencing unimaginable trauma, war, and displacement, found themselves on the wrong side of the line between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ migrant. Cabramatta was the first suburb my family settled into after arriving in Australia from Cambodia, via refugee camps in Thailand and Indonesia. We were a family of six in a two-bedroom apartment on McBurney Rd, within walking distance to the shops and train station. Fabric shops, butchers, bakeries, pho restaurants; many of these places were run by people that my parents knew from back in Cambodia. I remember a politician in the 1990s called John Newman – himself a migrant from Austria who was later assassinated – saying in reference to ‘Vietnamese junkies’ in Cabramatta: ‘Send them back to the jungle’.
The figure of the migrant is used in Australia as a perpetual lightning rod for the issue of who is worthy to be here and who is not, often wrapped up in the rhetoric of ‘integration’ and ‘assimilation’. The demonisation of non-white migrants ensures that the idea of a white Australia remains unchallenged and works to preserve a white centre; one that claims the authority to police marginalised others and determine who belongs and who doesn’t. But the authority of the white settlers themselves is illegitimate, standing as it does on a refusal to recognise the legitimate sovereignty of First Nations.
Perhaps no migrant should ever slide too easily into feeling comfortable with our belonging here.
So perhaps this uneasiness I felt, this sense of never quite feeling like I fitted in or that this country is mine, was correct. Because perhaps it is what white Australia and the rest of us non-First Nations should be feeling. How we got here to the place now called Australia was only possible because of the extreme violence that this country was founded on and which continues to this day. Perhaps no migrant should ever slide too easily into feeling comfortable with our belonging here.
But growing up, I saw negative media depictions of Asians and migrants and I didn’t want to be lumped into the same category as them. I didn’t want to confront questions of race and belonging. I didn’t want to examine my identity and culture, particularly how I inhabited both a problematic settler culture and the Chinese-Cambodian culture of my family. I was sure that meaning and purpose was not to be found where I came from in western Sydney. When I got older, I longed to be part of the middle-class north shore of the city where my sociology lecturers at university came from, or the cultured and hip people in the inner west, or the white beach-life of Manly. These places seemed to offer possibilities of other worlds where I could finally be other than what I was. People from these places didn’t seem to have deal with questions of belonging and identity. Even the leftie activist types who rallied against the system were sure of their place in the world, always assuming they had a right to be in it as the angry saviours of the world. The people I met at uni during my arts degree seemed to me effortlessly unaware of what was outside their bubble, whether they were the girls in their designer clothes or the white activists in their dreadlocks and slogan shirts.
I longed to be white, more precisely a particular kind of white, but I always knew I never could be. I had the perpetual feeling of never being able to completely relax because you cannot if you don’t belong anywhere. Shopping centres were such a ubiquitous part of my life growing up that, for me, they were indelibly tied to this feeling of tension and unease that arose from my migrant identity. But I didn’t want to be linked to an identity that came from growing up in an area in which shopping centres seemed to be the epitome of life. I wanted more – I was so greedy for life.
This is an excerpt of May Ngo’s essay, “Shopping Night,” originally published in Sydney Review of Books. Please visit SRB to read the essay in full.
May Ngo is an anthropologist and Research Fellow at the Oriental Institute, Czech Academy of Sciences. Her work has been previously published in The Lifted Brow, Mascara Literary Review and she tweets at @mayngo2