When the Cover Doesn’t Match the Story

Exhibit 1: My face.

Have you ever been to Japan?  I have.  As with all instances of travel, there was a lot to learn, and I learned a lot.

Exhibit 2: Japan is full of Japanese.

There’s no way to make that statement without sounding stupid.  Sounding stupid is something I am resigned to.

Perhaps my eyes were not specialised enough.  I have eyes that Australia has given to me, and they are used to unrepentant diversity; buying milk from the milk bar, waiting on the station, pushing in front of you at the ticket office, talking loudly on the phone while waiting for the lights to change; my eyes are trained for a diversity that is not shy or subtle or subdued.  My eyes barely see diversity.

What they notice is its absence.

Thus Japan is full of Japanese culture, which differs from the culture that grew me.  The large things, like slurping your noodles, not talking on the phone while riding the train, and taking vending machines for granted.  The small things, like honour, death, and perfection.  None of their approach vectors come naturally to me.

It is full of the Japanese language, and while I could speak enough to get about, I could not converse, and thus the language I passed through remained a Great Wall of Mystery.  I could eavesdrop on nothing, written characters had a ripe potential I would never unlock, and my ignorance was profound.

And, in direct contravention of the not-quite-joke saying “all Asians look the same”, I stood out like a sore thumb.  My dress was foreign, I moved differently when I picked up chopsticks and wove through crowds because my body was foreign, and my physicality was clearly, obviously, certainly not Japanese.

Such complete isolation of the familiar is rare, and liberating.

The people I encountered in restaurants, who tolerated my fumbling attempts to order food, who passed me in the street, they thought of me as an outsider without a second glance, and so did I.

That is the first time external and internal positioning systems have been in agreement on the matter.

I don’t know how to explain the relief in that.  To be allowed to position myself where I think I should be, without question, friction or having to struggle to take that ground in the minds’ of others.  What did it matter if none could comprehend that I was Australian?  Mere details.  I was foreign, as I was supposed to be.

Exhibit 3: China is full of Chinese.

I had hoped to have the experience repeated when I visited China, Tibet and Nepal earlier in the year.  Given that in the first 24 hours I spent roaming about Beijing alone I was presented with an English menu without getting the chance to ask for one, was ripped off by a taxi driver, and had someone latch on to me in order to “practice their English” (a common scam run on tourists), the odds looked good.

Exhibit 4: “Chinese” covers an awful lot, a fair portion of who don’t call themselves “Chinese”.

Chinese eyes are different to Japanese eyes.  Being significantly larger than Japan, China has a lot more potential to mutate in culture, language and appearance.  They are accustomed to a higher degree of variation.

The group I was to travel with comprised entirely of Caucasians.  They stood out like sore thumbs.  Twelve of them.  And the hawkers, guides, dealers, leaders, photographers, everyone who could make a dollar from a gullible tourist, they came swarming out of some alternate dimension I had hitherto managed to escape the notice of and ate them like mosquitoes.

Apparently this was normal, what each of them had dealt with since entering the country.

Not that I was complaining, but that was the first I’d seen of it.

Although even my parents tell me I don’t look Chinese, apparently I’m Chinese-y enough to earn some invisibility.

Chinese-y enough that attempting to use my stunted knowledge of Mandarin would see natives round on me with relief and delight at being able to jettison their own stunted knowledge of English and revert to the Mother Tongue, a relief that I would then deflate by reverting to my own Mother Tongue to correct their mistake.

I advocate learning the language of any country you travel to.

In this instance, it was more trouble than use.

Exhibit 5: Tibet is not China, and Tibetans are not Chinese.

The bulk of the tourist industry in Tibet serves Chinese visitors.  It didn’t matter whether Tibetan eyes saw me as Chinese/Not Chinese; I was an outsider.

Exhibit 6:  Context, context, context – the other outsiders put me on the inside.

Mt Kailash is the holiest mountain in Asia.  People from all over the world come to walk its kora, a full circuit of it, and clense the sins of a lifetime.  So revered is this mountain it has never been climbed.

For the majority of the kora I was on my own.

A Nepali guide first guessed I was Tibetan, then Nepali, and then Chinese.  We were speaking in German.  Australian was never going to be one of his guesses.  (He also guessed my age at sixteen.  Which is a rant for another day.)

A German hiker pegged me as Tibetan, then Nepali.  He would not release his assumption that I was a guide waiting for my group, as opposed to being a little lost lamb getting her posterior whupped by altitude.

A second Nepali guide guessed Tibetan.  Even after learning I was Australian he rounded on me with narrowed eyes to ask if I was Nepali after I muttered, “ah-yaaah,” (which, in me, is purely Cantonese in origin).

A Chinese hiker repeated all of the above.  As did several other Germans.

Later, when co-workers had looked at my photos, one asked me about some of the photos in which I was wearing a face mask, a common practice in Tibet with the sun and dust.

None of the photos were of me.  Only Tibetans.

The Tibetans smiled and said “tashi delek!” as they passed me by.  It didn’t matter to them what I was; I was foreign.

Exhibit 6:  The taxi drivers in Kathmandu see a lot.

“No, I’m not Nepali.  I’m half-Chinese.”

“But you are not Chinese.”

“Half-white Australian.  I know.  I don’t look like anything.”

“Ah,” he said, and nodded knowingly at me in the rear view mirror.  He took me to Kathmandu International Airport without further conversation, and three hours later I began my long slog home.

He was the only person in three weeks to be unfazed by my background.

Exhibit 7: What the eyes see.

China is full of Chinese.  Tibet is full of Tibetans and Chinese.  Nepal is full of the Nepali, Tibetans, and Kathmandu at least is packed with tourists.

Australia is full of Irish, Somalis, Vietnamese, Croatians, Malaysians, Turks, Italians, Koreans, Sudanese, Indians, Aboriginals, Japanese, Greeks, Sri Lankans, Afghans, Brazilians, Lebanese, Egyptians, Indonesians, Singaporeans, Chinese, Iraqis, Germans, English, Samoans, Fijians, Tongans, I can’t name them all.  Immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, apart from the Aboriginals.  These various ‘groups’, they, we do not keep to ourselves.  We get irritated when rubbing shoulders with each other on over-crowded trains, we say “what the hell” and try some exotic cuisine that isn’t really exotic it’s so readily available, we listen to each other walking down the street and wonder at the language barrier, we get pissed off with differing ideas of personal space and personal hygiene, we smile at each other when we hold the door open, and we take each other for granted.

In passing through largely monoethnic areas people would guess what I was, based on their own knowledge of the world.

Here, in this ridiculous melting pot I call home, people do not guess.  It cuts a little deeper every time someone responds to “I’m Australian,” with “Yes, but what are you really?”

But, they are only responding based on their knowledge of the world, and when these different approaches to the query are put side by side they may seek the same answer but come from very different angles.  One assumes that I am simple to pigeonhole.  The other acknowledges the many possibilities that give rise to a face like mine, and makes no assumption at all.

I’m a child of the suburbs.  I can only speak for metropolitan Melbourne.  My brother, who works out in rural areas and is more distinctly Chinese-y than I, has told me sobering stories of walking into country pubs and the hostile stares that sit upon him while he eats.  These things take time to unfurl across geography, but unfurl with time they do.  Now that I have recognised it, this lack of assumption is a wonderful thing.  I can’t help it, I’ve tripped over other people’s assumptions most of my life without making any effort differentiate myself.  Stop trying to classify me as a known quantity and just get to know me.

And they do.

There’s a lot to learn when travelling, and I learned a lot.

Exhibit 8: To be what you are.

Diversity!  Variety!  Contrast!  Expose yourself to these things and expand your mind!  More exposure to diversity leads to familiarity, and if not understanding, at least tolerance. Of course I advocate this.  I’m the spawn of such an ideal.  Tolerance is all I ask for from either side.

The question has been put to me so many times I doubt my answer, and I no longer know what I am.

And yet.

Diversity leads to dilution.  Culture and the identities it gives rise to is so mutable an idea it cannot help but be influenced by its myriad of forms.  I am the dilution of white Australia and Chinese-Malaysia, and when combined I have the face of neither.  It doesn’t matter what my cultural practices are. I’m not Asian enough for the Asians and not white enough for the whites here.

It must be nice to belong to something.

It must be an amazing position of strength to be able to say, “I am this,” without it being questioned by either the people around or your own active consciousness.

Australians don’t know what it is to be Australian.  The idea of Australia is barely two centuries old.  As an identity it is not yet ripe.

Tibetans understand what it is to be Tibetan.  They’re distinct from all other cultures in face, dress, language and practice.  Their culture has not been imported in quick snatches and blind grabs, it has matured over many centuries, and as an identity it is well past adolescant uncertainty and exists with a calm self-assurance that comes from…where, I do not know, being who and what I am, I will never know.

If not for the invasion and occupation by China, Tibet would have been the best model of monoethnicity in the world.  Their foreign policy of old was incredibly simple: stay out.  Theirs would have been a culture pure as the snow-capped peaks surrounding them.

Now they are diversifying.  Of a sort.  It is one thing to have outsiders live within your borders; I’m all for that.  The introduction of contrary points of view keeps you fresh, stops you stagnating.  In theory.  Kind of.

It is something else to be told you cannot be what you are.

I can’t help but leap about and incoherently champion the idea of diversity in all things, I cannot help it, I cannot help it, I cannot help it.  Because, maybe, perhaps, possibly, it could be, when diversity reaches critical mass and the balance tips in the active consciousness in the society I dwell in, maybe I’ll be invisible.  Maybe I’ll think of myself as an insider, and the people around me will agree without question.   Maybe I’ll fit.  Maybe I’ll even belong.

And yet.

Distinct cultures are worth preserving.  They’re incredible, precious, bewilderingly confoundingly textualised ideas defined by forgotten footnotes and incidents so long ago my young mind in my young society cannot comprehend the weight of that history, and it is because they are distinct from each other that diversity is even possible.

I may never understand what it is to live a life saturated by a single culture, and that I cannot see myself as ever being on the inside of any such culture pains me in unexpected ways, and as much as I wish for the erasure of distinction for my own selfish desires, I cannot find it within me to condone the deliberate erosion of any culture, whether the force come from within, as with the murder of the Nepali Royal Family, or without, as with China’s occupation of Tibet.

They look like contradictory ideas, supporting both diversity and its lack.  Perhaps when looked at with someone else’s eyes they are.  I know the foundation upon which they rest is a shared one.  They’re not so different.

Define yourself, and do not let others define you.

Exhibit 9: There is no conclusion.

I can only come at this topic from the subjective and the personal and the biased.  I dare not make statements that do not apply to me, for to do so would be toeing the behaviour I rail against.  I am afraid to say most of these things, because I cannot start this fight, because I won’t win.

Some things we get to choose: what we wear, the words we use, to follow, or not to follow.  Some things we don’t: our parents, where we are born and into what circumstances, and the faces we wear.  The things we choose will forever reside only within the boundaries of what we have no power to choose.

These faces are the products of lack of choice, and over time, of choice.

This face will define me, and others will define me by my face, and all that is left for me to choose is what to do with that.

Exhibit 10: Bloody writers.

I was always going to write this, because I’m a dirty dirty writer and I cannot help myself.  According to all that drivel above, there are many things I cannot help.  Oh, the justifications of the guilty.

Is there any point?  Not really.  No conclusions, no arguments.  I can’t claim to be an authority on the effects of multiculturalism upon the individual or the current political situation in Tibet.  All is anecdotal, what the eyes I have developed over a lifetime see for me, and the strange resonances that come from timing.

The topic just happened to slot in nicely with the blog tour leading up to the release of Baggage, and anthology playing with the idea of cultural baggage and the influence it has within Australia.  A story I wrote, ‘Acception’, lives in said anthology, and prances around the complexities of the face.  It is an angry story, without answers or hope, and condemns the whole world, myself included.

Had I written it after seeing Tibet, it would not be that story at all.

But the foundations are shared.

I am not a Tibetan living in Tibet.  I can say all this and fear no consequence.

Tibetan cultural figures ‘detained after protests’

International observers have called for action following accusations that China has been arresting leading Tibetan writers, poets and musicians in a crackdown on cultural figures, as The World Tonight’s Paul Moss reports.

The lyrics of the song are not exactly subtle: “The occupation and denial of freedom of Tibetans/This is torture without trace.”

Another sounds a note of defiance: “Courageous patriotic martyrs/Have sacrificed their lives for Tibet/It pains my heart thinking of them/And the tears fall from my eyes.”

Defiant the words may be, but they appear to have cost their writer his freedom.

The singer, Tashi Dhondup, was arrested in China at the end of last year, and in January he was sentenced to 15 months hard labour.

But his real crime may have been simply that he was so popular.

His CDs were passed among Tibetans, individual songs shared over the internet and by mobile phone.

“Tashi Dhondup reflected the trauma that Tibetans were feeling,” said Dechen Pemba, a London-based blogger.

“The police came to his home and his wife was begging with the police officers – they’re a young couple with a newly-born baby. But he was arrested and taken away.”

Tashi Dhondup was not alone. Prominent Tibetan environmentalist Karma Samdrup was jailed last week for 15 years.

And according to a report by the International Campaign for Tibet, more than 50 writers, poets and musicians have been rounded up over the past few months.

Some of us will always be on the inside, and some of us will always be on the outside, and that, too, is diversity.


  • In writing ‘Acceptance’ I was forced to cross psychological badlands I hadn’t previously admitted I had, the end result being hideous and publicly ugly.  It’s not a well written or well thought out post, but honest enough.  It comes at the idea of visual identity with a more personal and internal focus, and smells distinctly of “waaah, poor me!”
  • This post is something of a reply to that post, my perspective having shifted since then.
  • I suspect it will hold position of the hardest story I’ve ever written for some time.
  • Baggage can be pre-ordered here.
  • And will be launched alongside Worldcon in Melbourne at Borders South Wharf, 20 Convention Center Place; Thursday 2nd September; 1 – 3 pm.
  • Which is just across the river from where I work.  Handy, hey?
  • The majority of the photos of me were taken by other people.  Unless otherwise noted, all other photos were taken with the camera as my eyes.
  • You know that bit about defining oneself?  Definitions only serve to help when interacting with others.  If, like me, you’re a cranky hermit-crab and dislike other people, defining oneself becomes even more onerous.
  • But for the curious, I’m half-Chinese-Malaysian, half-White Australian.
  • Or more accurately, one part Scottish convict/settler, one part English immigrant, one part displaced Hakka, and one part Cantonese.
  • I’m not going to say I’m Australian.  I’ll just say I was born here.
  • My name is Tessa Kum, and by Hera’s Varicose Veins I hate writing about myself.
  • (That last point is, of course, a lie.)
  • (…..writers, eh?)

6 comments on “When the Cover Doesn’t Match the Story

  1. Deckard7 says:

    I enjoyed reading this. Thanks

  2. Sir Tessa says:

    Tu jay chay. Deckard.

    (For anyone who may be interested, a round up of current blogtour links regarding Baggage can be found here.

  3. David Moles says:

    The liberation of being identifiably foreign in a country full of private people is what I miss most about Japan. Switzerland is not entirely un-Japanese but in that department it totally falls down.

    It’s going to be strange moving back to San Francisco after ten years of dominant white monocultures (Switzeeland, Seattle, Oxford). I’ve clung to my blasè California cosmopolitan identity so long — the ‘exotic’ cuisines, the language barriers, the disagreements on space and hygiene, the smiling and, yes, the taking for granted — I’m not sure what it’ll still mean when I’m surrounded by it. I may have to figure out who I am all over again.

  4. Sir Tessa says:

    I had some disconnect just returning from Tibet. It’s just surprising when suddenly everything is exotic, takes a little time for it all to be furniture again.

  5. Santo Wimes says:

    Fantastic occupation the following. I really enjoyed what you had to say.

  6. I don’t agree with this article. However, I did looked in Yahoo and I have found out you are right and I seemed to be thinking in the incorrect way. Keep on writing good quality content such as this.

Comments are closed.