Adam Aitken

Creative writer and teacher

Migrant Diaspora Narrative

Diaspora Bell, Centennial Park Sydney

“Third Culture Kids”: Migrant Diaspora Narrative

These are myths I tell about my family…

Diaspora Bell, Centennial Park Sydney
Diaspora Bell, Centennial Park Sydney

Hsu-ming Teo, Love and Vertigo (2000: 1)

This essay investigates Australian narratives about migrant mothers and how they influence their children’s bi-cultural socialisation and education. Chinese Australian Hsu-ming Teo is one novelist whose novels are critical responses to the depiction of mother-daughter relations in novels by Asian American writers Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan. Their novels have been read as a paradigm of how Asian-American identity is structured primarily in the context of the domestic family. In this model, parents born overseas become the guardian-teachers of essentialised ethnic identities (in Kingston and Tan, the notion of a mainland Chinese identity), while children represent the acceptance of the antithetical forces of assimilation in middle class bourgeois ‘white’ America. Lowe is critical of the way the mother and daughter relationship has been aestheticised by the American public in ways that render invisible the diverse particularities and incommensurabilities among Asian-Americans (Lowe 1996: 60 – 83).

For example, in an article about Maxine Hong Kingston’s novel The Woman Warrior and Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, Walter Shear focuses on the way the daughters translate the meanings of their mother’s culture, while perceiving cultural blanks or problems of family. The daughters often confront their mothers, who seek to impose authority on their daughters through transmission of traditional beliefs. The daughters also learn how to turn their mothers’ self-destructive or crazy behaviour into an advantage. Beliefs in the supernatural may indicate the lack of definition in the family situation, the ‘madness waiting at the edge of existence’ (Shear 1993: 1 – 2). Shear’s reading over-privileges the generational differences and essentialises mothers as transmitters of tradition and daughters as needy victims of assimilation. This is precisely the weakness Lowe criticises: ‘The Joy Luck Club risks being appropriated as a text that privatises social conflicts and contradictions, precisely by confining them to the domestic sphere of family relations (Lowe 1996: 76).

In a more nuanced reading of familial relations in Kingston and Tan, Yuan Yuan notes that mothers and daughters are allies who transliterate a China experience through recollecting and mythologising a diasporic history that becomes a self-reflexive discourse made meaningful as it is reinscribed in the American context. A “China narrative” is conducted between Chinese-born mothers and their American born daughters. Therefore, the work of writing for Kingston and Tan becomes a bilingual game of translation. ‘For the mothers, China narratives inform a process of recollection (history or loss of it) whereas for the daughters, who have never been there, China narratives become a text of culture…China becomes a hermeneutic space for articulating identity and difference’ (Yuan 1999: 1 – 2).

These readings have tended to obscure the effects of class and gender differences in Asian-American migrant experiences. Rather than promote essential ethnic identities, or nativism, as the solution to assimilation, Lowe argues for an aesthetic that does not privilege either the space of the native, nor that of the assimilated as culturally uncontaminated, or pure. Instead, Lowe argues for a hybridity that reveals the contested, heterogeneous and fluid positions within Asian-American cultural production. Such a hybridity also needs to show how it is part of a process of being appropriated and commodified by commercial culture, while at the same time being rearticulated as a means of resisting fixed identity positions. The term Asian-American is thus a strategic use of essentialism used to contest discourses that exclude Asian-Americans (Lowe 1996: 82).

This chapter focuses principly on the dynamics of Chinese-Australian mother/daughter relationships in Hsu-ming Teo’s Love and Vertigo (2000), which is compared with a similar relationship between a Vietnamese “mad mother” and her globetrotting Eurasian daughter in Eva Sallis’s The City of Sea Lions (2002). This analysis applies and recontextualises Lowe’s model, retains some of Shear’s focus on the generational conflict within the family, and shares Yuan Yuan’s emphasis on mothers and daughters as cultural translators. These novels feature Australian “third culture kids” (TCKs) who act as cultural intermediaries, translators, and negotiators between the host cultures and the cultural perspectives of their mothers, who still have a strong sense of being from “elsewhere”. They are figures that fit James Clifford’s description of ‘cultural interlocutors’ who are made to speak from ‘the interstices of diverse cultures and knowledge systems’ (1997: 19). They speak from between locations and generate narrative attuned to being mobile and inter-national, a mobility that enhances their social status. They are cultural brokers rather than opponents of the society they inhabit.

My own diasporic history critically counters stereotypes of the “rootless” Asian migrant, whatever his or her particular ethnicity. Malee for example, finds herself feeling at home in tropical Queensland at the end of the novel. Edwards notes that a contemporary figment of globalisation is the rootless male Chinese traveller who is forever traversing foreign territories, but who yearns to return to China (2004: 299).  As the figure of the Chinese as economic intermediaries has been dominant, there has been a tendency to ‘negate or elide their functions as cultural translators, political interlocutors, and vectors for new ideas’ (Edwards 2004: 299). The trope of the hybrid who has ‘lost his own country and not acquired another’ (Kipling, cited in Edwards 2004: 299), a trope embodied by Billy Kwan and Minou for example, does not accurately describe the reality of cultural intermediaries. Rather they are multi-faceted identities that have ‘managed to establish social networks across ethnic boundaries’ (Mika Toyota, cited in Edwards 2004: 333).  This could also describe my own characters, the Singaporean Chinese Australian migrants in Love and Vertigo, and the Vietnamese mother and her Vietnamese-Australian daughter in The City of Sea Lions (2002).

These novels adopt the dialogic perspectives of mothers and daughters in order to understand the dilemma of being simultaneously inside ethnic groupings and outside the dominant culture of the Australian metropolis, a context in which the effects of class, religion, and gender are very much at the forefront. The space of that mothers recollect is also past – nostalgic and traumatic. For Sallis’s Vietnamese refugee, Vietnam invokes a discourse of repression and trauma, while Singapore is transmuted into the space of exile and traumatic memory for the narrator of Love and Vertigo. Both novels construct a loss narrative through the mother-daughter relationship, with daughters as protagonists. Common to each of these novels (and my own) is the sense that daughters and sons are confused by being between cultures while mothers ‘appear to have lost everything’ (Yuan 1999: 2).

But the madness of the mothers should not be attributed to their reputed loss of traditional ethnic identity alone. Certainly, language difficulties, patriarchal oppression, religious definitions, and sectarian violence contribute to migrant women’s difficulties in saying who they are.  Madness need not be read as a negative and could be understood as a trope for the failure of the diasporic subject to come to terms with loss, or it could be used as a trope for the novel to imagine alternative ways of resisting patriarchy with the help of traditional visionary practices and fortune-telling. Asian women depicted in diasporic Australian writing are often aligned with the spirit world, a position that reflects the difficult interstitial position of Asian women in Australia, who are caught between fitting into this “real” world and traditional beliefs (Tucker 1999: 13).

Teo, Sallis and myself explore the meaning of haunting in of the lives of migrants. Ghosts and dreams become signs of the return of the repressed, or as portents warning the mothers and daughters that the past is a tradition that cannot be destroyed. Mothers become especially powerful because their traditional knowledge is ‘reconstituted…into narratives that carry special missions: to control the fate of their daughters’ (Yuan 1999: 3). Power lost in the move away from countries of origin is restored through the construction of new Asian Imaginaries that mothers use to mould the subjectivity of their children, yet Vietnam and Singapore are not the pure and uncontaminated cultural signifiers used in the narratives that mothers use to reinforce an authoritative position. Teo’s novel, and mine, problematise the simple binary that separates nativist migrant mothers from assimilationist children. There is considerable slippage between these positions, and Teo’s narrator and Krishna are similarly at odds with the myth of the assimilated second-generation migrant kid.

If diaspora is read primarily as a migration from home to exile, and exile is an experience of the loss of home, a question often asked in these narratives is: when does the subject become cured in diasporas (Mishra 1999: 48)?  How does the split self of the migrant become whole again? These stories about migrants becoming Australian show the displacement this entails. Telling these stories is also the mode for reconstituting the lost subject of diaspora. As Ashcroft et al state, a major feature of post-colonial literatures is the crisis of identity and authenticity and for migrants the recovery of ‘an effective identifying relationship between self and space’ (1989: 9). While this chapter concerns the methodologies of more conventional novels, rather than the ficto-critical or “factional” novel like my own, the common theme is the influence migrant parents and their children have on each other as they negotiate the gap between their self-image (or the myths of their identity) and the traumatic process of undoing earlier national identities and becoming Australian through assimilation. This process involves migrants choosing to include some of the host culture’s cultural traits while excluding others, maintaining some traditions and rejecting others. Importantly these stories show how migrants and their children negotiate the gap between identities and places differently. Confronted with unfamiliar social and economic structures, the children are pressured to find new identities and life-roles that might be reconciled with the very different aspirations of their parents. These new identities include new religions, new tastes in clothes and music, and of course a new mother tongue, not necessarily the language of their mothers or fathers, but ‘the language of the nation in which they live’ (Mishra 1999: 56). For the métis/métisse children, identifying themselves as bi-cultural can be both a cultural plus and a handicap as they develop bi-cultural identities that their parents may or may not support. Any advantage gained by children being the bridge between their parents’ diasporic connections to their roots and to the host culture is offset by the possibility that parents reject their children or vice versa.

The endpoint of these mother-children narratives is to cure loss through the construction of bridging narratives co-authored across generational lines. Love and Vertigo, The City of Sea Lions and The Fire Sermon are narratives generated by the need to reveal repressed memories that need to be told before the bourgeois family is whole or healed. For daughters and mothers, there is an important bond brought about by shared suffering, especially at the hands of men. My own novel builds a narrative structure around the promise to reveal the mother’s secret love affair, and the exposé of other family-threatening events: the father’s infidelity and neglect of the family, and the mother’s romances with alternative suitors. Similarly, Sallis exploits the allure of a narrative of family secrets and the emotional and linguistic complications of the mother-daughter relationship.

Stories that depict dysfunctionality in the displaced Asian family, and the mental torment of migrant women in Australia, are welcome as they unsettle stereotypes of the ideal migrant or new Australian, though it is debateable whether they offer alternative storylines to the bourgeois myth of happy families. In The Fire Sermon, Malee finds another life with a lover in Cairns, but it is still a domestic, even traditional version of an Asian mother’s role.  If these are works of managed exoticism in which the commodification of the Asian other – the otherness of being Asian in Australia, is itself the major theme, then they have different truth effects compared to earlier Australian texts that address Asia. These stories reveal the mismatch of Orientalist images and myths about the smiling Asian migrant, and real migrants. Ien Ang describes such Orientalism implicit in an Australian immigration department poster of a smiling Asian, captioned ‘Join our Family’, which implies the abandonment of the migrant’s real family. The migrant suffers an orphaned status, the stateless no-place of migrancy. The poster positions the migrant woman as one who suffers a lack of fixity or a yearning for home, but one who should be happy to join a warm and fuzzy multicultural Australia. Such representations are designed to assimilate the migrant’s ethnicity, and to negate the migrant’s desire to be outside such a model of state multiculturalism (Ang 2001: 139).

Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club
Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club

Diasporic trauma and the mad migrant mother

Teo’s Pandora and Phi-Van in Sallis’s novel each depict differing versions of the “mad migrant mother”, psychically disturbed victims of migration and culture shock. Tucker has analysed the persistence of haunted Asian women in recent Asian-Australian texts and believes that while Asian women continue to be positioned ambiguously between the conservative image of the good mother and the evil temptress, this ‘enables them to take control of and change those traditional misogynist and racist images that have defined both Asian women and Asia in the past (Tucker 1999: 1), and Tucker analyses how these texts allow for the deconstruction of the most persistent of Orientalist stereotypes. The Vietnamese-Australian daughter Lian in The City if Sea Lions, similarly, overcomes the trauma of her own maltreatment by her mother, through the telling of her mother’s tragic wartime story. Phi-Van represents the refugee’s disenfranchisement in a country that is unable or reluctant to translate migrant stories.

Love and Vertigo also presents the figure of the Asian mother and migrant as a figure beset by trauma and madness. However, Teo’s novel does not attribute trauma to the fact of the diasporic exile alone, and the mother Pandora is different to the stereotyped wise Chinese women in Tan. In fact, the English educated Pandora is already culturally distant from her mainland Chinese ancestors. The confused product of a postcolonial Anglo-Chinese elite who bears the stigma of being white, but not quite: ‘Pandora led a schizophrenic life throughout her school years. She was a dutiful Chinese daughter at home and an absurd lampoon of an English girl outside’ (Love and Vertigo: 62). Christmas cards from the Queen ‘were enough to keep the colonials happy; enough to keep Pandora an ardent royalist, a Princess Diana watcher, a woman’s magazine devourer on the side of God, the Queen, Bruce Ruxton until the day she died’ (Love and Vertigo: 63).

Pandora’s daughter Grace has a sense of closure at the end of the novel that is not grounded in a fantasy of one day returning to China. Grace gains a deeper appreciation of Chinese culture as a diasporic and hybridised phenomenon. Teo is less inclined than Sallis to imbue the daughter with witch-like qualities of seduction and (schizophrenic) vision. None of Teo’s characters particularly reflect the Orientalist stereotypes that have been attached to the Chinese by the West, traits of being hard working, loyal and family oriented, pragmatic. The book’s narrator Grace makes no attempt to idealise her mother, who is far from an ideal wife for dour patriarch Jonah Tay. Pandora is highly emotional, cannot cook and has minimal control over her family. (It is significant that Malee is quite the opposite of this, and as a result survives to the end of my story without going mad.)

The novel begins with Grace going to Singapore to attend the funeral of her mother, Pandora, who has returned there from Australia. Pandora is unable to cope with life, and commits suicide. The vertigo of Pandora’s cultural loss and forgetting haunts both mother and daughter as Pandora goes mad and blind. Her memories of Singapore no longer resemble the real one. Pandora has been overtaken by Singapore’s modernity, and her memory of places finds no objective correlatives. The result is a loss of language for naming her sense of place and thus her identity:

Lost in the city she’d always considered her ‘real’ home, her white walking stick tapping wildly in front of her…Lost and disoriented, unable to see and frustrated by her inability to communicate, she found herself suddenly surrounded by an alarming world of unnameable Things… (Love and Vertigo: 275 – 6)

Home is no longer an index of cultural belonging and identity, but for the migrant, the adopted country is merely a place where one is not lost. ‘Did she, at that point, sniff the same pungent air as me and become aware of her utter foreignness in her homeland? On that last afternoon [before her suicide], did she suddenly wish she was back in Sydney, where she could at least orientate herself with ease?’ (Love and Vertigo: 276). In Sydney, Pandora and Jonah also, find comfort in Australian mass culture’s co-ordinates: the suburban shopping mall, and the familiar figures and repetitive mantras on commercial TV. ‘Perhaps – horror of horrors – she had even missed Brian Henderson intoning at six-twenty-eight on weeknights: ‘And that’s the way it was…I’m Brian Henderson…Good night’ (Love and Vertigo: 276).

Teo explores how Asian women become white men’s fantasies, as I do. Grace attributes her mother’s madness to a disastrous affair, and Rodney’s colonial exploitation of Pandora reveals the damage done when Asian women are expected to live up to Orientalist stereotypes: ‘He was blinded by his very own fantasies of Oriental women. Quiet gentle passive femininity that transformed into voracious, insatiable sexuality in bed. Lady and whore in one.’ (Love and Vertigo: 252). Love and Vertigo is a feminist text insofar as its focus of interest shifts between the daughter and the long-suffering mother, who are both unhappy with their male partners.  The novel’s depiction of both Jonah and Rodney builds an argument that for migrants like Pandora the causes of female suffering are both racial prejudice and male chauvinism that cuts across ethnic boundaries. Teo critiques both white and Chinese manifestations of patriarchy. Grace’s feminism is clear in her portrayal of her father Jonah Tay as tyrannical and patriarchal; again, this portrayal is individualised and contextualised; Jonah is conservative (he votes for John Howard), obsessive, materially savvy and cosmopolitan but also superstitious. He insists that Grace’s mother submit to the role of loyal and unwavering doormat. While it could be said that Jonah reflects a Confucian model of the father, he is certainly no ideal one.

Recouping lost ethnicities: “Third Culture Kids”

Tsu-ming Teo's Love and Vertigo
Tsu-ming Teo’s Love and Vertigo

While Tan’s Joy Luck Club tends to give mothers a privileged space for defining Chineseness and opposing their daughter’s assimilated ways, Sallis and Teo, reverse these power relations. The children of migrants pull their parents into New Times with varying success because their bi-cultural consciousness gives them a head start on their less flexible parents. In The City of Sea Lions, Lian is born in Australia, and keenly identifies with her Anglo father’s culture – they love fishing together, for example – but by the end of the novel, after a time spent in Yemen where she falls pregnant to her Yemeni lover, Lian has learned to empathise with her mother’s displacement and alienation, and is positioned to rescue her mother from the worst of her isolation. Lian finds compassion and understanding of her mother, which she lacked as an adolescent, and she begins to understand Phi-Van only after becoming pregnant with her own mixed-race child.

In ways that resemble Tan’s depiction of Asian-American daughters, Sallis depicts Lian as initially antagonistic to her mother: the remarkably tolerant Australian daughter of a refugee who is quite at home with her body and identity, despite the occasionally patronising remarks of the locals: they trust her ‘stillness’; Asians are good girls; Asians don’t sing and so on. Lian only begins to understand cultural displacement and the difficulties of cross-cultural relationships when she decides to study Arabic in a small town in Yemen and embarks on an affair with a local boy. Her transformation into a super-multiculturalist heroine involves her learning the social mores of the Yemenis; a deep reading of the Koran and Arab myths; and the gradual awareness of her mother’s experience as a refugee of war. Lian undergoes a drastic physical and mental transformation, a transcultural experience of change. After making love to Ibrahim, her Yemeni teenage lover, she falls pregnant, which marks the moment when she realises her connection to her own mother’s body, and through her unborn child her connection to the bodies of the Yemenis. She carries the hybrid future inside her. A sacred story-teller, witch or shaman, Lian’s knowledge enables an amanuensis and the forging of links across radical cultural differences that separate her from her mother:

She held all their histories and broken stories scrolled in her palm. She felt like a matriarch or a witch. She could cast her lines and she would weave Ibrahim’s and Phi-Vans’ world’s with her body. She was Phi-Van’s mother, grandmother, and time had not yet begun. (The City of Sea Lions: 225)

In contrast to Liam, Grace struggles to recoup her lost ethnicity. She is strikingly different to her Singaporean relatives, and exhibits a confused cultural identity, a trauma made worse by her mother’s different but equally painful confusion. Grace declares her determination to drag her mother into Australian modernity:

[F]or the first time in my life, I saw my mother in relation to her family, and I didn’t recognise her anymore…. These Singaporean roots of hers, this side of her – and possibly of me too – were unacceptable. I was determined not to belong, not to fit in, because I was Australian, and Mum ought to be Australian too. (Love and Vertigo: 2 –3)

Teo’s novel is also a Bildungsroman that depicts the way Grace transforms herself from a bland, self-doubting product of migrant Strathfield who disavows her own Straits-Chinese ethnicity. This internalised racism is overcome when she learns how to accept the part of her that is Singaporean and Chinese. As a school student, she survives the disparaging remarks of others regarding her ethnic food and the way she pronounces “cucumber”.  Grace regards her relatives as superstitious, irrational, and unkind to each other, and her descriptions of Singaporean nightlife are almost too lurid to be true, echoing negative descriptions of Asian street life in Koch or D’Alpuget. Grace sounds like the alienated, existential Western narrator who is fascinated and repelled by Singapore. For Grace, modern Singapore is all the things she is not: lascivious, fleshy, foreign, unpleasant, sweaty and unhygienic, overly self-regarding and clannish, chaotic, narcissistic and sentimental, garish, brand obsessed and materialistic. With time to spare to be a flaneur in Singapore, the narrator could in fact be speaking in the manner of the Anglo-Celtic tourist unwilling to identify with the Singapore Chinese trappings of garish economic success:

I enter a pulsating karaoke bar where, on gigantic video screens, pouting Hong Kong singers with full fringes of red-streaked hair and huge kohl-lined eyes toss their heads and wail out slow, sentimental Cantopop ballads about love and loss… Mobile phones ring and people reach automatically for their pockets. The microphones do the rounds from person to person. Everyone has come in impregnable groups. (Love and Vertigo: 2).

That night the narrator cannot sleep, her insomnia fuelled no doubt by the anxiety and ambivalence towards the other. She has gone to Singapore to attend her mother’s funeral. Yet, clearly the scene transforms her from the disillusioned prodigal daughter to the new transnational with a better life ahead of her. She masturbates herself to sleep (Love and Vertigo: 3), in a scene that shows how the narrator’s personal grief and absence of love is also an absence of identity that cannot be replaced by sexual pleasure alone.

Grace continues to grasp new cultural mores that enable her to overcome the vertigo of cultural displacement. Her mother’s suicide is also an event that the daughter uses to advantage, as a way of seeing a future independent of her mother. According to Shear, diasporic mother-daughter narratives have a pedagogic function and depict daughters as students learning ways to make cultural differences work in the modern world (1993: 2).  In this sense, these are Bildungsroman narratives that depict the growing awareness, confidence and individualism of children who learn how to live in the world beyond family. Grace is very much the second generation Asian migrant who maintains a critical distance from Orientalism, while at the same time wanting to know about Confucian beliefs in the family spirits. Grace manages to maintain an identity that is both inside and outside the formative influence of her family origins.  The title of the novel invokes her diasporic connection with community and family blood ties and a concomitant sense that diasporic migrants, must adjust to the new host culture, but suffer a radical displacement on returning home. “Vertigo” in th title signals confusion, alienation, and an ambivalent attachment to one’s roots.  For Grace, home is both Sydney and Singapore, or perhaps neither of these cities – she feels alienated from both. In fact, for Grace and her mother the very cartography of their identity splits and disintegrates into fragments and partial recollections of previous homes. For Krishna, also, home was London, then Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, then finally Sydney.

If there is a dominant cultural argument in Love and Vertigo, it is that going home is always a possibility for the culturally displaced person (Shear 1993: 4). But I think that Teo avoids having Grace speak for a clichéd trope of ethnic Chinese homelessness, and instead she is a voice of a modern culturally and economically empowered Asianism that can deal with living in Western urban spaces but strategically invokes images of an ideal Confucian extended family or imagined community. The ambivalence and instability of Grace’s point(s) of enunciation are ambivalent: the narrator situates herself in two different settings – contemporary high rise Singapore and suburban Sydney – without privileging one place or the other as the primary cultural origin of her identity. It is therefore transnational in its movement between two nations/cultural formations. It is anti-patriotic and does not idealise Singapore or Australia or cover over the fact that multicultural cities are sites of race antagonism. Grace disavows the notion that members of diasporic communities should always speak favourably for their communities.

This unsentimental (even parodic) depiction of family is a means of resisting the urge to impose on the migrant novel rules of authenticity, the tendency to judge the book in terms of its accuracy in depicting a notional “real” Chinese person. As Romagnolo points out in relation to criticism of Amy Tan’s use of so called “fake” myths, overdetermined cultural symbols and stereotypes are subverted if they are repeated in obviously clichéd ways. Attempts to assert an essential national identity or cultural purity are made to seem fake by writing self-consciously hybrid versions of immigrant subjectivity (Romagnolo 2003: 4).  The scene in which Grace’s uncle loses his prize Cod God over his unit’s balcony is slapstick, and while this presents Chinese spirituality as farce, the madness of a particular uncle is contrasted to Grace’s recuperation of ancestral filiality at the end of the novel.

If a return to an authentic identity is impossible for Grace and Lian, these narratives of loss depict their traumas in varied ways. Sallis’ heroine Lian enjoys a kind of happy hybridity that enables her to conceive of an Arab/Vietnamese/Australian child. In Teo’s novel, distress is closer to the surface. While Pandora struggles in a loveless marriage and with her own lack of allure, Grace’s panic and mal-adjustment in Sydney amount to vertigo. But Singapore is not the fun and exotic place that compensates Grace’s feeling of lack. Grace’s feelings on returning to Singapore continually pose questions of how one’s original country can simultaneously evoke feelings of belonging and reinforce ethnic identity, but also alienate the home-comer. As Grace watches Singaporean schoolgirls at a local school, she remarks:

[T]hey sing the Singaporean national anthem in a language I cannot understand…I cannot simply imagine what I would have been like, who I would have been, if the Patriarch [her father] had not cannibalised his fear and migrated to Sydney. (Love and Vertigo: 273)

While her English is clearly an advantage in life, Grace’s lack of Singaporean Chinese dialects is a significant handicap and denotes her lack of cultural capital. Consequently, Grace is excluded from participating in rituals of national belonging; singing the Singaporean anthem and shopping at street markets she perceives as an alien, fake culture: ‘I feel self-conscious and inadequate because passers-by and hawkers of “genuine” Rolex watches for only twenty-five dollars call out to me in Hokkien, Mandarin and Cantonese and, of course, I can neither understand nor respond’ (Love and Vertigo: 274).

Krishna understands a similar alienation from his Thai family’s nationalism on returning to live with his uncle and aunt after spending most of his childhood growing up in Sydney. He struggles to generate a redeeming narrative out of his parents repressed histories and the prohibition or resistance they put up to voicing that silence. The relatives seem silent on the matter, and Krishna learns that to become authentically Thai, he needs to mute his own impulse to be critical of Thai politics and the monarchy, institutions that do not fit with Krishna’s secular, democratic, Western education. As Krishna observes, Thai notions of Eurasian hybridity are complicit with tasteless commercial activities like modelling underwear. There is also the awkwardness of knowing that his father was subject to his relatives’ racialised discourse on Farang men and the distaste they felt when Malee married one.

But Krishna’s solutions to the losses of being a diasporic subject are exceeded by gains. As Yuan notes, from silence, narratives of loss create elaborate myths and legends (1999: 4). London-born and brought up most of his life in Australia, Krishna works to recoup his Thainess and become a cultural interpreter. He refuses to speak English to tourists, learning Thai, and travelling the country. Krishna is much happier being an interlocutor than Grace, perhaps because Malee is far more resilient than Pandora, and unlike Grace, Krishna need not work through the guilt complex, bitterness, pity and pathos that Pandora invokes. Grace reveals a large measure of her guilt about not remaining Chinese, that she had not fully inherited the mother’s cultural capital and was unable to participate in Singapore in her relatives’ important activities of food and shopping. The material functions are implicit in acculturation and Krishna adjusts to these activities without great drama (but with some scepticism).

As hybridised children of migrants, it is appropriate to show that Krishna and Grace are figures that never seem to grow into the essentialised figures expected of them by their relatives. They lament their lack of ethnicity and their cultural inadequacy. While Krishna declares that he went to Thailand to learn how to become a “real Thai”, his only relationship is with an American-Thai girl whom his aunts want him to marry. Similarly, Grace aspires to the condition of having an unproblematic Chinese identity (whatever that may turn out to be), but she is depressed that she was never Chinese enough to participate as a Chinese in Singapore: ‘I realise how completely I had depended on Mum whenever we went somewhere Chinese. I had been culturally lazy, content to smile and nod and let her order the dim sum dishes and demand more tea and the bill’ (Love and Vertigo: 274).

Grace offers no easy answers to questions of identity and belonging: ‘Did [Pandora] finally realise that she was no longer Singaporean?’ (Love and Vertigo: 276). This suggests that Pandora and Grace occupy a vertiginous state of migrancy, a zone of double consciousness or state of liminality, a feeling of being neither one nor the other, but a bit of both. Such ambivalence towards their origins drives some to maddening self-doubt and self-loathing. For their relatives and immediate community, the presence of the diasporic relative form Australia disrupts their sense of cohesion and orderliness, which is felt on the body, as affect (self-disgust, or shame), and in the mind. Hybrid strangers, upset notions of cultural harmony and cause vertigo; they sense that they are not synchronised with their community. Grace writes that ‘there are no more excuses for me to hang around in Singapore. Nothing more will be gained and my presence is an alien intrusion on the cityscape. A glimpse of me on the streets causes an awkward stumble in the steps of my relatives; a sudden wrenching of the neck, faces carefully turned away; a hurried furtive crossing of the street’ (Love and Vertigo: 280). Similarly, Krishna finds Sydney more his home than Bangkok.

Despite such rejection, Grace transforms herself from a naïve, modernist, assimilated Australian to someone with a stronger identification with Chinese ways of thinking. The novel obeys the trajectory of the Bildungsroman, and shows its protagonist growing wiser and more individuated. Teo has recuperated Chinese traditional family values, intending to close the gap between Grace and her heritage and so produce a sense of narrative closure. Grace decides to live with her broken spirited father and at this moment of re-admittance into a Confucian sense of filial duty, Grace proclaims that ‘The blood of generations of dutiful Chinese daughters flows in my veins’ (Love and Vertigo: 282). By the last chapter, ‘The Hungry Ghosts’, Grace’s Western atheism and rationality has given way to a more Confucian mode of acknowledging the presence of family ancestors. Pandora returns to haunt her living relatives. Grace becomes familiar with Chinese superstition and manages to correlate this with her already established Protestant way of life.

After her death, Pandora Tay’s transformation into a ghost follows a generic pattern in narratives of Chinese women who have disgraced their family (see Tucker 1999:13). But for Grace, Pandora’s death opens up the very essence of Chinese spirit that Grace had repressed. ‘These days I imagine that you have joined the ranks of the unearthly exiles. A Hungry Ghost, phantasmal vagabond, you wander around trying to fill that bleak black hole inside you. In death, as in life, you remain displaced.’ Grace’s father suffers the same disfigurement: ‘I see him looking at me with my mother’s bleak, blank eyes. Hungry Ghost eyes, which fill me with guilt. Why are grudges so difficult to let go? Why is it so hard to love?’ (Love and Vertigo: 285 – 7).  This illustrates Shirley Tucker’s argument that the appearance of demonic and supernatural motifs in Australian Chinese novels indicates a “return of the repressed”, passages that re-inscribe migration trauma as the dominant discourse in the Asian-Australian Imaginary:

The portrayal of figures who reside both inside and outside social structures stresses the collocation of heimlich and unheimlich, of ‘estrangement’ and ‘home’, thus enabling complex critiques that explore cross-cultural issues of displacement, alienation and discrimination. (Tucker 2000: 155)

Teo‘s description of Grace’s relationship with her relatives extends the usual horizons of the mother-daughter narratives of loss in the way it shows that ethnic identity is never free of discrimination’s multiple manifestations, for example class antagonism within communities of Chinese; discrimination between the migrant and those relatives she left behind at home; between men against women; and discrimination by dominant national groups against migrants of a different hue. Grace overcomes the discrimination against her status as the non-Chinese-speaking Chinese migrant but cannot reconcile her split identity or feel comfortable and self-assured with it. Grace resents her lack of Chineseness, feels the lack of it, but Grace’s sense of identity oscillates between that of the modern bourgeois and that of the diasporic Confucian/Singaporean. The resulting effect resists any attempt by readers to position Grace as a paradigm of Chineseness.

Migrancy as positive transcultural capital

At what point then does the migrant’s feeling of alienation lift? This is a question that Love and Vertigo does not finally answer. Grace’s descriptions of her eccentric relatives should not simply be condemned as the modern migrant’s rejection and discrimination against her more traditional extended family. Rather, the novel illustrates a stage migrants go through when returning to their roots, an experience that can generate traumatised exaggerations of how different relatives are. If the dominant trope in these narratives is the migrant family scarred by cultural displacement, it seems important for Teo and Sallis to provide narratives that satisfy a need for diasporic trauma to be cured, but each novel offers different stories of curing:  in my novel the cure requires a restoration of the lost feeling of home through imaginative and active return.

For Sallis and Teo, the cure lies in the bridging daughter’s ability to accept psychologically that one is bi-cultural and intimately connected to one’s parents and relatives.  Alternative family structures are explored that enable positive affect: for Teo, her model of the Singaporean Chinese postcolonial family is dysfunctional, comic, and tragic, but by the end of the novel Grace’s initial modernity begins to allow an empathy with the very superstitions she initially rejected. For Sallis, the Vietnamese-Australian and the Arabic-Anglo-Vietnamese family, are imaginative alternatives. In these novels, the children of multi-racial families provide critical imaginaries that explore how culturally hybridised families adjust to the challenge of acquiring new identities and managing multiple subjectivities.  Global travel and bi-culturalism enables them to acquire a managed exoticism or a kind of mix-and-match ethnicity. Unlike their more traditional parents, they can be modern without having to despise themselves for breaking long-standing customs. They are travellers who are more in control of their destinies than their parents were and not lost, abandoned, overly nostalgic or suffering from traumatic cultural loss. They are able to self-fashion identity by choosing from a range of lifestyle markers. They illustrate Miriam Lo’s theory of the hybrid subject who defines him/herself or is defined by others as possessing an identity split into different ethnic and/or national parts, the parts of which are articulated in some form of relationship ‘which does not permit the recognition of one ethnic and/or national part of identity to take place at the cost of another’ (1998:  iv).

Such a dialectic deployment of hybridity should be set in the context of an increasingly middle class and affluent sector of Asian Australia in which the division between the coloniser and colonised is increasingly blurred, and these fictive “happy hybrids” are no longer so easily typified as offspring of Western colonisation in Southeast Asia. They could be more appropriately described as metaphors for the way more migrants adapt their specific Asian cultural practices to Western modernity, but also feel something is lost in migrating.

Narratives of loss involve the migrant’s adjustment to new modes of identity and behaviour, which are unpredictable. Teo’s novel suggests that different generations of the Chinese Singaporean diaspora in Australia have different ways of re-inscribing homeliness in the new Australia. Teo’s and my novel work with the ambivalence migrants feel for their relatives back home, and with their different modes of living.  For my narrator Krishna, and for his mother, home is clearly Australia and Thailand is a place to visit family but not live with them permanently. If settler Australian narratives mythologise the farm, these examples show that for migrants new homelands are being constructed in a variety of places, and diasporic ‘homelands’ hold heterogenous meanings that defy categorisation.

Sallis and Teo suggest that diasporic migrant identities are not opposed to new syncretic, transnational, or fluid identities, but that identities form through complex negotiation. The migrant family is perhaps the most intense site where identities exceed national categories. Indeed, in these novels, Singapore and Vietnam are indices of subjective space and memory, rather than locations unified by language and culture. These novels show that in times of greater transnational movement, all identities are embedded but not fixed in specific locations and cultural frames, and each migrant carries within him/her different voices.

These narratives suggest that the Asian Imaginary in Australian literature is now incorporating traditionally Asian solutions for the problem of grief and loss that migration seems to have caused. For Grace, the family trauma leads to a renewal of Chinese beliefs in the family spirits. For Lian, the existence of an alternative Islamic tradition fills an intellectual and emotional need that her Australian upbringing does not provide. For my own character Krishna, a sense of being Australian requires the knowledge of Thai cultural practices. By providing new points from which to view questions of citizenship and belonging, these novels are important contributions to the continuous re-writing of the Asian Imaginary. Stories of unfamiliar migrants, refugees and transnationals are heterogenous, unpredictable, and unravel, fictionalise and fragment the myth of the settled fixity of the Anglo-European nation-space. As Lechte and Bottomley ask:

The problem, however, is who is able to see the collection of cultures whole? Who is able to objectify the whole map made up of differences, but without producing another identity? Whose gaze, in short, is not culturally specific? Or again, who is not ‘ethnic’? (1993: 26)

Finally, the Asian-Australian novelist who attempts to ascribe the origin of fixed psychological traits and neuroses to diasporic subjects, or to confine these subjects to paradigms of racial hyphenation, merely perpetuates racist ways of thinking. This thesis suggests that textual métissage may better describe interweaving of identity positions and voices found in novels of migration. In Sallis, we find that an Asian migrant can acquire Vietnamese, Aussie, and Arabic cultural identities. Teo shows that Chineseness does not require a mastery of Mandarin, or the ability to bargain in Singapore’s markets. As I have explored in The Fire Sermon, the migration story challenges the notion of the authentic migrant subject who can define a clear-cut division between feeling exiled, and feeling at home. Third Culture Kids blur the Manichean boundary that is often constructed to separate Anglo-Australian settler identities from migrant diasporic identities.

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