Renee Liang: Getting beyond Asian

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In the end, Bevan Chuang is just a foolish person who has acknowledged her mistakes. Photo / Greg Bowker
In the end, Bevan Chuang is just a foolish person who has acknowledged her mistakes. Photo / Greg Bowker

I'll admit it. My first reaction was annoyance. Oh great, she's Asian. Here we go again.

Yellow Fever. China Girl, Geisha Girl, Manchu Girl. Peking Duck. Asian Lolitas. These and other ugly terms have been flying around this week. They're casually dropped, often "as a joke". Often by people others might categorise as informed, intelligent, even culturally aware. So what's wrong with using them?

Try walking around in my skin for a week. I'm a born-and-bred Aucklander. Most of the time I feel pretty normal. But something like the Len Brown affair hits the media and I remember all the times I've had to fend off unwanted comments, "jokes" or advances.

Asian people are not stereotypes. We are not viper-like "dragon mistresses", nor are we little girl-women who can be innocent and slutty at the same time. We are not Tiger Mums. We are people. Individuals. And not all of us can do kung fu.

Chinese people have been living in New Zealand since 1842. But from the beginning, we've had image problems. First there was "Yellow Peril" - cue political cartoons depicting Chinese as deformed monsters. Then we became the "model minority" - quiet achievers, good at keeping our heads down and not making too much fuss. It's only recently we have become more confident, seeking office, making art and films, writing books. You need this background to understand the reaction to Bevan Chuang's actions. There's been a lot of anger, even shame. That's natural. Bevan is well known to many in our community. She represented us on the Ethnic People's Advisory Panel, she's been highly visible at public events, a natural networker. As a "1.5 generation" Kiwi Chinese and fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese and English, she has been seen as able to bridge the gap.

But Bevan is also just ... herself. She's open about her relationship status, her love of burlesque, and often dresses sexily. That's who she is. Does she manipulate the Asian babe image? Perhaps. But that's just a natural reaction to a lifetime of people assuming things about you. Sometimes it's just easier - and more fun - to go with the flow.

We all know how one person can influence a stereotype. There's no telling the damage Bevan's story might have done to other (young) (Asian) women and the conclusions uninformed people might now make about us. That she strove to represent us, and played the ethnicity card to get into politics only makes it worse. But in the end she's just a foolish person who has acknowledged her mistakes. Her Asian-ness shouldn't come into it.

Just as it's certain we have not heard the full story, hers is not our only story. The rabid public reaction is no reflection on Bevan, but rather a reflection on New Zealand society and how far we have yet to go.

And so, for my fellow Asians I have a challenge: we can't change our faces, but we can change the way people see us. Get out there and do it.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- Herald on Sunday

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