Popular Australian author Ben Law on his 'Family Law'
The KSP team have been glued to the telly these past few Sunday nights, tuning into Benjamin Law's hilarious and heart-warming new show 'The Family Law' on SBS. Sorry for the cliche descriptions, but it's true.
We first heard about the Laws in 2013, after flying Ben over to the West to appear at KSP Writers' Centre's Festival of the Asian-Australian Voice. His book of the same name had just been published by Black Inc., and we all bought a copy, devoured quickly like a milkshake in the middle of an Australian summer.
Ben has given us permission to reprint his keynote speech delivered at that Festival, so please read on, laugh and enjoy it as we did on the night.
Thank you, everyone—it’s a great privilege to be here. A big thank you to the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers' Centre for having me. I'd also like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land on which we’re gathered (the Noongar people), to pay respect to elders past and present, and to extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians who might be here tonight. So, to our Indigenous and non-Indigenous friends: welcome. But good god, you’re probably all thinking: whitefellas and blackfellas aside, there are a hell of a lot of yellowfellas here tonight.
Some of you who weren’t pre-warned about the theme of this weekend’s program might feel like you’ve stumbled into some sort of racist exposé from Today Tonight or A Current Affair, about a writers centre in Western Australia that has been overtaken (swamped, I think is the correct terminology) by Asians.
They have their own food! They have their own culture! They have their own language! (Asian.)
But do not fear: we come as model minorities. Our people study really hard, contribute robustly to the economy by buying up a lot of franchises—and our food is delicious. (As you have now gathered.)
Now it’s interesting seeing people’s reactions when I say stuff like this. Some of you were laughing—because clearly you’re all racists. Other people squirm when I joke about race. Some might argue that by joking about race, I’m kowtowing to racist sensibilities and stereotypes in order to make other people laugh or feel comfortable. Amongst African-Americans, this is known as being an Uncle Tom; amongst Asian-Australians, it’s known as being an Uncle Tam.
On the other hand, there are people who mightn’t be comfortable with race-based humour or observations, because they’re the type of people who think and say things like, “Oh, I don’t see race.”
I don’t see race. Now this is an interesting concept. When I hear people say this, it reminds me of when I was 15 years old and growing up on the Sunshine Coast, a coastal stretch roughly 90 minutes north of Brisbane. Back then, in the mid-1990s, a new politician from my state was on the rise. Pauline Hanson’s headquarters were in Ipswich, but her satellite stronghold was on the Sunshine Coast, where I lived. So Pauline Hanson sort of had two strongholds, like J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers. If Ipswich was Pauline Hanson’s Bara-dur—the tower of Sauron—then the Sunshine Coast was Orthanc, Saruman’s tower at Isengard. (Yes, even I am astounded by the intensity of my Asian nerdery right now.)
For those of you who still remember, cast your mind back to Pauline Hanson’s ascent into federal politics. This was a time when people in Asia would be snap-polled, with TV journalists showing them a photo of Pauline Hanson and asking who they thought she was. Most would respond with Oh, that’s the Australian prime minister—and she’s very racist. (Horrifying.)
In the schoolyard, meanwhile, some of my fellow students had parents who were not only One Nation supporters but One Nation candidates, who would drop off their kids in cars and vans with the One Nation logo plastered on the entire side. Around this time, I noticed the tone of conversations amongst my friends was starting to change too:
“Well, maybe everyone here should speak English,” my 15-year-old friends would say. “It’s Australia, after all.” And I’d nod, at first. But I couldn’t help but think of my grandmother—my father’s mother—who arrived here in the 1970s, and still doesn’t speak English—besides “Hello” “Goodbye” “Pretty girl” “Handsome boy”. (She’s like this really adorable elderly Chinese parrot.) But even though she doesn’t speak English, she’s an Australian citizen, and has been so for decades. Like every other Australian, she votes (well, she votes how we tell her to) and she contributes to the economy. So I told my friends, “Hey: Pauline Hanson is someone who says that Asian people like me and my family don’t assimilate—that we don’t belong. How can you support someone like that?” My friends blinked at me, as if seeing me for the first time. “Ben,” they said, “don’t be silly: we don’t see you as Asian.”
Now, at that time, and at that age, you take comments like that, weirdly, as a compliment. You want to be part of the gang. And it was only years later that I realised this was such a fundamentally weird and bizarre thing to say. “If you don’t see me as Asian,” I’d later think, “what do you see me as? Latino?” (Although if I was Filipino, I’d understand the confusion: they are the Latinos of the Asian world.)
Because I was one of few Asian teenagers in my year level, these same friends would often challenge me with questions like, Do you see yourself as more Australian or more … Chinese? Maybe you’ve had variations of this question yourself: Do you see yourself more Australian, or more Greek? Korean? English? Japanese? Dutch?
As a result of instances like this, you'll hear a lot of hyphenated Australians—Greek-Australians, Chinese-Australians, Vietnamese-Australians, Sudanese-Australians—talk about the strangeness of not feeling like they quite belong in this country. And a lot of it, I think, is to do with other people’s perception of you. Even now, some people are still challenged by the idea that you can be two things at any given time, that you can be both Chinese and Australian, in different ways. When he was still prime minister in 2006, John Howard compounded the confusion further, saying things on radio interviews such as, “I don't like hyphenated Australians; I just like Australians.”
What people like my high-school friends, like John Howard, don’t understand is that this question is similar to asking people, “Do you see yourself more as a woman … or a mother … or a sister … or a colleague … or a human being?” We are all multiple things at once. Every single one of us is at least a dozen things, to dozens of different people, every day of our lives. It’s not really that complicated.
At the same time, some of the discomfort and confusion about being a hyphenated Australian like me—Asian-Australian; Chinese-Australian—isn't about other people. It's personal. I wrote about this in my first book The Family Law, which is essentially an anthology of true stories about my family: a bunch of people growing up in Australia, who didn’t look like many people around them.
Let me give you some history:
These are my parents, Danny and Jenny. They don’t hate each other—yet. In this photo, they’re far younger than I am now, both in their early 20s. It’s the mid-1970s, we’re in Hong Kong, still a British dependent territory, and my parents—who are young and in love—are getting married. They already know that after getting married, they’ll want to start a family, but they want to do this somewhere that has space for children. Hong Kong doesn’t have space. (It has … great shopping and claustrophobia.) But my father has once briefly travelled to a country that has heaps of space. It’s called Australia. So very soon after their wedding ceremony, they catch a flight to a country where my mother has never been before.
My parents land on the Sunshine Coast—more specifically, the town of Caloundra, a sleepy beachside place that my mother now describes as “like a ghost town”—not only because there were so few people there at the time, but that everyone who was there was white. (Bit racist.)
Growing up, I took the story of my parents for granted. “Oh yeah, my parents were born overseas and then they migrated here and had us, blah-blah-blah.” It’s only as an adult that I ask myself, What would it have been like, to get married to someone you’d only known for months, and commit to moving to a country you’d never been before—a country where you knew no one?
Even though I’ve travelled extensively in my 30 years, I still can't fathom the concept of migrating from your homeland, to a new country, with the full knowledge it may be years—decades—before returning to the people, places, sights, tastes, smells and sounds with which you’re familiar. And I can't fathom how other Australian migrants arrived here, as refugees, knowing they might never return to their birth country. The concept is staggering when you think about it.
And what’s even more remarkable is that this is the Australian story, really. Hands up those of you in the room whose parents (one, or both of them) were born outside of Australia? And hands up those of you who were born overseas yourselves? That’s quite a lot of you. It doesn’t surprise me. Australia is a young, multicultural nation of immigrants. At last count, over a quarter of Australians were born overseas, and a fifth of us had at least one parent born overseas. The rest of us don’t have to look that far back into our family trees to see where else we came from, outside of this country. Even Australian Indigenous people are likely to have blood and background from somewhere outside of Australia too.
My family tree expands back to three countries—China, Malaysia and Hong Kong—before setting new roots in Australia.
After my parents settled in Queensland, they had five children.
That’s my mum. That’s my siblings. That’s me. And that blob here is a sentient human—my sister Michelle.
So my family—The Family Law—consisted of two parents and five children, living together in a three bedroom house in coastal Queensland. (Let’s pause and so some maths here. Two parents. Five children. Three bedroom house. It wasn’t going to last—and I’ll return to that soon.) In many ways, our childhood was idyllic, but we all grew up with the acute sense that our family was quite different. As I write in my book:
My family aren’t the outdoors type. Despite being raised on the coast, Mum detested visits to the beach (all the sand it brought into the house), while Dad disapproved of wearing thongs (‘It splits the toes’). We never camped. All those things involved in camping – pitching a tent; cooking on open fires; the insects; shitting in the woods; sleeping on rocks; getting murdered and raped in the middle of nowhere – they never appealed to us. ‘We were never camping people,’ Mum says now. ‘Your dad never wanted to camp, and insects eat me alive. See, Asians – we’re scared of dying. White people: they like to “live life to the full”, and “die happy”.’ She paused. ‘Asians are the opposite.’
So we didn’t exactly fit in. Over 90% of the kids who went to my school were white, and my peers were surfers and jocks and motor-heads. I was the weedy clarinet-playing Chinese kid who couldn’t tell football codes apart, had an orthodontic plate lodged into my face and was borderline crippled by a combination of scoliosis and a condition called Osgood Schlatters Disease. (That’s right: I was a diseased child.)
And for my parents, there was another other challenge that is common to mums and dads raising children in a new country. See, when you raise children in a foreign land, what happens is that they grow up … weird. (And I don’t just mean their dress sense.) They’ll have different values, different accents, and—quite literally—a different language.
My parents had five children who could understand Cantonese, but couldn’t quite speak it properly. When I travel to Hong Kong now, people wonder whether I have acquired permanent brain damage or am deaf-mute. On one hand, my communication skills are utterly poor and rely on the assistance of mime. On the other, I seem to understand what Cantonese-speakers are saying. My friend, the comedian Lawrence Leung, has the same problem, and told me he once found himself in a Hong Kong taxi, unable to give proper instructions to the driver. The driver was so alarmed and worried that Lawrence had had a stroke or another medical emergency, that he took him to the local hospital.
To outsiders it sounds weird: how can you understand a language, but not speak it? In my book The Family Law, I give some context to how language works in my family. (And apologies, I’m about to use the C-word. But I promise there’s context!)
When my dad sees an English word in the newspaper he doesn’t understand, he points to it and asks us for the definition. He’ll say it a few times to himself, rolling the word in his mouth and chewing on it, until the meaning and the sound collide, soften, and stick to his brain like gum. Likewise, when my mum learns a new word from television or conversation, she writes it down in her notebook. If the word is particularly tricky, she asks me to spell and define it, then scrawls it down onto scrap paper and sticky-tapes it to the wall to help her remember its meaning and spelling, the way foreign-language students do in the lead-up to exams. Even now, the word diarrhoea is stuck to the dining-room wall.
In this way, every migrant family is the same: children learn from their parents, parents learn from their children. It’s all very educational. Controversially, though, Mum insists she first learned the word cunt from me. I don’t remember the exact circumstances clearly enough to verify the claim, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true. Mum says that afterwards, as often seems to happen when you’ve learned a new word or concept, she inexplicably started seeing and hearing it everywhere.
‘The next night on SBS,’ she told me, ‘there was this European movie with a woman screaming at her husband because she found out he was having an affair. She yelled to him: “You only like her because her cunt smells like eggplant!” That’s what it said in the subtitles. And suddenly I realised that I knew what this word was. Cunt. It was that same word you told me not to use at parent–teacher meetings.’ She paused to think. ‘I wonder whether I would’ve worked out its meaning if I hadn’t heard it from you. Smells like eggplant. Yes. Yes, I think I would have.’
Apparently, I’d given her strict instructions at the time not to use the word amongst friends or even with her gynaecologist. She understood, but has since embarked on a lifelong, covert love affair with the word. The lawn-mowing man who screwed her over? She knows just the word to use. The drunken New Year’s revellers who left beer bottles in her yard? There’s only one word to describe people like that.
In stark contrast to the dedication of my parents, I’ve become complacent about Cantonese over the years, to the extent that I’m now uncertain whether I can lay claim to the language at all. Now and then, the same tick-a-box question comes up in forms and surveys, questionnaires and applications, leaving me confused and anxious. ‘Do you come from a non-English speaking background?’ it asks. ‘YES/NO.’ It seems like such a straightforward thing to ask, but my pen always wavers. Eventually, I select either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ at random. Looking back, I’ve probably filled out a 50–50 share of ‘yeses’ and ‘nos’. What is your ‘language background’? What language do you speak at home? They seem like such simple questions. But they’re not.
Cantonese is the language predominantly spoken by my parents, and the main language spoken in Hong Kong, Macau and southern parts of China. In and of itself, it’s one messed-up dialect. The audio instructors on my Teach Yourself Colloquial Cantonese CDs are more technical and polite about it, referring to it as a ‘tone language’. This means the same syllables, pronounced in different pitches, can mean completely different, incongruous things. Consider this sentence: Goh-goh goh-goh (that older brother there) goh goh (is taller than) goh-goh goh-goh (that other brother over there). Again, that’s: Goh-goh goh-goh goh goh goh-goh goh-goh. Pause, then add another goh – with a different tone this time – and you’re telling the same brother to cross the road. Depending on how you say it, gau can mean ‘dog’ or ‘nine’, ‘enough’ or ‘rescue’. Mae could mean ‘rice’ or ‘not yet’, ‘flavour’ or ‘tail’.
Because of its tonal quality, linguists describe Cantonese as a language that’s sung, which might suggest the language is pretty or melodious. But songs can also be terrible and cruel. Think of the late-night sexual moans of the feral cat, the broken wail of the American coyote, or the screeching of the rabies-infested bat. To me, Cantonese is not a sung language at all, but a screaming one, a dialect for bickering, exclaiming over scandals and haggling over meat prices.
But hey: who am I to say? My parents speak Cantonese to me, and while I understand most of what they’re saying, I’m basically mute when it comes to speaking the language myself. To outsiders, that seems like an odd arrangement, but the analogy I use is music. Everyone understands the language of music, has an innate comprehension of how it works, but not everyone can play it. When it comes to Cantonese, I can understand the music, but I can’t replicate it. Cantonese might be a tonal language, but over the years I’ve become tone deaf.
None of this is really a big deal. Parents and children don’t understand each most of the time anyway, even if they do speak the same language.
What was a big deal was when my parents split up when I was 12 years old. I was 17 by the time they legally divorced, so my entire high school experience (from ages 12 to 17) was bookended by this incredibly painful and protracted splitting up process—which was, of course, also a big deal in the local Chinese community. As I write in my book:
The separation made our family the subject of gossip amongst the local Chinese community, whose members were mildly scandalised. Elderly Chinese women who smelled like mothballs and grease would corner my siblings and me in the shopping centre, pulling us to one side, shaking their heads and clicking their tongues, lecturing us in Cantonese as they raised their tattooed eyebrows, telling us—us!—that no marriage was a walk in the park.
So it was not only painful for us, but embarrassing. When I look back, my family’s history is defined by embarrassment—my parents’ embarrassment at their children’s lack of Cantonese; our joint embarrassment at being That Divorced Family; the embarrassment of being yellow faces in a sea of white.
But I've learned that embarrassment is a handy emotion. Embarrassment forces you to dwell on things, and dwelling makes you think about things, and if you're a writer, it makes you write about things. Which is how I started writing about my family, first in magazines, and then in my book. And what I've learned is my and family— we weren’t really all that different.
Just after I wrote The Family Law, I feared no one would read it. In the weeks leading up to the book’s publication, I started to worry: this book was about such a specific life experience: growing up gay and Chinese in Australia with a large family with parents who were splitting up. And I thought, “Really, who would identify with this story, whatsoever?” It seemed like an incredibly small potential readership, and I thought my publishers had made a terrible mistake. The story, the voice … it all seemed too obscure. Too weird.
After the book had been out for a few months though, I started getting some emails from people who had read the book, whose lives and upbringings were completely different to my own, and yet, told me stories about their own families that were completely familiar to me.
For instance, a teenager in Melbourne (who I'll call Rhys) didn’t have much in common with me: his parents were still married, his mother tongue was Maltese, and we grew up in completely different regions of Australia. Still, he recognised the family dynamic I’d laid out in my book: the stresses and fractures, what it felt like to grow up gay in a migrant family. Rhys, in his email, said: “A lot of it was close to home; your home was like mine, you were like me.”
Another guy we’ll call Bill wrote to: “Up until recently I'd distanced myself from my family, after my parent's divorce when I was 18. I pretty much kept out of contact with my parents and my three brothers. The day I finished your book it was my youngest brother's 18th, which I wasn't going to go to. It was also the first time in seven years that my whole family were together in the same room. And I went. You helped remind me of the importance of family, no matter how fucked up they can be. I'm not ashamed or embarrassed by them any more.”
I wish I’d known all of these things when I was growing up. In some ways, I suspect I was sub-consciously writing the book I wish I’d read when I was a kid, when I was a teenager.
And finally, of course, a lot of people read the book because they were Asian-Australian too. The theme of this weekend is “Celebrating the Asian-Australian voice”, and it makes me tremendously proud to be a part of this cohort of Asian-Australian writers now.
Looking back, when I was growing up, I didn’t know of any Asian-Australian writers. There were barely any Asian faces on TV, except the Lim family on Neighbours, who’d moved into Ramsay Street in 1993, were played by actors with different Asian backgrounds and accents, and were accused of eating the neighbourhood dog. Which I guess was progress at the time.
Nowadays though, the Asian-Australian voice—and face—is nearly mainstream. In literature and non-fiction, there’s Lily Chan and Oliver Phommavanh. There's also Alice Pung, Nam Le, Tom Cho and Tim Soutphomaasane. In comedy, there’s Lawrence Leung, Anh Do, Natalie Tran and Sam Pang. In film-making and screenwriting, there’s Tony Ayres. On TV, there’s Kylie Kwong, Poh-Ling Yeow, Adam Liaw. Jessica Mauboy is half Indonesian and everywhere. On the ABC, there's Linda Marigliano and Caroline Tran. There’s William Yang and Annette Shun Wah—really, the invasion is almost complete! Right now, I'm also developing The Family Law as a six-part sitcom for SBS, so hopefully that means even more Asian faces on TV. Casting may tricky, but we're trying our best to avoid a situation where my entire family will just be played by Chris Lilley.
What I quite like about that list of people, is that we all have relatively little in common besides being Asian-Australian. Our stories are completely different. So when we talk about “the Asian-Australian voice”, it could be my grandmother, who’s lived here since the 1970s but still doesn’t read or write English. It could be the voice of my parents, who both were raised with English, but speak it with a strong accent. Or there could be my voice, born in Australia and speaks with a tertiary-educated inner-city voice, and sounds like a complete bogan after only three beers.
Zadie Smith, the British black writer, who has a mixed-race background, once wrote that: “My own childhood has been the story of this and that combined, of the synthesis of disparate things.” That’s the Asian-Australian, hyphenated story, but it's the Australian story too, period. All of us, when we speak or write, convey the specifics of our complicated heritage. In Australia, we might say that we sing with one voice, but in that joint chorus is a multitude of accents, languages and dialects, which—arguably—could also be described with a hyphenated term too: Australian-English.
Left to right: KSP Board member Mardi May, comedian and children's author Oliver Phommavanh, memoirist Lily Chan, and Benjamin Law.