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Easier

ASHLEIGH HO|FEATURES






We sit in our usual grassy spot next to the demountable classrooms. Pulling my skirt over my knees, I grab my lunch out of my backpack as the chatter turns from the boring maths class to something deeper.

“Do you guys ever wish you were white?”

The tension hits like a boulder. Looking down at our very “fascinating” lunches, we observe each other, avoiding eye contact. It happens to be one of the few times when the Caucasian kids aren’t sitting with us – we have full freedom to talk about a heavy subject like race, but still, we proceed with caution. I speak up.

“Well, from my perspective, it would be easier for me to get cast.” I’m a theatre kid – my eyes are set on the stars and nothing else. “If I wasn’t Asian, I’d get to be in more main roles.” Jane agrees. “I think that white kids get more opportunities in general.” Rose, who had moved from China to Australia during primary school, interjects: “I really do like being Chinese – it’s okay, but…”

“But it would be easier,” Lucy, who brought up the question, murmurs under her breath. After spending most of the conversation picking at our lunches, we look at one other, nodding slightly.

From my teens to my early twenties, I did a lot to make my life “easier”. I laughed along to casual racism, quietly moved carriages instead of confronting people, and spoke in a “whiter” tone during situations where I felt unsafe or uncomfortable. But I also put myself in a lot of positions where I ended up being the “token Asian person.” The people closest to me said that was a good thing – I was the sole representative of my community. Instead of feeling pride, I tucked my race away alongside my other insecurities, because it was easier to smile and laugh than recoil into a defence stance whenever something even mildly racist popped up.

The arts led to both the downfall and uprising of my love for my cultural identity. The industry manages to be simultaneously inclusive and exclusive at the same time. As I finished my first degree in backstage production, diversity in the arts peaked. A lot of effort was, and still is, taken to make sure that casts are diverse and that everyone has a chance to tell their story. But behind the red curtain, my noodle lunches were the joke of the day. It was then when I decided that despite my love for all things theatre, it wasn’t worth it. I didn’t venture too far off. Distancing myself from the work itself, I went to performances as an audience member and showed support by volunteering.

I was in a seat in the front row of a tiny box-like theatre in early 2019. An East Asian lady beelined towards me. Plonking herself down, she moved her handbag from her shoulder to her lap and dug for her phone. We sat for a few minutes in silence; solo theatre-goers sitting together in solidarity.

“What brings you here?” She peaks up at me from behind her steel-framed spectacles.

“Oh, just supporting.”

“My brother works backstage. I’m Em.”

“Ashleigh.”

As I attended more shows, the beelining kept happening. But I was the bee: and it was a game. Stepping into the dimly lit room, my eyes would skim the rows of seats for someone to talk to. Throughout this journey, I chatted with all kinds of people. Our small talk was always the same: we started with our reasonings for existing in the space that’d then turn to a chat about how our culture fits into the arts and theatre, and then we’d have some kind of deep discussion about “representation” or “authenticity.” After months of these conversations, an opportunity arose.

I was offered a spot in a mentorship program where I’d work closely with professionals in the media industry who identified as culturally diverse. The first session: as I introduced myself, I stuttered and shook.

Maria Tran, a Vietnamese filmmaker, martial artist, and the coolest person I’ve ever met, led the workshops. This program was the first time that I was in the majority. And that was weird. It was also weird that everyone else was so vocal about their ethnic identity, even confident about it. My own parents didn’t teach me any other language except English so I’d fit in – to them, there was always something to be ashamed of as a Chinese Malay descendent. These workshops were a saving grace: we learned how to make films about the good and bad in our communities. We talked about all kinds of racism in Australia. We didn’t just tolerate but embraced each other’s culture.

Maria’s big speech at that first mentoring session is something I always go back to, even today. It stung.

“I think that, culturally, we don’t speak out enough. If someone says something we’re not comfortable with, we just tend to go, ‘yes, yes, sure!’ Why do we do that?”

Why do we do that? Why do I do that?

Because it’s easier?

I’ve grown up hiding from confrontation. I’ve stuck to talking about the tricky topic of racism and race within my own community. I only celebrated culture when it was safe to do so. Yes, because it was easier. It’s easy to run away from things that scare us. As I ran further from the fear, I was lucky to be reeled back in by others. I have learned that I’m allowed to confront people who make me feel unsafe. I’m allowed to celebrate my culture without the rolling eyes and cruel laughter. I’m allowed to do whatever I want.

I have spent many years getting to know Maria as well as expanding my circles. I’ve even tiptoed my way back into a job in the arts. To be honest, I have become a bit of a pride monster when it comes to cultural identity. I never talk it down anymore, hide it or lie about my ancestry, I love to talk about the food I eat, the outfits I wear – even if I can’t pronounce the names.


Whilst my journey is one that many people shouldn’t need to go through, it’s brought me to a place where I accept my culture, I embrace it, I celebrate it – it’s something that’ll always be part of who I am.



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