BEING away from home is difficult but don’t discount the value that one can gain from cultural exchange. Maggie Milne shares her story of how she learned to embrace difference in a foreign country.
When she was seven, she sat at a table with her Chinese family and friends at a Chinese New Year reunion in Shanghai. She stared across the table at all the weird dishes of baby octopus, black fungus and pig’s stomach. Although the people around her were laughing and chatting away in Shanghainese, she felt as though she was separated in a glass box.
As she used her chopsticks to stab a xiao long steamed pork bun into her bowl, she wished she was back in Australia, spending the summer holidays with her Aussie friends and eating ‘normal food’ like Vegemite sandwiches and McDonald’s.
She preferred to stay inside because she couldn’t understand the language very well and the streets were crowded with people who always stared at her half-Chinese face, making her feel like more of an outsider. Her mother had sent her to China almost every summer holiday in an attempt for her to learn Chinese and Chinese culture. But she always hated it and didn’t see the point of learning Chinese and going to China.
She was Australian and lived in Australia. That is where she belonged.
As she grew up, she continued to go to China. As Shanghai and China changed, she too began to sow closer ties with her Chinese background. She visited many places unique to China and began noticing the differences in Australian and Chinese landscape; the mountains were higher and more spectacular than the Dandenong Ranges from back home. The historic buildings made her curious about her own Chinese background.
In later visits, she enjoyed making attempts at speaking with her Chinese relatives and friends, to learn more about the places she had been. The more she chipped away at the glass box separating her from China, the more she learned to love it.
One year, she spent Christmas in Shanghai. The bright lights lit up the streets with red and green and it had felt even more exciting than Christmas in Australia.
Nowadays, Shanghai has many foreigners walking its streets. There is a mix of local Chinese shops and familiar foreign places too. As she watched people riding their bikes to work, she was reminded of her own bike rides to school along the Yarra River.
Now she is 21 and completing her Chinese major at university. She always looks forward to travelling to China and is forever grateful to her mum for taking her there and for bestowing her Chinese heritage.
She had smashed the glass box completely and now has two cultures sown into her — like a perfect balance of yin and yang.
This year, she’s really looking forward to spending Chinese New Year in Shanghai with her family and friends.
This contributed story is one of two winning essays from the Bilingual Language (Intermediate Level) competition held by the Australia-Chinese Youth Association (ACYA).