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The Family Law applies to us all

Michelle Brotohusodo

“For a long time, I thought mum didn’t fit in because she was Chinese. Then I realised it’s just mum.”

Since The Family Law debuted on Facebook and SBS a month ago, I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen to watch it. And it’s not just me. The TV show, based on Benjamin Law’s book of the same name, has generated a lot of excitement in communities that aren’t often represented in Australian media—Asian-Australians. But why are we so excited about it?

In Nicole Lee’s review of The Family Law for The Guardian, she says, “When I was growing up, the number of times I saw people on television who looked like me was so infrequent that when I did see an Asian face, I automatically memorised the name that belonged to it.” I did the same thing. Until I read those words, I never realised other Asian-Australians did too.

Why did we do it? It’s precisely for the reason Lee says. We just never saw ourselves in any of the faces on our screens, whether the shows and movies were from Australia or elsewhere.

That’s one reason I think people like The Family Law. A lot of the social media feedback has been that it’s so good to see Asians on TV not as a stereotype or caricature, just as people. And while the American series Fresh Off the Boat does this too, we love The Family Law because it’s Australian and we can relate to it. The school productions, talk about Schoolies (and not being allowed to go to it), the straddling of two cultures in an Aussie setting. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny but also touchingly poignant (which may sound like an odd combination, but it works).

Two weeks ago I had a total fangirl moment when I went to see Benjamin Law and his sister Michelle in conversation with the ABC’s Andrea Ho at the National Library of Australia. The topic was growing up Chinese in Australia. It was interesting to see how varied the audience was—I had assumed that the majority would be young, Asian-Australians. And while there were definitely a lot of those, there were people of all ages and backgrounds there. We were all riveted and thoroughly entertained by the discussion.

Photo: Australia-China Council

Photo: Australia-China Council

Benjamin and Michelle spoke about their experiences during high school in the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. Benjamin said he found being Chinese was fine, because it was seen as cool to be ‘other’. Michelle, eight years younger, had a different experience, attending school during the height of the Pauline Hanson and One Nation years. But she also described herself and her siblings as big bogans, much to the amusement of the audience.

Both accomplished writers, they also spoke about their work, upcoming projects, and, of course, The Family Law. It was fun to hear them talk about how their real family had reacted to hearing about their books (The Family Law and Sh*t Asian Mothers Say) and the TV show, and meeting the actors that played them. This included a conversation between the two Michelles, where Vivian Wei, the actor, asked the real Michelle, “When you were little…were you disgusting?” (you’ll know the answer if you’ve read the book or seen the show!).

One question I found particularly interesting was when Andrea asked them how they reacted when people were racist, either deliberately or inadvertently. Benjamin said his Australian accent becomes even broader, really ocker, but he also becomes really, really nice, and tries to engage with them, because in a way you feel like you’re representing your whole race.

Me with my brother, our friend, and Benjamin and Michelle Law!

Me with my brother, our friend, and Benjamin and Michelle Law!

Listening to the Laws and Andrea talk, and reading about others’ experiences (I found a recent article by Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen about the irony of not wanting to be seen as a ‘typical Asian’ really interesting) made me reflect on my own. My background is Chinese-Indonesian. My parents have both been in Australia more than twice as long as they were in Indonesia. Their parents sent them to high schools in Adelaide, where they then went to uni, got married, and had me. Our next stop was Broken Hill, where my brother was born, and we then moved to Sydney in the late 1980s.

That’s where I found out for the first time that I was ‘other’. I was in Grace Bros (what Myer used to be called, for those of you too young to remember) and something had got caught in my shoe. I was being lazy and trying to get it out without actually removing my shoe. A man walking past me muttered, “What are you doing, you stupid chink.” I was about nine years old.

Me with my mum and brother in Broken Hill (my dad was taking the photo).

Me with my mum and brother in Broken Hill in 1986 (my dad was taking the photo).

Thankfully, I’ve only experienced overt racism like that one other time, at Canberra Day a few years ago. An older Caucasian man perceived that my Asian friend and her then two-year-old daughter had pushed in line at the ABC kids van (they hadn’t, they’d just moved where a staffer had told them to) and proceeded to rant to his young granddaughter about how it was just typical of ‘their type’. I confronted him and said it was a misunderstanding, and sorry if we had pushed in. But he wouldn’t have any of it. At least I tried.

Casual racism, however, is another thing altogether. There have been several occasions where people have assumed my Asian friend is my sister (“I don’t have a sister.” “Yes you do. That girl who comes to dance class with you.” “She’s not my sister.” “She’s not? But you look so much alike!” (we don’t) or mistaken me and my Asian friends for each other. One cracker was when a Caucasian woman asked me for assistance in a discount store staffed by all Asians, assuming I worked there and being very surprised to find I didn’t; even though I wasn’t wearing the staff uniform and was carrying my handbag and shopping bags. Another was when a group of older Caucasian ladies flagged me down in a Thai restaurant to take their order, even though I was in my office attire and again the staff had uniforms—which looked nothing like my clothing.

But despite those incidents, which have mostly been more amusing than upsetting, I’ve been lucky that most of my life all I’ve known is that being Asian-Australian is normal. I grew up with a lot of friends in the same situation as me—with an Asian background but who also felt Australian. Our Caucasian friends didn’t treat us any differently, though they were a bit bemused by some things, like some of our food (beef floss sandwich, anyone?), taking shoes off before entering the house, and that we were sometimes scared of our parents (especially at report card time). My high school in Sydney was 50 per cent Asian, so again, being Asian was nothing out of the ordinary.

And that’s why The Family Law is great. Its focus isn’t on the Law family being Chinese. It’s about an Australian family who just happen to be Asian, and the quirks that sometimes come with that. Which is what we are, and what happens to us. Australians who just happen to be Asian, sometimes getting caught between the two cultures, but generally getting the best of both worlds. And who, for the first time, can see ourselves reflected on TV.

That said, even if you’re not Asian-Australian, The Family Law is worth watching and relatable for lots of other reasons. If you went to school in Australia, if you have immigrant parents and interfering aunties, if you remember being a teenager, if you have a sense of humour. There are many lines that are comedy gold, such as “No ring, no ‘ding ding’”, “You are Martha Stewart, you are Nigella Lawson, you are the Two Fat Ladies before their demise,” and “You smell like a fancy toilet”. I’d say more but that would spoil the fun—so go watch it now!

The Family Law screens Thursdays 8.30pm on SBS and is also available at SBS On Demand. There’s also lots of great related content on SBS’ website, including a very entertaining advice column by the real Jenny Law. If you’d like to read more about the Asian-Australian experience, Growing Up Asian in Australia, edited by Alice Pung, is an excellent collection of stories and essays.

Feature image: SBS.

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Michelle Brotohusodo

Michelle moved to Canberra vowing to stay for two years, tops. 10 years later, she’s a bona fide Canberra convert. When she’s not working in her day job as a public servant, she’s enjoying Canberra’s culinary delights or finding fun things to do/see in and around town.

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