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Anna Donald on colonialism and skin tone

17 Oct, 08 | by BMJ Group

Anna Donald A blog, at last. I apologise to kind readers who have been wondering where I’ve got to. We went on holiday for a week – seven days in the equatorial sun in the far north of Australia. It was heavenly. The sea was green and 23-25 degrees centigrade (for US readers who might think we visited the Arctic sea if these temperatures were Fahrenheit). The beach was four miles long – or at least I think it was; it’s called four-mile beach. Maybe I’m being too literal.

We stayed in a small holiday town called Port Douglas, which is north of a medium-size town called Cairns. Both are a long way from any part of Australia I’ve ever visited, about 2000km (actually 1957 as the crow [or more realistically, plane] flies) north of Sydney on the east coast of Australia. Port Douglas and its environs are known as the land of salt-water, “sea-going” crocodiles (not an encouraging title for swimmers); palm trees, white sand, mud crabs, and virgin rainforests in the hinterland. It is well towards the eastern shard of Australia which points to Indonesia and East Timor (I think! I read history; my geography is disastrous despite a lifetime of international travel). My husband booked a lovely apartment with fans and Japanese sliding doors and posh shampoo. (He wasn’t impressed with the broadcasting of bathroom noises through the sliding doors, but that’s already enough information).

We had a super time, cycling on our rented mountain bikes, eating mud crabs, flouting most of my semi-vegan cancer diet rules (sort of; I had an ice cream, lots of fish and seven chips), and lying on the beach, smothered in 50+ UV protection sun cream beneath a huge umbrella, doing what we both love most – reading books. Geeks that we are. And occasionally having a swim.

Billy Connolly once had a skit in which he described his skin as “blue,” coming as he does from the far north where the sun never shines. I believe him, having examined – indeed incised – many Glaswegians’ skin during my surgical house job in Glasgow, giving me an enduring love of Scotland and of Glasgow in particular. I can never understand why people rave about Edinburgh when Glasgow – and more to the point, Glaswegians – exist, with their tough-as-steel humour and crazy weather and the world’s most beautiful and haunting landscapes within an hour of the city.) In any case, my husband (whose Dundee granddad was a founder of the SNP) and Billy Connolly must share Scottish genes, because Michael’s skin is not pink, it’s a kind of translucent non-colour that goes bright scarlet after 30 minutes in the sun unless he’s wearing a burka or thick rain jacket and trousers, neither of which are the in-thing on Australian beaches. Needless to say, he burnt and peeled all over the place, despite our precautions.

Although I have, mostly, my father’s peaches-and-cream skin, I have, thank heavens, a smattering of my mother’s Opium-Wars-Chinese skin, which means, surprisingly, I go a kind of pale yellow-brown, rather than red, when my pale skin hits the sun (or rather, when the sun hits it).

This might need an explanation to people who have always known me with flaming red hair (no longer of course) and the palest skin (as a child I could have been in an ad for cream-and-strawberry whips). My grandmother was a late product of the New South Wales gold rush, which had pretty much petered out by the time she was born in 1908. In its heyday, however, thousands of Chinese people came to Australia, along with many others, to fossick for gold. Granny’s parentage was, as far as we can make out, Chinese, English and probably Welsh. She tanned easily too. But apart from that; her jade bangles; her little (and, come to think of it, large) Chinese chests and old photos of Chinese-looking relatives, you’d not have guessed her ancestry lay, at least in part, in Xiamen. She was called Lillian because she was so fair (“Lily of the Valley” as she used to say with pride).

Until the early 1970s, Australia still had a “White Australia policy”, mostly to keep out the “Yellow Peril” – the Chinese and anyone else of Asian extraction (not Indians, who are not called “Asians” in Australia). This policy was to keep immigrants European and to provide a cultural legitimacy to casual racism, which abounded and, shamefully, still exists. (A few weeks ago, a nice, educated, interior designer confided in me that she didn’t send her daughter to my grammar school because, she said in a hushed tone, “she would have been one of the only Caucasians.” This is because the Asian kids are nice, polite, and work hard, winning a disproportionate number of the  prized places in Sydney’s small number of academically selective schools. I was on the verge of retorting “so you want your daughter to go to school with lazy Anglo blobs, rather than expose them to people who know how to behave and know how to work hard do you?” but I restrained myself and offered her some tea so I could disappear into the kitchen and not have to hear any more of her oh-so-casual bigotry. Too many years in England. I should have told her a piece of my Aussie mind.

I don’t understand the persistence of racism against the Chinese in Australia. In general they/we are lovely, polite, hard-working, and have been here for ages. Contrary to the stereotype (they’re “different from us”), they/we are very active in founding and running countless community services and politics at all levels. My own great-great-great grandfather, for example, petitioned the government, and then helped to establish, a school system in the goldfields, among other things. Many “Anglos,” like me, have old Chinese blood due to the massive migrations here in the late 19th century.

I just don’t get it. I suppose it reveals the insidious and pervasive legacy that racist, nation-wide policies leave, like slavery in the USA. And the power, still, of political leaders. Australia’s recent prime minister, John Howard, had a long record of speaking ill of “Asians” and it shows. I feel as if I’ve returned to a much more racist, snide society (against the Chinese) than I left, twenty years ago. Which also shows you need to be vigilant at every level against racism and other forms of bigotry. It can return so quickly. I’m so sad about this aspect of Australia; I had really hoped we’d progressed beyond all this. I think the Sydney Olympics was the pinnacle of multi-culturalism; after that, ironically given the world’s embrace of Australia, it seems to have slid downhill.

For all these reasons my grandmother denied her Chinese origins from a young age, point blank, despite her siblings all looking Chinese. She claimed her mother’s name was Mary “Doug” when in fact it was Mary Dong. Her brother, Roy Lee, who  looked Chinese, somehow managed to get an early, postgraduate Nuffield Scholarship to Oxford (something of a miracle, given that it was touch-and-go as to whether Sydney university and its men’s college, St Paul’s, would accept him – it excluded Jews and Catholics). His Australian mentors told him he’d never reach his potential in Australia due to his colour. A one time communist, he went to Paris to set up soup kitchens before becoming the  vicar in St Martin in the Fields church in Trafalgar Square during the war, as well as the flying priest for the BBC, visiting the troops on the continent (not sure he made it to Africa) and interviewing them about their morale and welfare for the listeners back home. After the war, he became the vicar at Oxford’s University Church, St Mary the Virgin. He was affectionately and naively known by the ladies in North Oxford as “the Chinaman vicar.” (I met a clutch of them when I arrived as a Rhodes Scholar in 1989). He stayed there as priest and theologian, helping to  found St Catherine’s College, until he retired. He never once visited Australia again.

I realise I’ve used up more than enough space talking about the colonial origins of why I don’t burn in the sun as I should (don’t get me onto the Opium Wars and how the British brought China to its knees within a few years, an incredible history which few British people know. We’ll be here all night). I was going to try to explain why I couldn’t write for three weeks, but I’m not sure it’s very interesting. (The dog ate it.) So I’ll stop here. Thank you to everyone who sent me kind notes enquiring about my health. I’ll try not to worry people in future by making sure I write something regularly. Have a lovely week.

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  • Tom

    Read Risa for this week. I bet Mike will like his new title!

    Glad the trip up North was good. (It’s nowhere near East Timor you dingbat.)

    Love you mucho,
    T.

  • justin jewitt

    Anna

    My God sunbathing and toilet humour – you return with a renewed energy , different colour and the descriptive skills to have us be there with you and the family skeleton closet.

    Enjoy the spring.

    Best regards

    Justin J

  • Belinda

    Isn’t it just because the Chinese, including you, are better at everything than the Anglos, including me, are and it makes us petulant? And I suppose, afraid? Glad to hear your voice again….

  • http://annadonald Vivian

    Dear Anna
    Am so pleased you had a good holiday and have progressed from wheely trolly to mountain bike!
    Metta, Vivian

  • http://bmj shyla

    anna, you must have noticed the worried tone of all the emails ‘cos of your silence. i am so glad you had a relaxing holiday.
    hard working chinese and indian immigrants(by the way, why are indians not ‘asian’ in aus??)seem to inspire a lot of resentment and racism.to continue the theme, chinese and indian students scored the highest grades at last years GCSE results in the UK.i’m indian, married to an indian/chinese man.i periodically sit around feeling smug till something mundane brings me down to earth.
    by the way, my husband’s tumour turned out to be ?paraganglioma/?pituitary adenoma. we are now awaiting the dreaded ‘second opinion’ on the biopsy as both seem rare dx in the sphenoid sinus.
    this week’s song ought to be igloo and hartley’s ‘in this city’. again weird but catchy.the lead singer has a tendency to sing topless, with jeans which are perilously low on his hips.
    have a good week
    shyla

  • Dr.Viveck Atheya

    stop giving us the jitters

  • amit

    aaah

    igloo and hartley

    strange name but awesome song

    they were fantastic on Jonathan Ross

    great blog – your article hit the nail on the head…sad but true!

  • Anna Donald

    Good question about why Indians are called ‘Asians’ in Australia. When I first arrived in Oxford I got very het up about Indians being called Asians; I thought it was disrespectful to assume anyone from the enormous landmass of Asia should all be called the same thing. But then I realised everyone used the term ‘Asian’ to mean people from India and Pakistan. Here, ‘Asians’ mean people from South-East Asia, China and Japan. Indians are called Indians. I don’t know which bit of the colonial British civil service, no doubt, made this distinction, but there you are. (If you’re really interested I could probably find out).

    PS Am going away to the central desert with my father for a week. Will have a blog ready when I return. :) Anna

  • Anna Donald

    Oops! I mean why Indians are NOT called Asians in Australia (fumble fingers that I am at the moment). Here, Pakistanis are called Pakistanis or people from Pakistan.
    They are NOT called Pakis, thank heavens. That is a uniquely British bit of bigotry which as an Australian citizen I’m happy to disown (trouble is I’m British too).

    Wish I could disown the other terms prevalent here (though, thank heavens, not anywhere close to as much as when I was a kid): gook (Chinese or other SE Asian), wog (Mediterraneans), power-point (Asian in the Oz sense; my brother was once called that, passing briefly through a phase when he looked a lot like Mum); Abos (Aboriginals; their self designated name is usually blackfellas, who form a mob [group])the list goes on. Thank goodness we never exported the term ‘nigger’ here (at least not that I’ve ever seen; it might happen in the bush).

    The world, the world which is so wonderful and so completely frustrating. Of course I don’t want to die of cancer, but sometimes I think it wouldn’t be so bad to be free of all the daftness and terrible suffering that greed and fear generate over and over again. Which, for all my errant breast cells, I don’t suffer much from at all except as a part of the community who can’t help but witness people less fortunate around me, even in cushy old Sydney. Must stop this diatribe. There. Bed time. May all bigots be hung up by their toenails and dipped in boiling oil. :)A

  • Kate

    Your blogs are a source of inspiration. I’m so glad you had a wonderful holiday.

  • Tom C

    Have a wonderful week in the desert, Anna – and thank you for your email. Lots of love, Tom

  • Anna Donald

    Glad to read more news of you, and your travels.

  • Richard Smith

    I was having lunch with Peter Richardson, and he remembered a four hour lunch with you where you gave him enough new ideas to last five years. He also said that reading your writing was like having you in the room, which I think a great compliment. You have “a voice,” something that many people who write a lot never manage to achieve.

  • Ruth Howard

    Hey Anna!Im thinking Ill stay connected in here simple energy conservation strategy for perhaps both of us! Hey I loved hearing your voice possom! I send you very much love love love.It looks like you have several blogs within this site?

    Weve had a fab time and myself a whole weekend of art therapy without my wee(increasingly boistrous)creature!

    Mums has also just returned from a central desert painting journey OMG! Beaut series of new images up on http://www.artless.com.au.If you can ever have a trawl.

    My heart is hanging out here, I love you.
    XRuth

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