The global anti-racism protests convinced Jane it was time to embrace her heritage, stop trying to fit in, and confront the prejudice she had faced for years

How did I cope, as a millennial Asian migrant, during the global anti-racism demonstrations? I was surprised how the Black Lives Matter movement really affected me. Everywhere I turned, in the news and on social media, white supremacy was mentioned.

I had uncomfortable feelings that made me sick, and I became withdrawn. The image in my head was of New Year’s Eve 2011, and a young girl saying goodbye to her family, and boarding a flight to another country to pursue a ‘better’ life.

The events of recent weeks have cracked open my past wounds, which I thought I had done such a great job in locking up.

Coming to Australia from Vietnam to study, and calling this new country home, is the story of my younger self. The fantasy of living in a first world country for a person from a developing country is a dream come true, isn’t it? It’s a better life because of a more stable job, a more democratic government, so people have more freedom and can thrive.

Most people perceive my journey as glamorous and comfortable. That’s because I only choose to show people what I want them to see. I don’t need anyone feeling sorry for me, because I would hate it even more than when they say “How privileged is she?” or “Who does she think she is?”

Jane at her graduation

Study and work have been my life since the moment I stepped on to Australian soil. It keeps me going and surviving. My family, and some of my friends, know how much of a toll this journey has taken on me. I still don’t like Christmas and New Year, as I feel so lonely as everyone celebrates with their family and friends.

It took me four years of tears to finally get my degree. Then, after graduation, I was not allowed to apply for a particular job with a well-known organisation – even though I was fully qualified – simply because I was an international student. I felt so discriminated against. Thankfully, I got a job in the private sector, and another visa allowing me to legally work in Australia. In 2017, I got my citizenship, which was such a big milestone. Now I would be treated fairly and equally. I was now one of them, an Australian. But the only question in my head the day after my citizenship ceremony was: “What now?” That piece of paper and an Australian passport still did not make me feel like I belonged.

My Asian heritage is always the topic for conversation with white people. Some are more sensitive than others. People always ask: “Are you Chinese?” As a millennial migrant in Australia, you constantly hear: “You people look exactly the same”, “Are you speaking English?” or “You don’t look Vietnamese”, “So, where are you really from?” For years, I never knew what to say.

The older generation of migrants laugh it off. My Asian friends, who are actually Australian with Asian backgrounds, have similar experiences, but they are born here so their accents are never brought up during a racist conversation.

It is not my job to teach white people about their supremacy – they need to do their own learning, and unlearning

Looking back now, my heart breaks for my younger self. The only thing I felt safe enough to do was write everything in my diary. Looking back, I now realise how hard I had been trying to please the outside world with a cheerful smile, trying always to be recognised as an Australian, which I would never be.

I have come to terms with the undeniable fact that I am Vietnamese living in Australia, and I have an accent. This is a fact, and it has nothing to do with my worth as a human being. More importantly, it should never be considered a weakness or a reason to be mentally bullied.

All of these positive thoughts were triggered by the Black Lives Matter movement, and on my 29th birthday I decided: “Enough is enough.” I decided to change the narrative that I had been telling myself for the past nine years.

In June 2020, I had my first Zoom call with a therapist. And guess what, she is white, a white ally. Ironically, it has taken two white people – my mentor and my therapist – to teach me to recognise what is racist and unacceptable.

As my therapist says: “If you don’t stand up for yourself, what you are saying is ‘I don’t matter.’” It hit me hard. I realised that I got caught in the idea of changing the whole culture, without doing my inner work first. We have to heal as an individual first, before healing the society. The society, after all, is made up of individuals.

At this moment, I am taking things one day at a time, which requires a lot of physical and emotional courage.

Jane holding balloons and smiling

It has never been easy – even the decision to get professional help took me nearly two years after my worst mental breakdown. My story does not have a happy ending yet, as I am only starting to reveal who I truly am. For the past couple of years, I have been hiding behind a mask, trying to fit in, to be ‘more white’, to please others. But the more I try to fit in, the more I lose myself.

At least I am not walking on this path alone any more – my therapist is silently cheering for me. She is teaching me about what it actually does to my self-worth if I remain silent when treated unfairly.

More importantly, the lesson that the anti-racism movement has taught me is that it is not my job to teach white people about their supremacy – they need to do their own learning, and unlearning. Moreover, I don’t tolerate their racist behaviour anymore.

So how do I feel now? Happy? Peaceful? Not really. I feel more vulnerable, but more resilient. I can 100% say that I’m so proud of myself – and I have forgiven the younger me for not knowing any better.

Graeme Orr | MBACP (Accred), says:

The Black Lives Matter movement’s message made Jane question the identity her younger self had accepted. She had lived behind a mask others had forced her to wear through prejudice and judgement. But the movement helped to start the process of change to find true self-worth and live authentically. It is still a work in progress for Jane, but it’s work that she can be truly proud of. Working on our true selves and having the vulnerability to show it to the world is hard for us all, and an even higher hurdle when facing intolerance.