Benjamin Law Talks 'Sh*t Asian Mothers Say [Interview]
Don't go to bed with wet hair or you will get cancer etc.
Benjamin Law is Asian. Specifically, he belongs to the Chinese denomination of the (lumpy) blanket category. He is also Australian, gay, a writer, a brother, a lover and more. Ben's mother, coincidentally, is both Asian and Chinese, as well as an instrumental force in the genesis of Shit Asian Mothers Say, a book Ben co-authored with sister Michelle released earlier this year. While saluting the anomalies among Asian migrant mothers, the book unifies and celebrates Asian mums as a sort of human phenomena — albeit at times using "the deep reservoirs of racism found with most Asian mothers," as a springboard for their own questionable commentary. Is it racist if it's written by Asians, for Asians? Perhaps. Probably. I spoke with Ben about his Asian mum, my own Asian mum, other people's Asian mums and meeting Pauline Hanson.
Mel Kenny: The book has been out for a while now. What have been the most interesting responses to it?
Benjamin Law: A lot of other kids from other migrant, non-Asian backgrounds saying "that's my Eastern European mum!" or "that's my Somalian mum!" or "that's my Brazilian mum!" A lot of that overprotectiveness, oversharing, came up in other culture's parents and I just thought that was really interesting. I think the link for them reading through the book was that this sort of overprotectiveness comes from being a migrant mum sometimes. I mean, if you're a migrant or you come here as a refugee, you're leaving a country for a reason, so you're very aware of how things can go wrong in people's lives or what dangers lurk out there. That's why a migrant mum has no hesitation in saying, "Be careful otherwise you'll be raped," and it's all this intense stuff they don't seem to have a problem with. So, that was really unexpected; the idea that non-Asian people can identify. The other thing that I anticipated, but maybe not to that extent, was how many people — Asian community leaders — that were like "Your book is racist and enforcing really horrible stereotypes about our community and people!" Which I thought was really interesting considering this book is not exactly a book of anthropology or anything. And as one of my friends says, if there's one thing that unites all cultures it's taking the piss out of our parents.
My mum is inherently racist, as seems to be a common thread among migrant mothers. She'll often ward me off eating at places run by certain racial groups because they go to the toilet and they don't wash their hands and then they cook for you and that's unhygienic. Or she'll make assessments about overweight people on the street that would really seem fabulously mean-spirited if they weren't so childlike and completely preposterous. Do you have any guesses as to how those sorts of ridiculous ideas develop?
As much as, growing up, I was completely embarrassed by the things my mum said like "Don't wash your hair and go to bed, you'll get a headache" or, like a lot of Asian mums say, "Don't wash your hair and go to bed, you'll get cancer," you know, that's a cultural thing. In Chinese medicine, you don't wash your hair before you go to bed. You need to dry it out otherwise terrible injurious things will happen to you. So those are cultural things. And I think saying things like "don't get raped" is, I think, that [same] overprotectiveness, but it's just really vocalised. And that's really confronting to a lot of other people that don't have parents like ours, maybe... But, well, that's the reality of it. And maybe they're sort of right. Maybe there is a 0.0001 per cent chance you will get raped going into the street, but I'm not sure we need to be aware of that necessarily.
I'm 32, so all my friends are having their first babies at the moment, and they tell me about the crazy fears that run through their minds for their kids. One of friends talking about coming to Sydney for the Writers Festival but she was really afraid that her baby — who has just started rolling around a lot — would just roll into Sydney Harbour. Now, of course, that's stupid and she recognises it as such. So, like with mums like mine, she has no hesitation in voicing her deepest, darkest most strange paranoid fear about what might happen to be.
Most of the time the things my mum says are not steeped in ancient medicine or even sense. Recently I introduced her to a housemate of mine and she like "Oh hi Sarah, nice to meet you," and immediately turned to me and said "Why you not tall like Sarah?" Well, mum, it's because you are short and my Dad is not a tall guy either.
Yes — part of the research for this book was about things that other Asian kids' mums' had said to them. One was "Don't go to your year five camp because you'll get raped" or, "Don't go to bed with your hair wet otherwise you'll go blind." And it's just [that] all of it is vocalised because that's their version of good parenting — to be aware of every single danger possible.
And does your mum carry food everywhere? Because my mum carries fresh chilli from her garden in her handbag, and sometimes she carries actual meals in case she's dining out and the calibre of food is no good. So once my dad and I were out and she just dumped this container of her own homemade fried rice onto her plate at a restaurant and covered it in chilli.
Oh my god that's amazing.
I think if I were any younger I would have cried of embarrassment.
I think chilli is maybe one of those things. I mean my mum carries around a vial of red dried chilli flakes because, for her — and for me too, to an extent — you've got salt, pepper but you also need chilli flakes. And restaurants often don't have it so she's like, "Fuck this, I'm going to carry around my own chilli flakes." My mum is one of those Mary Poppins on a mission. Her handbag is just like a Swiss army knife for Asian mothers. She's got gum, she's got hand sanitiser, she's got breath mints, she's got red preserved ginger (that's something that my family use for digestion), she's got painkillers, she's got everything that you would possibly need in that bag and in a survival situation. I'm pretty sure you could survive in the dessert with all the stuff my mum has in her handbag.
She is indispensable.
Absolutely. Something that I quite admire.
In terms of overlapping across Australian and Asian culture — so you being Chinese, and me being Thai — I think the dual culture thing is interesting. In terms of identity, does being Chinese impact your life in any kind of deep way, day to day?
When you grow up as a minority in any culture — and that might be ethnicity, it might be disability, it might be sexuality — you are super aware that you are multiple different things at any given time. Like, we all are. I mean, it's just something that white heterosexual men in Australia never have to think about. So everyone's just like "Wow so you're like Chinese and Australian and gay," and I'm like, "Oh, well, you're also a dude and a colleague and a brother and you're Christian." We're all so many different things at the same time, it's just that when you're a minority you have to be super aware of it.
I think a lot of people understandably struggle with their sense of identity growing up, so [questions like] 'Am I Australian?' or 'Am I Asian?' I think from a really young age, though, it was instilled in me or maybe I felt strongly that I was a multiple of things, and that was fine. I never really struggled to reconcile these things because, you know, one in ten Australians have some Asian background. And when you look at the demographics, when you look at what the state of Australia is, it is increasingly very, very diverse. But I do like that I have all these diverse flavours in my life. I feel really comfortable when I'm traveling through Asia, because even though I don't speak the language in a lot of the countries I've travelled through, I often can fly under the radar like I sort of look like everyone else, but I also feel comfortable in Australia and I'm really grateful for that.
When people hear your voice — which is quite Australian — do you think they're surprised at all?
I don't think in Australia that's the case, but when I go overseas people do find my Australian accent quite amusing. Because it's not the image of Australia we export to the world. I think a lot of people still consider Australia as predominantly white with a few Aboriginal people and so when they hear this — because I'm from Queensland — and as a result, especially when I'm drunk, my accent can become quite thick and they find that quite hilarious but I don't think people find that very strange in Australia. In fact, sometimes what happens is… for instance, a couple of years ago I interviewed Pauline Hanson and I arranged everything by phone and by email. And my name doesn't look particularly Chinese necessarily — Benjamin Law — it could be an Anglo name. So when I met her you could see her eyes go, "OH! You're Asian". And that happens occasionally, when people don't expect that I'm Asian until we meet.
I witnessed someone being asked a really tough question over the weekend and I wondered what your thoughts were about it. Would you rather have no penis or have five penises instead of the fingers on one hand?
So it's no penis or my existing penis plus five penises on my hand?
Correct. And all of the penises on your hand (as fingers) are functioning, so they can do all the things that your regular penis can do.
Definitely the second option. I'm quite attached to my penis. It's served me well in my life. You know, I have no intention of being a woman or transitioning to one, I don't particularly identify as a woman even though I love all the women in my life. But I just think it'd be a really great party trick to shake someone's hand and not realise that they've given you a hand job at the same time.
Or just shoot pistols with your fingers and ejaculate in someone's eye.
Completely. I mean, which I can do anyway. But I could try different angles. It would be amazing.