Being Woke About Oz

I give you, first, the text of a brief article in the New York Times, and then the email that I prepared in response. I realized, while writing it, that nobody at the Times cares much about my emails. The Times is too big, and anyway I’m apparently too far outside its orbit. So I decided to post it all here instead.

Read the article, form your own conclusions, and then see what you think about my reaction. Here’s the article:

* * * * *

When a Stranger Ruins Your Day
Sometimes the city you call home can both charm you and break your heart.

Produced by Diana Oliva Cave
May 30, 2018

Australia Diary collects reader stories reflecting Australia’s unique character. Want to share your story, photo, poem or video? Email nytaustralia@nytimes.com.

SYDNEY

By Isabella Kwai

It would have been the perfect Saturday, the kind where you could almost taste the onset of summer. After a day of roaming markets and lying out by the water, a friend and I walked slowly to catch our trains home.

As we crossed the intersection at Town Hall station, a man with sunglasses came from the other direction.

We smiled at him in that polite way you do to strangers. As he passed, he leaned over and hissed something at us.

“What we do about this Asian scum?”

The words were like a cold punch to the stomach. Our smiles vanished.

He was gone in an instant. The moment passed. I opened my mouth to say something back — but what?

My friend and I looked at each other as we walked on. What could we say?

We walked on, toward a train station that we had passed thousands, maybe millions, of times before.

We walked on, thinking about the country our parents had chosen for us, the sunny land that we had yearned to call home.

My friends and I wondered how, more than 20 years after we set our feet in the lucky country — some of us brought here, some of us born here — it could still feel like an alien place.

There have been, and would be, other disquieting moments, less violent moments. On a holiday in Coffs Harbour, a man would tell us tales of his travels in Thailand — but none of us were Thai. In a McDonald’s, another would lean over as we spooned our sundaes, asking us, “Excuse me, but where are you from?”

“Sydney, Australia,” we said firmly, knowing exactly what he’d meant.

Because it was the truth. What else could we say?

Now my reaction:

Call me thick. I don’t get it.

The article begins with an indication that it is “produced” by Diana Oliva Cave. I don’t know how an article, as distinct from a movie, can be “produced” by someone who is apparently not the writer. Maybe it means the Australia Diary series is produced by Cave. But that doesn’t seem right: her name is above the paragraph introducing that series.

I revisited that material at the top of the page because this article confused me. In that revisit, I saw that Isabella Kwai was the actual writer. I don’t know. I guess Kwai must be Asian. Isabella isn’t, but apparently I’m supposed to infer from something like Bridge Over the River Kwai? She says, “None of us were Thai,” and I guess that’s OK, the bridge was in Burma? And Kwai is her maiden name, because women don’t take their husbands’ surnames anymore?

I didn’t notice Kwai’s possible race on the first go-through. So when I get to the part where he hisses, “What we do about this Asian scum?” I think she means, he’s conspiratorially sharing with her his complaint about Asians. Otherwise, why would he phrase it that way, us vs. them? Even as I review these words, I have to wonder whether Kwai misconstrued him.

And then the article ends, and I realize I must have misunderstood. So I go back to the start, see Kwai’s name, and start to piece it together.

But I still don’t understand. She was with her friend, and apparently I’m supposed to assume the friend was Asian too? And I’m supposed to know, somehow, that they are not Chinese, even though I think the Chinese are the most numerous of all Asians in Australia? The Times regularly reports on Chinese sociopolitical aggression in and toward Australia, Vietnam, and other nations in that region — but in this article, apparently, we’re supposed to wear the other hat, the one that defends the Chinese in Australia against the whites? I take it that we’re also supposed to assume the speaker was white (given that he was male, like all the bad guys in this story), because we know that the Times would not be publishing a grievance against an Indian, Polynesian, or black Australian provoking Kwai’s inference of racism?

Truly a muddle.

The Times and other major sources have given me the impression that a lot of Chinese money is corrupting a lot of Australian political and academic life. I pause to recall the Times‘s role as enabler, during the years when Democratic party politics turned a blind eye toward the behavior of men like Harvey Weinstein. It seems reasonable to ask whether this article’s writer, producer, and/or editor have been materially influenced in their choice and treatment of subject matter.

I can see how Kwai experienced a “disquieting” moment, and I realize there are those like Kwai, wishing to do violence to the English language and apparently having no sensitivity to what victims of real violence experience, who portray words as “violent” — except when their side is the one issuing the nasty words, which is the case approximately half the time. Not to mention the “violence” done by the racist and sexist insinuations in Kwai’s text.

This article was apparently a nudge shared by people In the Know. No doubt I’m only showing my uncoolness by asking.

But I really don’t get how none of them being Thai would have anything to do with whether a man tells stories about his travels in Thailand. Was he not supposed to do that?

Wait, now I think I get that last part. She thinks he was assuming they were Thai, and that’s why he was talking about Thailand. But how could she be sure that’s what he was thinking? I mean, don’t the Chinese vacation in Thailand too? Evidently Kwai et al. look Asian; it would be most reasonable to assume they were Chinese; possibly he was just trying to be friendly, to show that he’s got nothing against Asia?

Plainly, there’s a lot going on under the surface, in this article. Or maybe, more accurately, it’s all happening on the surface. Kwai is not coming across as a thoughtful person, sensitive to any nuances other than her own.

These days, of course, Australia is an easy target, now that it has been falsely designated as the land of rape — especially now that Australia’s Germaine Greer, expressing certain facts, has been cast as merely an apologist for rape. And so we have this cheap shot, playing on that riff.

That seems to explain the timing. Kwai begins with an indication that she’s talking about an episode occurring at “the onset of summer.” In Australia, that would have been six months ago (or, possibly, years ago). Kwai’s gripes weren’t newsworthy then. But now, maybe. The clever thing is to nurse your petty grudges until they become the cause du jour, right? And then pile on with everyone else.

Any person with a pulse realizes, by now, that it’s horrible and racist to ask people where they’re from, when they look like they might be from somewhere else. Seriously, that tired view could make sense in a melting-pot land where it might be unfair to highlight atypical appearance as an indicator of potential misfit. But neither the U.S. nor Australia is that sort of land anymore. In these places, in the present day, there’s a pretty good chance that, in fact, a person who doesn’t look like s/he is from here really isn’t. It can be a reasonable question, expressing nothing more than polite curiosity. It can, indeed, be more multiculturally sensitive to the possibility that, especially in Trump’s America, not everyone from every country necessarily appreciates an assumption that s/he is a “regular” American like “the rest of us.”

All in all, NYT, this article is a real prize. I read Rod Dreher’s rants about wokeness. I think to myself he’s frothing at the mouth; it’s only an academic fad. Then I read an article like this and I think, wow, that nuttiness really exists.

Bear in mind that we have said virtually nothing about actual racism, which was supposedly the real concern. It’s more like the insinuation of racism has provided an excuse for a multitude of little digs. For example, we haven’t contextualized the trivial incidents reported by Kwai — even if she did report and interpret them with 100% accuracy — within the backdrop of her 20 years of apparently thriving life in Australia.

Everyone is going to have bad experiences, everywhere. It would be nice if Kwai’s complaints were leavened with a bit of fairness — if the Times cared to provide a more accurate impression of how Australia has treated her overall. Instead of free-riding on the black experience, there and here, of being truly ostracized — instead of implying that she has experienced anything like that degree of racism, or anything resembling actual violence — it would have been more honest to admit that, as I suspect, her parents did her a huge favor in taking her there, and for the most part she has enjoyed a privileged life as a result, existing happily among mostly white people and enjoying the land they have built.

In Kwai’s essay, the Times has treated us to an example of poor writing. Its brevity would be brilliant if it hadn’t pared away muscle along with the fat, yielding puzzlement among the unwashed. I suspect it does succeed with winks and nods among likeminded folk, however, and that may be all the editor cared about.

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