A few months ago, I was visited by a friend from Taiwan. When we met in my city, she commented on how many Asian people there are here, and observed 'you must have heaps of Asian friends!'
I laughed a hollow laugh and asked her to look around the city again. 'Asian people hang around with Asian people, white people hang around with white people, and the only time you'll see them together is when they're all wearing business suits'.
Since then I've tried to pinpoint exactly what it is that stops me, and people like me, from having Asian friends here.
Jumping back a few more months: I was camping with a bunch of people - half Aussies, and half working visa travellers. There was one Japanese girl who dressed like a typical hippie. But when she sat down at my table while I was rolling a joint, I felt a ripple of disquiet. I hesitated about it, and then thought fuck it, she's a hippy - and asked her if she was interested. She said sure, and had a bit. That broke the ice, and we ended up talking about all kinds of stuff. Later, one of the Aussie guys called me into his tent for a smoke, and I called her in too. He nearly fell over and said "I didn't think Asian girls smoked!" (This was the same guy, btw, who had asked me if this girl was a prostitute, because he had seen her go into two different white men's tents and could think of no other reason for her to do so).
It made me think of the stereotypes we have about Asian people - that they don't do drugs, that they don't want to hang around with us, that they don't talk to white men unless they are prostitutes, that their habits and culture are so alien we can't imagine being friends with them.
But there's something else I began to pick up on, which is that we're afraid they will judge us.
In white circles, I've become fairly adapt at spotting who will judge me, for a few reasons. Firstly because I have a mental illness and get a disability payment for that; I don't have the energy or time to defend myself on that front to people who don't believe in mental illnesses or in welfare. I also smoke marijuana medicinally, and need to know that the people around me don't judge me on that and won't report me to the police. I am a woman, and need to discern very quickly which men are safe for me to be around; I am also very open minded and interested in many things, so my life is easier when I can seek out people who are also open minded.
I can pick up on these cues very quickly amongst white people; I know their manner of dress, their manner of speech, the way they greet each other, their body language, their symbols - all kinds of small and subtle cues which tell me who I want to be around. I have no idea how to pick up on these cues amongst Asian people.
The Asian friends I have had over the years fall into two categories - people who have been raised as Aussies, and people I have met at hippy festivals, who have taken on board my culture's cues and I can be fairly sure will be non-judgemental of me and my life. Other than that, I am just like every other white person - hanging out with other white people in a group while the Asian hang out together in their own group.
Now I know there are a lot of racist people here who just don't want to hang out with Asians. But I also know there are a lot of people people like me who couldn't give a toss where you are from or what your culture is as long as you don't judge us personally. I think we naturally gravitate towards those we think we will relate to and feel comfortable with, and that's a small group of predominantly white people. Unfortunately that means we pass over a lot of white people who we erroneously assume will judge us, and we also pass over everyone else unless they have taken on our cues.
It has become my new mission to learn their cues.