5 Questions with Bella Kwai

by Leah Jing McIntosh

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You’re 24 and writing for the New York Times! What has led you to this point?

Yeah, it’s still weird. Make no mistake; I’ve had a lot of luck, support and shameless desperation. Growing up in Sydney, the idea I’d ever work for an American paper was ridiculous. I was the kind of teenager that wrote angsty poetry. I ended up getting a scholarship to study in the United States for my undergraduate degree, which was where I really fell in love with storytelling. I’ve had the privilege of finding mentors early on who taught everything about being a better journalist.

When I saw the New York Times was opening a bureau in Sydney, I knew immediately that I’d do anything to be a part of it. At the time, I was finishing up a fellowship at The Atlantic and my American visa was ominously counting down so the timing was eerily perfect. I thought that I could contribute my perspective from being both Chinese-Australian and an outsider returning to rediscover home. I’m very glad that Damien Cave, our bureau chief, agreed. Being part of this bureau in its first year has been such an exciting and insightful experience.

Born in Shanghai, you’re now working for an American company within Australia; you’ve previously written that you’re 'never been able to consider any one place home', and that this experience of multiplicity is both 'liberating' and 'disturbing'. How do you navigate such dissonant feelings? And—have you found a home in Sydney?

For me, the experience of moving overseas to live at a young age was incredibly jarring and formative. I had all these smug pre-existing ideas about who I was, and it shocked me easily how they went out the window, just by nature of being in a shiny (or sometimes foreboding) new place.

But that’s what I find so alluring about moving to a new place: you start with a blank slate, free, and you connect with people who have a different lived experience to you. And that sharing makes you see the world in a different way.

It also made me question what home means: is it the place where I grew up, or the place I first felt like the truest version of myself? Or is it both?

Moving back to Sydney has definitely been a whole other re-integration process. The city has changed, and so have I, so at first, it was disconcerting. But sometimes I’ll visit an old haunt and have a moment of deja-vu. It’s getting to feel like home.

You’ve noted that ‘The instant you begin seeing the world in international terms instead of national ones, a frenetic dismay kind of takes over’. How do you dispel this dismay?

I think it helps to try understanding the influences that contribute to a unique national icon, style or moment—something I think we keep in mind at the Australia bureau. When I look at topics from a global angle rather than a local one, things I’ve taken for granted can seem very telling. Take something like tall poppy syndrome, where Australians will pull you up if you get too big for your boots. But in other places, people don’t hedge their accomplishments because it’s not expected. I think unraveling these norms and seeing where they’re coming from helps me make sense of my place in the world.

 The title of your latest piece, '200 Years On, Chinese-Australians Are Still Proving They Belong' speaks for itself. Why do you think Chinese-Australians still feel they have to prove their worth?

Many of the families and experts I spoke to for the piece said that despite a diverse population, they feel Australia still sees itself as a white nation. It’s reflected in the makeup of the power structures in this country, which are mostly white. But that’s not what Australia looks like now and never has been. I found it telling that even Chinese-Australians who can trace their family history back 200 years still get complimented on their English skills, or get mistaken for property developers. They feel like the general public doesn’t really understand how diverse the Chinese-Australian community has become. And there are ongoing efforts to pay tribute to that history and diversity. The White Australia Policy was only fifty years ago, and there are people still grappling with its impact today. With the China-Australia relationship being thrown more into the spotlight too, Chinese-Australians are feeling concerned some of pressure will land on them.

 I’ll ask a question we we pose to all Liminal interviewees: What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?

I can’t speak for everyone but for me the name of this magazine hits it right on the head: liminal. Being caught in the spaces of two absolutes. I’ve never really known the country my parents came from in the nineties. When I call my mother, we’ll speak in a dialect native to Shanghai, a city that I’ve only visited once in my life. But then when I’m walking around Bondi, I’ll hear snippets of conversations in Chinese from tourists, who will then ask me for directions in English. And then, there’s the question we all know and love I’ll occasionally get: the 'where are you really from?' It’s illustrated to me the power of context and importance of empathy. I’m sure when I go to China for a extended trip, my definition of what it is to be Asian-Australian will shift again. It’s a constant process of discovery!

@bellakwai
www.nytimes.com/by/isabella-kwai

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