4 September 2017
The 2017 John Marsden & Hachette Australia Prize Nonfiction – Angela Chen
Angela Chen’s story From, From? has been awarded The 2017 John Marsden & Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers in the category of nonfiction. Angela was presented with the award at the 2017 Melbourne Writers Festival at a special event, and wins a $500 cash prize, an exclusive book pack from Hachette Australia and acknowledgement of her winning entry in Express Media’s flagship publication Voiceworks, Issue #109. Read Angela’s winning story right here.
“Where are you from?” Alice asked, blinking her big blue eyes at me.
“Carnegie,” I blinked back, tucking back a strand of my inky-black hair. At the time,
Australia seemed too big a place to even comprehend.
“But where are you from, from?”
As we grew older, I learnt to say “China” because it was what new friends were
waiting for when they saw my flat nose and black eyes. China was the only place
outside of Australia we knew, thanks to the Telstra/Bigpond ad about rabbits, Nasi
Goreng and The Great Wall. I was lucky; Chantal’s “Sri Lanka” was always met with
blank stares. “It used to be called Ceylon,” didn’t help much either.
Then came Grade One, when we studied “countries” in school. We had to complete
a family tree listing the places of our ancestors’ birth. I watched, filled with trepidation
and my own brand of childlike veneration, as my classmates unveiled stunningly
polished family trees, retailing glorious descriptions of aunts in America, great-uncles
in England and even a great-great-grandfather from Scotland! … All the while I had
no idea how to write about my own origins.
“Doesn’t matter, they’re all from China,” my mother offhandedly responded over a
crackling wok of vegetables.
“But do we have a great-great-grandfather from Scotland?” I inquired.
“No,” Mama said.
“What about a great-uncle from England?” I tried.
“Doesn’t matter, they’re all from China,” I parroted flatly the following day to a
staggered reception of confused applause. My ancestry of “China-China-China”
became something of a year level joke following that.
Afterwards, I began interrogating my parents incessantly about China in the
unrelenting manner that children do. Australia I knew, but what was this “China”, this
mysterious place where everyone seemed to think I belonged? What could they tell
me about China? Did they know anyone in China? And was the Great Wall really
built to keep the rabbits out?
One day after a particularly unremitting round of verbal investigation, Mama gave in
and hunted out a dusty album of cheery, fresh-faced youths who looked vaguely like
the heavy-browed, old (I thought at the time) relics I knew.
I studied those sepia pictures of their university, their hometown, places that once
meant so much to them, but meant nothing to me. I stared at them so hard and for
so long, trying to feel something, anything for those black-and-white places. Nothing
happened though, except for the black spots that clouded my vision after an hour or
That was when my parents decided that it was time for me to go to Chinese School.
“What beautiful daughter you have!” the assistant head teacher exclaimed to us
when we first walked into the dingy portable on the Mount Waverley campus.
Mama smiled a little smile. I stared dumbly back at her: “ … huh?”
I had never been called that word – “beautiful” – before. “Beautiful was a word
reserved for Jennifer Hawkins and her fellow long-limbed Aphrodites who graced the
covers of Women’s Weekly, Who and New Idea that lined the Woolies checkout.
They were all tall, leggy and blonde: three adjectives I knew were unattainable, and
would never be applicable, to short, black-haired, Asian me.
In Chinese School, though, my eyes — formerly merely a “Japanese-y lemonsqueezy”
curiosity — all of a sudden sported the coveted “double-fold”. Everyone
towered over me during the week. But on the weekend, I could nearly be
considered… tall! My thin lips, nothing like Angelina Jolie’s voluptuous pout, were
suddenly two parts of a classical “cherry mouth”.
I learnt from my classes that Chinese history was much, much more than just
keeping the rabbits out. The written language was unlike anything I’d ever seen
before; each character was a picture, a symbol in and of itself.
I became mesmerised by chengyu – precious four-word idioms, with stories to each
and every one. I would pore over them for days, fascinated by the myriad tales: the
frog in the well, the musician and the cow, the artist and the dragon’s eye.
The first time I ever uttered a word of Chinese in front of my day-school friends is still
vividly fresh in my mind: “My poster is nice, but it’s a bit hua she tian zu,” I mused.
“Huh?” was their reply.
And then, to my surprise, “Was that Chinese? Can you say it again?”
Blushing madly, I’d briefly muttered that hua she tian zu literally meant “adding a foot
when drawing a snake”, or, in a less figurative sense, ruining something’s effect by
adding unnecessary things. When I’d finally gathered up the courage to remake eye
contact, I was captivated by their response – Open mouths? Beaming eyes? A
resounding chorus of, “That’s so cool!”
From then on, my chengyu were no longer a secret from friends — they were our
secret to share with the world.
These days, my chengyu friends and I are all at different schools and on different
schedules, but we always make time for “Australian” food. Chinese, Korean, Thai,
Indian, Italian, Greek… we must have eaten the whole of Melbourne city between us.
Amidst the many spicy tears and steaming tongues, something deeper than a bowl
of Vietnamese pho runs between us.
Indeed, our streets are a conglomerate of international culture. Accepting. Sharing.
Embracing. People who might have once pronounced my mother’s name “zoo” now
pronounce it the Chinese way, “shoe”. While there is no doubt that indeed, I have
changed, I still wonder who has changed more — me, or our world?
My beaten, battered copy of “First Chinese Chengyu Stories” still sits by my bed to
this day. It’s terribly tattered and way too easy to read, but it reminds me of
something I had never felt so surely before: that once intangible theory of where I’m
from and where I am.
So where am I from, you ask?
… near Caulfield.”