At many times while reading this very human account of finding a place in the world and an authentic identity, I found myself thinking how universal this search is. At one point I was comparing Helene’s feelings on meeting relatives in China with those of an adoptee on meeting birth relatives, when Helene, herself, made the same comparison. The title of the book conveys Helene’s sense that she is and has always been a New Zealander, and this is emphasised throughout the narrative.
Born into a family where both parents immigrated from China, and whose determined purpose was to fit in and not make waves, Helene considered herself no different to her school friends and neighbours. It was a shock when she was targeted with racist abuse as a schoolgirl and she began to resent the attention her different appearance brought on her, whether it was meant kindly or otherwise. New Zealand’s history regarding the Chinese who came here as immigrants and workers, is abysmal. I was surprised to learn that discrimination at the highest levels of government still existed into the 1960s and beyond.
Born in New Zealand with a passport that stated she was a New Zealand citizen, Helene discovered that, for the purpose of trans-Tasman travel, she was not considered to be one at all. Selected to go to Australia to join an international group of youngsters at a Moral Re-Armament conference she, unlike her white and brown compatriots who had the right of unrestricted entry, had to obtain a passport and a visa from the Australian High Commission allowing entry on a two-week visa. Then on her return, she had to obtain a re-entry permit to come back into her own country. In her own words -” it confronted me with the truth that despite all my efforts at assimilation, I had not become invisible. I was still thought of as Chinese.”
Intelligent and self-aware, Helene examined her life as she lived it, continually asking herself how her desires and actions fitted with both her personality and her dual culture. She became an adviser to Robert Muldoon as a member of his think tank during his tenure as prime minister, tasked with the Social Affairs portfolio. Media attention focused on her gender, not her race. And while working with Māori, she found their open displays of emotion liberating. Her interest in theatre and experiences as an actor enabled her to see that differences in appearance were not always a handicap. Often the difference was not even noticed or commented on. Digging into family history, Helene found that older relatives had traveled similar journeys to her own. Discovering these relatives as real people rather than just photographs or memories of them as old and reclusive, enabled Helene to feel connected to them as part of her lineage.
Helene’s struggle to find her identity, both as a person and as one with a culturally different background, resonates on many levels with the path that all humans have to walk. This is a well written account of one person’s life and one that I enjoyed reading. At a time when discrimination is unfortunately becoming more strident here in New Zealand, it is a book that should be read by many more.
Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra
Being Chinese – A New Zealander’s Story
by Helene Wong
Published by Bridget Williams Books