In Conversation with Erin Chew
The founder of Asian Australian Alliance talks about her political journey, adapting and self-care.
What’s your story? Tell us a little bit about yourself; who you are, what you do and your background. — Hi there, my name is Erin Chew. I was born and raised in Sydney growing up in Western Sydney in the working class area of Mt Druitt. I think I am what we call second generation, as my parents are immigrants from Malaysia and came to Australia in 1976. Both my parents are hardworking and found menial blue-collar employment to bring up my two siblings and myself.
When I started school in the late 1980s, I was the only kid that was Asian, more specifically Chinese. This was the first time that I realised I was different from everyone else in the school and I started to question who I really was culturally. I faced severe racial bullying both physically and psychologically, and this really affected my confidence, self-esteem and I self-doubted my own identity. Upon reflection, it was this sadness and trauma I had as a 5 year old, which has made me, who I am today.
For most of my childhood all the way into high school, I was ashamed of who I was and ashamed to be Asian/Chinese. Moreover, I engaged in many risky behaviors as a way of coping, though my schoolwork never suffered, I guess it was my way of hiding my problems from my parents and everyone else around me. When I finished high school and entered university, I studied a Bachelor of Business at the University of Technology, Sydney. I went into young adulthood with many self-confidence and body image issues, and this affected my studies.
A 3-year degree full time, became a 5-year degree for me. My solace during that period was getting involved in student politics, and I thrived there. I started to get involved with the University ALP (Australian Labor Party) club and this changed my perspective in life. I was elected to the UTS student union board and was heavily involved with the National Union of Students (NUS). In addition to all this, I was involved with the NSW Young Labor movement and worked my way into being involved with the youth movement’s state executive.
When I finally graduated from my degree, I decided to follow the usual route of a stereotypical Asian child and got a graduate position at National Australia Bank working as a graduate economic analyst. That lasted less than 2 years and I got bored and unhappy with where I was. I quit, and decided to take up a position as a summer intern for the Transport Workers Union. This started my career and passion for trade unionism and for social activism.
Working for the union was a great way for me to enhance my political activism, I did that, working and coordinating a number of political campaigns (from state to federal) for a number of election cycles, and I was elected to Australia Young Labor National Executive as a committee member. Since then in addition to my political activism, I have worked for a range of different unions as an organiser and politicians as a political staffer. In 2015, I worked for the National Tertiary Education Union and for Unions NSW as an organizer.
In 2016, I finished my career in the union movement to move to Southern California after I got married in 2014 (my husband is American). In California I started to work (and continue to today) as a blogger for YOMYOMF (You Offend Me, You Offend My Family) which is owned by Hollywood director Justin Lin. I write about anything and everything related to being Asian, and I interview Hollywood actors, directors, movie crews etc and write articles that have an Asian slant to it. In addition to being a blogger, I am also a freelance writer in entertainment and social issues and have written for SBS and other Australian and Asian related media outlets.
Jumping back a little, in 2013 I started the Asian Australian Alliance as a way to collectively advocate on issues common among the Asian Australian community. Today, the Asian Australian Alliance has grown to having active branches in both Sydney and Melbourne and we are next heading to Brisbane. We have been involved in many mainstream campaigns and have been highlighted in the media including waging a national campaign in 2014-15 on ensuring the Government does not make changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, supporting the rights of Asian international students in terms of racism and safety concerns, advocating and taking a stand against domestic violence (regarding Asian Australian women) – this we continue to do today. Last year the Asian Australian Alliance was front and center in advocating for a YES vote during the marriage equality campaign.
“Albeit, it is a world which has treated me for most of my life thus far as a perpetual foreigner, and it is a world which frustrates me as I have never truly felt I belong, but I think it is this quandary which is the essence of being an Asian between cultures. It is the navigation of finding out how to be above those who remind you that you are different and how to succeed in your goals, career and passions but still being able to embrace and love your Asian identity.”
What absolutely excites you right now? — I am a very simple and basic person and the littlest things can excite me. My cat excites me, eating good xiao long baos or dumplings excites me, or when I make myself a fragrant and lovely cup of tea or coffee – that too excites me. However, if you were talking about something that is more substantial then it would be 2019. Every New Year excites me because it signifies fresh starts and the chasing of new dreams and goals. For me 2019 will bring many fruits including launching my new company IEP (International Education Platform) in the first half of next year, and I have a number of exciting community projects, which will benefit the Asian Australian community.
Moreover, thinking about some of my more long term dreams excites me including the possibility of chasing the almost impossible dream of being elected somewhere and somehow in Australia (100 points for those who can guess what this may be), and continue to travel and see the world.
If you could be anywhere on this world, where would it be and why? — For me I am torn between two places. The first place is more of a region and that is Asia somewhere (where exactly I am still undecided), but it is my intention in my later years to settle somewhere in Asia. Second place is just to be at home with my family and loved ones. At the end of the day, nothing else is important except the love of family, which you have around you.
What is a book, tv show or podcast that you think people definitely need to get into and why? — I am an avid reader, so in terms of a book, I would recommend “The Political World of Asian Americans: A Tribute to Don T. Nakanishi”. This is really about how Asian American studies came to be in the US and how it has developed since. In addition, the late Don T. Nakanishi was my mentor (we connected when he would visit Australia for his research into the Asian diaspora), and I learned from him. This book will also provide an awesome insight into the history of Asian American activism.
For a TV show, I am going to self-indulge and recommend The Family Law, which is a comedy sitcom about the life of Asian Australian writer Benjamin Law and his family. I like the show because it does not shy away from showing that Asian families are not perfect and go through the same issues and family drama that any other family would go through.
What does it mean to be an Asian Between Cultures? — To be an Asian between cultures can mean something different depending on where you are on your life journey of understanding who you are culturally and finding the spot in where you belong. For many of us, like myself who were born and raised in a Western society, being an Asian between cultures means I am able to enjoy and understand two very different cultures – my Asian/Malaysian Chinese culture and my Western culture, which is the only world I truly understand. Albeit, it is a world which has treated me for most of my life thus far as a perpetual foreigner, and it is a world which frustrates me as I have never truly felt I belong, but I think it is this quandary which is the essence of being an Asian between cultures.
It is the navigation of finding out how to be above those who remind you that you are different and how to succeed in your goals, career and passions but still being able to embrace and love your Asian identity. Again, if you ask another Asian from the diaspora this question, they could totally give you a different answer because this question of meaning is interpreted differently for different people.
What are some of the blessings that come with being an ABC? — One of the biggest blessings in being an ABC is the perspective I/we have on things, issues and experiences. I feel that as an ABC I have a broader perspective on things and can interpret things differently. This may sound odd, but being between cultures, we are predisposed in understanding how to think and act differently depending on which cultural shoes we are in.
In addition, to be able to enjoy the fruits of different cultures is a huge blessing because we get exposed to so much more than just being apart one monolithic culture. We also learn how to adapt quickly to our shared cultures and learn how it all can work together in sync. For me personally it has extended my friendship circles to people who have cultural and religious backgrounds from all over the world.
What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced as an ABC? — I think the feeling that no matter what you do, say or act, I will always be seen and perceived as different and Australia will never really accepted me, despite the fact that I am born and raised there. Because racially I am not part of the majority, I will always be treated as a perpetual foreigner, and there is not much, which can be done about this. These feelings will always act, as challenges because I feel growing up I always had to prove my self-worth and value in society because I am Asian descent.
I have been victim of many instances of racism at both a casual and institutional level and have always felt that I had to rise to the occasion. Nevertheless, these challenges can also be turned into blessings and in this case, it has made me into a stronger and more determined person to pursue and achieve my goals. I also feel that growing up, I had to try so hard to reconcile my dual/shared identities of being an ABC into one identity, and it took me such a long time to learn how all my identities can work in harmony together.
How does being an ABC shape the way you think of your relationships? — Being an ABC I tend to gravitate to form relationships with people who share some common interests with me and understand issues around social activism, empowerment identity, race, culture and traditions – things that are important to me. But on a more broader level, being an ABC allows me to have a broader understanding about what relationships are and whom I allow in my inner circle to collaborate with, be friends with and/or be colleagues with.
I must admit, I do see relationships with a “racial lens”, not in the physical sense, but in a sense of the person’s understanding about issues of race and whether they are culturally competent and sensitive, or have potential to be regardless of who they are culturally.
Cultural identity and upbringing is a great way to start deeper conversations. Why do you think most people engage or disengage with these topics? — To engage in conversations and discussions about cultural identity and upbringing are extremely deep topics to engage with. Where a person is on their journey of understanding culture and identity will determine how comfortable they are in engaging on these topics. A great way to start is to find common ground. No matter what culture we identify with there are always common traits, which can be used as a bonding agent.
For example, appreciation for language is an easy conversation starter on this topic, as well as food and certain cultural mannerisms and shared values of the importance of family. The deeper parts of the conversations around culture and identity will come when the commonalities are established. I think those who do engage in these topics, are those who are either on the journey of trying to understand how their culture fits in with their lives or those who are interested in exploring these themes with others who are in the same situation. But there are also those who disengage with these topics because they either do not see the importance that culture and upbringing plays in their day to day lives, they feel that assimilation to the “majority culture” of where they live is more important and all their energies are placed into trying their best to fit in, or they are still at the start of their journeys and are unsure on how to engage in these conversations because of how deep and personal it can get.
What is the driving force in your life? Share with us your motivations and why you keep on pursuing your dreams. — I not only live between cultures, but I also live between two countries. I spend a significant part of the year in Southern California because firstly, I found love here, but I also spend months out of the year in Australia because that is where my family and many of my community projects are. I say this because family is a major driving force in my life, and my family in both countries drives me. I feel that I am myself when I am a change maker, and if I can help empower the younger generations with the work I do in the community, then that is a huge motivation for me to continue to pursue my dreams and goals. My work is not done yet and I have a lifetime of dreams to pursue, but having solid family support, strong community networks and the will to see change in the future will always continue to be a driving force.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to your previous self? This could be your yesterday, last week, month or year self.— This is a good question. I am going to nominate myself a year ago when I was experiencing a lot of online trolling and bullying by racists and misogynists. I would tell myself to talk to more people about it and not be afraid to share the burdens with others with whom I trust. I would also tell myself to balance my life out and do more things, which require me to be away from the computer, away from professional networking and meetings and something outdoors as well as something, which is about self-care. In order to sustain a busy life pursuing goals and dreams, it is important that a balanced life is achieved.