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Privilege and pressure

Sarah Lang talks to Chinese New Zealander and debut author Rose Lu about sex, sacrifice and social ignorance.

Self-confessed ‘brash extrovert’ Rose Lu, 29, has never come out as bisexual to her Chinese immigrant parents. Not verbally, anyway. But her mum and dad found about it while reading the manuscript of Rose’s personal-essay collection All Who Live on Islands (VUP), launched on 14 November 2019 at Unity. This beautifully written coming-of-age story has the migrant experience at its heart, and she writes about key experiences from different times in her life, including her first visit to China and her first sexual experience.

Rose, who lives in Wellington’s Newtown with policy-analyst boyfriend Tom, didn’t ask her parents to skip certain parts. ‘When I was watching Mum read that passage about me and my ex-girlfriend, she looked really cross, pointing at the page. But we didn’t talk about it [being bisexual]; they’re not going to acknowledge it, and I think that’s best for everyone.’ Her parents didn’t request any changes to the text. Neither did her 20-year-old brother, who was okay with Rose writing about his depression. ‘My mum did comment that it was very personal and she herself would never do anything like this.’

Some readers may think Rose’s intimate detailing of sexual experiences (with people of both genders) is TMI. Why include it? Last year, while Rose was doing a Master’s in Creative Writing at Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML), she was advised to write as if no one was reading. ‘To just put down what you think is true.’ So she did. Her portfolio won the IIML’s first-ever Modern Letters Creative Nonfiction Prize: $3000 and a book deal with VUP. ‘I didn’t know the prize existed, then I suddenly got this email.’ Rose wrote an extra essay and revised some others for publication – and decided not to cut the sexual stuff. ‘I’ve always been a very open person. I’m the one in my friend group who wants to talk about sex.’

Photo by Anna Briggs

Hers is a bold new voice amongst a generation of Asian New Zealanders who have lived here all or most of their lives. ‘I feel like we’re at a point globally where there’s a sudden interest in migrant stories as their children are coming of age,’ Rose says. She inserts and translates some Mandarin characters (mainly for dialogue) and writes very short chapters about China’s emperors and empresses. The book’s title comes from the fact Rose was born on Chóngmíng Island, near Shànghai – and that she now lives on a different island.

Her parents were among a tiny handful of their peers to get into university, and trained as engineers. Rose’s father worked his way up in a major company, then was told to become a Communist Party member. ‘His words were that he loved his country, but he didn’t love it that much.’

Rose was five when they emigrated to New Zealand, before her brother was born. ‘We came after the removal of a “preferred race” clause and the introduction of a points-based system that my young, university-educated and relatively wealthy parents met. Like many migrants, they were fleeced by an immigration broker, who had them pay the 2019 equivalent of NZ$10,000 for helping them to navigate the administrative system of a foreign country.’ That was all their savings gone. ‘They knew they were being exploited, but felt they didn’t have another choice.’

Even after completing a Master’s from Massey University, her father couldn’t find a job to support his family. ‘Many New Zealanders don’t recognise how much landing jobs relies on connections and word of mouth,’ Rose says. Plus there’s sometimes a language barrier and conscious or unconscious bias.

The family lived in Auckland, Rotorua, and Palmerston North before moving to Whanganui. Here Rose’s parents became owner-operators of a dairy/takeaway joint, often praised for its fish burgers. They worked long hours, and took only one day off in 15 years, when her mother had an operation. When Rose was nine, her maternal grandparents moved from China to live with them, becoming socially isolated, largely housebound, and homesick for China, despite the efforts of their family members. Her parents – now retired in Auckland – are still caring for Rose’s ‘Kon-kon’ and ‘Bu‘uah’.

From what Rose can tell, her parents aren’t disappointed at how their lives have turned out. ‘What they wanted most was stability and security, and they weren’t too proud to do what needed to be done to get there.’ Her mum once told her, ‘We have eaten so much bitterness in our lives just so that you and your brother could have more comfortable days’. Did their sacrifices make Rose feel grateful? Or pressured? ‘Many migrants’ children feel indebted to their parents. I owe my parents so much.’

Moving between towns, Rose went to five primaries, one intermediate, and two high schools. ‘Leaving friends was upsetting.’ In Whanganui, she worked part-time at the Mad Butcher, and a night out was driving down the main drag, then congregating at a petrol station. ‘Whanganui was a toilet stop that had gone on too long.’ Her parents hoped she’d become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. ‘I totally get where they were coming from. I just thought “I have to do something vaguely sensible”.’

Rose studied mechatronics engineering in Christchurch. Shifting to Wellington 2014, the software engineer is currently Technical Lead at Flick Electric. Her brother also studied engineering. Their parents always saw their children’s interests, like writing, just as hobbies. Rose was always a big reader. ‘But I didn’t think writing was a feasible career option.’ 

Rose has experienced much racism. The hardest thing wasn’t the playground rumour that her family ate cats, or being called Ching Chong. ‘The most confronting thing is when it [racism] is unexpected – when it’s someone I know, and suddenly they say something racist because of stereotypes or ignorance.’

Photo by Anna Briggs

She bought into stereotypes herself. ‘I thought of China as an impoverished, totalitarian, and lacklustre country. I had acquired a passive form of racism that is pervasive among well-intentioned New Zealanders, one born of unaddressed ignorance.’ She went on a journey of discovery – and self-discovery – by visiting China. ‘Listening to people’s stories undid the assumptions I held about China and I could hear people’s joy and pride about being from here… I saw the shape of a life that nearly could have been mine.’

Back in New Zealand, she began reading books by Chinese New Zealanders – most influentially Old Asian, New Asian by Emma Ng – and got the writing bug herself. She cut back paid work to two days a week to do the IIML Master’s, having contacted Asian writers like Chris Tse about their experiences.

Rose and Sharon Lam (who designed Rose’s book cover) connected over being the only Asian person in the years of their respective Master’s. ‘We joked about establishing an “Asians of the IIML” club.’ Rose became her classmates’ go-to person for reading parts of their writing related to immigrants or Chinese people. She sees the need for this ‘sensitivity read’ as a product of systemic cultural ignorance. ‘It was well-intentioned but kind of frustrating.’

It’s estimated that Asian New Zealanders write just two percent of New Zealand books, though there are signs of progress, including the New Asian NZ Voices anthology being compiled by Alison Wong and Paula Morris. ‘I feel a sense of responsibility with my work,’ Rose says, ‘because I know it will be seen as an act of Asian New Zealand representation.’ That carries both privilege – and pressure – but she’s up for the challenge.

First published in Capital issue #66
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