My name is Wong Liu Shueng and when I was a child my parents also gave me an English name: they thought if I had one it would protect me but it wasn’t to be the case. I was born into the back of a fruit shop so rather than learn to play, as a youngster I learned to work and help my family. I only spoke Chinese, I heard English at the front of the shop and knew a little but by the time I had to go to school I didn’t really understand English. Neither did I understand playtime, I remember sitting and watching the monkey bars and the sandpit and it made little sense to me so I just watched. I was a tiny little girl, the smallest girl in school and the only Chinese.
It started one day when I was walking home and some big boys I didn’t know yelled out “Ching Chong Chinaman” and other nasty things: I will never forget the dread I felt when I realised these boys I’d never even met were screaming at me.
At first, I just pretended it wasn’t happening. There’d be more and more and they’d be screaming in my face and I’d pretend they weren’t there.
In the mornings I learned to hook up with a whole bunch of other kids who had to walk past my shop so every day I’d wait for them and slip in the middle of them and sneak past the boys who were always waiting for me.
So I thought OK: I can get to school without being attacked.
The boys realised this and started waiting for me after school and unfortunately, home time at school was different. For some reason children are more dispersed and going different ways so it was hard to hide in groups to get home. Sometimes I was lucky and I would see an old lady who was one of our customers and I would walk with her for protection. But one day a teacher asked me to stay and help her and this was when walking home became a real nightmare. When I walked out of the school gates on my own, the boys were circling on their bikes waiting for me.
They started chasing me and I ran but I wasn’t fast enough. They cornered me and the road we were on had just been tar-sealed so there were piles of sharp gravel chips everywhere. They had got me up against a wall and their pockets were already full of sharp stones which they threw at me until I was bleeding and there were no more stones left to throw. I cried. I froze because I was terrified. The backs of my hands were wet with blood because I used them to shield my face.
My special yellow gingham dress that my beloved godmother had made especially for me was bloody and ripped. All the time the boys were laughing their heads off. I remember walking the 200m to our shop, past the Police Station and even then realised the cruel irony of walking past the Policeman’s house, bleeding and crying. When I got to our shop I told my mother what happened and you know what she said? She said, well you must have done something to bring this on. No mother I do not know those boys they are older than me and not in my class. Well you need to look at what you’re doing and you need to be kinder and nicer to people she said. So I realised my survival was up to me.
This continued and over the years I learned to be more cunning in evading the boys. But one day in my childhood stands out like no other.
I had made a friend, she was much taller than me and she would sometimes walk home with me. One day when the boys came for me after school she lost it and she turned around and faced the boys with her hands on her hips like an adult! How dare you, she demanded. Don’t be so bloody rude, she shouted. Show some respect and go away, she told them.
And they fled. And I will never forget that feeling of seeing my friend stand up for me.
She is still my friend today and on my 60th birthday (more than a decade ago now!) she came up to my place in Auckland and I made a point of thanking her for standing up for me that day. She couldn’t even remember it but I said to her, you have no idea how grateful I was that you stuck up for me. I told her it was hard for me to stick up for myself on my own because I was literally gasping for breath, I was in survival mode, trying to be calm but feeling terrified. Head down, don’t attract attention, keep walking. My mother used to say that silly rhyme, sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me, well that really is rubbish. Words are really hateful and words can be the same as very sharp stones. When someone is in front of you screaming hateful things about your ethnicity – something you can’t change – this is totally hurtful.
Then a few years later the boys disappeared and I realised they’d gone off to college.
Their racism changed me, as did my friend’s actions when she stood up for me. I went to university and studied social anthropology, I remember one paper that was about prejudice and racism and I found it very hard because when I’d go to do the readings I would cry and cry. How could people be so hateful? I decided to devote my life to reducing prejudice. To help people recognise that when we say things like 'Oh don’t mix with them they smell' or 'Don’t talk to them they eat weird food': that’s how racism starts. Racism starts small and it’s a light feeder. Racism just needs crumbs to get stronger and stronger.
Once I met a man who was trying to be a better person and after he heard my story he said he used to racially harass kids like me at school. I was intrigued. Wow, why did you do it? And he didn’t really know except it felt like a neat thing to do. That’s when we got to talking a lot about what happens when children and adults lack empathy: I believe that lacking empathy allows you to live with your own prejudices and say to yourself that you are always right.
One thing I’ve learned over the years with racist behaviour is that the behaviour has to be named. I call out the behaviour because behaviour can be changed. I tell parents whose children are being attacked to keep diaries and record the abuse and the attacks. This helps us recognise the enormity of the problem because if, like me, you are terrified every day of your life: this is akin to torture. Don’t just ignore children when they say they are being bullied, listen to them and stand with them.
Over the years I’ve realised that cowardly racism is insidious because people say things when they think no one will challenge them. One woman at a social gathering moaned angrily and loudly about how the television was tuned to Maori TV – we were listening to that wonderful young journalist Mihingarangi Forbes – and because I wasn’t Maori she assumed, wrongly, that I’d say nothing. She was wrong. This kind of racism often goes unchallenged but we all need to challenge it more.
As one of the Asian Aucklanders so many news articles are being written about, I see the Chinese are being blamed for everything from economic problems to the inflated house market: this is just unfair.
These are complicated problems and a Chinese person walking down the road (eg me or any person walking up to Ponsonby shop for a coffee) is not to blame. And yet some people are blaming us for all their woes. We need to working out how to solve some very serious socials issues but sometimes the “debate” is less about facts and more about racism.
It’s been more than 70 years since I was born in a small New Zealand town. My granddaughters are the same age I was when those boys tormented me and my hope is that they will grow up in a kinder, more tolerant and more empathetic New Zealand than the one I grew up in.