Funny Ethnics
Shirley Le
Review by HOA PHAM

Affirm Press, $29.99

We start at the beginning with the title. “Funny  Ethnics” is a self reflexive nod to the non-Asian audience about to read the book with a promise to be amusing with cross cultural humour. Le lives up to this promise and more, with her insightful voice through Sylvia her protagonist. Non Asians may laugh at some of the foibles Le illustrates but Asians would too but also have ‘a ha’ moments of recognition.

Le positions Sylvia as a participant observer living in Sydney’s west and is aware of how Asians are perceived. We as the audience are shown her world with honesty and humour.

The model minority is the stereotype of the smart studious Asian who works hard that is commonly projected onto Asians. Le is aware of this expectation that is projected onto Asians and plays up to it.

“During my interview with Regina I had made sure to speak with my Model Minority voice- a sweetened tone with clear enunciation (things, not fings) that never exceeded 60 decibels, each sentence ending with a shy smile and enthusiastic nod.” P.120

Le positions Sylvia in a self reflexive way throughout the narrative, at one point calling herself a “bird brained Asian” p68 “was I just a cheater undeserving of opportunity like all those newspaper articles implied?” in reference to the extra tutoring she had in order to sit the selective school entrance exams.

She goes on to study at Sydney Ladies College and then doing a degree at Macquarie University on the other side of town four train rides away.

Her observations of racism are astute and telling:

“Old Viets got gooey at the slightest show of mediocrity from Caucasoids (speaking broken Vietnamese). Where was my praise when I spoke broken Vietnamese? Plus I’d never seen a white person congratulate my parents for speaking broken English. Instead they wanted to deport them from the country for leaving out a consonant here and a conjunction there.”p.174

John Marsden’s portrayal of Lee a Vietnamese-Thai character in Tomorrow when the war began making a joke about “cooking sweet and sour possum and feral cat dim sums” puts Sylvia off. She abandoned the novel physically but kept her thoughts to herself.

Chris Lilley the white Australian comedian also gets a serve

“Chris Lilley. Showing everyone how things really were. Those weirdly smart Asians were just silly creatures utterly incapable of any real creativity or individuality, forever losers who were only useful to Australian society as human calculators. Except I wasn’t even smart.”

But Le writes with a light touch and humour, her observations of both her culture of origin, Vietnamese and the dominant white culture that she lives in from an outsider’s point of view. Visiting the temple for Vietnamese New Years Eve she giggles at the sculpture of green dragons and makes a wish to Buddha to pass the selective school exam then ending with “Soz for the stupid question. I know you aren’t Santa”. (p.13)

Her story does not live in isolation from other Vietnamese cultural offerings such as Nam Le’s The Boat which is referenced as being read multiple times and his Prime Minister prize win a cause for familial celebration.

She also refers to the founding myth of Vietnam Lac Long Quan and Au Co the mother and father of the Vietnamese people as the first divorce, a no no in Vietnamese society. Lac Long Quan took 50 of his children to learn to fish in the sea while Au Co the mountain fairy took 50 children to grow rice in the mountains.

Le has written Sylvia’s story in a witty insightful way that will delight Asian and non Asian readers alike. Her narrator being both inside and outside the cultures portrayed gives the reader a cross cultural perspective that is easily shared. More than just a coming of age story Funny Ethnics also offers a commentary on “multicultural Australia” and Asians’ positions in Australia.

i Carl G. Jung. Qtd in Stanley R. Hopper, “Once More: The Cavern Beneath the Cave.” Archetypal Process. Edited by D. R. Griffin. Northwestern University Press, 1990, p. 118.

Hoa Pham is the author of eight books including science fiction novel Empathy (Goldsmiths Press, 2022). Hoa’s novel The Other Shore (Xoum, 2014) will be republished at the end of 2023.