Megan Cheong reviews Funny Ethnics by Shirley Le
by Shirley Le
Reviewed by MEGAN CHEONG
My greatest flaw as a critic is my inability to maintain critical distance. I actively seek out books that I expect will resonate with me: a novel about a mother who writes poetry, a collection of essays exploring the nature of intergenerational trauma. Shirley Le’s debut novel, Funny Ethnics, is about Sylvia Nguyen – the only child of Vietnamese refugees – and the formative experiences that are supposed to culminate in her ‘coming of age’. Instead, Sylvia exhibits Sinbad levels of endurance as she sweats through multiple cycles of the same institutionally-inflicted suffering (tutoring centre, selective high school, law degree) until she is rendered ‘physically incapable of absorbing any more dry information’ (213). This reads like a criticism but is, for me, the most relatable aspect of Funny Ethnics, as well as the characteristic that gives the novel its curiously flat topography.
Other, arguably less profound but no less familiar details of Sylvia’s world: the ‘cork coasters of all shapes and sizes’ (1) deployed to protect the prized marble dining table where Sylvia strategically chooses to announce her decision to drop out of law and pursue writing ‘Just in case things became physical’ (1). The hilariously militaristic but actually dead-serious sentiment underlying her selective girls’ school motto, ‘Work. Conquers. All.’ (84). The catalogue of media clips showcasing Australia’s particular brand of early 2000s racism (John Marsden’s Lee, Chris Lilley’s Ricky Wong). The cringing parody of her dad, with his ‘beaming moon face’, (2) and her mum, first glimpsed praying to Buddha beneath a ‘hairspray-lacquered’ (2) perm. Funny Ethnics made me laugh so hard it induced a kind of out-of-body event in which I saw, with perfect horror, that I was laughing at the same Asian stereotypes that I’ve been laughing at, for the sake of everybody else’s comfort, my whole life. It is precisely Le’s ability to write in that uncomfortable sliver of an intersection between stereotype and reality that makes her novel so funny – I laughed because it was true, and to relieve myself from the discomfort of the fact that it was true.
Yet though Sylvia spends much of the novel criticising her ‘stupid brain’ (191), hers are not the kind of ‘self-hating jokes’ (147) for which she dismisses Fat Pizza’s Tahir Bilgiç. Beneath the fear that she cannot fulfill her parents’ dreams of entering into the sort of profession that would earn their community ‘a bit of respect’ (9), and beyond the realisation that she has no desire to be a lawyer/banker/doctor, is a bedrock of pride in Western-suburbs Vietnamese culture, and in her family. This pride lends the caricatures of extended family members and other noteworthy personalities in the Viet community the affectionate tone of family anecdotes and directs the pointy end of her observational satire at the encompassing society that denies her and her community respect in the first place. While some of the girls at Sydney Ladies’ College shriek when the ibises that inhabit the school grounds get too close, Sylvia knows from ‘a 7am Google sesh in the computer room’: that the ibises had been displaced from their natural marsh habitats due to urbanisation and river regulation. It didn’t make sense to paint them as pushy or ill-mannered animals when it was our fault they had to make a home in the city, sifting through human trash. (87)
Similarly, Funny Ethnics critiques Australian society for upholding an immigration system that relegates those asylum seekers who are permitted into the country to the literal fringes of the city, at the same time as looking down on the ‘bird-brained Asian’ (68) approach to migrating towards the centre. As one ABC listener whines midway through the book, ‘I drive past a selective school every morning and there are so many Asian students. How do we fix that?’ (57).
Rather than taking the well-trodden path of attempting to garner empathy for the Other by offering up a model of the model minority, Le gives us Sylvia, who consistently fails to flourish in the self-fulfilling machine of Australia’s allegedly meritocratic education system. Instead of expanding, Sylvia’s world contracts when she enters Sydney Ladies’ College. Within the hierarchy of the school, in which the ‘long-legged white girls’ are considered ‘rare and exotic beauties in a sea of ethnics’ (87), the Vietnamese Dux bemoans coming ‘second to a curry’ (82) on a Chemistry exam, and the Chinese and Hong Kong girls gossip about ‘how stuffed’ Vietnam must be ‘if Angelina Jolie had to adopt kids from there’ (172), Sylvia’s only closest friend is Tammy, ‘another Viet from out west’ (63). Sylvia’s days are truncated by the long commute to and from the city centre and continue to be curtailed by the ‘four trains’ she has to take to and from uni: ‘Yagoona to Lidcombe, Lidcombe to Strathfield, Strathfield to Epping, Epping to Macquarie Uni – and back’ (190). Her love interests are few and decidedly uninspiring, if not outright repellent, and over time, she even falls out of touch with Tammy, eventually listing Janine, ‘a Christian Leb chick from Blacktown’ (153) and her only friend at university, as her emergency contact on her first visit to the gynaecologist. I find myself bracing for the kind of prologue in which the protagonist ends up utterly alone and chronically depressed, when, very near the end of the novel, Sylvia attends a poetry slam at the Bankstown Arts Centre where she finally encounters a mirror of the self-respect that has, up until this point, made it so difficult for her to get on with her life.
I loved Funny Ethnics. Not, in the end, for the many ways in which it resonated with me but for the ways that it makes space for itself within the coming-of-age genre: for Le’s rejection of the narrative shapes readily available to her as a novelist, and of the cliché of the quietly brilliant Asian just waiting to be noticed. Sylvia’s story is less one of self-discovery, than it is a long and arduous journey towards understanding that it is a failure of Australian society that there isn’t somewhere for everyone to belong.
MEGAN CHEONG is a teacher, writer and critic living and working on the land of the Wurundjeri people. Her writing has been published in Sydney Review of Books, Kill Your Darlings and Meanjin. She is the recipient of a 2022 CA-SRB Emerging Critic Fellowship.