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ordinary orientalismsArrow vol 3 no 3 contents
About borderlands Volume 3 Number 3, 2004


Ordinary Australian Orientalisms:
Racialised and Gendered Approaches to the Turtle Beach texts
in Australia’s Ambivalence Towards Asia

Goldie Osuri
Macquarie University


1. Australia’s Ambivalence towards Asia is a significant intervention in the continual cultural representations of the relationships between ‘Asia’ and ‘Australia’, whether these representations have to do with relationships between Anglo and diverse Asian Australians or whether it has to do with diverse Asian peoples and countries and Anglo-Australia. Perhaps one of the most important ways in which the book is a necessity in debates about ‘Australia’ and ‘Asia’ is the manner in which it highlights Anglo-Australia’s ongoing Orientalist cultural productions in a number of ways. Situating their analysis in terms of historical contexts and contemporary economical, political and cultural contexts, D’Cruz and Steele make visible Anglo-Australia’s Orientalism not just in representations that are isolated or overtly racist. Importantly, they take a text like Turtle Beach, which would be considered as part of mainstream Australian literature, and proceed to unpack its insidious racialised and gendered discourses through colonial discourse analysis. As the authors point out, the 1981 book has since won a number of awards including the Sydney PEN golden jubilee award, the Age Book of the Year award and the South Australian Government’s Bicentennial award. So, as literary texts go, Turtle Beach appears to be firmly written into history as part of the Australian literary canon.

2. Being written into history reminds me of another writer’s story about the manner in which authors are canonized in Australia. I recently had the privilege of hearing the Chinese Australian bilingual writer and translator, Ouyang Yu, at a seminar at the Critical and Cultural studies department at Macquarie University (September 2004). Ouyang Yu is an exciting and prolific author who has published at least 28 books apart from other publications within the last 14 years in Australia. Not only is Yu’s work a significant corpus which provides a space to look at a Chinese Australian’s representations of Australia, it also creates new languages and new ways for examining historical, cultural, linguistic, psychological and somatic relationships between Australia and China. Yet, his work doesn’t seem to be worth a review in the Australian Book Review. This behavior by the editor of the Australian Book Review, Peter Rose, in terms of excluding the diverse range of Asian Australian writing, confirms Yu’s suspicion about the racist, white Australian border protection mentality within Australia’s literary establishment. During the seminar, Yu suggested that he was being written out of Australian literary history. In effect, it is this attempted ‘whiting out’ of Asian Australian writers that enables the constitution of white Australian literary history. In a personal communication with me, Yu has stated that he is ‘not going to be bothered’ by this white behavior. It is not ‘relevant’ to his continuing writing, translating and publishing career. It is telling that while Yu has been ‘written out of history’ by the Australian Book Review, a number of academics that I know have been using Yu’s work in courses that deconstruct Anglo-Australian based canonizations in literary and cultural productions. In this sense, perhaps Yu’s work is too distinctive. It is not ordinary enough in the manner in which Blanche d'Alpuget’s Turtle Beach is an Australian ordinary text.

3. In fact, by speaking about the Turtle Beach texts (both book and film), D’Cruz and Steele manage to put their finger on the crucial way in which the term ‘ordinary’ operates in Australian discourses. While Turtle Beach did win a whole range of book awards, it also appears to be received in the vein of an ordinary Australian text. Or as D’Cruz and Steele point out, the text ‘hardly has the aesthetic or academic qualities to fit it into anybody’s idea of the canonical’, it is ‘a cause-celebre that has lost both currency and celebrity’ in a contemporary Australian context (199). Yet, the book has not only received the awards mentioned, but it also sold over 55, 000 copies. Perhaps it is the very ordinary quality of a book written about an Anglo-Australian’s experience of Malaysia that recommends it to its ‘ordinary’ wide readership. The large readership/viewership, and the ‘ordinary’ Orientalist discourses that the texts mobilise is precisely the reason that D’Cruz and Steele cite in their rationale for their analysis of the Turtle Beach texts. They suggest that the texts have been ‘meeting a need of times’ and is not ‘just a fad’ (199). In the case of Turtle Beach, ordinary was signaled by its author in terms of unmediated piece of writing: ‘the kind of writer who just goes out and writes down what she sees’ (228). ‘Ordinary’ here is an Australian innocent abroad in Malaysia. ‘Ordinary’ in Australian parlance, from the perspective of a racialised denizen like me, signals a number of racial signifieds. ‘Ordinary’ looks like a white Australian body. ‘Ordinary’ is the exclusion of refugees by a ‘decent’ Prime Minister. Ordinary Australians need to raise their voices to prevent the multicultural invasion in a Howardist/Hansonist style in opposition to the dangers of Indigenous empowerment or the threat of Asian swarming migration. The use of the term ‘swarm’ is not accidental, as D’Cruz and Steel would note. The insect metaphor used to describe Asians is entrenched in the Turtle Beach texts.

4. ‘Ordinary’ is racialised linguistically in the Turtle Beach texts. As the authors point out, the use of ‘Foreigner Talk’ is one distinct mechanism by which racialised Orientalist characteristics are ascribed. D’Cruz and Steel attribute the coining of the term ‘Foreigner Talk’ to Charles Ferguson (1971), who uses the phrase to describe ‘linguistic register/s used by native speakers to communicate with foreigners or purportedly to mimic their peculiarities, with the line between the two often being blurred’ (214). ‘Foreigner Talk’ is a term the authors prefer to the term ‘dialect’, which academic linguistics ‘would wish to rehabilitate at least to the point of neutrality’ (215). There is a wealth of ‘Foreigner Talk’ in d’Alpuget’s Turtle Beach, and D’Cruz and Steele’s rich analysis of ‘Foreigner Talk’ is an important part of their text and a major contribution in the larger field of colonial discourse analysis and race, ethnicity and gender studies. D’Cruz and Steele demonstrate how ‘Foreigner Talk’ functions to reduce non-Anglo characters to stereotypes. So, either the leaving out of words in the case of Chinese Malaysian characters or the use of too many words or phrases by Indian Malaysian characters serves to establish the norm (the ordinariness) of Australian English.

5. Furthermore, there is a whole range of inaccuracies which D’Cruz and Steele find in the attribution of speech patterns to different ethnicities. For instance, the authors find that ‘(h)eavy use of the present progressive tense is not characteristic of Malaysian English at all. It is characteristic of Indian English’ (218). The speech in question is attributed to a character named as a relative of Kanan (a Malaysian Indian character) who says, ‘I’m telling you Madam, it is a wonderful sight to see the amazing things these people can be doing with spears’ (215). However, in Turtle Beach, to ascribe Indian English to Malaysian Indians speaking English is ‘to suggest not only that they can never succeed in speaking English correctly, but also that particular way in which they will fail (218). This failure in being able to speak English is not just about deriving humour, although that is insidious enough, but also about, as D’Cruz and Steele suggest, a stress on a stereotypical notion of Indianess through ‘Foreigner Talk’. So, this linguistic attribution is ‘somehow borne in their genes from India’ (218).

6. D’Cruz and Steele might be right about the fact that some speakers of Indian English might use a present, progressive tense. But in this particular context I don’t think they go far enough in their analysis of d’Alpuget’s speech ascriptions. I am reminded here of that Hollywood film, The Party (1968), which derives its humour almost entirely from the mechanism of ‘Foreigner Talk’. The British Peter Sellers’ mimicry of an Indian at a Hollywood party in the U.S. stereotyped a diverse range of Indian Englishes spoken even within India (for e.g. Tamil English versus Punjabi English--and even these state-based Englishes differ from each other through regional accentuations). So, when my family migrated to the U.S., we were often spoken to by Anglo-Americans in Peter Sellers’ Indian ‘Foreigner Talk.’ I was constantly angered by this ‘liberty’ that many Anglo-Americans took when they spoke to members of our family. But I was also rather puzzled as to where this accent came from until I saw The Party. It was then I realized that the parodic Indian accent had less to do with Indians than with Anglo-American versions of Peter Sellers’ Indian talk; in other words, this Indian speak was about Americans imitating a British actor in order to denigrate an Indian family. In Blanche d’Alpuget’s case, I would suggest, that she, an Australian, was possibly imitating Peter Seller’s ‘Foreigner Talk’ via a Hollywood film in order to write the words (and derive humour through denigration) spoken by a Malaysian Indian English speaker in her novel. These linguistic routes of Empire are often not that hard to trace, once we begin to pay attention; but ‘Foreigner Talk’, in representational terms, has an extraordinarily ordinary currency in the global cultural archive of Empire.

7. D’Cruz and Steele also note another significant gendering and racialising mechanism that underpins the characterisation in Turtle Beach. In their close examination of the language of Turtle Beach, the authors find a striking use of animal metaphors which are racialised, ethnicised, and gendered in quite distinct ways. In fact, Turtle Beach animalizes raced and gendered representations. So, ‘Asians are animals in appearance, behavior and language’ (224). Interestingly, as the authors note, given the classificatory systems that have been employed in western knowledge production in relation to animals and to non-western peoples on the basis of ‘instinct and habituation’, ‘it should not be very surprising that a metaphorical equivalence between Asians and animals, and with it an ascription of animalistic characteristics to Asians, runs deeply through Turtle Beach’ (224). So, a Chinese man is described has having turned into a monkey: ‘He turned into a monkey before my eyes. He ate bananas with skins on, and ripped a coconut husk off with his teeth, and they beat him with whips’ (224). Hindu women are described to be ‘as vivid and shrill as birds’ (225). And while Anglo-Australian characters also have animal characteristics (they snarl, or they feel their hackles rising), they tend to occupy the characteristics of animals who can be in control of their situations. The authors identify a pattern where the animalization of Anglo-Australians functions to represent them in a ‘dominant and (re)active way’, whereas Asian characters display animalistic characteristics which are uncontrollable or which function to stereotype them in a reductive manner. Hence, the Chinese man is a monkey—a figure that cannot control himself because of fear, or Hindu women are shrill birds—unindividuated figures who are reduced to flitting and annoying sounds. Such descriptions fall within the Orientalist mechanisms of representing non-Europeans as unable to govern themselves, or as groups who fall outside civilized behaviors in speech (shrill birds cannot be seen as able to have a ‘civilised’ and rational conversation). Birds, as D’Cruz and Steele note, occupy an unfortunate history as signifiers of sexist language in Anglo cultures: A bird is a ‘sexist Anglo colloquialism for "woman" seen in the Australian macho imagination as ornamental and helpless, like other colonized groups’ (227). And, as the authors note in relation to animalizing, colonial representations of race and gender, ‘In Turtle Beach, no Anglo-Australians are monkeys, those eternally unsuccessful posturing imitations of higher humanity’ (227).

8. One of the complex functions of animalizing race and gender differences is to feminize or emasculate Asian masculinities. So, Kanan (the Malaysian Indian character) is described by d’Alpuget as ‘bounding up the steps, his forehead muzzled to the temple of a West Indian who arm draped around Kanan’s neck . . .. Kanan smelling like a flower’ (quoted 231). D’Cruz and Steele’s commentary on the phenomenon of feminizing Asian masculinities has a contemporary resonance in the recently released and acclaimed film, Japanese Story (2003). Interestingly, Japanese Story was hailed by many Anglo-Australians as a film which attempted to break down long held stereotypes of Japanese men as mechanistic or feminised. Yet, when I went to see the film, the feminization of the character of the Japanese businessman, Tachibana Hiromitsu (played by Gotaro Tsunashima), was quite obvious. In one scene in the film, where the Anglo-Australian woman, Sandy Edwards (played by Toni Collette) attempts to have sex with the Japanese man, she is wearing pants and a tie (that phallic symbol of masculinity). There is a sense in the film that the director, Sue Brooks, is playing with gender stereotypes in making the Australian woman the dominant sex partner. Yet, in the context of the film’s story about the relationship between an Anglo-Australian woman and a Japanese man, the gendered and raced codes, in effect, perpetuate an Orientalist status quo. The Japanese man lies feminised on the bed, waiting to be taken by a masculinist Anglo-Australian woman, and the scene enacts the logic of Anglo-feminist Orientalism.

9. D’Cruz and Steele also comment at length on sexist and sexualised language in relation to Asian female characters in Turtle Beach. Much of their analysis also resonates with my reading of the Japanese wife, Yukiko Hiromitsu (played by Yumiko Tanaka) in Japanese Story. Not surprisingly, in the logic of the film, the wife of the Japanese woman is represented as a silent Asian woman. In the drive to represent the angst of an ordinary Anglo-Australian woman touched by the experience of romance with a Japanese man in the great Australian outback, the Anglo-Australian filmmakers cannot represent the Japanese woman as a speaking being. Also, the Japanese man begins to have a romantic tangle with the Anglo-Australian woman because he does not have a wife who can fulfill her husband’s emotional needs. Orientalist stereotypes of the Asian woman demand that she has no intellectual and emotional capacity to engage with her male counterparts. Another text from another time, E.M. Forster’s Passage to India (1924), used the Orientalist stereotypes that D’Cruz and Steele mention to describe Indian women. Indian women were described as beautifully coloured birds in their saris at a Bridge Party (a party where British administrators invited the families of the Indian elite), and Indian men were only able to have intellectual and emotional relationships with British women. Indian women were, of course, incapable of such companionship.

10. As an academic who utilizes colonial discourse analysis in my work, I am impressed by the astute and complex analysis of gendered and raced discourses in the linguistic analyses employed by D’Cruz and Steele in Australia’s Ambivalence Towards Asia. This body of work is a useful intervention in what I’d like to call ordinary Australian Orientalisms which are pervasive in all kinds of cultural productions situated in Australia. From everyday speech genres to cultural productions in diverse media, ordinary Orientalisms saturate cultural life. But as D’Cruz and Steele point out, there is a growing body of work that is attempting to counter and transform the long history of the legacies of the White Australia Policy and its attendant mentalities toward Asia and Asian Australians. In the context of the recent Kuta bombings and the bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, however, ordinary Australian Orientalisms are being reworked into reinventing the 200-year long border panic in relation to Asia. It is not possible to border-panic and to attempt to build presumptuous bridges into Asia as D’Cruz and Steele suggest. And so, they end the book by stating the failure of Australian ‘postcolonialism’; this failure can only be overturned when Anglo-Australia begins to acknowledge and work towards decolonizing its colonial policies and attitudes towards Indigenous Australians, Asian Australians and the diverse countries of Asia.

Goldie Osuri lectures in Cultural Studies at Macquarie University. Email:

Author’s note

For a comprehensive account of Ouyang Yu’s publications, visit I would also like to thank Ouyang Yu for giving me permission to recount his experience with the Australian Book Review.


D’Cruz, JV & William Steele (2003) Australia’s ambivalence towards Asia, Clayton: Monash Asia Institute.

Forster, EM (1924) A Passage to India, London: Edward Arnold.


Japanese Story (2003) dir. Sue Brooks, Australia.

The Party (1968) dir. Blake Edwards, USA.

© borderlands ejournal 2004


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