Hae Yoon (John) Lee (2011)

[Beam of light]

Standing in the Middle

Born in Korea, and having lived in New Zealand since 1993, I find myself caught in the middle of this mixed, multicultural Auckland.

In 1993 I went to Marina View Primary School, a school where I found myself one of a kind. I couldn’t speak a word of English. Over-protectiveness, with constant attention and the sheer worry from teachers still remain as a childhood memory. Unfortunately this didn’t last long - obviously.

From 2004 till now I have been living in Torbay, a five-minute drive to Massey University, and 17 minutes and 24.6 km drive to the city. Living on the shore, an Asian like myself and at an age of being able to pay for petrol, public transport has dissipated into oblivion. Although occasionally I take a romantic sunset ferry ride, I never considered that to be "public transport". More like a quick pass to get her into bed (if you know what I mean). Real public transport resurrected itself when I found myself sitting on a bus heading towards the city.

On the 29th of April I woke up at 6am with high hopes of having recovered from a cold which had lingered inside of me for the past two weeks. I’d made previous arrangements to meet a girl at 10:30am at Mid-city Starbucks; this motivated me (a lot). Besides I didn’t want to become the Asian that gets off the bus and wanders around looking stupid, or like a tourist.

From my previous experiences I have learnt that if you go out without purpose, you will end up with absolutely nothing to do, especially in Auckland. I posted this bus ride on Facebook, and a friend offered to join me in this old-fashioned tradition. He lives off East Coast Road and we arranged to meet at 9am in front of his house; it was a strike of luck, really, because I didn’t even know where to catch the bus.

The amount was $5.60 from East Coast Road, and ironically the bus was called an “express.” I was quite pleased by this at first sight, only to be disappointed soon afterwards. I couldn’t believe a 40-minute bus ride was called an express; it was a wise decision to catch the bus early.

We sat near the front of the bus where there are two seats facing each other. There were already two people on the bus near the back of the bus. I noticed that they were Asian. The bus trip consisted of twenty-four stops and a total of twenty-eight passengers were picked up along the way. This just goes to show how bored I was, but out of the twenty-eight people twenty-three were Asian, including the bus driver who was also Asian. This observation came as a shock. I felt like the Asian that goes off to a new country and sees another Asian and says,

“I thought I was the only one!”

(This is an exaggeration, of course).

But it came as an epiphany, and with this rush of confusion I asked myself where I belonged in terms of origin. Let me try and explain this because I believe it is confusing. So on one hand I find myself growing up as a Kiwi, used to blending in, and on the other hand I have the appearance of an Asian, which also allows me to blend in, splitting me in half.

Come to think of it, another irony is the fact that I am currently studying an English major at Massey University, and in this Travel writing class I am the only Asian, and I never felt intimidated. In fact it hadn’t really occurred to me until now.

Think of it this way, if you have a different appearance to the native people or have traveled to another country you will have experienced this question: “Where are you from?”

It probably is the only question that will be asked throughout my life constantly, and I will always answer with confidence:


Although sometimes I would like to answer "New Zealand", because it would make no difference to the reaction I receive, which is always surprise due to my English pronunciation (not that I'm saying it’s perfect). This allows me to be treated as an equal, eliminating the barrier which most overseas people experience. So this idea was stuck in my mind. I was lost between two clashing cultures.

In the midst of this epiphany, we were faced with an old Kiwi couple who looked very uncomfortable, and I knew exactly why. They were overwhelmed at the sight of so many Asians like me. I took this chance to break the ice.

“Hello,” I said with confidence.

“Oh? Hello,” A glimpse of surprise turned into a gentle smile from the old woman with a similar reaction from her husband, but he chose to remain silent.

“How are you today?” I really didn’t have anything else to say, it was a random conversation and I might as well stick to the good stuff.

“We’re fine, and how about you?” with the constant gentle smile remaining.

“I’m a bit sick but feeling okay; so what brings you on this bus?”

There was a slight pause, her head turned towards her husband and I noticed the gentle smile disappearing as she said in a deep worried tone,

“Oh …”

Suddenly the nice old lady’s husband grabbed her hand and stood up while the bus was still moving. I sat up straight thinking that it must be their stop. They got up and headed towards the back of the bus;. It didn’t strike me at first but they were moving seats! It became clear; they were changing seats, but why?

Was it because I said I was sick? Everyone in the bus was a witness, most having nothing to do basically. This entire episode caught everybody’s undivided attention. For the Asians the sight that one of their own, an Asian, was talking to an old Kiwi couple must have been entertaining. For others it would have seemed to be a normal conversation. The sudden attention directed towards us was making me anxious. It’s not like I had SARS ...

I guess it was a mistake from the start. I was outraged; or at any rate I had a right to be, but my arms folded automatically and my head tucked down looking at my shoes for answers (how low could I get?).

The remainder of the bus trip was a ride from hell; the shame inflicted upon my pride was unbearable. My friend said nothing; it seemed that he was sharing my pain. At least I had a friend to rely on. Finally we arrived at the city only to face a challenge: we didn’t know where to get off. I approached the driver and asked him where would be the closest stop to Starbucks, and with a cheesy smile he said:

“The next stop.”

I guess even the bus driver was aware of the dramatic episode. Without a word I just smiled and signaled to my friend that it was time to get off this fucken bus.

It was over, and after a quick venting of swear words I began to relax. At 9:40am we got off on the intersection between Albert Street and Victoria Street, and began our way down towards Queen Street. The city was practically empty compared to my usual night-time experiences; it felt weird.

Another unnerving feeling lurked inside me, making feel like an outsider. There was a striking difference in the number of Asians walking around on the street, although I stood corrected when I saw a bunch of overseas students smoking outside Esquire’s. We arrived thirty minutes early and stared at each other asking the same question without hope of receiving an answer.

“What now?”

Arriving early was something that a man should do, according to the past generation, yet there was absolutely nothing to do. So there I stood in front of Starbucks leaning against the black flat support beam with my head tilted for support with my hands inside both pockets, staring into the far distance. This was the perfect moment for my mind to drift off and pick out the dreaded things that keep you entertained.

It is really brutal when you think about it; your mind always seems to focus on an experience you wish you could forget. It patiently waits for the right moment to strike, lingering inside your mind where it will probably stay hovering until resolved or replaced with another. I shut my eyes in false hope but twenty minutes flew by while I maintained the same posture. In those long brutal twenty minutes I had no choice but to face the music. It was like an endless tune playing over and over again.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, there was no reasonable explanation. It was just an act that another person chose to perform: it wasn’t my fault. All this nonsense created an agonizing pain that sliced though my body, building up cold sweat in my hands. I soon felt a disturbance in the air, it was gentle but accompaned by a seductive scent.

Instinctively my eyes opened, only to be closed again as my lips were touched by another set of lips. My senses woke up. The sweet soft tongue slowly sliding and massaging mine was a taste of heaven. This kiss erased everything, and a giant smile covered my face as I gave her a big hug.

“Hey babe. How are you?” I was hardly surprised by all the eyes that were directed towards us. It really was ironic.

“I missed you, let’s go.”

She grabbed my hand and we entered Starbucks. The male audience who managed to catch a glimpse of this action had envy in their eyes, while the females were measuring me up. My situation had flipped upside down instantly and I felt a sense of belonging; we enjoyed our coffee and headed out for lunch.

It was now 11:30am and a noticeable number of people were out and about the city: couples, families of all different cultures all shining in their own distinctive aspects. It wasn’t surprising to me to see the increased amount of Asians, though it did make me feel more secure, but I guess it was due to the earlier incident that a sense of disappointment still rose within me when passing by a European.

I decided to remain undiscouraged as we passed a man performing with a guitar. I smiled and waved while donating two dollars. A shout of “Thanks bro!” with a big smile rewarded my courage.

We arrived at a cafĂ© called Mecca located in the center of High Street, it is a well-known chain business existing around Auckland. Although it was expensive, the food was worth every dollar as I enjoyed my richly flavoured French toast. My date soon realized that I was sick and was really worried about the kiss she had given me, but fortunately she didn’t let go of my hand.

A total of 54 dollars and 50 cents were gone in less than an hour, which brings me to another common belief which all Europeans seem to share. I believe I am speaking on behalf of all Europeans, that it is agreed that Asians are rich. It is a commonly heard stereotype if one is blessed with an Asian friend. Many people have used this to their advantage or have learnt to deal with this fact, but there is no point in discussing the matter further.

The streets were now crowded with people, the time was 1:30pm and my date had work at 2:30pm. We walked down to Britomart, the train and bus station. On the way down we were amazed at a silver, frozen person wearing a rugby uniform. People were gathered around the performer’s interesting figure, and a small child approached the man and threw some change inside a tin can that was placed in front of the man. The man suddenly shifted into another position and everyone was amazed. I approached the man in hopes of taking a photo, so I donated the rest of my loose change. Beside me another child was approaching and I overheard the mother say to the child:

“Wait a minute son, let the tourist go first.”

I stopped for a brief moment, a tourist? I had been called a tourist. But before I could react the man shifted to a position pointing the ball towards me. The picture was taken and I said:

“Thank you.”

The man didn’t reply but shifted his position, I turned to the woman and the child and repeated the sentence. But this time I pronounced it with an Asian accent and gave a big smile; she also smiled at me. This brief exchange of a smile was more than I needed to resolve this question of origin that had struck me earlier.

The woman had automatically labeled me as a tourist, and it was wise for me not to react to this accusation because it is based on my appearance, and I cannot change it. There was no reason to react; it has become a fact similar to the one about the wealthiness of Asians. All I needed to do was accept the situation.

I was overwhelmed with excitement at this realization, and the release I felt was sensational. I returned the passionate kiss that I had received earlier, and both our faces blushed as we left the scene of the crime.

She went home and my friend and I were stuck again looking at each other with the same look we had had earlier:

“What now?”

My cough was getting louder and a fever was starting to rise and eventually I decided to call it a day. Alone I embarked on the bus trip home, giving me an opportunity to get lost in my mind, thinking about the experiences that I had endured.

Most importantly it was a satisfying experience, and it didn’t take long to arrive at a conclusion. I guess Auckland is a home away from home, and it seems that I will always remain a tourist from most points of view. The answer to my origin will always remain Korean, and I am proud to say so. Although sometimes I will be tempted to say New Zealand, but that may never happen.

I believe that I’m not the only one who has grown up like this; there could even be a new generation of people longing to be accepted. I may never be noticed by the passing random person for who I am, but it will still be a hidden attribute that I can cherish. Standing in the middle will help to define me, armed thus with the possibility of determining my own identity.

© Hae Yoon Lee

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