What Do You Do With a B. A. in English?

At some point in their lives, everyone has come across the quip that arts students will complete their studies only to become cashiers at McDonald’s. Usually I just get a little annoyed before moving on, but sometimes it genuinely hits a nerve. It’s a multi-layered insult – there’s the insinuation that one of my degrees is essentially useless, the assumption that I don’t have any other skills at my disposal, or that I haven’t worked while studying. I know there are people out there who would tell me to suck it up, or to stop taking a joke so seriously, but that’s not really what I want to talk about.

I’ve known that I wanted to work at a university from quite a young age – it’s just in the past couple of years that I’ve settled on a particular field for which I am passionate. I’d always known that I wasn’t going to earn a ridiculous amount of money, but that was all right if it meant I was getting paid to learn and to discover new things. I also know my name works against me when it comes to emailing through resumes and applying for jobs online. I feel like I always have to prove myself to be more than just the stereotype that is inherent in my name.

So therein lies my concern. I’m worried that because I’m an Asian woman, I will already be at a disadvantage when it comes to a field that has been dominated (and arguably, is still dominated) by ‘English’ males. I’m worried that work with my name on it won’t ever really be able to stand on its own, that it will be scrutinised more intensely than those of my colleagues. Maybe I’m being hysterical, or over-reacting, and trust me, I wish I didn’t have to think about such possibilities. But the fact of the matter is – I was born here, I speak better English than I do Mandarin, I’ve never lived abroad – and yet my experience as a young girl and woman in Australia has differed from those of others because of my appearance and the ‘Asianness’ of my name. Don’t get me wrong – I’m proud of my heritage, just like I’m proud to be a woman. It would simply be remiss of me to be blind to the ways it’s affected my life.

There’s a lot of discussion around the ratios of gender in particular industries, and it’s encouraging to see women studying and getting involved in typically ‘male dominated’ fields. That being said, I think there’s still a long way to go when it comes to race. I’m not saying there should be quotas, or a particular ratio to aim for – but surely a more diverse classroom leads to a healthier, and more well-rounded discussion, no matter the subject. It was rare for me to see another non-white person in any of my English literature tutorials, and even rarer for those people to not be studying education. It didn’t really bother me – after all, I almost expected it – but sometimes I was dismayed at the relatively narrow thought processes of some of my peers.

It all came to a head for me late last year, where the class had spent pretty much the whole tutorial discussing the biases associated with gender and they affect the we read and react to novels. It was a wholly interesting stimulating tutorial, but it struck me in the last ten minutes of the class that we’d spent the whole lesson talking about all the kinds of biases and race had not been mentioned. Again, I wasn’t outraged (even though I probably should have been). I was just disappointed that we still lived in such a world.

I’ve had people ask me why the hell I’m studying literature and what use is has in the world. I know my father thinks I’m wasting my intelligence and talent by pursuing this career path, even though he wouldn’t say that to my face. I can see my mother relax a little (but not much!) when I mention I might also want to be involved with science communication. As long as it has the word ‘science’ in it, right?

I’m not going to lie – there have been times where I do ask myself where being an academic is going to take me, and what I could possibly contribute to the world by having my head perpetually stuck in books and then writing about them. I think I might be having this conversation with myself more often if I hadn’t stumbled upon postcolonial and Asian-Australian literature.

I’m a tiny bit ashamed to say I didn’t know Asian-Australian literary fiction even existed until mid 2014 – but it’s not difficult to understand why. A thorough Google search was partially successful, and it was interesting to note the relative dearth of such writing in recent years. Anyway, as I set about scouring bookshops with my list in hand, it quickly became evident that the only novel on the list I’d be able to buy in store would be de Kretser’s Questions of Travel (and probably only because it won the Miles Franklin). I ended up turning to Brotherhood Books, an online second hand book store, and a couple of weeks later, a box of about 15 books had settled on my door step.

One of these was The Crocodile Fury, by Beth Yahp, and even though the cover was kind of strange and a little bit creepy, I pushed on. I probably had a closer connection than most to the novel, considering the author’s Malaysian heritage, the fact it was set in what was presumed to be Malaya, and the characters seemed to be of Malaysian-Chinese heritage. I also fell in love with Yahp’s writing style, even though it was quite dense, and the way in which she was able pen a tale with such fluidity and depth.

When I started my project, I probably had the same amount of knowledge regarding colonialism and imperialism as the next person. I knew it was vaguely *bad*, and bad stuff happened, but it was actually all worse than I’d ever imagined. Especially in places like South East Asia, where the effects of colonialism weren’t (and still aren’t) greatly publicised, and where there really aren’t that many books or articles written about them.

I have many more thoughts about all of this, but I’m sure I’ll get to them in due course. I’m also well aware of the word count of this post, so congratulations if you’ve managed to make it this far.

So what do you do with a B. A. in English? Read. Write. Discover. Share. Get other people with names like mine interested in literature. Write some more.

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