Australian Asian author Cher Chidzey has written Ken’s Quest, a beautiful novel with humor and heart that looks deeply into the relevant issue of migration and cultural integration in Australia.
The synopsis of the book from Threekookaburras website:
Wei Da has great dreams for his future and that of his family. After he leaves China for Australia, Wei Da, known as Ken, finds his quest for wealth and happiness is thwarted by government regulations and an alien culture. He is a tough and resilient man, yet angry that his professional qualifications aren’t recognized and he has to do unskilled work.
To add insult to injury, his workmate is a young man convinced that immigrants are making life worse for ordinary Australians. Armed with prejudices and long-standing convictions, they develop an unlikely friendship.
But meeting Julia transforms him. As his lies unravel, Ken finds his way through two very different cultures to discover the power of truth and love.
Cher was born in Singapore, but migrated to Australia in 1975. She has Chinese heritage, she has a Masters in Science, has worked as a teacher, volunteers at an Asylum Seekers center, and has previously published her memoirs, The House of 99 Closed Doors. She was kind enough to answer our questions.
1. Your main character — a Chinese man, Wei Da, who goes by the name of Ken in Australia — is an engineer whose qualification isn’t recognized in Australia. Can you tell me where the inspiration for Ken comes from?
I’ve always questioned the meaning of multiculturalism, wanted to have a deeper meaning than just the festivals, food and music. Racial tension has always existed, but it has escalated in recent times. I have felt uneasy about the undercurrents of racial tension and decided to explore it. I wonder if racial cohesion will be better if we are reflective of our prejudices, which I think stem from our own tribal voice.
Ken is conditioned by his tribal voice — so are all of us.
The issues faced by migrants and Australians inspire me to come up with characters like Red and Ken. Underemployment is one of them. There were many, many Kens in the 1990s who were underemployed. It is still so.
The work protocols are different for each country. It makes it difficult for migrants to adjust. Ken just didn’t grasp, understand the meaning of mateship and the useless small talks that were crucial to team bonding. To him, reporting on Red to their boss was his duty. To Red, it was dobbing, a disgraceful act.
The concept of assimilation could cause a lot of grief. Many Australians expect migrants to fit in totally, give up their ways. For me, for Ken, it is never about accepting the whole of Australian culture. It is about the accepting the best of both cultures. I expect the Australians to do likewise.
The trauma of migrants’ background could cause them to mistrust. Ken grew up during the Cultural Revolution. The fear of persecution caused him to be very secretive. It worked against his fitting in the Australian society.
2. Can you talk a little about your background? I heard you have 18 siblings.
I was born into a family of 18 siblings. My father was born at the end of the Qing Dynasty. He had two wives and a concubine. My family migrated to Singapore from China to escape the Japanese occupation. Familial relationship was tense and complicated. There were many shameful events that destroyed the lives of individuals, but nothing was done about it. The feeling of injustice gurgled and damaged my inner peace, so I wrote about The House of 99 Closed Doors.
3. One of the characters in your book that works with Ken installing security doors is called Red, who is described as xenophobic. Can you tell us about Red’s character, and how he came to name his dog?
Red was an apprentice. He grew up with his mother, who was a single parent, and he was passed around from one step-father to another like a recycled X’mas present. Red and his mother’s continuous change of residence made him feel displaced. His fear of migrants also stems from his tribal voice.
He blamed the migrants for his family’s inability to get government housing. He feared they were here to get his job, to displace him. He was adamant that the refugees jumped the queue, and he and his mother were denied their government housing.
Red and Ken’s journey requires perseverance. The power-loving Ken and authority-hating Red were on a murderous journey when Ken saved Red’s dog and they became friends. The friendship grew stronger when Ken rescued Red from a drug deal gone wrong. We watched the play out of the cultural differences between them; Red pointing out Ken’s flaws, his face saving propensity, his denial of his familial responsibility. Ken tried to navigate Red into a career.
One of Red’s step-fathers was Chinese. He loathed him, so he named his dog Fu Manchu to spite him. Outwardly, Red called his dog Fu, which meant fortune. It was his way of avoiding clashes with his step-father.
4. Can you explain what ‘Tribal Voice’ is?
Tribal voice is the collective voice of our ancestors. It aligns us to the thoughts of our clan. They are the attitudes we learn from the earliest years of childhood. These sources of collective experience can be strengths or they can be obstacles to understanding others who come from a different background.
5. You volunteer your time to work with asylum seekers. Can you talk about your work here?
I visited people being detained for violating migration policy. I saw many tortured souls. The physical environment at the center was comfortable enough, but the anxiety and despair of the people were very troubling. As depicted in the novel, the security measures at the center were on par with a prison. The deterioration of their health — hair falling out, mental issues — were there for us to see.
We bought food, their favorite food. We listened to their stories. On special occasions, we were allowed to invite the asylum seekers to our house for a meal with complimentary security guards. Sometimes we helped writing letters of appeal, attended court sessions, sought legal help.
6. The character Julia inspires love in Ken. Is she based on anyone you know?
Julia was fictitious. I’ve used the TAFE setting because I have worked at TAFE and was familiar with the environment. She presented further challenges to Ken — propelled him into uncomfortable scenarios to face his flaws, his denials about himself, his pre-assumptions about Aussies.
Above all, she showed him how to find happiness in small pleasures like cycling in the countryside, cooking gourmet foods, and having heart-to-heart discussions. Ken sprang back to life like a dormant branch on the coming of Spring. It brought back the life, the joy he had when he was in love with the Genius, his ex-lover many years ago.
She redirected his quest of wealth and material pursuit toward the simple living, simple pleasures.
7. What are some of the complex issues your book sheds light on?
Underemployment of professional migrants
Problems arising from different work protocol
Discrimination of transsexuals
Ken’s Quest can be purchased online at Threekookaburras website.
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