Why The Surprise over “Asian-Australians”?

To people coming to Australia. I have an issue I need to get off my chest.

I of course know this is does not apply to all of you and you may think I’m sensitive, but I am constantly shocked by the amount of people who come to Australia and have to point out how many “Asians” that Australia has. And this is never Asian people themselves.

Firstly, I should point to the world map. To the people surprised by our Asian population, do you know that geographically Australia is situated very close to Asia? In fact we are often included in many Asian organisations (for example, the Asian Cup in soccer… “Football” to the rest of the world. Hehe) I assume plenty of Europeans holiday in North Africa and vice versa. That many Northern Americans travel to South America and vice versa. Etc, etc, etc. That of course is our situation here. We have many Asian people holiday here, work here and immigrate here. As do Australians holidaying, travelling and immigrating to Asia.

Secondly, what is it that an “Australian” looks like to you? It is a beachy surf dude? A trendy Melbourne hipster? A Sudanese refugee? A redhead like our first female PM? A Muslim? A person of Italian, Indian or Greek decedent? Or is it the first people of this land, an Aboriginal person? I have friends in all of those categories.
(Oh please let it not be like the “Patriots” who drape themselves in Australian flags and yell hatred- I have no friends in this category, ha!)

This is a genuine question. What do Australians look like? Or is it all of the above? But why is it that Asians don’t look “Australian”?

This country has had immigrants and refugees for generations and it still continues today. In fact just after white settlers, Chinese people came to Australia for the gold rush (in the 1800s) which was well before many other nationalities immigrated! And after the Vietnam War Australia took in a large amount of Vietnamese refugees. Then later in the late 1970s and 1980s a second and third influx of Vietnamese people came to Australia because of Australia’s family reunion scheme. There are approx 220,000 Austalians of Vietnamese heritage in Australia keeping in mind we have a total population of approximately 23 million. And that is just Vietnamese immigrants!

But how is it that Asian people are disregarded as being Australians too? There are so many communities and cultures that orginated from foreign lands in Australia that I myself couldn’t explain what an Australian person “is” to look at. I would like to think there is no such thing as diversity is part of what makes us. We are one of the most multi-cultural counties on Earth.

I suppose I will give you the benefit of the doubt as I assume you pointing this out is genuinely unaware and possibly curious why we have such a large population of people with Asian heritage. Although it feels at times like point blank racist.

I suppose it surprises me as I wouldn’t go to somewhere like The USA and say, “Wow, the are so many Latino people here.” As, without travelling there, I know there are. The countries are geographically close. I understand the relationship and history of the two. And I should point out (though it feels silly) that though someone may look “Asian” many are of course Australian. Like Americans that appear Latino or of South American decent.

But I do recognise that as an Australian, I think we need to take the majority of the blame for this misunderstanding. Asian-Australians are not on enough of our own tv screens, radio stations, advertising and jobs in the public eye. I’m positive that we, as a country, haven’t portrayed Australia correctly. We have failed to show the world what the real Australia looks like. While somewhat ironically, we saw a Non-Australian, musical genius, David Bowie, who filmed his video to the song “China Girl” here in Australia pass only a month ago despite highlighting Asian-Australians decades ago.

I am aware that Australia seems to have a long way to go in mending this. It has a long way to go for not only “Asian-Australians” but also people of colour, different religions and backgrounds generally. It doesn’t have to be difficult process but just one that starts being fairer to all. But I do hope this small rant helps even a few people from other counties form a more realistic version of what Australia looks like.

And to help penetrate the too often white-washed version of what Australia is in the media I thought I would post this photo of my incredible cousin, Ada. She danced at our wedding – a gift I will forever be grateful. I am her proud Godmum. Her Dad was born in Laos. She is as Australian as I am.


Ada and Annie

Image provided by Ada

And please tell me. What is an Australian to you?

Comments

  1. An Australian is anyone who is lucky enough to live in your lucky country. Born here or migrated makes no difference to me. My daughter and i where in Ballarat last weekend and I was telling her abour the Chineese that come when the gold rush started, I said the Chinese have been here longer than my ancestors and probably longer than most people’s families you know. I love this country for its multiculturalism it makes us so interesting. I love that my kids grew up with many many different races how lucky are we! And we are all Australian 🙂

  2. Its an interesting question. What is an Australian? I’d love to one day say an Australian is someone who welcomes all with open arms, and someone that accepts not only cultural diversity and our indigenous history but equal rights for all. Pro choice and pro euthanasia. But right now I’m not sure what an Australian is. I honestly find this a very difficult question to answer in the current Australian climate. I think being an Australian currently is being a confused person and not necessarily a proud one.

  3. Greg Ruschman says:

    I believe that the rejection of immigrants is NOT based upon race at all. It is an incompatible cultural invasion that is most vexing. Ask the American Indian. All of their many various tribes and independent cultures were – and are – subjugated to the dominant willing invasion by Europeans and the less willing by the Africans brought as slaves.
    What does an “American” look like? (S)he looks like one who accepts – without meaningful dissension – the Declaration Of Independence and the slowly and purposefully evolving Federal Republic Constitution. So, the substantive question is not “what does an American look like,” but, rather, “to what does an American look?” So, since the word “look” is the compelling motivation in this study of national identity, it should not be limited only to “American.”
    As I understand it, you are an attorney. You must, then, be aware of the implications of the word “look” when used in the context of identity.

    • Hi Greg,

      First, I am not an attorney. So just clear that up.

      I can see many valid points you have raised. I understand your point about cultural invasion, you could ask an Aboriginal similar and I believe they would feel much the same. Though many Australians disagree, I believe sovereignty never ceded so agree cultural invasion has a huge impact.

      However I feel “cultural invasion” has become the white man’s cry for “you’re different and I don’t like it” without any validity and assumptions on what people’s identity is without knowing the individual. The point I was making is that looking “Asian” (and I understand Asian can be indian, Chinese, Mongolian etc and they all look different but I use it in the way many Australian’s tend to do here which is that they “look” like they are from Chinese decent) does have an impact on how people treat you and perceive you despite the fact the community has been around for quite sometime and many who have not recently immigrated. The default is to think that white people are “Australian” and anything else is something foreign. Which of course is disturbing. Though I know that how someone may look is not all of there identity, it is quite naive to dismiss the way people are treated on the way they look. There have been attacks on Chinese students here in Australia and I am not joking when I say that I went to adopt a cat the other day and it was quite clear to me that the people adopting the cat out would not let this couple take a cat because they “looked” of Asian decent. These people had Australian accents!

      I also think it is valid to mention that though Aboriginal people, the first people of Australia, may have representatives say, “you are welcome here” to immigrants white people often are not okay because of “cultural invasion.” Ironic, isn’t it? For example, the asylum seeker/refugee crisis has seen Aboriginal elders and groups come out in support of them coming to Australia while many white australians are worried about the “culture clash.”

      So though your constitution and our law may say one thing, you may believe one way… the reality can be quite the opposite.

  4. Hi Annie,
    I really enjoyed reading your post and was moved by it. My family migrated to Australia when I was four years old from the Philippines and I was too young to remember the citizenship ceremony. My passport lists my nationality as “Australian”. Going through Jfk airport in New York I was asked by immigration officials why I had an Australian passport. I told the man I was Australian and any citizen can fill out a form and pay a fee to get one. He didn’t seem satisfied and asked me what I did for work. I said to him I was a lawyer for the Australian government. He narrowed his eyes with suspicion but waived me through. My friend who I was travelling with was next in line. The customs guy asked her how she knew me and she said she was my friend and we worked together. My friend was blonde and blue eyed of Irish Australian heritage. He whispered to her, did you know that she wasn’t born in Australia? Like an accusation.

    It’s not a big deal, I know but I get it all the time. Surprised looks when they hear my accent. Questions like “where are you from?” followed with, but where are you really from?

    My husband is Anglo Australian and his friends and work colleagues who haven’t met me before are surprised sometimes that I’m not white. It’s not their fault and I don’t get angry about it as I try to be patient and help people see beyond their own biases and comfort zones but it can be trying sometimes.

    Thank you for your post I wish there were more people like you. I’m glad that you speak out about the need for our media to stop white washing and you helped me stop feeling like a crazy over sensitive person railing against the wind on my own.

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