Growing up, I was always confused about what the term “Asian-Australian” meant, and today I still find it hard to define the term succinctly in a single sentence.
Why? Firstly, the word “Australian” itself is a complex term. It fundamentally refers to someone who has Australian citizenship as outlined on a piece of paper. When we call someone “Australian” or “Aussie”, we usually (rather stereotypically) refer to one who loves meat pies, Aussie Rules football, speaks with a plethora of Australian ockerisms and never hesitates to have a drink to wind-down the week. Being “Australian” has also come to mean giving everyone a “fair go”, encouraging individualism and having a relaxed outlook on life.
Secondly, the word “Asian” itself is also a complex term. When we describe someone as “Asian”, we often (rather stereotypically) think of one who speaks fluently in their mother tongue, speaks broken English, is bad at sports and is extremely studious or hardworking for no good reason. Being “Asian” also means adopting a fairly conservative way of life, appreciating team membership and respecting tradition heaps.
As such, the concepts “Australian” and “Asian” embody contrasting ideals, albeit stereotypical. Joining both words together into one, it is not surprising to see why it is hard to pinpoint a precise explanation of the term “Asian-Australian”.
For an Asian-Australian like me (born and bred in Australia for more than half my life), interacting with one’s surroundings, feelings and experiences in Australia on a day-to-day basis influences how one defines being Asian-Australian. At the same time, one’s surroundings also defines how the Asian individual in Australia perceives being Asian-Australian.
Based on my personal experiences and from countless conversations with fellow Asian-Australian friends and acquaintances, I have come to realise some of the emphatic qualities and feelings that are part and parcel of being Asian-Australian are: confusion, different, accepted.
Confusion is always felt by the Asian-Australian especially while growing up and in the context of learning and constructing one’s sense of self Down Under. A study by Monash University found South Asian Australians are no strangers to pluralistic identification – they possess a sense of pride towards their own ethnic culture (cultural practices, language) while feeling Australianness through the ability to integrate into mainstream society (socialising with local residents).
There is always the need to grapple and transition between one’s Asian identity and Western-Australian values as an Asian-Australian, and occasionally one might feel like a two-faced person. When I was a kid, I always loved playing sports under the sun like any other Caucasian classmate but immediately after I would sort of feel guilty for not listening to mum nagging at me to stay under the shade or else I would get “all black and ugly”. I love eating lamingtons but not Chinese pork dishes. I do not get and am not a fan of the “drinking culture” in Australia where almost every celebration or outing is accompanied by some form of alcoholic beverage.
Having dual identities is a significant aspect of being Asian-Australian and it has the potential of instigating one into feeling confused. I often wonder whether I am more ‘yellow’ or more ‘white’. It would not be too surprising if Asian-Australians ask themselves ‘Who am I?’ at some point too.
Going hand-in-hand with the notion of confusion is the idea of difference. Being different in the Asian-Australian sense can be a barrier towards interacting with certain people.
Many Asian-Australians living in Australia are different in terms of looks and cultural background from their Caucasian-Australian counterparts and not everyone welcomes this “difference”. Once when I walked into a shop, I politely greeted the salesman staring at me with a simple “Hi”, and he offered a weak smile and let me on my way exploring the store. A few seconds later, an Anglo-Saxon mail customer walked in towards the salesman saying, “Hey mate”. The salesperson was all too eager to help him with a cheery smile on his face.
Why was I virtually ignored? I am not sure, but maybe it was because I did not speak like an “Aussie”.
Asian-Australians and/or Asian people also have the tendency to ostricise one another as well. I was wandering around South Melbourne a few months ago and this Asian salesperson stopped me, encouraging me to sign up to a rewards card in a Singaporean-Malaysian accent. Three times in five minutes I was interrogated: “Where are you from?”. Maybe this is because I do not have the Australian accent. Maybe this was because I did not say, “G’day mate”.
It is always extremely hard to answer “Where are you from?” truthfully. For one, although an Asian-Australian is born in Australia and calls the country home, there is no denying that he/she has roots and descendents in the motherland. In other words, an Asian-Australian will always be somehow connected to another place other than Australia.
For the Asian-Australian, you really do not know how to answer “Where are you from?”, and you don’t want to as it makes you feel all the more different if you do.
Accepted / Acceptance
For an Australian citizen of Asian ethnicity, calling oneself Asian-Australian is in fact a vital step in accepting and acknowledging that the individual belongs Down Under, even though if one chooses to abide by Asian values over the Western mindset or vice-versa in some situations or thinks being Asian-Australian is a burden. And this is perfectly acceptable.
According to Chinese-Cambodian Australian lawyer and author Alice Pung, not all Asian-Australians conform to the typical Asian stereotypes but they possess an “incredible diversity of experience of (their) lives…the struggles and achievements” and constitute part of Australian narratives.
No two people of the same race are the same. Not every Caucasian Australian takes an interest in Aussie Rules football or loves alcohol so much they get smashed every Saturday night. Likewise, not every Asian-Australian needs to be interested in Aussie Rules and drinking to be a true blue Aussie.
Fact is, everyone has ups and downs and differences in life. Dwelling too much on the negative times or the insecurities one has about their ethnicity or nationality or even personality will not get you very far in integrating into Australian society.
What is an Asian-Australian
Personally, as an Asian-Australian, I am okay with being confused about my identity and being on the receiving end of occasional racism. It gives me something to think about when I am bored – I think of why certain cultures are the way they are and why racism is a common phenomenon. As an Asian-Australian, I rarely draw attention to my ethnicity or background in conversations and activities; I prefer to let my actions and ideas do the talking – and define me as a person. Perhaps that is why I have friends of all races, Caucasians and Asians alike, here in Australia today.
Walking around Melbourne today, Asian faces are a common sight: Asian-Australians working hard at fast-food outlets. Asian-Australians playing their instruments together with hundreds of other musicians in a state symphony orchestra. The occasional Asian-Australian beside Anglo-Saxon Australians on television cooking shows. Asian-Australians yapping in their Asian-Australian accents, just chilling and hanging out with their fellow Caucasian Australian friends at the beach on a sunny summer weekend with no animosity between one another.
In other words, many Asians have established their livelihoods and blended in very nicely here in multicultural Australia. They belong here. And they are Australian.
It is important to remember that Australia is a nation that is made up considerably of immigrants, people of contrasting beliefs, religions and perspectives. It was recently reported in local media that Australia is “a nation of diversity and all the contradictions that go with it”. For a harmonious multicultural Australia to exist, Australians need to respect, tolerate and learn from each other’s differences as well as embrace everyone’s strengths.
In short, being Asian-Australian can supposedly be condensed into a few phrases: being whoever you want to be as an Australian citizen. Recognising both Asian and Australian values and traditions. Giving everyone a fair go and treating everyone equally. Acknowledging that you are of ethnic background and you rightfully belong in a diverse Australia – a multicultural Australia.