Asian. It is a word we see and hear a lot in Australia when someone refers to a person with black hair, small eyes and yellow skin and their Chinese/Malay/Indian/Indonesian etc. heritage.
Asian. It is also a word that has segregational connotations.
A word that means different things to different people as well.
When I was studying in Malaysia and Singapore, very rarely did I hear anyone calling one another “Asian”. The exception was of course in newspaper stories discussing regional relations, stories explaining how countries in the “Asian region” could benefit from international trade. My classmates and I referred to one another as “Chinese”, “Malay”, “Indian”, “Eurasian” etc.. “Asian” was pretty much a foreign term to us.
When I returned to Melbourne some years ago, I remember feeling confused about the definition of the term “Asian”. When I read the Australian newspapers, local stories would go along the lines of “Melbourne’s Asian population set to skyrocket in the next decade”. I also read up about the White Australia Policy and how politician Pauline Hanson said that Australia is “in danger of being swamped by Asians”. I wondered, “What’s Asian? Who’s Asian? Do Asians belong in Australia?” Are Indians from India and Sri Lankans considered Asian?
In the eyes of many white Australians, “Asian” is associated with the foreign and exotic. There is high chance Anglo Australians, especially those living in isolated Anglo-dominated areas, see “Asians” as one race. So, in general, the word “Asian” arguably functions as an umbrella term used to describe someone who has dark hair, dark eyes, straight hair, small eyes and yellow skin in Australia. After all, time and time again here in Melbourne, I still hear Caucasian Australians saying “all Asians look the same” and that it’s hard to tell Asians apart from one another. Sometimes, when thinking about the term “Asian”, Caucasian Australians normally think of all things associated with Asian pop culture: Japan, sushi, Hello Kitty, kung fu.
As an Asian Australian who has Australian friends of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Chinese and Taiwanese descent, I definitely do not see Asians as “one race”. For instance, there are the Chinese from China, Chinese-Malaysians, Chinese Americans and Chinese Australians, all whom I’m sure grew up in different environments with different lifestyles. As I see it, “Asian” is a complex, diverse term. Each Asian ethnicity has their own individual, contrasting languages.
Maybe this is why surprising subtle discord simmers among the “Asian” community in Australia. It’s funny how some Asian Australians at times ostracise one another who are of Asian descent. I speak with a slight Singapore-Malaysia accent, and during my university days, many of my Asian Australian classmates asked me “Where are you from?”. Perhaps it was my slight FOB accent. Many of them hung out with their fellow Asian Australians who spoke with the “Asian Australian accent” and took the liberty of chatting with me and international students from Asia usually for only a polite few minutes when we said hi.
I felt like a victim of racism against one’s own race. I felt like a minority within the Asian Australian community in Australia back then. It was akin to Asian Australians vs. Asian international students, even though I’m sure most of us have things in common like similar Asian values (e.g. taking our shoes off at home, listening to our elders).
But on a positive note, when used as an umbrella term to refer to people of Asian ethnicity, “Asian” signifies diversity. An ode to multiculturalism.
What comes to mind when you see or hear the word “Asian”?