Becoming Asian in Australia

Becoming Asian in Australia

The way Asian Australians are perceived visually has a considerable impact on their sense of belonging to Australian society, says ANDRZEJ GWIZDALSKI.

One afternoon my Aussie colleague and I (newly arrived in Australia) sat outside a restaurant on Lygon Street, Melbourne. What happened next shed fresh light on my understanding of Australianness.

The waitress first spoke only to me, ignoring my colleague. She then said, ‘Could you ask your friend what he’s having?’

‘Why don’t you ask him yourself?’ I said. ‘He’s from here and speaks better English than me.’

‘Oh … I’m so sorry. I thought … ,’ she said looking at my friend,—‘you don’t…’

She stopped herself from finishing the sentence, confused and blushing.

‘I know, I know I don’t look very Australian,’ my friend replied smiling and trying to turn the awkward situation into a joke.

I remember joining in the short uncomfortable laughter, but at the back of my socio-anthropologically-trained mind something clicked and became even more apparent years later when I was researching migration, identity and racial discrimination. There I was, a white male from Central Europe appearing more Australian than my born-and-bred Asian-background Melburnian friend.

That afternoon on Lygon Street, without a citizenship certificate and purely on my physical appearance, I became an Aussie, while my colleague was taken for a foreigner. Unfair? Certainly. New? Not really. This is a classic example of positive and negative racial discrimination, well explored in the social sciences. Our physical appearance that day became a signifier that stood for all stereotyped and falsely assumed conceptions of who is and who is not an Australian.

The influential cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, must have had a similar experience when he migrated from Jamaica to the United Kingdom in the early 1950s. As he often explained, referring to someone as black in Jamaica didn’t make much sense. But once he arrived in the United Kingdom, his blackness became not only visible, but also inherited all sorts of historically and culturally constructed stereotypical meanings foreign to him.

This exemplifies how human physical diversity—once referred to as race—becomes a floating signifier that may stand for diverse meanings, depending on the cultural context. While the 19th century pseudoscientific biological conceptions of race and racial hierarchies have long been dismissed by modern science, cultural stereotypes anchored in our physical appearance still float in the shallow minds of many. These stereotypes are frequently used to construct someone’s full identity, often purely on the basis of their visual appearance.

Distinct experience

For many, being an Asian Australian can be a distinct experience. In one context, an Asian appearance can represent a well-educated, hardworking, talented professional. In another—perhaps more commonly—it may trigger some of the worst racial prejudice constructed throughout Australian history.

The fears of’ ‘being swamped by Asians’, as expressed by the likes of Pauline Hanson, indeed arose earlier, in the times of the Goldfield riots in the mid-19th century. These negative significations were then exaggerated, institutionalised and maintained for more than the 70 years of the White Australia Policy. These constructs still float in the minds of many, as shown in Karen Bailey’s racist rant on a Sydney train in July 2014, or as the bamboo ceiling for Asian Australians aspiring to leadership positions indicates.

Is it all because Asian Australians are hardworking and well-organised, hence too dangerous, as Australia’s second prime minister, Alfred Deakin, suggested at the onset of the White Australia Policy? If yes, why hasn’t the same level of racial discrimination been applied to hardworking white European protestants, for example?

While racism in general, and racial discrimination of Asian Australians, has been broadly researched, my original work has focused on the visual construction of identity. The term ‘visual belonging’ refers to the sense of belonging to a people that a person may experience, based on their appearance.

My research comprises in-depth interviews, surveys and the development of community ethnographies with Asian Australians who arrived in Australia as refugees, settlers and international students, and with those born in Australia to Asian parents. It strongly indicates that the way others visually perceive Asian Australians has a considerable impact on their sense of belonging to Australian society. This is evidenced in some of the comments made to me by young Asian Australians:

‘I don’t feel Australian because of the way I look.’

‘They see you first time and call you Asian, assuming you’re slow and boring without even trying to know you.’

‘We tried to share our culture and tell them about our Karen people but the Aussies don’t care. For them we just look Asian, and if you look Asian they think we all speak Chinese.’

‘They followed me after school calling “go back to where you come from” and then threw stones at my windows.’

‘Back in Thailand we were either Thai or Burmese or Karen. No one would call us Asian. It was first when I came to Australia they started calling me Asian. I didn’t really know what that meant then. I know now and it’s not nice. I don’t think I could call myself Australian. I don’t look Australian. I’m not white.’

Appearance can be confusing. Many would disagree that Australia is a racist country. Of course we’re not racist! We’re a happy multicultural society with diverse people, foods and cultural festivals; we have the Racial Discrimination Act (1975), Penny Wong in the parliament and Tim Soutphommasane as Race Discrimination Commissioner.

By the same token, many Americans would say that they’re not racist because they have Barrack Obama as president. But the recent riots in Ferguson, Missouri, are proof that the United States has a racial problem.

Formal institutions and symbolic figures are often used as facades for harmonious multiculturalism, but the real issues lurk behind in everyday situations where people are becoming Asians or blacks or, more recently terrorists, based solely on their appearance.

Solving this issue may take more than antiracial policies and institutions, and the genuine engagement of many multiculturalists in fighting racial discrimination. The task calls upon everyone—especially those who loudly call themselves Australians while waving the flag. It may first require taking a brave look at, and facing insecurities about, our own national identity and colonial past, and our many unresolved relations with Aboriginal Australia. Perhaps then, after a cathartic debate, instead of labelling ourselves Asian, Anglo or Aboriginal, we could all become just Australian.

Cheering Kashima Antlers fans at Asian Club Championships game (Tets Kimura).

Dr Andrzej Gwizdalski is a research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Western Australia. This article is based on a study presented at the ASAA conference in Perth in July 2014.

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