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How Isabel and Hua found their place in Australia

New Chinese migrants reflect on the long history of Chinese settling in Australia. Source: Isabel Zhang/Xia Hua

A Chinese scholar discovers the advantages of raising her voice in a sea of Western perspectives, while a goodwill ambassador works to connect the Chinese community across generations.

For Isabel Zhang, Australia ticked the box for work-life balance.  

“It’s very important to me. I really don’t want to work 12 hours a day and overtime on weekends,” she says.

After studying and working in Malaysia and Singapore for many years, the China-born migrant came to Australia to settle nine years ago. 

“I’ve been drifting south, and finally I feel at home in Melbourne. I’ve settled down,” she says.

Why do China’s new migrants choose Australia?

In the past financial year, mainland China surpassed India to become Australia's largest source of permanent migrants.

The 2016 census revealed that nearly half of Australia’s 1.2 million Chinese speak Mandarin and almost 60 per cent are tertiary educated.

Ms Zhang holds both a bachelor’s degree and an MBA and is among the tens of thousands of Chinese who have settled in Australia over the past decade.

Isabel Zhang and friend at the Melbourne Cup Carnival.
Isabel Zhang and friend at the Melbourne Cup Carnival.
Isabel Zhang

There have been moments that have made her rethink the move Down Under.

“In the past nine years, the careers of my former colleagues have taken off. My career is developing but it has been much slower in comparison. The opportunities are far greater in mainland China and Singapore,” she says.

But for Ms Zhang, it has been important to choose a place that gave her the most enjoyment. 

“Like other new Chinese immigrants in Australia, one thing we like is that you live to work, not work to live.”

Another Chinese-born migrant Xia Hua has also made Australia home in the last decade.

Dr Hua grew up in Shanghai and graduated from one of mainland China’s most prestigious universities, Fudan University.

In New York, after completing a PhD at Stony Brook University, she was on the look out for another change in scenery.  

Lindell Bromham and Xia Hua
Lindell Bromham and Xia Hua
Xia Hua

In 2013, she moved to Australia where she had applied for a postdoctoral fellow role in molecular evolution at the Australian National University.

“This is the first job I applied for and I got it,” Dr Xia says.

“Australia is an ecologically unique place. I chose Australia because I’m interested in its biosphere,” she adds.

Her team’s research was shortlisted for a Eureka Award, the “Oscar” of the Australian scientific community, but says she doesn't "care about result and awards”.

As a biomathematician, Dr Xia is a member of a four-person interdisciplinary team that studies the language spoken by Gurindji and Ngarinyman people in the Northern Territory.

The research attempts to test views on language evolution through large data sets and powerful analytical methods, such as generational comparisons and the role of social groups on long-term differences in language.

Xia Hua and her parents
Xia Hua and her parents
Xia Hua

“I didn’t expect the Australian government and scholars to spend much time studying the change process of a single Aboriginal language or better understand how to protect these languages,” she says.

“As a minority in Australia, I am very moved and driven because I feel that my own culture is respected in this country.”

A need to talk about the past

Dr Xia admits her understanding of the long history of Chinese migration to Australia and linkage to the Chinese community is weak due there being very few Chinese engaged in her field of research and her life being closely tied with her job.

Conversely, Ms Zhang’s work brings her inextricably close to the Chinese community.

As a cultural goodwill ambassador of the Museum of Australian Chinese History in Melbourne, she says the Chinese community in Australia is very diverse.

“I never call it a community, but communities,” she says.

Isabel Zhang
Isabel Zhang
Isabel Zhang

“The 1.2 million Chinese not only come from mainland China, but also Singapore, Malaysia [among other places]. What’s more complicated is there are first, second, and even sixth generation Chinese,” she adds.

Mak Sai Ying (b. 1798) is believed to be the first Chinese born settler to Australia, arriving in 1818.

Tens of thousands more joined him during the Australian gold rush in the 1850s.

This unique era has been explored in the SBS TV series New Gold Mountain, which will be released on 13 October.

The fictional drama is inspired by true events and looks at the intricate relationship between European settlers, Chinese migrants and Indigenous Australians in the old Victorian goldmining centre of Ballarat.

It explores themes of “identity and belonging, class and race inequality and the nature and construction of truth”.

“The feelings and expectations of Chinese who came to Australia during the gold rush are very different to those of the Chinese these days,” says Ms Zhang.

“People are [now] much better off. They’re well educated and financially established. They’re not starting from scratch.”

It’s precisely this difference that makes intellectuals such as Dr Xia feel disconnected from the Chinese migrants who came to Australia over 150 years ago.

“The characteristics of people from each era are different. We live in the information age so new migrants tend to be more skilled. This is certainly one of the trends,” Dr Xia says.

“There are almost no Chinese in my field. I’m surrounded by Western culture. It’s only when you’re really surrounded by it that you realise the special place Chinese culture has.”

Ms Zhang believes bridging the gap between the two communities lies in educating people on the history of Chinese migration to Australia.

“From 200 years ago until now, the Chinese who have come here from all around the world haven’t really understood each other.”

Ms Zhang also believes the majority of people might not be able to distinguish old Chinese migrants from new ones.

The Museum of Chinese Australian History plays a role in not only presenting information about the history of Australians with Chinese ancestry but also in showcasing the arrival of new Chinese migrants, says Ms Zhang.

“Thereby strengthening mutual understanding, tolerance and unity,” she says.

Ms Zhang features as one of eight Chinese protagonists in an online exhibition “Our Story” produced by the museum.

“We are all Chinese migrants in Australia. If we have an understanding of our collective history, it will make it easier for us to bridge our gap,” she says.

Though Dr Xia is less connected to the Chinese communities in Australia than her peers, she says her Chinese identity is still strong.

“People respect and are curious about my culture. When I encounter big problems, I will tell others how I’d approach them from a Chinese perspective,” she says.  

New Gold Mountain airs over two big weeks premiering Wednesday 13 October at 9.30pm and continuing on Thursday 14 October, Wednesday 20 October, and Thursday 21 October at 9.30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand.

The series will be subtitled in Arabic, Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean and will be added to the subtitled collection on SBS On Demand.

Join the conversation #NewGoldMountain

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