Immigration

Anti-Asian sentiment in Australia: “A joke isn't funny when you’re the punchline”

Eileen Chong. Source: Christopher Phillips Photography

In Australia, Eileen Chong has experienced racism first-hand … countless times. She told Insight how racism excused as just ‘the Australian way’ isn’t good enough anymore.

On 16 March, I read about the shooting in Atlanta, Georgia, the light from my phone bright on my face. Details emerge—eight people were killed: six of whom were Asian women, four of them Korean. Their names: Soon Chung Park, 74, Hyun Jung Grant, 51, Sun Cha Kim, 69, Yong Ae Yue, 63, Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, Paul Andre Michels, 54, Xiaojie Tan, 49, and Daoyou Feng, 44. They were people, with friends and families, with histories, with futures. Now, they are dead.

I watched the grief pouring in from my Asian American friends online. I felt corresponding waves of grief in my own being rise up, and spill over into words. I worried about the safety of my Asian American friends. I worried about their parents, their children, and about their physical and mental health. I feared there would be more violence, and about the effects of this violence on Asian diaspora elsewhere. The stories kept coming: anti-Asian hate was on the rise in the United Kingdom as well, and in Australia, too. This is not solely an American problem.

For many in Australia, ‘Asian’ is a convenient catch-all term, a monolithic identity. As an Asian woman in Australia, I have been called racist slurs—in broad daylight, walking on the street, on my way to the supermarket—which made me flinch and cry. I have heard the ‘love you long time’ and ‘happy ending’ jokes countless times. I have worked in places where I overheard managers discuss how they wouldn’t hire anyone who ‘had an accent’, then in the same breath, praise another colleague for her mellifluous Scottish brogue. When several white colleagues and I were folding letters to put into envelopes, someone senior joked that I should be left to do the job on my own, because I was ‘naturally very good at origami’. When I complained about these instances to others, they took pains to reassure me that it was ‘the Australian way’—that those jokes meant that I was liked, and accepted. But jokes always hide a kernel of truth, and a joke isn't funny when you’re the punchline.

Vigil Held In Washington, DC To Remember And Honor Atlanta Shooting Victims
Activists participate in a vigil in response to the Atlanta spa shootings in the Chinatown area of Washington, DC.
Getty Images North America

Racism is death by a thousand cuts. It means listening to your white friends complain that there are too many Asians in medical school, only to ask to see an Asian doctor when they need medical care. It means that the same people who laugh at racist jokes will ask you where to get the best dumplings or sushi or pho. It means being asked ‘where do you really come from?’ and ‘where did you learn to speak English so well?’ almost every time I participate in a literary event. It means explaining to people that you bleed, just like they do. It means proving your humanity over and over and over, in the hopes that the hurt will stop. But the hurt doesn’t stop. Maybe it will never stop.

Racism exists on many levels. It is most dangerous when it manifests in broader, systemic, and institutionalised ways. Many people have died, and continue to die as a result of it. One example of too many: 2021 marks thirty years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was completed, and since then, there has been more than 440 recorded Indigenous deaths in custody. Many recommendations as a result of the inquiry have yet to be implemented. Even as we face anti-Asian sentiment, Asian Australians and white allies must centre and support the voices and calls to action of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Together, we must seek to dismantle existing power structures and work towards better safety, equity, and justice for all marginalised peoples in Australia.

Eileen Chong is a poet born in Singapore of Hakka, Hokkien, and Peranakan descent. She lives and works on the unceded lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation.