Are we for diversity as long as it’s convenient, and for multiculturalism as long as we don’t have to call out our friends?
By
Sharona Lin

14 Nov 2019 - 10:38 AM  UPDATED 14 Nov 2019 - 1:26 PM

When I was a kid, my dad told me I should learn to speak Mandarin. “You look Chinese,” he said bluntly. “It doesn’t matter that you are born in Australia, people will assume you are Chinese.” I brushed this off naively—I could be and do whatever I wanted, and I didn’t want to learn Mandarin. I wanted to watch Australian Idol and play video games and read Harry Potter (again). I assimilated, and I assimilated well.

I play AFL, I love going to summer music festivals, I listen to Triple J’s Hottest 100 every year and complain about the results. Once I backpacked through Cambodia and on New Years Eve, got blackout drunk and vomited in the hostel pool - I can’t think of anything more Australian than that.

I’m also a second-generation Chinese migrant; my parents were students in Melbourne when Tiananmen Square happened. Bob Hawke let them stay, and they stayed, and had me and then my sister. And that was that. I grew up, watched Home and Away and the Australian Open, sang in the school choir, worked at McDonalds after school, went to uni, and got a job.

ABC’s Australia Talks survey shows that I, like most Australians - both white and non-white - consider myself pretty Australian. But Australians of colour believe that other Australians rate them as less Australian than they feel.

That paranoia doesn’t come from nowhere - the same survey shows that a full third of Australians don’t think migrants try hard enough to fit in to Australia.

The ideal of cultural assimilation runs deep in Australia, and on first glance, it seems sensible. Of course migrants should assimilate and try to fit into Australian society, right?

The ideal of cultural assimilation runs deep in Australia, and on first glance, it seems sensible. Of course migrants should assimilate and try to fit into Australian society, right?

But what does that mean, “fitting in to Australia? Does that mean using Aussie slang? Holding backyard barbecues? Watching the footy? How do you decide whether someone is Australian enough?

I was reminded of my dad’s blunt assessment of identity and culture a few weeks ago.

It was almost midnight and I was in the pub’s carpark, walking towards my car when I passed by three people in their 30s. “Heading into town to kick on?” one of the men said.

“Nah,” I answered, relieved that they were friendly and I wouldn’t have to powerwalk to my car clutching my keys, “Just heading back home.”

“Nah,” the other man said, smirking at me. “She’s going to Chinatown, mate.”

I remember stopping for a moment to stare at him, floored by the look of pride on his face, and the absolute lack of embarrassment on his friends’ faces. And then I called him out. Not eloquently or critically - I mostly just dropped the f-bomb. He swore right back at me and I power-walked back to my car, heart racing not from fear but from anger.

“What more do they want from me??” I texted my friend, fuming.

This happened on AFL Grand Final weekend, on a weekend I’d watched not only the AFL Grand Final but also the NRL semifinal at the pub with my AFL friends. “What more do they want from me??” I texted my friend, fuming. When I got in my car I sat there for a moment, furious at the futility of my personhood and the destiny of my genetics. I was reminded that no matter how Australian I feel, others see me as a foreigner.

The incident in the carpark was a small indignity, but was only the latest and most infuriating of many. Those Australians of colour who do try to assimilate, to embrace this elusive ideal of being Australian - the barbecues, the slang, the footy - know these little indignities well. They know that no matter how Australian they feel, to have slanted eyes is to invite Orientalism, to have darker skin is to invite othering, to be visibly different is to be somehow less Australian.

They know that no matter how Australian they feel, to have slanted eyes is to invite Orientalism, to have darker skin is to invite othering, to be visibly different is to be somehow less Australian.

I don’t have an answer or a fix, but I have a challenge. I know that most Australians of all backgrounds are not for assimilation tests and alienation of Australians of colour. Study after study has shown that in general, Australians are for cultural diversity and for multiculturalism. The challenge is to interrogate what that actually means. What is it to be Australian, or to embrace diversity and multiculturalism?

Are we for diversity as long as it’s convenient, and for multiculturalism as long as we don’t have to call out our friends? Do we side eye people of colour and assume they aren’t Australian? (For the record, I have made this assumption before.)

Maybe we can stop wringing our hands over what it means to be Australian and whether the people around us are Australian enough, and just try to be good human beings.

Sharona Lin is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter at @sforsharona.

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