Multiculturalism is a brand for Australia. It resonates in every classroom and is never far from the lips of every politician. It’s evoked as a ‘disclaimer’ against racism for every racially charged debate from asylum seekers to foreign investment. It’s a buzzword, proclaimed loudly to demonstrate how far we’ve progressed since the White Australia policy.
Indeed, Australia seems to embrace diverse cultures for the most part. Walk through any city street and you’ll encounter restaurants serving various ethnic cuisines, filled with patrons from various ethnic backgrounds. A mural in my suburb shows two hands of different skin tones clasped in friendship. And while racism does rear its head, it’s often met with an equal and opposite reaction, such as the #illridewithyou campaign following the Sydney Siege.
In my own life, I’ve seen Australia’s attitude towards Asia change drastically. I’ve seen greater effort to acknowledge Asian narratives and cultures, particularly Chinese. The Australian Centre for Moving Image (ACMI) is currently exhibiting Chinese artist Yang Fudong while the end of March will see the National Gallery of Victoria open A Golden Age of China – the Qianlong Emperor. Students study texts like Nam Le’s The Boat and they’re now accepted in the Australian literary canon. In some suburbs, cinemas have started showing Chinese and Korean films.
Essentially, Australians today are curious about other cultures and willing to learn and experience them. But this approach to multiculturalism assumes that the non-white is always foreign and different. In the keen search for racial markers of multiculturalism, Australia risks viewing people of colour as ornaments for an originally white Australian landscape. In the enthusiasm to ask, “Where are you from?”, anybody who isn’t white is ‘othered’: they can represent diversity, but they can never represent Australia.
Take the recent Australian film Paper Planes, for example. Set in a contemporary primary school, it’s the perfect setting for a diverse cast that reflects and appeals to multicultural Australia, right? Well in this case, the film does show some diversity in the classroom, but instead of capitalising on this and showing an Asian Australian in the cast, the film has a Japanese character instead. The problem here isn’t the Japanese character. The problem is that Asian roles in Australian film are hard to come by and on the rare occasion that the Australian media significantly represents Asian-ness, it embraces foreign accents and unimaginative orientalist stereotypes like origami. Given the Japanese Australian – or Chinese or Indian or Vietnamese – community, it wouldn’t have been a stretch to depict an ethnically Asian Australian character. And surely that would not only be appealing, but also far more validating, to Asian Australian kids who comprise the target audience for the film?
This example isn’t an outlier. For instance, iconic Australian shows such as Neighbours and Home and Away have almost entirely white characters. Growing up, the only Asian character I remember seeing on Neighbours was a Korean exchange student. Again, there’s nothing wrong with the character, but it’s frustrating when the only people who look like you on television represent a foreign ‘other’. When Neighbours finally introduced an Australian family of Indian ethnicity, they were cut from the thirty-one season show within two years. ‘Reality’ shows are equally whitewashed. My Kitchen Rules (MKR) or The Block will only include one or two non-white characters per season, who are often then reduced to cultural stereotypes – anybody remember the ‘spice girls’ on MKR?
The success of books such as The Boat and Growing up Asian in Australia suggest that there is room for complex Asian Australian characters – but only in narratives about race and immigration, and such stories are mostly defined by estrangement from Australian culture. In narratives about Australian culture, we are entirely absent. Though such texts are vastly important and are relevant to a lot of people, they only chronicle one of many Asian Australian experiences. The reluctance of Australian media to show multiculturalism beyond token representation and cultural novelty means people of colour are constantly positioned as an addendum to Australia rather than Australian.
At the end of the day, while Australia has accepted people that look different, it has yet to accept that we grew up in your neighbourhood and speak the same way as you. Multiculturalism isn’t being nice to that foreign student or inserting an ‘ethnic’ face into a crowd of white people, eating Thai food. Multiculturalism is chatting to an Asian person, a black person, a woman in a hijab and not feeling compelled to ask them where they’re from. Chances are they’re from the same place as you.