This is part 2 of “Bigger Than Your Tick Boxes”… For part 1, please click here.
At this point, I’ve said enough about what doesn’t work.
I now want to look at how fellow young immigrants besides myself have tinkered with what doesn’t work, and created the unexpected. I am grateful for their time and willingness to share their thoughts with me.
These aren’t “success stories” about “happy migrants.” (I’m not qualified to say if they are happy).
Rather, these are humble excursions into their thinking; into how they’ve made sense, and made art, out of their immigrant experiences.
Touches, swaths, and sweeps of colour all over the screen where the image takes up space. But the senses are never overwhelmed. The forms on the page are composed with an intelligent, sensitive hand. Mia Likhain is a student of Filipino pre-Hispanic textiles and visual culture, a self-taught professional illustrator keen to showcase the complexity of the Filipino aesthetic sensibility despite constant efforts – by Filipino educational systems and Western criticism alike – to reduce pre-colonial iconography to something simple, savage, and unworthy of discussion. Her vivid, detailed, ink and watercolour images of women of colour present a self-possessed femininity, a femininity that calmly inhabits a large, organic, complex world — not a performance for a heterosexual male gaze.
Mia came to Australia on Christmas Eve 2012 to be with her Australian girlfriend. Now 30 and currently residing in Mornington, she is a full-time artist who explores decolonial feminism through meticulously detailed ink and watercolour drawings of the non-white, non-realistic, fantastical female figure in nature. She generates income from doing commissioned illustrations for US and UK presses, and is keen to meet more Australian clients. Her embrace of science fiction and fantasy motifs in her work speaks to her Filipino upbringing, because “unlike the West where the supernatural is extraordinary, [in the Philippines], the supernatural is ordinary, always right next to you, [always present], but not feared.” Hence, the compulsion to recite incantations when passing by trees known to be the dwelling place of mercurial folk spirits. Movement through space was not merely about an individual laying claim, but about “acknowledging and respecting others” who might be affected by one’s presence there.
Despite the colonial belittling of the fluid, non-hierarchical relationship between indigenous peoples and nature (vis-à-vis the Western world’s ordering of itself above the non-human), despite the equating of this equality with savagery and simplicity, Mia has found that complexity was evident in Philippine indigenous craftsmanship. A visit to a gold exhibit in the Ayala exhibit in Manila challenged everything she had learned at school; the level of attentiveness, the sophisticated tool use, and the intricate detail work on the material, indicated anything but lack of civilisation. She is devoted to doing more work that creates the same sense of wonder in the people she works with, and fully takes advantage of the Internet’s ability to bypass traditional channels for sharing art.
Of Peranakan-Chinese background, Lian relocated to Australia at 14. She arrived “in 1991, the year before Eddie Mabo’s land rights campaign resulted in the Australian High Court overturning the concept of terra nulius as a legal doctrine in Australian white colonial history. Of course, this history was not taught when I was in high school.” Despite having grown up bilingual in Malaysia with English proficiency, she was put in an ESL class, which bored her. After she was finally permitted to take a standard Literature class, she felt isolated, being the only Asian person there. Her frustrations being an outsider, as well as her meditations on her attraction towards women, found a home in her journals, and that is how her creative practice began.
Being a queer woman writer of colour in Australia has put her in a complex place, with the literati and with feminism. She told me, “On a personal note, I’ve experienced intense bullying from someone respectable, who told me she doesn’t see me as a ‘woman of colour’, but just as a woman. While I’m all for shared humanity, I found her colour-blind attitude patronising and dismissive, as she found it difficult to acknowledge the existence of white privilege. I was deeply hurt by that experience, and I’m glad I no longer work for her.”
She is currently writing a travel memoir, a project which she worked on at the Wheeler Centre’s 2015 Hot Desk Fellowship. She also received a Melbourne City of Literature Travel grant to research this work, where a work-in-progress showing was held at the Melaka Art and Performance Festival last year. She is currently workshopping new material with Melbourne writer Lee Kofman (together with nine other writers) which will culminate in the Art of Storytelling event at the Melbourne Writers Festival in September.
Dr Savuth Nin
Educator, professional interpreter in Melbourne
In 2010, Savuth came to Australia on a scholarship to do a PhD in Education at La Trobe University. After successfully completing his thesis on the trends in the Cambodian government’s higher education policy, he now lives permanently in Melbourne. He currently works as a NAATI-accredited interpreter for members of the Cambodian community requiring translation services. He does translation work over the phone and face-to-face, and travels all over Melbourne, to hospitals, community centres, and even the courts, to bridge the language gap between speakers of Khmer who do not speak English, and English-speaking Australians.
He decided to pursue professional interpreting in order to get away from his PhD. “It was too theoretical. I needed time away from my thesis, and I needed to engage with people and contribute to the community.” Currently 34, Savuth now devotes an average of 25 hours per week to interpreting work. Having cited critical philosopher Michel Foucault as one of his inspirations, it is no wonder he works primarily in languages. For him, the provision of interpreting services is a democratic act, a way of improving social inclusion for people in Australia who may not be competent English language users. Merely being unable to communicate well in English should not keep anyone from accessing social justice in Australia, and interpreters like Savuth help enable this access.
Forty-year-old Kuala Lumpur-born Chindian-Malaysian-Australian Kevin Bathman is a jack of all trades and a master of some. Having studied and worked in New Zealand for a few years, he moved to Sydney in 2004, and has remained there since. In his professional life, he is the creative director of a multicultural health organization. After hours, he is the founder and organizer of the four-year-old annual Carnival of the Bold and curator of the Chindian Diaries website.
With the Carnival of the Bold, Kevin wanted to “create a space for socially engaged artists to promote their work.” He is especially keen on recruiting artists from culturally diverse backgrounds. In his experience of the Australian arts scene, “many artists tend to be more about self-expression, about saying ‘look at me.’” He recalls that in Malaysia, many artists whose work incorporates social and cultural criticism risk imprisonment and even murder. He hopes that the Carnival of the Bold expands audiences for artists working for social change, as well as providing networking opportunities for artists who have experienced similar struggles. As a first-generation immigrant who came to Australia as an adult, he finds himself having to explain and defend himself all the time, having to make a stand when social expectations would have him behave contrary to his interests. For instance, he found that alcohol consumption was practically a requirement to foster workplace camaraderie, and felt pressured to drink in order to fit in. Not liking the taste of alcohol, he put his foot down and risked being an outsider — a risk that increased whenever he spoke up against racism. He finds solace from the fatigue through connecting with people who understand the alienation and the loneliness – and these usually tend to be artists from non-Anglo backgrounds.
The Chindian Diaries is another pet project of his. Being of Indian and Chinese descent himself, he created a platform for mixed-race Chinese-Indian couples to share their stories, mostly through photos and stories about the joys and difficulties of building a life together whilst being from different cultural backgrounds. Kevin hopes to someday publish a book of all the stories he has collected over the years. His work and his own life story are a colourful tapestry of reinvented narratives — about mixed-race love, about the social power of art, and about creating opportunities for kindred spirits to speak freely and make art together.
Karachi-born and bred Sami Shah moved to Australia in 2012 after receiving one too many death threats from people upset by his journalism. After a three-year wait on the outcome of his application, the young father resettled in Northam, regional WA, as part of his visa requirements. He moved to Melbourne earlier this year, and has just finished his debut run at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. He has been working with ABC Radio National, and is also looking forward to launching his first fantasy novel Fire Boy later this year.
Having lived in two very different Australian cities, he has much to say about what it’s like to be hailed as a racialized subject in this country: “Living in Northam worked to my advantage. Being a Pakistani comedian who lived next to a detention centre became a selling point. But because the Perth media scene was so limited, I was simply known as Sami Shah the comedian on Perth radio. In Melbourne, I always get tapped to talk about Islamophobia whilst my white friends get to talk about food or dating – like I have nothing to say about those topics. Yet I talk about Uber, Tinder, fatherhood, and current events in my shows, just like everyone else.” He also found that event organisers would always tap him to open for comedians of colour or to sit in an all-brown panel, even if he had no common interests with the other performers.
“Melbourne is the most multicultural city but its media is the most segregated.”
Coming from a country with history of violent and polarized political scene, he has some thoughtful observations on Australian progressive movements: “I spoke to some asylum seekers at the detention centre near my old home in Northam. During a massive protest, the asylum seekers watching from the centre thought that these Australians had gathered on the hill to yell at them to go home. The protesters had a sausage sizzle and tents and they took selfies. They went back home to their lives in Perth, thinking they had done well.” Yet nothing had fundamentally changed for the asylum seekers who were still locked up. In this and other reflections, Sami’s writings and performances always feature a blend of contemplation and action, challenging prevailing perceptions of race and political action by simply putting himself out there.
My take-away from these stories is that having progressive views on the rights of women, GLBTIQs, asylum seekers and refugees; the political potentials of art; and enhanced democratic participation for non-native-English-speaking minorities, is not a sole Western conceit. The motivation to reduce injustice is not something that exists exclusively in Western climates that radically alters a foreigner’s psyche after they have breathed Western air long enough. Repressive societies in non-Western states have always had dissidents from within, who may sometimes have the support of people in the West, but were not always produced in the West. Often people relocate to places like Australia because to escape the worst effects of global inequality and human insecurity, exacerbated by long and complex colonial histories and uneven international political and economic arrangements (See Castles 2013, pp. 126 – 127). Sometimes people relocate to the West because they are drawn to the opportunity to enjoy and practice democratic freedoms that they’ve already cherished even before arrival — and not, as it has been alleged, so they can impose “their unfreedoms” on people living on Australian soil. Rather than assume that brown and black foreigners are one-note cardboard conservatives out to get the free-thinking, necessarily white Australian, it might be wiser to treat individual international transplants as they come, to receive them as subjects with quirks, complexities, and dreams for a better life in a safer place.
Except where otherwise stated, the views expressed in this article are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the persons interviewed, or the Asian Australian Democracy Caucus.
The Asian Australian Democracy Caucus (AADC) is a non-partisan organisation. One of our ongoing commitments is to contribute a monthly blog in collaboration with Peril magazine. To find out more about this collaboration read here. If you want more information or would like to write for us, get in touch with us, Shinen Wong or Karen Schamberger at firstname.lastname@example.org
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