Dear fellow and future…


Dear fellow and future Asian Australian academics,

How are you holding up?

Now we are into our third year of the pandemic, has it gotten any easier for you managing the work-life balance in the face of potential Sinophobia, xenophobia, and the multiple waves of redundancies in the higher education sector?

Think back: as social media posts and news started coming in of racist attacks against Asian-looking people because of the mislabelling of the ‘Chinese virus’ and fear of it, the fear for our safety created an undeniable level of additional stress. I mean, it did for me. I went out to shop for basic goods wearing a mask for protection from COVID-19, but maybe also protection against racist provocation. I added a hat, sunglasses, long sleeves, sometimes gloves, the thought crossing my mind that people wouldn’t see my Sino features that way. As the philosopher Helen Ngo argues, racism can be embodied.

Was it hard for you to come out of the mass redundancies of 2020 and 2021? I thought it was awful. Whether you kept your job or not, academia has felt even more precarious since the pandemic, and especially so if you are a casual, on contract, or — heck — even in so-called ‘ongoing’ position.

I worried I was kept on or had the job in the first place because the university needed to tick that diversity box. That was the whispered conversation I had via text message with some fellow Asian Australians. How to tell if you’re merely a token in an industry whose image relies on being known to champion diversity and equity? How to know if you’re valued as an individual, or for your achievements, not just for what you represent?

Of course, it was not just me and my fellow Asian Australians questioning our own tokenistic value. I suspected my colleagues also did so, particularly when mass redundancies enacted ‘spill and fill’ decisions, six academics competing for two remaining positions, for example. The de-valuing of ‘Asian studies’ in Australia and the cutting of the study of Asian languages in higher education institutions across the countries from WA, Victoria, Tasmania, NSW to Queensland because in times of border closures and mass redundancies it did not economically translate to student enrolment numbers may affect you directly or indirectly but the racist comments and xenophobic tone of wasting tax payers money on Asians posted on the social media page of news about the closing of ‘Asian studies’ was truly shocking. Starting up academic conversations about the need for studying Asians in Australia was even more difficult.

Between the pandemic and the mass redundancies, my imposter syndrome went through the roof. Compared to colleagues branded as ‘experts’ in their field, I felt my expertise less valued precisely because my research is also related to my identity/racial/cultural background, given its focus on migrants, multicultural and Asian studies. There is a questioning of your ability to be academically objective of your research. It is one thing doing ‘collaborative’ research with multicultural community, another thing altogether if you come from that community, you step on uncomfortable territory of the personal is political or the politics of identity. Particularly heightened in these last few years with global movements such as #Blacklivesmatter and #StopAsianHate enabled another level of awareness on issues of race and race relations, ironically where your academic ‘expertise’ may be called upon to speak on behalf of your ‘race’.

Then again, perhaps you are in STEM and face different prejudice: that Asians should be good at STEM, in Maths and Sciences rather than English or Humanities, because of your perceived language issues. Maybe you were stereotyped as having ambitious ‘tiger’ parents pushing you to excel academically and your superiors thought you’d be a good investment.

But it was good for the lockdowns to end, wasn’t it?

Although, with the return to face-to-face teaching and delivery now in ‘hybrid mode’, juggling online teaching as well, it’s been quite an adjustment to be faced with more exposure to the virus on top of figuring out how to re-orient the way students learn and all those classroom management issues. None of my students are fully recovered from all that went on these past few years. I’ve barely recovered from having to do the additional emotional work for students of Asian descent during the pandemic, or international students who hoped I could be more empathetic to their situation, or even just providing support to fellow Asian Australian academics who were going through the same multiple challenges I was.

Do you have school age dependents or kids in childcare, too? The uncertainty of exposure and keeping them home if they have symptoms without the level of support or understanding I had during lockdown is wearing me down. Also, you may have kids like me who asks why their friends keep asking them if they are Chinese or they start saying they are different because they are Asian. It takes a lot of emotional reserve to parent with racial intercultural sensitivity. I feel like I have burn out on burn out on burn out.

Is it worth remaining in academia after all this, just to face the so-called ‘Bamboo Ceiling’ of being pigeon-holed as ‘Asian’ in a country whose academic context is as systemically xenophobic as many of its other institutions?

Perhaps you disagree, maybe you can’t relate to any of these experiences or want to take the direction of the argument differently, debate, put forward your own argument, hypothesis?

All of which is precisely what being in academia is all about: the ability to open up spaces for other ways of thinking and seeing the world, to be able to contribute to knowledge that further understanding the world we live in, such as ideas of race and experiences of racism. That’s what brought me to academia. I used to be interested in our disagreement, in the contest of these realities.

I guess I’m just wavering here, trying to sustain a belief in the values of academia beyond the corporate institution and beyond the problematic generalising term of Asian Australian, thinking about all that the pandemic has brought and all that it has taken away.


A fellow Asian Australian Academic


This No Compass edition is supported by Multicultural Arts Victoria, as a part of the 2022 Ahead of the Curve Commissions.

Your thoughts?