My dad once confessed to me that he regretted moving to the United States from Taiwan.
He came from a reasonably well-off family, with modest political connections, and many of his best friends in Taiwan went on to a measure of success that gilds an Asian Tiger economy that his middle-class, middle-America existence would never touch.
An engineer by training and trade, he immigrated to a country with seemingly limitless global power and wealth. To my father, this power and wealth was made tangible in the million-dollar-missiles he saw every day during his conscription during the US-Vietnam War. While he migrated to the United States primarily for ‘opportunity’, as a Taiwanese person, surely, there was also a sense of existential peril. There is no wiping the US off the map, so he might have thought.
While that particular global geo-political issue remains deeply unresolved, for my father at least, his experience of America was far from the golden land of infinite opportunity sold to him by shiny Hollywood movies and slick popular culture. Even within the sparse communities of Taiwanese they found in the United States, my parents never truly found their place, living in semi-isolation and half-integration. Subtle signs of mental colonisation played themselves out in various ways, not least of all the Anglo-Americanised names they gave their children and even now, request as preferences for their grandchildren.
A month before the COVID-19 pandemic was declared and the borders slammed shut, my partner visa to Australia was approved. Before that, my partner and I lived as many internationally mobile global professionals do. As partners with transportable skills but different passports, we lived and worked in a constellation of countries as skilled migrants and as students. We shared lots of similarities despite our different countries of origin. Both children of migrants, both aware of issues of race and culture, both bilingual, both still privileged by education and mobility from the global north.
Before the pandemic, we assumed that immigrating to Australia would be easier somehow. My wife was Australian by citizenship at least; as long as we were together, I would have a legal place here. It seemed like a good option to raise a family together, here, closer to her immediate family. We assumed that we would both get jobs that we reasonably liked and paid a meaningful, fair wage.
Arriving just as the pandemic hit, I’m grateful to have escaped the worst of its impacts here. I’m profoundly cognizant of how many have died elsewhere; my brother is still experiencing long-COVID. I tell people I’m grateful to be in Australia but the words taste faintly metallic. Before coming to Australia, I grew up Taiwanese in Texas in the 1980s; as an adult, I worked in Beijing as a Taiwanese “other”; I’m acutely aware of my race and the many subtleties of ‘Chinese-ness’. But it shocked me to be called a ‘chink’ again in public, several times in fact, most recently outside Melbourne Central — in Melbourne’s busy central business district where cultural diversity seems at its most visible. When I described the incident to seemingly-kind (white-)Australian acquaintance, they said: “Oh, but you get the odd mental case outside Melbourne Central.”
Job hunting during the pandemic proved complicated, complicated beyond belief with the need for at least one parent to provide childcare for our daughter during months of lockdowns.
With borders closed for much of the last two years, there was no dearth of articles talking about the half million Australian expats returning, still looking for work, or generally repatriating. With these Aussie citizens reporting that who you know is more important than what you know, knowing no one felt like an insurmountable barrier.
As my job hunting continued, I looked at Australian leadership across politics, business, and public sector, and saw few non-white faces. Yet I had heard the global spin, advertising, and public rhetoric that described Australia as a successful multicultural society, gratefully ‘better’ than some of its European comparators where undercurrent racism and anti-globalism was turning them away from cosmopolitan multicultural ideals.
Naïvely, I wondered if the Australian Human Rights Commission (which used to be called the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission), dropped the “Equal Opportunity” because it had all been taken care of. But issues Asian-Americans have long organised against, and I thought until recently had made progress on, are in full effect here. Sparse, but intuitive research confirms a bamboo ceiling and an under-utilisation of Asian Australian talent in Australia that mirrors Americas. What little research there is on it confirms my brief observations that international experience and talent is undervalued (even in globally competitive professional services sectors) and visible minorities continue to experience barriers to entry and advancement.
In speaking with other skilled émigrés in Australia, not all of them visible minorities, several advised me to take lower pay or more junior positions. This advice, though well-intentioned seemed to reinforce a Lowy Institute report outlining why Australia, despite having the world’s largest skilled migration program, still realises ‘substantially and stubbornly” lower labour market outcomes (that is, less money, less status and less opportunity) for foreign-educated migrants, against comparably educated natives. To elaborate, from this same Lowy Institute report:
The incidence of skill mismatch (over-education) among university-educated foreign workers in Australia is as high as 40–50 per cent versus 10–20 per cent among comparable domestic workers, placing Australia on equal footing with countries that do not implement selective immigration policies.
New acquaintances — also skilled-migrants — described job searches enduring for years to find work in their field. Once again, given the general devaluation in Australia of foreign work experience that affects returning citizens, non-citizens and skilled migrants face even more barriers. A few skilled migrants even spoke about leaving, even after achieving citizenship and a functional working life here. It’s a milestone of happiness for many to have your visa or gain citizenship, and I recognise my privilege that I don’t automatically think of it as such.
Notwithstanding the pandemic, even as the circumstances of ‘living with the virus’ start to emerge, I feel no closer to understanding the pathway to feeling at home here. Still, I keep sending my resume out, applying for jobs, interviewing, researching, caring for my child, setting down roots, trying more, trying to stay grateful.
Upon moving to Melbourne, my wife and I found an apartment in the inner city — compact but big enough for our family and close to where we imagine work will be. Then we spend months in lockdown. Across the park is the infamous Park Hotel, where dozens of refugees and asylum seekers have been living in limbo (many for years) before — unexpectedly — Novak Djokovic draws attention to the site.
The longer I live in Australia, the more I understand how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have suffered through generations of racism and structural discrimination without the many privileges I have. I know my Muslim friends here have far worse to deal with than me, a member of the “model minority”.
But there’s an insidious Australian undertone to all this, this privilege relativism, colourism, and bargain for ‘belonging’. Conversations about race and racism feel different; the idea of white-passing seems to be a foreign concept or taboo subject. Yet I’ve seen native-born Asian-Australians who list that they’re native English speakers on their resume. My work history is almost entirely in Asia, I have an Asian name. Eventually, I did the same. It wasn’t enough to assume that submitting an entire page of grammatically correct sentences be evidence enough that my English is acceptable. I have a hard time believing many white native-born Australians feel compelled to do the same.
Strange phrases echo from past memories.
Don’t kick up a stink; you’re one of the lucky ones.
Life is much better here; be grateful.
The language used is different here. The news focuses on the effects migration will have on the economy, real estate, or the education sector; immigrants feel like a commodity to be analysed in the frame of industry, economy, dollars, cents. Culture feels like a commodity. Oh, I eat curry/kebabs/dim sim/phở, read manga, listen to K-Pop too! Sometimes it feels like there’s another tone-deaf and sinister subtext, that migrants aren’t real humans with stories, joys, and suffering, just a bauble to admire and play with, not to be understood and accepted. Does Australia really believe migrants have contributions to make to Australia other than becoming doctors, engineers, or accountants — as valuable as all those professions are — more value than our taxable income?
I feel sometimes like an ignorant ‘foreigner’ on so many things Australian, but the more I dig, the more I ponder my future here. One person I meet suggests that I’m too old to ‘become Australian’.
In the two years I’ve lived here, I’ve often thought back on my parents’ immigration. I wonder what I’ll tell my kids in time.
This No Compass edition is supported by Multicultural Arts Victoria, as a part of the 2022 Ahead of the Curve Commissions.