It’s only natural for those of us interested in Asian-Australian issues to keep abreast of what is happening with our cousins on the other side of the Pacific. Partly it is due to the American cultural juggernaut, meaning that we naturally tune in to anything emanating from the States; but the situation of Asian-Americans is an obvious parallel for Asian-Australians, more so than with the Asian community of the UK. In Britain, “Asian” is synonymous with “South Asian” and Hindu, Muslim and Sikh cultural influences; but in both Australia and the USA, “Asian” tends to mean East Asian, and many people have trouble accepting that someone from Bangladesh is just as much an Asian as someone from China.
In terms of many social indicators, Aussie and US Asians are similar, and the same stereotypes are often applied. But there are significant differences between us and our American cousins, and I’m speaking not just of their love for orange chicken (better known to us here as lemon chicken). I recently chatted to Chinese-American blogger Byron Wong, aka BigWOWO (http://www.bigwowo.com/), about some of these differences, although I should state that he’s never been Down Under and I’ve never been Stateside, so we may just be talking nonsense.
One significant difference is that Asians have a deeper history in the US than they do in Australia. While both nations had long practiced racially discriminatory immigration and settlement laws to keep Asians out, the White Australia Policy proved more effective on that score. The Chinese-Australian community, stemming back to the Gold Rush days of the 19th century, were the only Asian ethnic group who had any significant presence prior to the liberalisation of migration policies in the 1960s and 70s. By contrast, the US in around 1900 already had significant numbers of ethnic Chinese, Filipinos and Japanese.
Because the Asian-Australian community is on the whole a little younger than that of Asian-Americans, we arguably remain more “Asian”, since there are fewer of the older generation who were born in Australia or grew up here. In addition to this, Australia takes in proportionally far more international students than the US; our nation of 22 million has around 280,000 international students, whereas the US has 670,000 international students but in a population of 308 million. This means that Asian international students have a considerably greater cultural and numerical impact on Australia than they do in the US. Through them, Australian-raised Asians find another avenue of connecting with Asian culture, and they seem to keep us a bit more “fobby” than Asian-Americans.
Chinese-Australians’ long presence here is one key reason that they have become the most culturally dominant of all Asian-Australian groups, although it probably also relates to their greater numbers, economic success, and drawing many of their number from comparatively wealthy English-speaking places like Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. Chinese-Americans are also a well-established group with a strong cultural presence, but Korean- and Japanese-Americans are far more prominent than their Australian cousins. Korean migration to the US really only took off in the 1960s (due to certain migration policies being relaxed), but their cultural impact has steadily grown. According to Byron Wong, “Korean American power is exploding and will continue to grow. Virtually ALL the big name Asian-American actors these days are Korean – Daniel Dae Kim, Grace Park, Ken Jeong, and there are many background players from Korea who are financing and promoting Korean Americans in the media. Plus, KAs are entering politics like crazy.”
By contrast, there are few people of Malaysian origin in the US, yet Malaysian-Australians are relatively numerous and prominent. Driven largely by the international student market, the Malaysian community in Australia is fast-growing and has produced a number of well-known Australians, from Senator Penny Wong to celebrity chef Poh Ling Yeow and singers guy Sebastian and Kamahl.
After the Chinese, Filipinos are the second most numerous of all Asian-American groups. They are relatively numerous in Australia too, but whereas in Australia I’ve never seen them considered anything but Asian, they are sometimes seen as something of an outlier amongst Asian-Americans. Byron says this may be partly because in a country with a huge Hispanic population, Filipinos’ Spanish names and Catholic faith are associated with being Hispanic rather than Asian. There is even some kind of debate as to whether Filipino-Americans should be considered Asians or “Pacific Islanders”, which probably has a lot to do with their perceived brown-ness. I’m certainly not aware of Filipino-Australians ever claiming to be Pacific Islanders.
Yet Pacific Islanders in the US are sometimes lumped in with Asians, and there is even an “Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month”. Indeed on the US Census between 1990 and 2000 the two were included in one category. While Pacific Islanders certainly do have ancestral links to Asia, this seems like an odd grouping in the Australian context; Islanders and Asians don’t naturally flock together here. According to Byron, Americans don’t necessarily see the two groups as similar either, but: “We need friends, and so we latch on to those will be our friends… So in theory, according to the way political activists draw the line, we’re all in the same boat.” The idea of it seems to come from Hawaii, a state in which Asians and Polynesians are much more numerous and have somewhat closer ties. Also from Hawaii comes the term “hapa”, meaning someone of mixed Asian or Pacific Islander heritage, which is now a fairly commonly used term in the greater United States.
One of the key differences between Australia and the United States is that we are a much “whiter” country. The US is around 65% white, and Hispanics and African-Americans constitute two minority groups that are much larger than Asian-Americans, who are only around 5% of the population. In Australia, Asians are closer to 9% and are thus the largest non-white minority group. Combine that with our proximity to Asia, and Asians are truly the primary “other” in the Australian consciousness. Despite Bali being one of our primary tourist destinations, the 238 million Indonesians on our doorstep have long aroused suspicion in white Australia. Yet Indonesia barely registered a blip on the US consciousness until the presidency of Barack Obama, who spent part of his childhood there. It may be that with America’s large Black and Hispanic populations – which occupy a particular place in white America’s racial insecurities – Asians by comparison were not traditionally seen in quite the same threatening light as they historically have been in Australia.
Indeed, perhaps a better comparison is Canada, a smaller nation in which Asians make up around 11% of the population and are the largest visible minority. But that’s a story for another day.