Defining “Asian Australian” in the “Asian Century”


Tweet AAAs an editor for our new Asian Australian Democracy Caucus blog hosted here on Peril Magazine, I am implicitly making claims about the importance of organising politically around being “Asian Australian”, around Asian Australian subjectivity. It is fitting, in making these claims, to consider what it is that we might actually mean by the term “Asian Australian”.

I want to begin by investigating both the words “Asian” and “Australian” as descriptors of particular regions and of particular groups of people.

The term “Asian” comes from the Latin root asu, which refers to the “land where the sun rises” (i.e. the East). Considering the use of the term “Asian” (Eastern) in Australia, this is as anachronistic as referring to Australia, often completely unproblematically, as a “Western” country (i.e. tracing civilizational lineage to “the West”), when the literal meaning of “Australia” is “Southern Land” (from “Austral”, meaning Southern, as compared to “Boreal” (Northern), “Occidental” (Western) and “Oriental” (Eastern)).

The term “Asian Australian” then, would literally mean “Eastern-Southlanders”. We may be unwittingly tethering ourselves linguistically to re-centering Europe, from which all other lands are to be geographically, proximally and often peripherally regarded.

Asia is East of Europe. Australia is South of Europe.

More literally: The continent we think of as Asia is actually north of Australia. In other words, if we were to centre Australian sovereignty in our political imagination (rather than only comparing Australia to our European or North American “counterparts”), people who are “Asian” could more accurately be called “Borealian” (Northlanders). While this may come across as absurd, it is no more absurd than the many ways that ethnocentric cultures around the world have regarded themselves. For example, “China” in Mandarin is “中国 zhong guo”, literally meaning “Middle Kingdom”, or the “Centre” to which all other kingdoms/countries/regions are compared, from which other countries are to be regarded as politically and metaphorically peripheral.

The term “Asian Australian”, therefore, is therefore clearly rooted, at least linguistically and etymologically, in an era of colonial Eurocentrism. How then, can we do justice to the potential of this term, given the limitations of the English language? What other possibilities might be liberated in choosing to account for the paradox of organising politically given these limitations? What sorts of meanings and possibilities are obfuscated by the very use of the term? I do not only mean these only as questions about the particular rights, responsibilities and privileges of Australian democratic citizenship as people of Asian descent, but also about the many ways that we can be critically transformative in the processes of politicisation and racialisation of the fluidly-defined constituents of the category “Asian Australian”.

In other words, given a Eurocentric political and linguistic history of the category “Asian Australian”, how does it and how can it become a meaningful descriptor for a community, or for a diverse range of communities-in-formation?

This may be ambitious. I certainly do not intend to be overly authoritative or prescriptive about the use of the term, nor do I necessarily believe that shedding light on the etymology of “Asian” and “Australian” means that they are inextricably limited to their historical connotations. As Alessandra Tanesini has written, “to make a claim about the meaning of a certain word is to make a claim about how the word ought to be used, it is not to describe how the word is used.” This essay is instead intended as an exploration of the process of the acculturation into new forms of political meaning. How is “Asian Australian” used, how has it come to mean what it means, and what sorts of more liberational meanings might emerge as a result of sincerely looking into, and then moving through its linguistic history?

It should be clear by now that one of my underlying working assumptions is that the term “Asian Australian” is not a biologically essential nor immutable marker of our collective identities. Put another way, I do not believe that we are “born Asian Australian”, nor even that we simply “look Asian Australian”, but rather (or also), that we “become Asian Australian”, through a process of acculturation and socialisation. We are acculturated and socialised into particular ethnic and national lineages, into communities with diverse histories of migration and settlement, spoken and written languages, codes of speech, spirituality, behaviour and political ethics. We are acculturated and socialised into making choices about how we historicise and politicise our ethnic, cultural and ancestral identities and commitments, into making choices about how we address our racialisation in Australia, as well as into differing degrees of identification with the Australian nation-state, as meaningful markers of social identity.

In his work on Discursive Psychology, Derek Edwards describes categorisation as a social practice, and language as “primarily a medium for the accomplishment of social actions”.

What are the social actions that are accomplished, or that we aim to accomplish, through the category of “Asian Australian”? By way of an analogy, I look at Lia Incognita’s 2011 piece “Fissures and Friendships: How I Became a Woman of Colour”, where she writes about the process of “becoming”:

“…Some of us [women of colour] are instantly and consistently recognised as non-white; others are usually seen as white until we say or do something to show (or perhaps prove) otherwise. Some were brought up more or less in the dominant Australian culture; others have a sense of another distinct ethnic or national culture; others still find these lines too blurred to tell. We may be Indigenous, or immigrants, or Australian-born children of either, both, neither; we may be international adoptees, third culture kids, 1.5 generation, Stolen Generation. We differ enough that sometimes the words fall down my throat when I am called to explain the term “people of colour”. I know that it doesn’t necessarily mean people who share either my biographic experiences or my political desires. It certainly doesn’t mean people who look like me or share my ethno-cultural background.”

Lia Incognita implies that the category “woman of colour” is not only a point of identification at the level of ethnicity, nor only of “race”, but at the level of solidarity and connection with others who are, in significantly racialised and ethnicised ways, different both from herself as well as from people from white-dominant Australian settler culture. In this context, Incognita’s identification as a woman of colour pre-empts the accomplishment of a particular form of social action, in the service of what she describes as “radical social justice”, at the vector of solidarity across racial lines (particularly between people who are racialised as non-white migrants, Aboriginal and/or “other”) in a white-dominant settler culture.

In considering the term “Asian Australian” more specifically, I wish to highlight another 2011 Peril piece by Eurasian Sensation, who explores the differences between Asian Australians and Asian Americans. The piece is a nuanced exploration of the various ways that people of Asian descent have been racialised in the USA and in Australia. The three main salient factors which account for racialised difference include:

  1. Span of Histories of Migration Eurasian Sensation notes, for example, the longer history of Asian settlement on the American continent (indeed, of any non-Aboriginal settlement or occupation of the land) when compared to Australia.
  1. Diverse Histories of Racially Exclusionary National Migration Policies As Eurasian Sensation has written, “…Asians have a deeper history in the US than they do in Australia… [Both] nations had long practiced racially discriminatory immigration and settlement laws to keep Asians out, [however] the White Australia Policy proved more effective on that score.” This has significantly impacted on the demographics of both countries. For example, “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.”
  1. Geographic Proximity to Countries of Origin This is reflected, for example, in terms of the relative visibility of Japanese and Korean-heritage people in the USA compared to their “cousins” in Australia, and then, conversely, also in the significant influence of Malaysian, Singaporean, Indonesian and Hong Kong-heritage communities in Australia when compared to the USA.

These considerations are illuminating, not only in terms of points of ethnicised difference between our Asian-heritage communities in two countries (USA & Australia), but also particularly in terms of the historical, political and geographic factors which account for these differences.

I wish to consider this last point, of our relative geographic proximity, in Australia to emerging Asian economies, and how this impacts on the sense of being Asian in Australia. 2012 marked the Gillard Labour government’s (now ill-fated) attempt at triumphantly nudging Australia toward an “Asian Century” (in the Australia in the Asian Century 2012 white paper ). While exciting in terms of capitalising on regional economic opportunity and moving toward Australian multilingualism (it was proposed that schools across Australia would teach both English as well as one of four Asian languages: Hindi, Bahasa Indonesia, Mandarin or Japanese), the ethic behind the Asian Century white paper was criticised by the current Australian Race Discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane as being “ruthlessly mercantilist” and “mercenary”.

In his TED talk, Soutphommasane role-models a particular relationship to Asian Australian participation that contrasts with a more strictly ethnocentric Australian parochialism, by suggesting a more integrally historicised, social and cultural approach to the “Asian Century”:

Instead of seeing Asia as just an economic opportunity, should we for example stop and pause and ask whether we might learn something culturally from the region as well? Might, for example, looking at the youthful democratic cultures of the region teach us something about our own democracy? Might, say, reflecting on Confucian values help us think through the evolving nature of the family, or the moral challenges involved an aging population? And might thinking about Asian concepts of communal obligation and reciprocity help shed light on that Australian value of ‘mateship’? Think about it, what does it say about Australia that we’ve rarely even paused to pose these questions, even though we say that we’re poised to benefit from an Asian Century?”

My hope is that the Asian Australian Democracy Caucus can represent but one humble attempt at posing and addressing these sorts of questions, though I embed consideration of these beyond a region-specific multiculturalism, to also consider the many responsibilities we have, as Asian Australians, in addressing the implications of ongoing settlement of Australia at the expense of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

In this essay, I have examined the utility of the term “Asian Australian” in the production of certain social identities, which orient toward the accomplishment of political aims courting a kind of “radical social justice”, through a set of cultural experiences that are fundamentally territorially bound, contingent on relationships with neighbours, and rooted in specific cultural tropes and systems (though not bound by them), in an effort to liberate a less ethnocentric approach to Australian nationhood. As an “Asian Australian”, as an “Eastern Southlander”, with my own recently attained Australian citizenship that is becoming an increasingly central aspect of my political identity, I think it is important to already always begin any further political practice with a sense of irony. I am, after all, someone who largely benefits from Australia’s more egalitarian and democratic social systems that have been built on the blood and backs of far too many displaced and forgotten peoples, while also subjecting myself to an articulation of my political and national identity in a language which is still-rooted in early European colonial conceptions of the world.

Perhaps defining “Asian Australian” comes not only from a proclamation, but from a question: What are my responsibilities and opportunities as a settler of Asian descent in Australia, inheriting the detritus of a system that I did not create, a history I am only now becoming more consciously aware and a part of, and whose trajectory I now, as a new citizen among so many others, have an obligatory moral stake in affecting?

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, Jen Tsen Kwok or Shinen Wong at

Please also visit us on Twitter and Facebook

Shinen Wong

Author: Shinen Wong

Melbourne-based, MalaysianChineseAustralian man, via Sydney, San Francisco, New Hampshire, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. B.A. in Gender Studies, GradDip in Buddhist Studies, and current M.Ed student. Professional background in public health. A love of people, country, music, Buddhist philosophy, Eucalypt and skinned knees.