Sunday, October 24, 2010

So "Asian-Australian" means what, exactly?

Sorry, I've been busy with some other stuff for a couple of weeks, but I'm back. So the other week, I gave a short talk at a mini-forum on Asian-Australian issues; it was sort of about my experience of being an "Asian-Australian blogger" and whatever that is supposed to mean. One particular issue I focused on was how we define Asian-ness, and Asian-Australian-ness.
I've taken bits of that and added bits here and there for this post.

When we talk about "the Asian community" in a Western context, what is it that we mean?

Take a quick look around a few Asian blogs from the US or Australia, and you will notice common themes in their definition of Asian-ness and the associated stereotypes. Noodles, chopsticks, anime, karaoke... it's very much about the East Asian experience, or even the North East Asian experience. This is not a criticism of any such blogs, just an observation. That one of the top Asian-Australian blogs is called Slanted is another example of this.

I was watching a clip on Youtube recently which was a news item from the UK about the members of Asian gang who had been convicted. Reading some of the viewer comments attached to the clip, a considerable number of them were along the lines of "WTF!? They're not Asians. They're Muslims." The "Asians" in the video were Pakistani.

And that is the UK context - "Asian" primarily means South Asian.

Talk about Asian-Americans and the definition is different again. Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, primarily, as well as perhaps Vietnamese, Cambodians and Filipinos. Although many would argue with you about the Filipinos - they are occasionally considered to be Pacific Islanders, or in their own category. And speaking of Pacific Islanders, they are often grouped together with Asians, a categorisation that in the Australian context would be seen as a fairly strange one. (I don't think that Asians and Pacific Islanders in Australia see themselves as having much connection to one another.)

In Australia, when we talk of "Asians" we are also thinking of East Asia. Our numbers of Japanese and Koreans are not so high, although the Japanese have played a significant role in our national consciousness. Our assumptions about what "Asian" means in Australia seems to be most strongly influenced by the Chinese and Vietnamese communities, whose presence has made the most obvious impacts on our perceptions of the Asian community.

Now, I'm someone of Indonesian background. Few would dispute that we are Asian, but we embody many characteristics that don't fit the stereotype of Asian-ness. Likewise for Filipinos. Both are seen as Asian, but somehow not quite as Asian as some others. I guess it’s based on the idea that the “real Asians” are people who look Chinese or Japanese. (Just as Nordics are sometimes seen as the default variety of Caucasian or European.)

And where do we fit South Asians (Indians, Sri Lankans, etc) into this equation? Those are substantial communities here, and they are from Asia, yet they are somehow not Asian, in our common perception.

I’m not sure that the average Chinese Australian or Korean Australian would see any major connection to a Pakistani Australian, or vice versa. Whereas for me, it’s easy for me to see how connected we all are; the country of my heritage, Indonesia, is in a country where everyone is brown, most people are Muslim, and yet we still put soya sauce and tofu in everything. Places like Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal or Northeastern India make the simplistic division between East and South Asia a problematic one.

Yet when media and police describe individuals they are on the lookout for, they speak of "a man of Indian appearance", for South Asians, and "Asian appearance" for East Asian. I wrote a bit about that here a while back. Strangely the term "South Asian" does not seem to be in common currency in Australian public discourse - the default is "Indian", which no doubt pisses off those who are, say, Sri Lankan or Pakistani - South Asian, yes, but certainly not "Indian". I'd love for the term desi to gain wider acceptance in these parts, but it's unlikely. Still, calling a non-Indian South Asian "Indian" might be better than calling them a "curry".

If we speak of the geographical definition of Asian, we must also take into account the people of South-West Asia; including Iran, Armenia, and the Arab States. But is a Lebanese person really Asian? Perhaps in a technical sense, but I don't know if anyone actually sees them as such. It's interesting to watch soccer's Asian Cup and see teams like Korea playing off against a team like Uzbekistan (with many clearly European people of Russian origin), or Iraq, or the UAE (with many players of black African origin), or indeed Australia. It's clear that how the average person defines an Asian is more about culture and genetics than geographical locations.

On a personal note, there is also the question of where I fit into the Asian equation, being someone who is half European in parentage. While I occasionally see Asians as "The Other", most of the time I feel very Asian. But am I accepted as such? By those that know me, I'd say yes. By those that don't really know me, they may not recognise me as being Asian. I was recently in a group of friends and friends of friends, all Asian, and I made one of those "insider's jokes" that Asians might make about Asians. One of my mates felt it worthwhile to explain to a couple of the guys that didn't know me that "It's ok... he's half Asian."

Because the reality is that I don't look like an Asian, or at least the stereotypical idea of what one is meant to look like. Not that I strictly look like a white guy either. Again, it comes back to that idea of which Asians are "real Asians". Some of my features - particularly my fat lips and broad nostrils - are very typical of South East Asians. But since "looking Asian" in the minds of many people means "looking Chinese", then I don't look Asian.

If you want an example of this, check my previous post about an email a Eurasian woman from the US sent me, abusing me for allegedly pretending to be Eurasian. One of her reasonings was that I "clearly" look part-African, rather than part-Asian. So even among Eurasians, the pervasive idea has taken hold that Asians, and those derived from them, can only look a certain way.

As humans we have a pathological need to categorise things. However we are seldom too good at working out what to do with those that don't fit neatly into little boxes.

Pictured below: Would you think of all these people as Asian-Australians? Would they think of themselves as Asian Australians?

Left: Kate Ceberano, singer. Father: Hawaiian-born of Filipino descent. Mother: White Australian.
Right: Jessica Mauboy, singer. Father: Indonesian (West Timorese). Mother: Indigenous Australian.
Left: Guy Sebastian, singer. Was born in Malaysia. Father: Malaysian Ceylonese Tamil. Mother: Malaysian Indian/English/Portuguese.
Right: Sabrina Houssami, former Miss World Australia. Father: Lebanese. Mother: Indian.

Left: Jamie Durie, TV presenter. Father: White Australian. Mother: Sri Lankan.
Right: Geoff Huegill, swimmer. Father: White Australian. Mother: Thai.

Left: Penny Wong, politician. Malaysian-born. Father: Hakka Chinese. Mother: white Australian.
Right: Kamahl aka Kandiah Kamalesvaran, singer. Malaysian-born, Ceylonese Tamil heritage.


  1. Since I am not Asian, or Australian, I can't say what either or both together means.

    But, I am still trying to get out of the mindset of thinking of Asians as East Asians. This is what's the norm in North America: Asian = East Asian. Someone from South Asia is South Asian or Indian.

    Lately, I notice a trend to separate NorthEast Asians from South East Asians.

  2. @ Mel: There are plenty of NE Asians out there who don't think it right that they are grouped in the same racial category as SE Asians, and think they are the "real Asians".

    In biological terms, the two groups ARE different, to a degree. SE Asians have varying degrees of genetic input from Negrito/Australoid/Dravidian types. But it's hard to make concrete distinctions.

  3. i had dinner with a couple from england recently. the husband was chinese british, the wife was white british. we were talking about the term "asian", which in britain means someone like me, not the husband. the wife mentioned offhand that her husband was "oriental", and i had to shush her. this was in an area with lots of asian americans, and "oriental" is kind of like saying negro with many asian americans.

    i think there's a distinction between between hindu/buddhist south asians, and muslim and christian south asians. the division between south asia and east asia is pretty big, but the ancient cultural connection through buddhism is real. some japanese depictions of the buddha depict him as having curly hair, a pointer to his foreign (indian) origin. in burma the remaining indians who are are hindu have generally reidentified themselves as buddhist according the census. the difference is far smaller than between the muslim indians and the buddhist majority.

    in contrast, in pakistan you have a nation which looks firmly to the west, to the world of islam. though there is still a strain which resists this, a lot of pakistani national culture has taken an almost anti-south asian tack, emphasizing the contribution of islam and muslim rulers, and not the non-muslim south asian aspect of their identity.

    a place like bangladesh is more complex. it's muslim, but, it is also much more tied to its non-muslim cultural element. a hindu, tagore, is still a treasured national poet, and the bengali language is written in an indic, not modified arabic, script. additionally, many bangladeshis can "pass" for southeast asian, and have obvious tribal ancestry from the tibeto-burman element (i don't look too southeast asian aside from my lack of body hair, but a genetic test confirmed a substantial proportion of recent burmese, which totally surprised and confused my family :-)

  4. Boyanese-AustralianMay 31, 2012 at 1:56 AM

    My mother is from Singapore with Boyanese (Indonesian) heritage, and my father is caucasian Australian with English and Scottish heritage.
    I came across this site, as I had a conversation over dinner tonight that I must have had a hundred times in my life. Where are you from? It has become a game to me. I have had guesses from pacific islands, to Mediterranean to indian to aboriginal.
    I came home and decide to google others with a similar heritage. To be honest, I dont feel like it has affected my life growing up in australia too dramatically- I was never racially bullied, and have not been surrounded with asian family and culture (all my mother's family is still in singapore), and my mother never taught me or my brother malay. I definitely identify much more with being 'white'.
    I have in the past year started to research what being of boyan decent actually means. It's fascinating Also, i suppose, what it is to be 'asian-australian'.
    Thank you fo discussing this topic from an angle i can relate to. Its a strange feeling to actually start thinking about properly... only took me 25 years.

  5. I'm from Papua New Guinea in the Pacific. We see all Asians as Asians. We know this person is an Indian, Arabian, Filipino, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc, but we just call them Asians, except if they are close family or friends. I think in the western side, some people are ignorant or just naive to differentiate. When people ask, "where is Pacific", I just tell them to go buy themselves an atlas or recall their geography class in primary school. I go cool and explain to people who really don't know, but those who ask in a "I don't care attitude" I tell them what I mentioned above.

  6. I jut saw the news in Melbourne, and they had the Commissioner of the Aboriginal organization who spoke of the "ethnic" community. He meant people who were not Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander or white!

    So if someone in such a position can misuse language as a matter of course, in public discourse, is it any wonder that everyone else is confused.

    As for the Asian bit, my usual "racist test" is to ask the person using the term if Israelis were Asian and, if not, why?

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