Thanks to Crocodile Dundee, Neighbours, AC/DC, Steve Irwin, and Home and Away, the world has the perception that Aussies are white, with broad accents and an upward inflection at the end of each sentence that makes everything we say sound like a question…?
In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth. From the latest 2011 census data, 30.2% of Australians were born outside of Australia and 23.2% of households speak a language other than English. And this is just the average. A lot of the multicultural communities are centered in the capital cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane rather than the regional areas, so the chances are that you will hear the murmurings of Arabic or Chinese walking down a typical Sydney suburban shopping strip, and be surrounded by Turkish or Indian grocery stores.
Despite this, most people around the world think of us as a Caucasian country. The Australian television shows and movies that are exported overseas are heavily dominated by white characters. Our most famous exports across sport, entertainment and science are predominantly white, including Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, AC/DC, Brian Schmidt, Lauren Jackson, Lleyton Hewitt, and Ian Thorpe. In fact, it can be a struggle to think of many famous, non-white Australians – you may or may not have thought of Cathy Freeman, Kylie Kwong, Usman Khawaja, and Evonne Goolagong.
The result of this White Australia perception has meant that, when I travel overseas, many people do not believe that I am Australian. Throughout Central America and the Middle East, touts would often call out to me, “konnichiwaaaaa!”.
Upon a lack of response from me, they will try another language – “annyong haseyooooo!”. Being affronted by this sort of behaviour (because I personally don’t think that I look Japanese nor Korean, and don’t they think that Chinese people can afford to travel!?), I will ignore them until they step in my way and ask me in perfect English where I come from. When I say that I am Australian, they will usually look quizzically at me for a split second before a big grin lights up their face and they put on their best Paul Hogan accent – “g’day!”.
Even when I was traveling in the United States, a country where there are many Asian Americans of Japanese, Korean and Chinese descent, I was complimented on my English despite the fact that I was born in Australia and speak it with with absolute fluency and a broad accent. When I was a student in California, most people assumed that I was a Chinese exchange student until they actually spoke to me.
Most people that I meet overseas are curious about my ethnic background after they find out that I’m a non-white Australian. I field a lot of questions about whether I was born there, where my parents were from, and whether there are many other Asian-looking people.
It’s always interesting to see that people are genuinely curious about the idea of a multicultural Australia that challenges their perceptions of a white Caucasian country. Even though Australians are generally tolerant and accepting of views and cultures from around the world, this may not be the perception of many people outside the country. What would be ideal is for Australian television shows and movies to more accurately portray the country’s society, as a cross-section of cultures and communities including indigenous Australians, and first and second generation migrants. This would no doubt further endear Australians in the hearts and minds of people around the world as the more colourful and cultural society that it is.