Australian multiculturalism – From stir-fries to ham sandwiches

Author: Tim Southphommasane, Monash University

It is a cliché, but one of the great rituals of growing up in a multicultural society is to sit alongside other children in school to compare lunches.

For much of my schooling I never got too much of a chance to make interesting comparisons. I never thought twice about tucking into the stir fried pork or chicken on rice that my mother or father would prepare for my lunch. After all, most of my classmates had something similar. Even at the school canteen, it was possible to order some fried rice—a choice that quickly became more popular than sausage rolls and meat pies.

I went to primary school in Canley Vale, one of Sydney’s outer southwest suburbs. The vast majority of families who sent their children to my school came from the old French Indochina. Many of my schoolmates were from Vietnam, though a good proportion of these Vietnamese were ethnic Chinese. There were also lots of Cambodians and Laotians. Of course, there were also Yugoslavs (as they were known then), Italians, Turks, Chileans and Argentineans. And even a handful of blue-eyed Anglos. But for the most part, my fellow students belonged to families from Southeast Asia. Their names were far more likely to be Phuong, Vong or Sothea—or for that matter, Dragan, Fatima or Enrique—than David or Corey or Sarah. And they didn’t have ham, cheese and tomato sandwiches for lunch.

This was the Sydney I grew up in during the 1980s. The critics of multiculturalism at the time would probably have called it something of a ghetto. Indeed, when neighbouring Cabramatta — Sydney’s ‘little Saigon’ – became the hub of heroin trade in the early 1990s, it triggered a brief crime panic across Sydney. There were echoes of old fears of the yellow peril. People feared ‘triads’ and ‘Asian gangs’ taking over the city’s streets. Fuzzy closed circuit camera footage of rampaging, long-fringed gangsters would be replayed on tabloid evening news programs. Working-class Anglo-Australians took flight from the suburbs around Cabramatta, though this would be accompanied by a steady and pronounced rise in local house prices.

Of course, southwest Sydney was never an Asian ghetto; at least, not in any meaningful sense of the word. Violent crime, though it was a problem during some of the 1990s, didn’t persist for long. Whether it has been because of entrepreneurial drive, a prioritisation of education within families, strong community support networks, or a combination of all these things, social mobility rather than social disadvantage has been the norm for Indochinese migrants. Today, Cabramatta is a thriving commercial precinct. Visitors come from within and outside Sydney on weekends. There’s no better place to slurp on a pho, to sample Southeast Asian authenticity; one form of authenticity, anyway. One day a supposed ghetto, a tourist drawcard the next.

And to catch a train from Cabramatta these days into the city on a given weekday morning is to be surrounded by young professionals working in finance, accounting and IT. That, and university students buried in their textbooks, no doubt destined to join the same professional ranks in a few years’ time.

There is even a distinctive southwest Sydney accent that has developed during the last two decades. The English you overhear on the pavement on Cabramatta’s John Street, or on the carriages of city-bound trains on the south line, is more often than not tinged with tonal Vietnamese or Chinese. The mark, you might say, that a minority has been successfully integrated into the nation.

Yet to declare a happy and triumphant ending here for the Indochinese-Australian story would be premature. For one thing, the spectre of racism remains. The resurgence of white Australian nationalism and jingoistic patriotism is cause for concern, though it is being resisted by Australians who detect in all the narcissistic flag-waving and sporting of Southern Cross tattoos a corruption of national symbols.

For another thing, Asian-Australians remain something of an exoticised species in the national imagination. The commodification of multicultural success – the fact that day trips to Cabramatta, for instance, are marketed as a ‘taste of Asia’ – should be regarded with some ambivalence. The underlying logic of the exercise, that diversity is a benefit only because it can be consumed, might do more to get in the way of regarding migrant Australians as fellow citizens. The exotic can only ever be marginal strangers.

This has been one of the problems with much of the support for multiculturalism to date: it has valued cultural diversity only superficially without understanding its expression as ultimately tied to citizenship. Yet multiculturalism, as it has been expressed in public policy, has always represented a means towards the end of full and equal citizenship for Australians regardless of background. It has never been about some ideal of cultural cornucopia.

The integration of Indochinese migrants into Australian life, while for the large part complete in the realms of market and consumption, remains rather incomplete in the public sphere. Very few from Indochinese backgrounds have successfully entered politics at anything higher than the local council level. There is the Cambodian-born Hong Lim, a Labor member of the Victorian lower house, but he is currently the only one. Indochinese participation in political party politics to date has been besmirched by allegations of ‘ethnic bosses’ engaging in sleazy ‘branch stacking’.

In the media and popular culture more broadly, those from Indochinese backgrounds remain largely invisible. While the streetscapes of Australian cities have been transformed by Asian immigration, there are few Southeast Asian faces to be seen on the beaches of Summer Bay or the cul-de-sac of Ramsey Street. For now, Asian faces remain largely quarantined on SBS. Those who are the ethnic trailblazers, such as the Vietnamese-born comedian Anh Do, wield a double-edged sword: they can make light of their ethnicity and difference, and justify it as a necessary pressure valve for race relations, but they can also risk being, well, ghettoised on TV.

Those first-generation and second-generation Australians from Indochinese backgrounds are for the most part unconcerned. The social politics of ethnicity and nation aren’t first-order priorities, certainly not for many who have left their homelands in large part to escape politics. In any case, integration takes time and sometimes we just don’t notice it. I suspect that in many school grounds today there are many Australian children of Indochinese background with names such as John or Sarah or, yes, Tim, opening their lunchboxes to find not a stir fry with fried rice, but a white-bread ham sandwich.

Tim Soutphommasane is a political theorist and research fellow at the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University. He is also a senior project leader at the Per Capita think tank and columnist with The Weekend Australian.