- For many Chinese people Australia can seem like an unwelcoming place, partly as a result of cultural misunderstanding
- Women like 23-year-olds Emmelyn Wu and Yifan Wang are working to develop cultural exchange opportunities and promote Chinese culture
A friend was delivering a speech at the annual Asian Australian Leadership Summit last month, an event billed as "40 under 40", to celebrate the success of 40 young Asian-Australians.
The summit reminded me of Eddie Woo, a Chinese-Australian teacher and YouTuber, who won Australia's Local Hero award last year and was then chosen to address a prestigious Australia Day event held at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.
Despite his professional success in making maths popular in Australia, Woo's speech was a moving address on the sadness of race dislocation.
"When I was a kid, what seemed to matter was that I didn't look Australian," he said, recalling his schooldays. "This is part of what made the everyday racism that I grew up with so frustrating. It wasn't the intimidation, the mocking or the loneliness that really bothered me so much, as it was my inability to understand what people wanted, that would satisfy them and make them stop."
Chinese communities in Australia can be racially vulnerable. Yet, as Maggie Q, the Asian-American actress, once said, an Asian woman in a Western country can be doubly vulnerable " both racially and in terms of her gender.
Olivia Huang, a Chinese-Australian in her late 20s, agrees that neither Asians nor women are treated equally in Sydney's corporate sector. She has lived in the city for more than 20 years and remembers her early trauma.
"When I first arrived in Australia, there were one or two Asian kids in my year," she says. "I was teased for being an Asian and some kids often made fun of Asians' slanted eyes. Sometimes I felt angry and isolated, as it was such a big change from China to Australia in terms of English, culture, traditions, people and everything else."
While racism battered Huang's confidence in her early years, it has helped her build resilience.
"One day, I made an Australian friend," she says. "I started playing with her, making improvements in English and adapting to a new environment. I started reading English books, treated people pleasantly and tried to remain positive."
Throughout her childhood and adolescence, Huang made a big effort to overcome language barriers and she says she finished high school with one of the best grades in her school for the Higher School Certificate.
Following a typical "Asian career path", she graduated from the University of Sydney with three degrees, in the fields of commerce, accounting and law, and is now a lawyer in Sydney. Although she is proud of her academic and professional achievements, Huang seldom describes herself as successful.
"Unless I can fully integrate into the white Australian community " have local Australian friends, participate in social events, earn respect " I do not see myself as successful as I look," she says.
Emmelyn Wu, 23, believes cultural misunderstanding can prevent the Chinese community from earning Australians' respect. The Australian-born Chinese woman grew up with Australian culture, so being an Australian has never been too "foreign" for her. Studying for a doctorate in law at university in Perth, Wu also works as an administrative and marketing assistant.
"I have had international student friends experiencing racial discrimination a lot of times because they have simply been growing up in another culture," she says. "Ultimately, more work needs to be done to encourage Australians to understand different cultures, rather than squeeze these cultures into the mould of another."
The misunderstanding the ethnic minorities' cultures cannot be tackled effectively unless people are exposed to non-mainstream cultures and learn ways to tolerate and accept them. As Wu grows older, she has learned to appreciate rather than deny her Chinese identity.
I think many young Chinese-Australians have come to view the notion of success as being in a place where they are happy with what they are doingEmmelyn Wu
She has developed cultural exchange opportunities between Chinese and Australian communities in an attempt to increase cultural harmony. As a former vice-president of education at the Australia-China Youth Association, she was in charge of the Language Buddy Programme and she regularly organised Chinese-English language and cultural exchange workshops. She believes her endeavours helped minimise cultural misunderstanding between the Chinese and Australian people involved.
"I view being able to grow up in a safe environment and having access to quality education as essential," says Wu. She formerly worked as the president of a social initiative where she led a team of 11 people to assist and educate promising social entrepreneurs, both those with Chinese backgrounds and otherwise.
In 2017, Wu and her team were nationally acclaimed for their dedication to delivering social entrepreneurial education, and her professional success proved Chinese-Australians can play a leading role nationwide.
"I think a common stereotype that Chinese parents have in terms of success is that we have to achieve academic excellence " such as earning professional degrees in law, medicine or engineering " and earn money," she says. "While these are great goals to achieve, I think many young Chinese-Australians have come to view the notion of success as being in a place where they are happy with what they are doing."
For Wu, living in a community with collective understanding, tolerance and acceptance is her primary goal. "That day is arriving, just sooner or later," she says.
Echoing Wu's words, Yifan Wang, also 23, says she believes that she will find success if she is accepted by the local Australian community.
"I have often witnessed or heard my Chinese friends being shouted at on the bus and in public," she says. "Chinese here are teased when they cannot do their work properly because of their poor English-language proficiency."
Wang, who graduated from the University of Melbourne this year with a master's degree in finance, believes anti-Chinese sentiment is deep-seated in Australia. "But whenever you face racism, you can always choose appropriate channels to express yourself, for example, social media and social campaigns," she says. "These help people know that racial discrimination exists, and how we can work together to cope with the issue."
She has worked as a Mandarin Chinese teacher at a language school in Newcastle, New South Wales, a waitress at a Chinese restaurant and a programme coordinator at the University of Newcastle Language Centre. Now based in Melbourne, she plans to continue studying to become a social entrepreneur.
When racism happens, I firstly remain calm. I accept the existence of cultural differences and the difficulties of gaining recognitionAnny Chan, senior consultant, PwC in Sydney
Her work experience helped Wang meet Australians who had an interest in learning the Chinese language and understanding Chinese culture. As a Chinese student leader at the Australia-China Youth Association, Wang has continued to promote Chinese language and culture.
"It's always tough to balance healthy diversity and social cohesion, even in a multicultural society like Australia," Wang says she once wrote in her diary, adding that more work was needed to break down the barriers between diverse groups and to increase global understanding of racial differences.
"Our identity needs to be fulfilled as one bright thread in a cloth of many colours," she said in the journal.
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Anny Chan, in her 20s, works as a senior consultant at accounting firm PwC in Sydney and dedicates her spare time to China Entrepreneurial Network Sydney, a global entrepreneurial network she co-founded.
Since 2017, the University of Sydney graduate has teamed up with a group of like-minded and aspiring Chinese-Australians to find entrepreneurial opportunities for Sydney-based Chinese entrepreneurs. She hopes new members will develop their leadership and entrepreneurial skills and help build cultural diversity and economic prosperity.
"When racism happens, I firstly remain calm," she says. "I accept the existence of cultural differences and the difficulties of gaining recognition."
To overcome cultural conflicts in the long term, Chan has tried to connect young Chinese and Australian adults by organising social entrepreneurial networking events.
In his Australia Day speech last year, Woo wrapped up by saying: "My mum and dad don't want us to live here; they want us to belong here."
As Emmelyn Wu says, success does not necessarily mean earning straight As at school or university, or getting a well-paid job. Sometimes success means proving that women can achieve as much as men, and sometimes it's a matter of earning respect and acceptance in a foreign land.
For Chinese people, Australia can seem like an unwelcoming place. Yet aspiring Chinese women are working hard there, aiming to call it home for themselves and the next generations of Chinese-Australians.
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