How Asian Australians can show up for the First Nations people of Australia.

reflections May 31, 2020

I always thought that I had a bit of a free pass when it came to conversations about Australia’s past and current treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I thought that being an immigrant to this country meant that I was somewhat exempt from both the conversation and having to deal with the ways in which reconciliation could occur.

As long as I simplistically stated that “yep, white people are the problem”, then it meant that I was doing my part to support our First Nations people. Sometimes it’s easy to hide behind the “I’m also not-white, therefore I get it and I’ve got my own problems to deal with” veil which is very true yet also very wrong at the same time.

I think that being an immigrant can feel a bit like this though, it’s tricky to firstly insert yourself into the conversation (“Hi, I just got here, I feel like there’s a lot of tension, but thought I’d drop by anyway!”) and secondly it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that you’re actually part of the problem when you also face racism from the same system and group of people. 

This week is National Reconciliation Week and as the world turns upside down, I would like to invite you to examine your relationship with the First Nations people of the country in which you reside. Let yourself be involved in this difficult conversation, because by living on Aboriginal land, you are already part of the conversation. I wholeheartedly believe that if we choose to, we as the Asian Australian community can contribute meaningfully to greater reconciliation in this country.

“Well, I would care but I don’t actually know any First Nations people”

Well, neither did I until I started working for a youth homelessness and trauma service. Here, at least one third of our client population were of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background and what’s more is that this over representation extends out into the prison system as well as our acute mental health services.

I’ve been to many events and gatherings where I am the only non-white person in the room. I actually hate this and try to avoid places where this might happen but it’s hard to tell what the race ratio will be until you get there. I always think, “how can a human being not have a single non-white friend in this modern day and age?”

In a similar yet very different kind of way, I found myself deeply confronted by seeing this over representation of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander young people in a service that supports the most unwell and vulnerable young people in Victoria. And I thought, “how can I not have a single First Nations friend/acquaintance/colleague in my life, yet here I am meeting so many in the pit of their crises?”

“I can talk to you because you’re Asian and you like music” was something I’d hear often from the young people that I worked with. 

I’d ask, “What is it about me being Asian that makes it easier for you to talk to me?”

Most would say, “Pffft I don’t know!?” But one young person who I had formed a strong therapeutic relationship with, explained, “Because, you understand stuff like family, culture, tradition.”

And we would talk about music, about healing, about family, about culture, about connecting to land, about the importance of identity… and hearing the similarities in the very foundational understandings of such big topics around “culture”, made me finally understand why people like me and you need to step into conversations around reconciliation.

We understand the implications of colonisation and occupation

If you are of Asian heritage, there is a very big likelihood that your ancestors lived through some form of colonisation. There are only a handful of countries in Asia that were never European colonised, like China and Korea, however these countries were occupied by the Japanese.

This means that you as an Asian person have a visceral understanding of the impacts of colonisation and occupation that when drawn upon safely, can contribute to the ways in which Australia might decolonise. You might not think about the impacts of colonisation every day, however you have heard the whispering family stories of oppression, rape, loss of language and culture. You have seen how people can be broken into silence and how this then affects their children and their children’s children.

That common attitude of “don’t talk about it and get on with it” that pervades Asian families is very much a left over coping mechanism from people who lost the words to describe the devastation they were witnessing. This is what we call intergenerational trauma and most, if not all, Asian families are rife with intergenerational trauma. 

This visceral understanding and lived experience of colonisation/occupation places us, the Asian Australian community, in a very strong position to understand the experiences of colonisation that occurred in this country. While acknowledging that yes, this deep understanding can bring a lot of our own pain and grief to the surface, it allows us to be empathically informed about what we can do to help.

For me, I come from Japan, a place that not so long ago, violently occupied a huge portion of Asia and South East Asia. I come from the perpetrators of occupation. And although I can say that I understand what racism feels like because I grew up here, I do not have the same understanding of losing culture, language and tradition that others may have. This means that instead of taking a backseat (as I’ve been doing for a good 20 years), I need to work even harder to listen, unlearn and take action to combat the xenophobia and racism that runs in my ancestry.

If you still have ties with your home country/ancestral country, consider the ways in which colonisation/occupation has impacted you and your family:

When we look at ourselves through Western psychology lenses, we can come to see our families as being non-communicative, unaffectionate, clouded in secrecy etc., but what happens when you consider your country’s history of colonisation?

How then does the way in which your grandparent’s generation and your parent’s generation appear to you? 

You don’t have to care in the way White-centric views say you need to care

For a long time, I’ve always felt like I didn’t really care about anything, including our First Nations people because I have zero interest in attending rallies and protests, collecting donations, watching painfully dark movies about oppression, or sharing the most “woke” content on social media on the right days. But when I worked for a non-profit organisation I realised that even the way that people “care” in this country can be highly white-centric or colonised in nature. I realised that I actually do care about a lot of things, I just care in a different way to how perhaps the dominant narrative views “care”.

When my bleeding heart started bleeding as a 14 year old, I asked my dad if I could please sponsor a poor starving child in Africa so that they could have food and education. And my dad said,

“Okay, BUT you must think about what you’re paying for: Try to find out, what World Vision are “teaching” these children? Do you think that countries should go in to other poorer countries and educate their children? How much of your money actually goes to this child and how much goes to marketing? Is there something you can do to support someone closer to home?”

And I was like, “whatever you snob” and spent the next 12 months having to ask my dad for extra pocket money to pay for my sponsorship. 

What he was trying to teach me was, be careful of modern day colonisation and tokenistic ways of supporting people.

So now, I am more interested in supporting our First Nations people by paying my rent of living on and working on stolen Aboriginal land. If I had a house and someone just moved in without asking, I wouldn’t want them telling me how sorry they were and buying me groceries. If they weren’t going to leave, I personally would want them to pay rent. 5% of all Shapes and Sounds’ earnings goes to Seed, which is a First Nations youth organisation that tackles climate change and I aim to make this percentage bigger once this little platform finds its feet. I’ve chosen to “care” in the way that feels right for me.

You might like to ask yourself here:

What, concerning “care” is meaningful to me?
How do I like to help or care?
What doesn’t feel right to me about how I’ve been taught to “care” about things?
If you have connections to a previously colonised country, what external support would be of most value to my birth country and how can I bring that knowledge here?

Mental health exists in relationship, not in isolation

If we are interested in supporting our mental health, we must understand that we need to both care for ourselves as well as those around us. If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s that our health is interconnected with everyone else on this planet. We just cannot function or move forward when there are people who are sick, regardless of how close or faraway they are.

Our mental health works in exactly the same way. Like our physical health, our mental health is interconnected with everyone else on this planet. We cannot leave any groups of people behind just because it feels “too hard” as ultimately, we are all affected by the health of the near and far community.

When you feel like you don’t feel that close to understanding reconciliation or our First Nations people, remember this point: We are all connected, and as Asian Australians we know this. If we dig deep into our beings we will find our visceral understanding of collectivist culture, and this will never go away. Know that we can use this to contribute to the many difficult conversations that Australia needs to have in order to create a meaningful, reconciled Australia.

And lastly, don’t forget that Asian Australians are working tirelessly to try and “fit in” and “belong” in a country that doesn’t really exist. “Australia” is stolen land and the rules and parameters of “Australia” have been created by people who exclude not only our First Nations people, but all non-white people. Reconciliation is about “strengthening relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous peoples, for the benefit of all Australians.” (reconciliation.org.au) I believe strongly that there can only be positives for us as the Asian Australian community in pushing for a more equitable, educated and unified country for all.

You can deepen your learning and understanding by visiting: reconciliation.org.au/national-reconciliation-week/
If you like interactive learning: shareourpride.org.au
If you like events: nrw.reconciliation.org.au

Connect with our community.

You're not alone in navigating the intersections of race, culture and mental health. Find out more about our Shapes and Sounds Community, designed for and by Asian Australians.

Learn more