WHAT'S WRONG WITH THE TERM, ASIAN AUSTRALIAN?

reflections Jan 17, 2021

I'm sure I'm not alone in saying this but I’ve always looked to the US to learn more about my Asian identity. I’ve long felt like the diaspora conversation, about Asian Americans, has always been so much more advanced than us here in Australia.

For example, Youtubers such as Wong Fu Productions, Ryan Higa and Anna Akana have provided accessible, entertaining and deeply resonant work that essentially had no counterpart here in Australia until only very recently.

And because there's been minimal representation here in Australia about the experience of Asians in Australia, I’ve always felt entangled with Asian American culture. There’s so much to learn and I appreciate their culture so much however I've come to learn that there are some really big cultural differences that we need to think about so that we can form an even stronger Asian Australian identity.

LET'S START THIS CONVERSATION WITH THE TERMS, "ASIAN AUSTRALIAN", vs "ASIAN AMERICAN"

Although they kind of feel like they mean the same thing, the evolution of these terms is vastly different and highlights some huge cultural differences.

THE TERM, ASIAN AMERICAN IS ROOTED IN ACTIVISM

"Asian American" was first brought to life in 1968 by two UC Berkeley students, Emma Gee and Yuji Ishioka. Gee and Ishioka were deep in activism and had worked with and learned so much from African American and First Nations led organisations. Strongly engaged in race politics, Gee and Ishioka were actively resisting oppression and they created this term as a political statement to highlight the fact that those of Asian ancestry, can be, and are, American.

Prior to 1968, Asians in America were referred to as the derogatory term, oriental, or, they were referred to by their specific ethnic subgroup (think, Japanese, Indian, Chinese etc). Therefore, term Asian American helped to bring these communities together so that they could stand in solidarity with one another and build greater visibility for activists of Asian descent.

There is something deeply meaningful and powerful about this term because it came from within the community itself. Similarly, the term was created to unite people of Asian descent to further bigger causes and create a better world for all.

Nowadays, it's no wonder that sense of pride seems to seep out of Asian American content to inspire Asian diaspora across the globe.

THE TERM, ASIAN AUSTRALIAN EMERGED TO PROTECT WHITE AUSTRALIANS

Compare this story with the term, Asian Australian. It took me a while to even dig up how this term originated. I firstly thought that it was a quick and easy copy of “Asian American”, but it turns out that the term first started appearing way back in the 1950’s. And it’s important to mention here that this was during the White Australia policy era...

Despite the racist immigration policies in place, there were people, predominantly those who were well travelled and who had experience in diplomacy, who recognised the geographical location of Asia in relation to Australia. And because of this, they knew that strengthening diplomatic ties with Asia would ultimately benefit Australia's national security  and also conveniently, would oppose the impending threat of Communism (it’s always about Communism!)

The term Asian Australian was first created by people in power, and at the time, these people were all white. And the term wasn't really used in a way to describe the Asian diaspora person but instead, used to discuss the Asian-Australian relationship based on security and trade. The term was created not to benefit people of Asian ancestry in Australia, but to benefit the white community through exactly that, security and trade.

IT WAS NEVER ABOUT ASIAN PEOPLE

To illustrate this dynamic a little more, we can turn to one example of an Asia-focused association called the Asian-Australian Association of Victoria, which was founded in the 1950's by R. G. Casey. Casey was a foreign affairs specialist (and later, the Governor-General of Australia) who saw the value of strengthening ties with Asia. However, despite wanting to be closer to Asia, they resisted advocating for the White Australia policy to be changed, to actually allow Asians to immigrate to Australia. They also rejected requests from Asians who told the AAAV that Asians needed to have a voice in how Australians came to understand Asia. 

Associations like the AAAV wanted to have a relationship with Asia purely for the benefit of "Australia" and it had no interest in actually recognising or prioritising the needs of Asian people in and outside of Australia.

The term, Asian Australian, was never about Asian people.

WHEN DID ASIANS START USING, "ASIAN AUSTRALIAN"?

It was only until much later around the late 80’s and 90’s that the term Asian Australian became a way for Asians in Australia to refer to themselves. This transition occurred during a time of overt racial vilification towards Asians in Australia and was used in a way for Asians to discuss these presenting issues. It’s important to note that during this time, “Asian” pretty much meant “Chinese” so the term has seemingly evolved into often focusing heavily on “East Asian” cultures and identities.

Since then, many organisations and groups have started to use this term however I’m not sure if we have the same level of pride and commitment to the term as perhaps Asians in America have to the term, Asian American.

Perhaps this is due to the fact that the term didn't originate from within our community, but I'm not sure. These are the questions that I've been reflecting upon:

  • Have we, as a community, explored the meaning of “Asian Australian” enough?
  • Do we use the term in a way that helps to bring people together, or do we continue to use the word only in opposition or resistance to racism that occurs? (ie. Are we always led by external forces, or do we get to choose how and when this term is used?)
  • Have we explored the relationship between Chinese Australian and Asian Australian enough and have we disentangled the two to better represent the so-called continent of “Asia”?
  • Do we see a need to reclaim the term Asian Australian from the white perspective?

And to leave you with even more questions than answers, here are some more personal reflective prompts that you might find helpful to learn more about your relationship with the term, Asian Australian:

  • Do you consider yourself as Asian Australian?
  • Would you prefer to be known as/referred to by your specific ethnic subgroup? (ie. I am Japanese, not Asian Australian)?
    • And why?
  • What do you see as some defining aspects of Asian Australian culture?

You can jot your responses down in your journal or you can join us on Instagram on Friday 22nd January to share your thoughts with our community.

 

 

Further reading:
- Journal article: An Etymology of “Asian Australian” Through Associational Histories Connecting Australia to Asia by Jen Tsen Kwok 
- Time article: In 1968, These Activists Coined the Term 'Asian American'—And Helped Shape Decades of Advocacy by Anna Purna Kambhapaty

 

 

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