Chinese New Year celebrations in Australia. Image from www.news.com.au/
Being Chinese-Australian, one feeling I have never been able to completely displace is an overall sense of cultural dissonance. External perspectives, particularly of young people, tend to over-simplify this: either mainstream Australian culture is glorified in the “clashes” against family traditions, or else ethnic minorities such as Asian-Australians are perceived as outsiders who “form ghettos and do not assimilate” (thank you, Pauline Hanson).
In reality, I find that experiences of cultural dissonance tend to manifest in fluid and constantly shifting ways. My attitudes towards Chinese language and culture have ranged widely, from indifference at my steady disconnection, to making a genuine but uninformed attempt to reconnect with it, to a feeling of inadequacy as I am consistently reminded of how little I know. Sometimes, I’m overtly “exposed” on this by others’ questions, but bizarrely, most of the time I feel that I have to prove it to myself. Whilst I know this is illogical, it’s nevertheless hard to dislodge this internalised idea.
Personally, the greatest area of discord for me has been through language. I progressively lost touch with my Mandarin throughout primary school, and spoke only English to my parents, even though they generally spoke Mandarin to me. I defaulted to English as the language used in the outside world. Interestingly, this may have been compounded by the fact that the majority of students at my school were also from a non-English-speaking background: being bilingual didn’t seem like anything special, and I saw little value in making the additional effort outside school to learn Chinese.
I’ve progressively built up a genuine desire to learn the language again over the last few years, as I’ve become aware of how valuable it is to be bilingual and part of another culture. Reconnecting with relatives in China, the need to communicate with them, and the minor but consistent language barriers I run into when attempting to discuss complex topics with family members have also been influential factors. Exposing myself to more Eastern media has also stimulated my interest in the distinctive ideas and storytelling that can be found outside the mainstream.
Reflecting upon this, I feel that it highlights the steps forward we need to take in terms of multiculturalism in Australia. Tolerance is incredibly important and we’ve moved very far in that sense, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to empathy, and this is intrinsically linked to the problems with prevailing attitudes towards multiculturalism. Overwhelmingly, our perception of cultures outside the mainstream is dominated through consuming> them (food and entertainment) rather than respecting them. When such cultures are seen only through the benefits they provide us, it changes little with regards to negating the prejudice and stereotypes which are barriers to acceptance.
Our education system could also do far more in terms of valuing cultural differences and facilitating greater understanding of them. Going back to the issue of language, SBS did a recent series on bilingual families and language education which highlighted the discrepancy between the cultural diversity of Australia’s population, and our social attitudes and education framework. In Australia, language learning rates are declining, many Indigenous languages are now completely lost, and bilingual schools are an uncommon exception rather than the norm. Greater emphasis on this would likely have helped me appreciate Chinese language and culture from earlier on, but our current system has impacts on everyone. If we aren’t taught to value these differences, it limits our capacity to empathise with the people around us.
It’s also important for our representation of people to be more inclusive: in storytelling, in the media, and in the public sphere. Until we recognise this, the prevailing attitude towards immigrants and Indigenous Australians will continue to be one of assimilation (adopting mainstream Australian culture and conforming), rather than integration (recognising the value of these differences, and their contributions when brought together).
Managing cultural dissonance is an ongoing process, and overall, it’s something I feel lucky to be able to experience. It’s shaped me to be more open-minded, and I’ve slowly come to a greater understanding of an innate part of myself. But in order to support young Australians in this same process of navigating their cultural heritage, we need to rethink our current narrative of multiculturalism: by respecting these differences in a substantial way, and facilitating integration of them in society and education.
Wendy is a 19-year-old from New South Wales with a particular interest in fiction, review writing, and advocacy. You can find more of her writing here.