Master of Advanced Studies in

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You Don't Belong Here - CS EN


Presentation of the author’s experience as a first generation Asian immigrant in Australia and of the cultural challenges faced.

This paper covers a personal experience of intercultural conflict. It is essentially my own experience as a first-generation Asian immigrant in Australia over the period 1980 to 1990’s.

This paper is structured as follows:

  1. Place & Time: Australia: historical perspective, statistics. The idea of a nation (Gellert) recent changes and current evolving cultural realities
  2. Personal experience – what is it like being an immigrant, what sentiments are experienced? Is identity driven by culture, choice or a combination of both? (Sen, Triandis)
  3. Conflict : anti immigrant sentiments & community anxieties, some possible reasons, an examination of cultural frameworks using (Hofstede/ Levi Strauss)
  4. Reactions : that intensify conflict , and reactions that promote negotiation and social dialogue.
  5. Conclusion & Risks: observations about assuming “solutions” need to be imposed. The role of the individual to set own identity priorities. The role of institutions such as the media to remain non-judgemental (in specific cases with a high public profile)


1.  Australia : historical perspective, statistics.

If I asked you to think of Australia, one would think of a “lucky country” situated in the Southern Hemisphere blessed with sunshine, exceptional landscape and populated by suntanned, sport loving inhabitants of primarily Anglo-Celtic or European origin.



Australia is a relatively young country, it has only existed for just over 200 years (that is in written history, as a defined “nation”). It was settled by the British in 1770 who claimed this continent as part of the British Commonwealth, and called it Australia. Previous to becoming a nation, it was inhabited primarily by an indigenous aboriginal population. Today, the current demographics are different. According results of the ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics ) released in 2001, the current Australian population is made up of approximately:


Indigenous Aboriginals


Anglo-Celtic heritage


Continental European heritage


South East Asian heritage

4% **



Middle Eastern heritage:


Other (African/ South American etc)



21,180,632 people1


These statistics tell us that there is a growing diversity in the population. This paper looks specifically at the community reactions to the growing numbers of people with South East Asian heritage in Australia. People of Asian descent only make up 4% of the population, but have had a significant impact on the national psyche, stirring up emotions surrounding questions of “national identity.”


What is a nation?


The first question one could ask what is a nation? According to Gellert2, nations were constructed primarily for administrative purposes, and not necessarily drawn on cultural lines.


The fact that nations tend to be distinguished by people from the same ethnic origin, stems mainly from the result of where geographical lines are drawn, rather than where human characteristics are different (such as its culture or racial composition) Nations serve primarily an economic purpose. The political point of a nation is economic administration, not cultural administration. Although culture plays an important part in the identity of a nation – it should not be overlooked that it is simply a collective of people who agree on administrative aspects of how they should be governed, which laws they agree on, and generally what constitutes a workable society for them to live in. Nationality is an involuntary attribute.

We have seen in history that borders change, and aspects of “national identity” evolve, as their populations grow. That is to say, a “nation” is essentially an almost artificial construction – it exists purely on common agreement, and is not fixed by any cultural dimensions. Ethnicity as a driving force in social organisation is an anachronism restricted to pre-modern or traditional societies.

If we take Australia as an example – one could argue that its true “identity” belongs to indigenous aboriginals alone, enjoying their culture in splendid isolation. The above statistics clearly contradict such an argument – Australia is an immigrant nation.

Temporal considerations have to be taken into account into any cultural definition of a “nation”.

The point here is that arguing a threat national identity in response to the presence of immigrants is in some ways a futile exercise, as cultural evolution is an inevitable phenomena. National identity is not a fixed given but and arguing otherwise is misguided and can unfortunately lead to instances of intercultural conflict.


Temporal considerations

Culture is shaped and reshaped by the ongoing interactions between people and groups in relation to their environment. Cultural transmission does not lead to the replication of culture in successive generations; it falls somewhere in between an exact transmission – it evolves.


2. Personal Experience: what is it like being an immigrant?

Using my own experience as a case study, my family immigrated to Australia in 1979 shortly after the Immigration Restriction Act was revoked in 1975. The immigration restriction act is also commonly known as the White Australia Policy.

It existed from 1901 basically restricting anyone of non-European heritage from immigrating to Australia. It was motivated by a desire to “protect the cultural identity of the country” popularly defined as being British first and foremost, with a small sprinkling of continental Europeans.

The cultural heritage of my family does not fit into this picture. My father is Malaysian, my mother is Chinese. When we arrived in 1979, there was a palpable cultural shock for the local population.

Some reacted aggressively, with insults such Chink! Slope! Ching Chong! – in the vague hope that making us feel unwelcome would drive us back to where we came from.

Others were simply ambivalent, regarded us as different but expected nevertheless that we adopt what they regarded as Australian values and the Australian way of life.

As an adolescent, one experiences a range of negative emotions related to being from noticeably different cultural and racial origins. These negative emotions range from shame, resentment, anger & denial.


Shame & Denial

When my parents spoke to me in Chinese outside of our home, such as on public transport, it used to make me cringe, as I could see the looks of disapproval of the other passengers. I would very deliberately respond in English or pretend I didn’t hear them. I regarded my cultural heritage as a burden, and wanted to be as “white Australian” as possible.


Anger & Resentment

At school, obnoxious children found it hilarious to provoke me by pulling their eyes with their fingers (in a crass imitation of a Chinese face). I reacted with anger, even though my mother insisted that I should just ignore them. I threw back at them counter insults, calling them whatever offensive names I could think of. I did not feel I was different until someone else pointed it out to me.



Later as an adult, one learns to both accept and enjoy one’s cultural inheritance. One also learns to accept the context surrounding the ignorance of others. With maturity and experience one learns to resist the urge to descend to the same level as one’s aggressors by counter insults. Ignorance cannot be fought with aggression but negotiation and understanding. Appreciation of the context of why people feel uncomfortable with the presence of another culture is paramount.


What are some of the reasons for the hostility to the new Asian immigrants?

Firstly, the differences between Asian immigrants and the predominantly Anglo-centric population were much more obvious, more visible to the naked eye than differences between previous European immigrants. These differences include not only race but also the differences in cultural configurations.

Using the Hofstede model one can see how differences from the outer superficial layer to the more profound core of rituals and values might have slowed down the development of inter-group relationships.

I have deliberately chosen simplistic, almost “coarse” stereotypes for both groups, in an attempt to replicate how perceptions are easily generalised.



Anglocentric stereotypes

Asian Immigrant stereotypes

Individual Reality vs collective generalisation


The great outdoors Kangaroos

Speedos (swimmers) “Sportiness” Barbeques

The great indoors Dragons Spectacles “Nerdiness” Smelly stir frys

An asian australian can identify with symbols from

both groups (without betraying “belonging” to one or another


Governor Macquarie Don Bradman

Ned Kelly

Ancient Chinese Scholars

Lao Tse Confucious Hoh Chi Minh

An individual can share appreciation and respect of Heroes from both groups


Christmas Sunday sport Beer drinking

Lifestyle ­Hedonistic

Chinese New year Sunday Yum Cha Tea  drinking Lifestyle – sacrificial

An individual may practice rituals and lifestyles from both groups simultaneously


“Fair go”, Egalitarian, expression of personal thoughts & emotions seen as valuable.  (high IDV index  ­ individualism­ favours individual rewards)

Respect for social hierarchies,

Filiale piety, emotional neutrality, personal thoughts & emotions lower in priority,  (low IDV index – favours group rewards)

An individual can share values from both groups modifying the degree of importance according to their individual reality

*IDV is an index created by Hofstede4 to understand variations in levels of individualism in different countries.


We can see from this brief outline that differences in lifestyles and cultural configurations, may seem enormously different, but in reality an Australian (using myself as an example) can actually identify with elements from both groups.

Using the argument outlined by Sen – the plurality of identity exists, rather than any singular identity. It is possible to imagine there are Asians who love cricket, drink beer, concentrate on their individual aspirations, but still have a strong sense of filial piety while feeling both Chinese and Australian at the same time.

It is possible to imagine there exists Anglo-Celtic Australians who dislike sport, detest beer, and follow Zen Buddhism with a passion, who might prefer a good stir fry to an barbeque.  Nevertheless, such an individual would never question their Australian- ness.

As outlined by Triandis “ children raised in a bilateral environment are exposed to two sets of ideas about the ideal way to live”. It is possible to share affiliations with both groups.6I am living proof of this!

The problem is you can feel this internally, but the external world may see you strictly in one category or another.


Conflict – An analysis

Something that the Hofstede does not cover is the importance of economic frameworks in the examination of Intercultural Conflict.

Resentment of immigrants based on economic grounds often stirs up strong fears that arouse political movements to argue for protection against it.


Immigrants are feared to be are either an economic strain on the economy, or becoming too dominant in their share of economic importance. (lower salaries, fewer jobs).

Economic research from the ABS suggests that the intensity of these reactions seems completely disproportionate to immigrants’ real economic impact on the local population.

Nevertheless, these perceptions were strong enough to encourage the creation a new political party called ““One Nation””. The policies of this political party argued that the economic impact of immigrants was dangerous and generally attempted to make a correlation between economic & cultural unsuitability of immigrants to social cohesion and “national” identity.


Who is “One Nation”?

The “One Nation” Party was created in 1990, led by the politician Pauline Hanson as a reaction against the massive wave of Asian immigrants to Australia following changes in its immigration policies. (the end of the Immigration Restriction Act in 1975 which allowed people from diverse cultural backgrounds to settle in Australia).

Their candidature for Parliament was based on an unfortunate position motivated by “xenophobia” and cultural division.

The policies of the “One Nation” political party ranged from anti Asian immigration, to elimination of social services for the indigenous Aboriginals and general economic protectionism.  During this period, their aggressive policies gained significant popularity with the community. The backbone of its success was due to extreme distrust & suspicion of the Asian community and their hardline position against further “Asian invasion”. “One Nation” gained 22.7% votes in 1990 and became an important social actor in Australia’s struggle to come to terms with its evolving cultural reality.

As a first generation Chinese Malaysian immigrant, you can imagine I did feel not particularly comfortable with these developments. My family and I immigrated to Australia in 1979. Later in 1999, I decided to take the step towards naturalisation. I had lived my most formative years in Australia. I felt quite simply that this was my home – but unfortunately, the supporters of Pauline Hanson did not share this view.


Why do supporters of the “One Nation” party emphasise cultural differences?

Levi-Strauss7 outlines that human societies tend not to define themselves by their mutual relations. He argues that the urge to differentiate becomes even stronger, the closer we get. It is the irony of the human condition - the more similar we become, the more we tend to highlight differences. He calls it “L’attitude la plus Ancienne”. This attitudinal bias stems from natural competition.

Here we can examine what leads to “xenophobia” – that is a fear & mistrust of strangers.

Scapegoat : Xenophobia stems from a desire to find an explanation for the disadvantage of one’s own group, and is primarily aimed at another group (seen as “foreign”) as the reason for the problem. This is commonly defined as the search for a “scapegoat” being the general cause of “all problems”. Problems ranging as wide as systemic faults in economic administration to problems related to social equality (such as an acceptable standard of living, opportunities and ability for full participation in society). The presence of strangers is perceived as a cause for complex problems. Whether valid or not the basis of arguments with xenophobic tendencies depend on an emphasis of difference – cultural difference.

Therefore, emphasising cultural differences is an important factor for supporters of “One Nation”.

Nostalgia: Nostalgia is a sentiment of perception – it is a perception that things in the past are better than the present. It is a perception that the current environment deviates from an ideal, that whether valid or not, nostalgia is a sense of grieving that something of value has been lost.

In the case of supporters of “One Nation”, there is a palpable sense that the national identity was changing for the worse. The national identity was perceived on strong ethno centric distinctions – that is Anglo Celtic. Evolution in the current cultural realities was perceived as “sad” and deviating too far from the ideal.

Nostalgia can distort perceptions and hinder progress on taking actions to resolve complex problems. Unemployment, Social inequality, and other such problems have existed in the past, even without the presence of immigrants. Reversing ourselves in time to the days of zero migration will still leave us the same problems to address.

Nostalgia can be interpreted as a response to the speed of change, and the lack of a timely and adequate response to manage change.

The point here is the irony of cultural nostalgia. Cultural nostalgia actually recognises evolving cultural realities. Unfortunately, nostalgia alone does not offer an adequate response about how to make changes workable in our lives.



The myth of a single national identity is difficult to part with. It is in a sense romantic and secure. According to observations from Sen, Triandis (amongst many authors in the field of IC), the tendency to adopt xenophobic attitudes, can often be accompanied with poor self-perception. If an individual suffers from anxiety or frustration about their own place in the world, they will have a tendency to cling on to the certainty of a singular identity, looking for solidarity amongst those one feels are “like me” and opposing others seen as “foreign”.

The plurality of identity is complex and confronting for individuals/or groups with poor self-perception. It is understandable that people find security and certainty in the idea of a singular identity. The problem here is that such an attitude is polarising and intensifies confrontation. It does not resolve the problem of how such individuals come to terms with their own self-perception.

The supporters of “One Nation” emphasise cultural differences to mitigate feelings of insecurity about their place in society.

The success of intercultural communication depends on a high degree of self-awareness, and feeling secure of one’s own place in the world. In the case of supporters of “One Nation,” they had been feeling increasingly insecure about their lack of employment opportunities, as they are from rural backgrounds or small towns. Arguing for a singular cultural identity does not resolve complex problems related to economic changes.


REACTIONS­ that intensify conflict, and reactions that encourage negotiation

An analysis of personal experience:Doing Nothing or Taking Sides – neither works.”

My cultural heritage as a Chinese makes me “non-confrontational”, while my Australian upbringing instils in me a “fighting dog” attitude.

My initial reaction was to “just ignore them”. I had not previously felt any magnetic identification to other Asian students. I never belonged to any Chinese student clubs. My friends were Anglo, Italian, Greek, Asian and Lebanese Australians. I had never previously segregated myself into any purely Chinese groups. In fact, I spent my adolescent life doing the opposite, trying to prove how well integrated I was. I had long ago come to terms with my ethnic origin and felt comfortable with my identity.

Nevertheless, I was uncomfortable with my emotions about these developments. I felt somehow that I had to defend “my people”. It was a new for me to feel this way. It did not fit properly into how I viewed myself. In reality, I actually found the views of the “One Nation” party were juvenile, rather than offensive. However, I felt an unspoken expectation, that I have an obligation to be mortally offended, to be consumed with rage, that I should be angry.


“Taking Sides”

This sudden desire I experienced to voice opposition against the insidious views of the ““One Nation”” party was strange for me. I tore down posters of the “One Nation” party when I came across them. I found myself in heated and futile debates with supporters of “One Nation”, that I would come across during demonstrations. I felt I was playing a part, that was not really how I saw myself. I suddenly became a “righteous Asian” ready to affront demeaning polemic against her people. I felt that I had become a “caricature”, or at least how ““One Nation”” supporters wanted to see people like me.


Reducing Oneself to image projected by others

With reflection, I realised that was this exactly the kind of social division the “One Nation” party wanted to create – to polarise people. I fell into the trap of reducing myself into my ethnic identity serving the purposes of the “One Nation” party which wanted to define people only in terms of their ethnic origin. – This is exactly what I did to myself. I was complicit in this casting. What was curious to me was how easy it was to lose myself in it. Here is where the danger comes in.


Turning Stereotypes around – who is the villain?

What if we turn this upside down (the victim, villain paradigm). If I choose to reduce my view of these people as being “uneducated”, “backwards”, “redneck” - is that not equally “racist”. Not all “One Nation” supporters are racists. That is a gross generalisation. A large majority “One Nation” supporters were disenfranchised by economic changes. The move towards a more service-oriented economy decreased demand for rural labourers and increased the pressure to retrain for positions in the new economy. The “One Nation” supporters were people who were resentful of this pressure to change, but their frustration was projected on to immigrants rather than the underlying cause of complex problems.

Stereotyping the supporters of “One Nation” as racist is unhelpful. It implies that one is equally guilty of what one accuses the “One Nation” of doing - it creates division rather than dialogue – it implies they can’t be reasoned with, but that is untrue.

Supporters “One Nation” are not evil or bad. They are simply human beings like you or me, whose circumstances profoundly influenced their perception of the world.



My conclusion is that “doing nothing” and “taking sides” does not work. With hindsight, I can see that a more constructive approach exists.

Doing nothing implies that dialogue is not necessary or not possible. It may be a non-confrontational position, but it does not encourage us to share views – something that is needed in any situation of conflict.

“Taking sides” is equally unhelpful, as this serves to intensify conflict as outlined previously.

The constructive approach is not to take on a moralising position. The objective is not to convince or impose a correct point of view, but instead, allow people to reach their own conclusions. It is not about “stopping” or “censoring” what appears to be a cultural misunderstanding.

The middle ground between taking sides and doing nothing is to allow people to share their views in a safe, non-judgemental environment.


The role of the media

A key milestone in the “One Nation” affair occurred when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation invited its leader Pauline Hanson to present their views in a television interview. It was very carefully prepared to be a non-judgemental presentation of how “One Nation” saw themselves and gave them an opportunity to share their views. It was the symbolic gesture that made them feel their views were important enough to be shared in a nationwide broadcast.

It was this single event that changed the political influence of “One Nation” irreversibly.

They lost supporters as they outlined publicly their ideas surrounding economic protectionism and cultural protection. It became apparent during the broadcast how misguided some of these views were, as they openly admitted that some of their arguments had problems, but failing to come up with any other solutions for unemployment or inflation, they expressed simply a desire to oppose immigration.

You could see quite clearly, the moment in this interview when the leader of this political party suddenly realised for herself how inappropriate these views were.

The result of this interview was a massive drop in voter support for “One Nation”. That was not the intention of the broadcast. The intention was to understand “One Nation” not to turn people against them.


Conflict negotiation

The point here is that, if people are given the opportunity to share their views, in a non-judgemental context of respect, they are also given the opportunity to think out loud. This approach encourages people to expand on the background behind their views, piece by piece. In situations of IC conflict, people will not share any background behind their views if they feel their entire argument has been rejected from the start.

People are more prepared to examine their views critically if they feel you are genuinely interested in aspects of their argument. It is less confrontational to discuss differing views piece by piece. Attempting to reach a complete agreement (or disagreement) from the start is too ambitious.

Progress on one’s views and perceptions is not a spontaneous event. It is a slow process because we all have a certain degree of cultural programming already inherent in our mindsets that have been built unconsciously over many years.

It is important not to overlook the fact, that despite cultural differences, we all share basic human values. The need for physical, spiritual, intellectual and social nourishment is shared by all people, despite the differing ways in which our respective cultures choose to express these values.


" It is precisely because of the cultural diversity of the world that it is necessary for different peoples to agree

on those basic human values which will act as a unifying factor "


Aung San Suu Kyi

1991 Nobel Peace Prize