Australia’s Immigration dilemma

Shanghai-based Australian expatriate Karen Tye, says Australia still has a long way to go in accepting immigrants into the country.

Let’s be fair dinkum about this issue. Quite a few Aussies, including those at the highest echelon of public office, need to adjust their attitudes.

Australia is a country almost entirely made up of immigrants but according to a July Morgan poll, 40 percent, or close to half of the population, want immigration levels reduced. In the run up to the Australian federal election on August 21, 2010, and in the bid to win voters, both Prime Minister Julia Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott announced that if elected, the government will slash immigration, and in the Coalition’s case, by around 130,000. Currently, Australia takes in around 270,000 immigrants a year.

One of the ironies of it all is that Gillard herself migrated from Wales to Australia as a child. Gillard is aiming for a more sustainable Australia, with around 78 percent of Australians agreeing with her to keep the country’s population to below 35 million by 2040.

In fact, recently deposed PM Kevin Rudd’s pro-immigration stance attributed to his decline in popularity. Rudd envisioned a “big Australia” with 36 million people by 2050. Even his predecessor, John Howard, who made known his firm opposition to multiculturalism via his One Australia policy, still increased immigration during his tenure.

Of course, many will phrase it differently or skirt around it, but anti-immigration sentiment stems from prejudice and honestly, I thought Australia was better than this.

I migrated to Melbourne, Australia in 1990 from Singapore, fending off frequent racial slurs in primary school such as “nip” and “chink” as I am of Chinese descent and then trying as hard to be dinky di and blend in, like many other Asians, when Pauline Hanson came to prominence in 1996.

Nevertheless, working as a community pharmacist in my early 20’s in Victoria’s south-eastern suburbs restored my faith as many of my customers gave me a fair go and looked beyond the stereotype.  My experiences led me to think that Australia was progressing and slowly shaking off its shackles of prejudice.

But my last four years as an expat in Shanghai, China, has left doubt in my mind as to whether this is really the case. These days, prejudice is less overt and doesn’t necessarily come in the form of a derogatory insult but it still has the same sting. It’s the little things – I’m still at a loss for words when I’m at an Aussie-organised event and fellow, widely travelled Australians ignorantly tell me that I speak good English for an Asian person, despite me repeatedly countering that English is my native and only fluent language.

Still on the language front, what bothers me is that when I stumble across stories in Australian media such as the Australian citizenship test, which requires at least 75 percent of answers to be correct to pass and examinees need to know that Sir Donald Bradman was a famous Aussie cricketer.

This year, national industry standards were put in place requiring new taxi drivers to meet eight competency units, including pass a basic spoken and written English language test, describe local roads, services and attractions and appreciate customer service. While knowledge of English is vital for road safety, and while higher standards are a positive, many customers make their minds up based on the driver’s accent rather than the quality of the service provided. The same could be said for migrants working in many different types of jobs in Australia.

While English tests are only mandatory for taxi drivers and health professionals, many employers in Australia still hire on the basis of fluent or native-level spoken and written English skills, which can help to provide a mask for deep-seated prejudice.
However, in China, when the tables are turned slightly – not as a result of prejudice but because the Chinese market has matured and local skill levels have risen – expats, including Aussies feel that they are hard done by when their pay packet depends on their level of Mandarin. China’s localisation drive and many companies’ tougher employment criteria, which include requiring minimum proficiency in the Chinese language, have seen many foreigners leave the country in a huff. Why do foreigners think this unfair? After all, there are more speakers of Mandarin in the world than there are of English.

On a more positive note, I have come across many tolerant and colour blind Aussies, one of them being my husband. Many of our friends and new people that we meet find it funny that he, a Caucasian, is fluent in spoken and written Mandarin, whereas I’m not and have a more ocker Australian accent than he does. Ross has even encouraged me to take up learning Mandarin and will often spend entire Sundays helping me as I labour over Mandarin study, much to the amusement of our ayi and occasional workmen at our apartment in Shanghai.

However, it must be said that having good Mandarin skills is not a guarantee of employment, just ask Kevin Rudd!

You may also like...