Saturday, October 18, 2008

Saturday Morning Musings - ethnicity and change in Australia

This has been an interesting week, made more so by some of the conversations around me.

On Ninglun's Specials, Neil Whitfield has been carrying his camera around taking photographs of his immediate area within Sydney, including Sydney's China Town. The modern China Town was not the first Chinese area in Sydney, nor is it the only one. However, it is the best known.

Up in New England, Gordon Smith from lookANDsee has taken his camera to the streets of Bingara on New England's Western Slopes. I thought that I would use photos from both to illustrate this morning's musings.

This photo by Neil shows the high rise residential development on the northern edge of China Town. This is part of the development that has seen a dramatic rise in the residential population within central Sydney, attracted by the metro lifestyle.

Wikipedia has quite a useful article on the Chinese in Australia.

At the last census, 669,890 Australian residents identified themselves as of Chinese ethnic origin, or 3.4 per cent of the Australian resident population. These numbers are not spread evenly across Australia, but are especially concentrated in Sydney, where the 292,338 Chinese make up approximately 7 per cent of the population.

Again, the Chinese in Sydney are not spread evenly, with special concentrations not just in China Town, but also places like Hurstville and Ashfield. Sydney's popularity as an entry point for migrants combined with out-migration from the city of locally born means that the Chinese proportion of the population, more broadly the migrant proportion of the population, will continue to grow. Here Sydney is heading towards the position already holding in Auckland, if with a different ethnic mix.

The photo on the right shows the main street of Bingara on a quiet Sunday morning.

Perhaps best known now because of the nearby Myall Creek massacre, Bingara has been fighting to retain population, including the promotion of its own tourist attractions.

Bingara's population is older than Sydney, the locally born proportion of the population is very high, the small overseas born group all comes from Europe.

New England has its own Chinese tradition dating back to the gold rushes. However, if the census data is correct, there was not one person of Chinese ancestry, not one of Asian ancestry, living in Bingara on census night.

The life styles in Bingara and Sydney are very different, not just the ethnic mix.

Neil's photo shows Sydney coffee addicts in China Town. This is a mixed, cosmopolitan world.

People densities on the street may not be as high as say Shanghai, but this is still a crowded world.

China Town is not in fact typical of Chinese Sydney, just as metro Sydney is not typical of Sydney. There are huge differences between metro Sydney and the further out suburbs where the majority of Sydney's population lives.

Now compare this to Gordon's photo of Bingara's Regent Cafe. I have had coffee here. The contrast could hardly be greater. Bingara is a quieter, village world with its own concerns. Sydney seems very remote.

I have used China Town Sydney and Bingara simply as examples, the tip of the iceberg, of diversity in population mix, lifestyle and attitudes across the country. Darwin, as an example, is as far removed from both Bingara and Sydney's China Town as they are from each other.

One of the points I have tried to make in my writing is that Australia has always had greater diversity than is commonly allowed. That said, Australia is presently dealing with waves of change across the country, waves going in different directions, moving at different speeds. I find this fascinating.

Still using Australia's Chinese as an example, the previous dominance of those from Southern China as well as other parts of Asia has been challenged in recent years by a rise in Mandarin speakers. Both may see themselves as Chinese, but the two groups are not the same.

Then there are the differences between the ABCs, the Australian born Chinese, and more recent arrivals, sometimes summarised by the derogatory term banana, yellow on the outside, white within.

Yesterday I was talking to a mother, European, who has enrolled her son in a coaching college to improve his maths. The Chinese concern about education has led to a proliferation of coaching colleges across Sydney preparing people for key examinations, especially those for entry to the selective high schools. While standards may vary, some of the colleges are very rigorous indeed.

In the case in question, to gain entry to this college mother and son were first interviewed, then the son had to sit a test to demonstrate suitability. He was admitted, the only non-Chinese at the college. He is known by other pupils simply as white boy.

I am not suggesting prejudice in this case, although that may be there, simply that the term is used as descriptor.

In all this, at least some Chinese parents worry about cultural acculturation, the way their children are adopting Australian attitudes.

I used to worry about the risk that Australia might fragment into different ethnic groups. This was part of my concern about official policies that seemed to deny the validity of the central Australian culture as a national unifying device. I am less worried about this than I was, say, five years ago.

Part of the reason for this is the diversity in our migrant intake. However, part too is the sheer power of the central culture itself, as well as the ability of Australians to distinguish between attitudes to specific groups (group x is ) and individuals (Fred is alright).

What I find more interesting now are the growing divisions within Australia based on geography. Australia is segmenting.

I am not suggesting that this is of itself a problem, although it does pose some long term risks. So long as these risks can be contained, then I think that the trend will ultimately add to the texture of Australian life. However, that's another story.


Anonymous said...

Jim, you have every reason to worry. Ghettoisation whether one likes it or not, takes place in every part of the world, including in India. In the UK you will find mini Indias and mini Pakistans besides mini Jamaicas etc, and in the USA too this is not rare.

In India, we have intra regional migration taking place and people from one region tend to stay together in one area and shops catering to the needs of that particular community come up and restarants offering that cuisine come up and you have mini, Tamil Nadus, Bengals etc before you know what is happening.

The melting pot effect one hopes for and the older generation, afraid of takes place at the lower age groups but tend to fizzle off as the sense of the "Other" from the main stream as well as from ethnic groups cannot be wished away.

Jim Belshaw said...

You have driven straight to the heart of the issue, Ramana.

Many Australians forget that we (Australia) have already had one experience with a long running ethnic/religious divide. Today in Australia we speak of Anglo-Celts to distinguish the present majority. In fact, for much of our history, the Irish Catholics formed a very separate minority group - internal tensions in the British Isles played our here.

The launch of the mass migration program at the end of the Second World War was a major social revolution in that the numbers of new settlers from different parts of Europe was very high relative to the size of the population. To put this in Indian terms, it would be like India as it was in 1949 admitting between 50 and 100 million migrants in a bit more than 20 years.

Those migrants did tend to go to specific areas, especially in the main cities. However, there was then a process of assimilation, acculturation, that changed the existing Australian population and the migrant population.

Importantly, the children and then their children moved into, became part of, mainstream society. Their are still suburbs or localities where the originl ethnic influence is marked. However, these have become places that other Australians visit to enjoy the food or cultural ambience.

The migrants who came came from a Europe that had just experienced war, a Europe of ethnic, religious and cultural divides. The migrants did not give up their traditional connections and prejudices - Serb vs Croat for example. Some Australians on all sides fought in the recent Balkan Wars. Yet, somehow, those prejudices were muted by the experience in a new country so that the identification with Australia became central. Ethic difference, history, were still there, but were absorbed. They became personal or group things that were also celebrated in an Australian context.

Last year, Australia's net migration total was +199,000. However, the actual number of new arrivals was, from memory, over 400,000, offset by emigration. This is a large total,one large enough to change the ethnic composition of the country in much the same way as after the war.

Australia has very little choice, although there is a stream that wants to reduce immigration on environmental grounds, another small stream on racial grounds. The issue is, can we do the same thing again.

The lesson from Woolgoolga, the example I gave in the Indian post, is that very different communities can live together without ghettoing so long as both sides want it. In the Woolgoolga case,the role of the majority community was critical because they welcomed the Sikhs.

One difference between 1949 and today lies in the economy. Australia had almost no unemployment. Today there is a problem in that unskilled or lower skilled workers may struggle.

I make this point because upward mobility is critical to effective absorption. If, as has happened in a couple of areas in Sydney, we end up with an economically depressed ethnic minority, then ghettoisation is far more likely, even inevitable, at least in the medium term

I am not quite sure how all this will work out in practice. However, so long as there are no ethnic barriers to upwards mobility, so long as the different groups come to occupy places in Australian power structures )political, economic, cultural)independent of their ethnicity, then we will probably rub along.

A key difference, I think, between India and Australia, Australia and the UK, is that we are a migrant community to begin with. With the exception of indigenous Australians, all Australians trace their roots to somewhere else.

Anonymous said...

A key difference, I think, between India and Australia, Australia and the UK, is that we are a migrant community to begin with. With the exception of indigenous Australians, all Australians trace their roots to somewhere else.

And that is a critical difference. We do not have the thousands of years of religious and social difference that India has experienced, though there have in Indian history also been good examples of tolerance and syncretism.

We are fortunate, in a sense, that we have had a rather short post-European-settlement history, with the gift of a rather robust and flexible set of institutions and practices, comparatively speaking, and less of the baggage that even the Brits have. Being aliens here, as we at times feel, has actually made the inclusion of other aliens a more likely prospect, despite our other history of degrees of fear or xenophobia.

I hope the tradition we have evolved of letting the sun leach out the sectarianism and bitterness of many of our backgrounds continues; it may indeed be the land and the weather contribute to that...

Our degreee of scepticism about ideas too, while frustrating to intellectuals whether conservative or radical, has had its advantages.

We've done pretty well, in the main, in absorbing different communities, while not totally melting down, or demanding that we should let down, their particular social, religious or other distinctiveness. I do prefer the salad analogy to the melting pot analogy, as Jim already knows.

Those of us who live in very ethnically diverse parts of Sydney tend to find that much that we may once have feared tends to melt away as we get to know even a few of our "Other" neighbours, and even more so as generations mingle.

So today one of my Sutherland Shire cousins is married to a Lebanese Muslim, for example, and that has worked. Yet we wouldn't have conceived such a possibility even twenty years ago...

Some rural areas have been in fact in the forefront in accepting refugees, whether they are African, Iraqi, Afghan or whatever.

Anonymous said...

Jim, Neil, there is another very significant difference. One language, English. The immigrant has to learn one language other than his own, if he is not already comfortable with English.

In India, if one has to be upwardly mobile, he has to be good in a minimum of three languages, his own, English and Hindi if he is lucky. Often, he has to learn a local language as well, as I had to living as I do in Maharashtra.

This is a problem that now the USA is facing with immigration more from the South. There are already fears being expressed that Espanol will be spoken by more Americans than English.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi RM. This has been an area of considerable discussion over time between Neil and I, although the differences between us are more matters of perspective.

The reason why certain country communities have had a generally good record in accepting different cultures lies in the response of the community itself. Locals saw it as their role to welcome the new arrivals.

The position in Sydney is a little different because of the nature of city life. An Indian work colleague who had recently arrived in Sydney complained about what she saw as the isolationism of Sydney life. This can be broken through - she became the little mother of the unit block and has now moved to a new housing area where she is, to use an Australianism, as happy as larry because of the sense of community.

If community acceptance of new arrivals is one key, another is time.

It is true that people in ethically diverse parts of Sydney are more accepting, although Sydney also displays the highest level of ethnic prejudice in the country. People need time to adjust.

I don't like either the melting pot or lettuce leaf analogies. I think that both are misleading. Melting pot comes from the US, and was never true in the sense the word if often used. Lettuce leaf is Canadian, a country with its own issues because of the presence of two very geographically distinct language groups. A key question in Canada is simply the survival of the country as a country.

The Indian language issue is an interesting one. I think the presence of a common language is important, although I am not one who supports manadatory English in the Australian context.

The concept of the nation state itself is relatively recent. I think it true to say, although it is not universally true, that the states that have faced the greatest survival challenges, have been those containing different ethnic groups with different languages located in distinct geographic areas. I have mentioned Canada, but Belgium is another current example. Language politics is central to Belgium.

The rise of Spanish in the US is an interesting case. Bill Bryson's Made in America explored the reasons why the US became largely mono-lingual in English despite the presence of large groups speaking other languages.

On the surface, the current Spanish case appears different because we are talking about just two languages not many plus the presence of very large and increasing numbers in specific geographic locations.

Despite the rise in the proportion of the population speaking languages other than English at home, I cannot see this type of issue arising in Australia. We actually have another problem - the country has become more mono-lingual, not less because of a decline in interest in foreign languages.