Novelist Leila Yusaf Chung asks: when do you become an Australian?

By Leila Yusaf Chung
I was optimistic and felt lucky to have landed in this amazing country – an easy¬going country where young women wore thongs at work, where diners asked for a doggy bag if they didn’t finish their meals and walked out without tipping the waiters. The first time my friends asked for a doggy bag, I was so embarrassed I hid under the table. The culture’s lack of pretence was refreshing, and I couldn’t wait to become a fully fledged Australian. But the question is, when does one get accepted as an Australian?
In those early days in Sydney, I had daily exchanges with people that went like this:
“You speak with a French accent! You don’t look French. Where did you come from originally?” they’d ask.
“Lebanon,” I’d reply.
“Oh, yeah. How’s your Lebanese back?” they’d say with a mocking tone. (I learnt later that the term implied a perceived penchant to fake back injuries.) Or they’d say, “I love hummus,” with a culturally know-it-all tone.
It took me a few weeks to adjust to some Australians’ views on the Lebanese. It was cool to be Lebanese in France in the 1970s. It slowly dawned on me that some Australians held negative views of Lebanese.
They’d ask whether I was Christian Lebanese or Muslim Lebanese, implying that it was preferable to be of one religion rather than the other – it all depended on who was asking. It was a question I refused to answer. Oh well, I thought, at least I’m married to a Chinese guy. No one dislikes the Chinese, right? I soon got the message that Arabs were disliked, but the Chinese? Why would anyone not like them? I was naive and ignorant.  My children will be safeguarded from prejudice and stereotypes, I thought. I had nothing to worry about, for multiculturalism was in full swing. Soon the population would embrace the leadership’s narrative of inclusiveness.
Racism’s ugly tentacles
The ugly tentacles of racism hit me in 1988 when the leader of the Liberal Party, John Howard, ignited suspicion of the increasing level of Asian immigration. I had my own business in a middle-class suburb with a large number of private schools. My clients, not knowing I was married to a Chinese person, vented their hatred and immigration fears to me. The paranoia increased with the rise of Pauline Hanson, and it escalated further and broadened to include suspicion of Arab-Australians after the New York September 11 attacks.
President Bush’s words, “You’re either with us or against us”, further inflamed the atmosphere of cultural divisiveness, deepening our divisions. Walking down the streets and through the shops of Auburn, no one asked me where I came from. I fitted in among the sea of olive skin and black hair.
Apart from a few examples of covert and overt racism, I found that the way Australia accepted and treated refugees in the ’80s and ’90s was truly amazing. Working in non-government organisations, we were able to provide a variety of services and support to refugees and new arrivals.
The frequent question, “Where do you come from?” is a reminder to the persons asked that they are different. It forces them to maintain their differences, sometimes even motivating them to make those differences more pronounced, like the hairdresser who adopted hijab.
After 34 years in Australia, I sometimes wonder if I can call myself Australian. The country’s leadership has the responsibility to change this narrative of “us and them” to one of inclusiveness, for the enrichment of all.
Leila Yusaf Chung is the author of Chasing Shadows, a novel set in the Middle East, published by Vintage.
The Australian Financial Review


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