Australia is regarded as a country of “milk and honey” by South Asians, and a large contingent of qualified Indians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Afghans and Nepalis have migrated over in the last two decades since the “White Australia” policy was abandoned in 1972. There are today 125,000 South Asian Australians. A recent study by Canberra´s Bureau of Immigration Multicultural and Population Research (bimpr) showed that South Asians— Indians and Sri Lankans in particular—are one of the most highly educated and qualified ethnic groups in the country. Their median annual income of AUD 18,600 (about USD 14,000) in 1991 was above the Australian average of AUD 14,200 (USD 11,000).
This view of an Australian Dream, however, is a bit oversold, and newer arrivals find it harder to find a comfortable, successful and professionally satisfying life down under. For every doctor, accountant and computer specialist with a high salary, there are now many more professionals who arrived after mid-1980s unhappy with their situation. Qualified South Asians are to be found at work as clerical assistants, taxi drivers, restaurants managers and spice shop owners. Many complain of subtle but effective forms of discrimination by professional bodies and employers which keep them on the outside.
Karmal Laha, an engineer from Calcutta with extensive professional experience in Africa and India is a typical case. He came to Sydney at the peak of the Australian recession in the early 1990s, leaving a good job with Zimbabwe´s Ministry of Construction. When he applied for a job in Sydney, he was told that he did not have “Australian experience”, which is an excuse used to discourage migrant jobseekers. Mr Laha finally found an entry-level position at Sydney airport, working alongside Australian engineers just out of college.
A study done by the University of Woolongong in 1992 found that Australian companies routinely appoint Australian-born applicants over highly trained foreigners. Many companies defend the practice by saying that they fear cultural difficulties in the workplace. The study found that employers used ethnic stereotyping to exclude South Asians (and South Africans), saying that they had authoritarian attitudes and hence were unsuited for senior positions. Australian companies judged the communication skills of South Asians—and West Asians and Filipinos—to be far inferior to those of Australian applicants.
It must be said, though, that while in Britain an “Asian” automatically means someone from the Subcontinent, mention of Asians in Australian media generally connotes East Asians. That is to say: anyone with “Chinese” looks—Vietnamese, Thais, Filipinos, Indonesians, Singaporeans or people from Hong Kong.
Pleasures of Conquest
For Professor Yasmine Gooneratne, perhaps the most well-known South Asian in Australia, such barriers did not exist. She migrated to Australia in 1972 with her husband Brendon, a medical doctor. They came over because both had been offered teaching positions at Sydney universities.
Ms Gooneratne, who was born and educated in Sri Lanka and later completed her PhD from Cambridge University, is today professor of English at Macquarie University in Sydney. She is a well-known novelist with her recent novels Change of Skies and Pleasures of Conquest hitting the bestseller charts in Australia. Both were short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers Prize.
“My time here has been a period of continual personal satisfaction for me,” Ms Gooneratne says.
Well-known Indian sarod player Ashok Roy emigrated to Australia in 1989 and now is Artistic Director of the Australian Institute for Eastern Music. He, too, considers his experience in Australia as enriching. The Institute was originally set up by some South Asians as a training centre to teach classical Subcontinental music to the children of migrants. Today, it is a respected institution teaching not only South Asian music, but also helping develop a new form of Australian East-West fusion music.
Mr Roy says that the immigrant community is not very keen on what he has to offer. “It´s the (white) Australians who are much more interested,” he says. “Those who have migrated here haven´t come for a cultural experience. They want to make money, and so cultural activities are not a priority.”
But that may be changing. A recent study done by BIMPR has found that many well-educated Indian and Sri Lankan migrants who earlier rejected their Hindu (or Sikh) traditions to pursue a “modern lifestyle” are now beginning to feel an acute loss of identity. They are, therefore, reviving their cultural and religious connections, through festivals and concerts, and by building shrines and temples. There has been a temple and gurdwara-building boom all over the country in recent years.
Clash of Cultures
Many South Asian migrants, especially engineers, doctors and architects, who left flourishing professions to start anew down under now feel frustrated with their inability to re-establish careers in Australia. And since they claim it is really the children´s education that brought them to Australia, the offspring of the immigrants are held to high expectations. Many parents work long hours in lowly-paid jobs or hold more than one job to send children to expensive private schools. Responding to parental demands, many South Asian children certainly do well in primary schools and get admission to the elite “selective” high schools, which are free.
With many second-generation South Asians now reaching marriageable age, as in migrant South Asian communities in other continents, the preference to choose one´s own partner has led to bitter family feuds. A typical example is Sujatha Pillai (not her real name), who came to Australia with her parents from Sri Lanka aged just nine. Of a Catholic Tamil background and daughter of a doctor, she was sent to a private Catholic school in Sydney and later completed an arts degree at Sydney University.
After her graduation, Ms Pillai´s parents began looking for a husband for her from back home. “I told them I was not interested in marrying a foreigner, which made my mother very angry,” she recalls. “My parents never encouraged me to speak Tamil, didn´t take me back to Sri Lanka for the last 15 years, and now they want me to marry a guy who has never left that country.” Ms Pillai ended up marrying a white lawyer, and says her parents have made peace with her, “probably because he is in law.”
Interestingly, the Afghans were one of the first non-British migrant groups to come to Australia. Arriving in the last century as camel drivers, the Afghans played a key role in opening up Australia´s dry and rugged interior for mineral exploration. Their great contribution to modern Australia´s prosperity has gone largely unacknowledged. Observes Abdullah Ahmadi, who runs a travel agency in Sydney: “There are some books written about the first Afghan migrants, but no official recognition has been given to their contribution to Australian history.”
According to Mr Ahmadi, a “second wave” of Afghan migrants has arrived over the last decades, fleeing war in their own country. This group has found it very hard to assimilate and finds it practically impossible to find jobs. “Afghan doctors, engineers, teachers and university professors are doing menial labour.”
While there are success stories among the South Asian migrants in Australia, increasingly, they are finding a country which has used up its fund of goodwill for people from afar, particularly if they are coloured anything other than white. That, at least, is the impression from the controversy swirling around Pauline Hanson, a newly elected Member of Parliament, who in her maiden speech to the federal parliament in Canberra in October, said that Australia was being “swamped by Asians”.
She meant East Asians. But South Asians beware.