Young Asians making their mark on Australia

Duncan Kennedy reports on how Asian Australians feel about their country and heritage

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It's not long into my chat with entrepreneur Gary Ng that I notice something gnawing at my ankles.

Looking down, I see Woofie, the office dog, sniffing away and saying hello.

The small, white terrier with the inquisitive nose isn't the only novelty in this uber-relaxed work setting.

There are pool tables, a games TV, a trampoline and a life-sized, rubber dummy for punching if your day becomes frustrating.

This is E.Web Marketing, Gary's Aussie/Chinese fusion brainchild and destination for 40 employees, half of whom are Asian.

It's just come fourth in a competition to find Australia's best workplace and is a good example of the expanding presence of Asians in the business environment.

"We don't just do Chinese restaurants any more," says Gary, dryly.

"I found I was accepted by the business community very quickly, as they saw beyond my ethnicity."

It's not just in the world of commerce where Asians are making their mark in Australia, and it signifies a big shift.

Assimilation

From federation in 1901, when the newly minted country passed its first immigration act, until World War II, Australia pursued a pro-white, Australia-first agenda, promoting European settlement and discouraging others.

Generation Asia graphic

Those discredited, counterproductive, policies officially came to an end in 1973 and, since then, Australian society has come to take on a gradually different ethnic hue.

Asians now account for 2.4 million, or 12%, of the 22.7 million population. Three out of every 10 Asians go to university, 20% of all doctors are Asian and 37% of Asians take part in some form of organised sport.

As a result, the look and feel of Australia is subtly, but incontrovertibly changing, especially as by nearly every measure, Asians are a model of assimilation.

Now, the Chinese and Indian populations, in particular, are moving into their second and third generations in large numbers.

In Sydney, the biggest city, Chinese-born residents are poised to replace the English-born as the number one immigrant group.

In Melbourne, it's Indian-born people who are the fastest-rising ethnic group.

Nationally, Mandarin has surpassed Italian to become the most common second language.

Cultural shift

"Australia's definitely changing, compared to when I was small," says Jinnie De, an Indian-born choreographer who runs the Nupur Dance group in Sydney.

We meet at an extravagant Australian/Indian festival of culture at the city's Olympic park.

Jinnie's troupe lift the crowd with their pounding, Bollywood-style dance routine.

Gary Ng Asian business owner Gary Ng has found that his ethnicity is not an issue in Australia's changing society

Getting her breath back she tells me: "It was difficult when I was in junior school, as I was the only brown face.

"But by the time I got to senior school, there were a lot of us, so I've never had any problems fitting in."

I asked Jinnie what, in her heart, head or both, she felt - Australian or Indian?

"In Australia I still feel a little Indian, but in India I feel Australian, but I see it as the best of both worlds."

Her co-dancer, Sharmila Lodh, says assimilation is no longer an issue for young people.

"I've had to assimilate into the Indian community," she says, "As I was born in Australia, I've had to learn all the other stuff about Indian culture from my parents. Australia is my home."

All this hasn't gone unnoticed by Australia's political classes.

Although the festival is being held on a Sunday afternoon, it's attended by Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott.

I snatch a few words with Ms Gillard, who looks me in the eye and says: "The (Asian) community is very important to Australia," her emphasis assuredly on the 'very'.

Despite this vote of confidence and the undoubted progress that Asians have made in Australia, some problems do remain.

'True blue'

Start Quote

Annie Nugyen

I regard myself as a true-blue Aussie. Australia is home, no doubt”

End Quote Annie Nguyen E.Web Marketing

The growing numbers of Asians haven't yet translated into a representative parliamentary presence, and nor, for that matter, do you see many non-white faces on television.

There are issues of racism to overcome, though, in crime terms, Asians are less likely to be victims than the general population.

But talk to Australians such as E.Web's Annie Nguyen and you get the sense that full-throttled assimilation is now just a matter of time, organisation and confidence.

Back at the dog-friendly office space, Annie explains how she views her parents, their move to Sydney and her own national identity.

"My parents are first generation and whilst their heads are in Australia, their hearts are still in Vietnam.

"I regard myself as a true-blue Aussie. Australia is home, no doubt."

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