Extract from an article by Alice Pung
MELBOURNE, Australia — My father survived the killing fields of Cambodia, where he was threatened with having his tongue cut out with a sickle for speaking his native language, Teochew Chinese. When he and my pregnant mother arrived in Australia in 1980 and discovered that their new country encouraged them to maintain their language and culture, they were incredulous. My father named me Alice because he believed I was delivered into a Wonderland, a place that allowed for the full expression of human personality and potential.
The White Australia policy, which barred nonwhite immigrants, had recently ended, and a new era of multiculturalism had begun. National policy mandated that at school we all learn another language in addition to English. There was an explosion of international food and festivals.
But Australia’s fling with multiculturalism was temporary. In less than 15 years, politicians began advocating assimilation for nonwhites. In Australia today, the discussion around race and immigration has deteriorated to the point where many politicians no longer appear to believe that assimilation is even possible.
Racism has returned to the front of public discourse. Visiting Australia this week, the United Nations special rapporteur on racism, Mutuma Ruteere, condemned Australian politicians for “xenophobic hate speech.”
I grew up in Footscray, a West Melbourne neighborhood then brimming with factories and optimism. Refugees had always moved to Footscray to start anew: Eastern Europeans in the 1950s and ’60s, Southeast Asians in the ’70s and ’80s, Africans in the ’90s and the new century. A foreman gave my dad a trial at a car-trailer factory, thinking this 100-pound man would not be able to lift heavy metal parts. He didn’t know that my father’s previous job as a slave laborer was to bury dead bodies. He got the job.
But when businesses began to move production overseas in the early 1990s for cheaper labor costs, many proud working-class Anglo-Australians — including the kind of foreman who hired my father — were laid off. These were hard-working folks who had left school at 15 and had been loyal to single companies for decades. The mood shifted.
Some people in Footscray started to see multiculturalism as a punishment inflicted on them by the government. After all, it was the working-class whites who had to share their neighborhoods, jobs and schools with the new arrivals.
One evening, when my mother, brother and I were walking home, a car pulled alongside. The teenage passengers rolled down their windows and yelled out: “Go home! Stop stealing our jobs!” I was too young to know that Australia was going through its worst recession since the Great Depression.
Another time, someone threw a rock through our front window. Instead of having the glass replaced, my mother just drew the curtains and lowered the canvas awning outside …
SOURCE: Pung, Alice. “Living with Racism in Australia.” The New York Times, 7 December 2016
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