Census findings were this week released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, mapping out the changing face of Australia. Perhaps most interesting were the shifts in the cultural makeup of Australia: 26% of Australians were born overseas (up from 25%), and around half of all Australians have at least one parent born overseas. For the first time in Australia’s history, of the Australians born overseas, more were born in Asia than in Europe.
Since the British colonisation of Australia in the 18th century and into the 20th century’s White Australia Policy, Australia has long had close cultural ties to Europe. The metaphorical changing of the guard from Australia being a nation of European immigrants to instead having more Asian immigrants has been described by some as cementing Australia’s place as the most multicultural country in the world.
It’s true that Australia is an increasingly diverse country, if you look at the Census findings on immigrants, plus the fact that 300 languages are spoken in Australia and that Australians are overall less religious but more diverse in religious beliefs. However, this only shows Australia as a diverse country, not a multicultural one.
Multiculturalism is about more than just the existence of multiple cultures, or the diversification of cultures in a country. We cannot call ourselves a multicultural country until there is a deeper understanding and appreciation of other cultures, and all different cultures are simply viewed as different, rather than better or worse than one another.
We’re lucky in Australia that there are so many cultures around us, as the Census findings validate. Different cultures are highly accessible to us, so we have an immense opportunity to broaden our understanding and appreciation of them.
One way of doing so is by being curious, and listening to understand, rather than to respond. Having worked with an international team for the last year, one thing that struck me was how people from different cultures treated work. One of my teammates is from Malaysia, and I remember always being confused when she never questioned anything our boss said, since questioning authority is so integral to the flat culture I’ve experienced in Australia.
When I asked her about this, I learnt that it’s because in Malaysian culture, people in authority are always treated with respect. It was at that point that I reflected on the times I’ve been left confused and frustrated while working with international students for uni group projects, and realised that if I had made the effort to understand their working culture more, or be more open about mine, we might not have had conflicts working together.
When talking about migrants, you often hear people say that they are welcome in Australia as long as they integrate into Australian culture. Not only does this position ‘Australian’ culture as being superior to any other cultures that people have coming into Australia, but it gives us a very passive role in cultural understanding - that we should do nothing but expect other people to accept our culture. What must be done instead is us seeking to understand other cultures and appreciating their beauty and merits, instead of dismissing them. This requires effort and initiative on our part, but means that many cultures can exist in harmony alongside each other, with genuine mutual appreciation.
One of my biggest learnings with culture is listening to understand, rather than to respond. Culture can be a confronting thing, because when you meet someone with a culture that challenges the fundamentals of what you believe in or have done your whole life, you can feel threatened. When learning about other cultures, coming in with the mindset of seeking to understand rather than to respond means that you enter a dialogue with a more open mind - that you engage with another culture with the intention of learning more about it, rather than with the intention of attacking it, defending your own, or tearing the other apart.
Our diversity in Australia is a beautiful thing that we take for granted, but in order to truly move to being the most multicultural country in the world, we all need to make more effort to deeply understand the diverse cultures we have here, and it all starts with us.