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My findings show that the old “White Australia Policy” way of thinking is still prevalent in the Melbourne community and that there is a lot of prejudice based on the appearance and accents of an Asian individual: most notably, the level of competency of the English language. Introduction With the constant influx of Asian immigrants and international students into Australia, there is no doubting the effect this has had on the general population. China and India are the two most common countries of birth for these new arrivals: 2.2% for the Chinese and 1.9% for the Indians in 2016. This is not a recent occurrence as Asians have been migrating to Australia since the early 1970s. Statistics show that cases where both parents were born overseas have increased from 32% to 34.4% in the last five years, meaning an increase in second and even third generation Asian Australians. However, despite the fact that Australia has been welcoming skilled migrants since the 1980s, this has not stopped the discrimination against Asian immigrants, even though a law was passed making racial discrimination illegal in 1975 (Federal Register of Legislation). With Asian Australians no longer being something of a rarity, this has led me to wonder if the accent an Asian individual possesses affects the way the Australian community treats them; one cannot rely on appearances alone to determine whether an Asian person is a local or an immigrant. In this essay, I will examine five individuals, including myself, on their experiences of intercultural discrimination or prejudice.
Before the eradication of The Immigration Act 1901 in 1973, otherwise known as the “White Australia Policy”, poll results in 1943 show that ‘40% of Australians supported “unlimited immigration”’, mainly due to labour shortage. However, after the labour shortage problem and need to populate disappeared, public support for the permanent immigration program quickly declined (Parliament of Australia). The situation nowadays can be seen in the phrase “some of the older people might have a problem with it, but not the younger people”, as told by an Australian train-driver. Though Australia boasts about providing education and employment to immigrants, this is not reflected in its political and private sectors: only 1.7% of those who sit in the federal parliament and 4.2% of directors are of an Asian background.This discrimination is unjustified. There has been a 79% increase in Australia’s exports to China since 2003 and with the influx of international students from China in the past 10 years, China spends more on average for education, business and employment compared to any other country. In other words, “Migrants have contributed to both Australia’s total GDP and GDP per person”. Discrimination is unjustified because one of the key points of this report is that “immigrants contribute more than they consume”.
The participants were chosen for their accents and whether or not they lived in a Western environment before coming to Australia. Two participants of the study are students from Swinburne University of Technology and three participants re Monash University students. The interviews occurred over the phone and face-to-face and are based around seven questions. The length of each interview varied, depending on the number of experiences they could think of.
All five participants have experienced discrimination and/or prejudice depending on the accent and preconceptions that listeners have based on their appearance. Discrimination and prejudiceLalitha spoke of the shock her high school classmates showed when they found out that she could speak English well. Aside from that, when asked whether she had been discriminated against because of her accent, she said “I can mimick accents to fit in, so I didn’t face any difficulties”. Conversely, her mother has had several experiences of shopkeepers leaning in during a conversation, “speaking more slowly and using a lot of hand gestures”, assuming that her “mother’s accent was mistaken for a lack of competency in English”. This is similar to Angelica’s father’s case, where he has been rejected from job opportunities because they claimed that his level of English wasn’t sufficient, but it was more due to his accent. Jace and Khoa, on the other hand, have experienced discrimination due to their accents. Jace spoke about how she asked for help from an Australian man for advice on medications to get at Chemist Warehouse since it was her first time there, but she was ignored.
However, a Western couple came and asked for help too and he assisted them. Jace ended up asking help from an Asian worker instead. One of the instances that Khoa mentioned was how flight hostesses would drop the smile and the use of ‘Sir’, ‘Madam’ and ‘Miss’ when addressing Khoa compared to when they address Westerners. Aside from accents, several of the participants experienced being treated differently due to the preconceptions linked with their appearance. Lalitha spoke about how her mother would be treated differently because she wears the bindi and Angelica mentioned how a few Australian children assumed that she and her mother couldn’t speak or understand English well because of their appearance. An instance of mine was when an Australian man spoke to me in a slow and clear manner with wide eyes and hand gestures when I was confused on the bus. He had assumed I would reply with an Asian accent but was surprised when I replied in my slight British accent.
Accents can sometimes indicate what language the listener feels more comfortable to reply in. During her time in Monash College, Jace tried to speak in English to people from China but they would respond to her in Mandarin instead. On the other hand, when I speak to people from China in English, there would often be a dazed expression on their faces, to which I’d interpret as my accent being a bit difficult to understand. Hence, I would switch to Chinese to aid their understanding, but upon comprehension, they would respond in English. The same happens when I speak to my Malaysian peers. Having grown up on American television dramas, I’ve never thought of myself to having a strong Malaysian accent and during my 4 years at an international school, I realized that my accent started to sound more British. This meant that my Malaysian peers would speak to me in English more often than in Mandarin, and it wasn’t because my Mandarin was incomprehensible. It made them “feel less awkward” to speak to me in English.
From the previous cases, one may conclude that different accents have different levels of superiority. Khoa, for example, feels that his accent is inferior because his ideas would be disregarded or undermined during group assignments in university. On the other hand, Angelica feels that because of her accent, she is more confident when asking for help in a public setting. She spoke about how a bus driver was really rude to a Chinese lady who was asking if it was the right bus, whereas Angelica was certain she wouldn’t be treated this way because of her accent. Similarly, I think that some accents make people pay more attention to the speaker than others. Lalitha agrees in saying that “a lot of people, upon hearing the British accent, assumes that said individual is ostensibly smarter and more professional”.
According to the findings, there is a clear relationship between the accent of an Asian individual and how they are treated in the Australian community. It is true that ‘everybody has prejudices about accents’and although some accents sound more superior than others, this does not account for discrimination. It merely means that accents can both mitigate and aggravate intercultural communication. In other words, accents act as an expression of identity: identification with one group and rejection from another. Another important finding is that ‘Australians still use appearance as a basis for ethnic assumptions’. This was apparent even with Lalitha, Angelica and I who possess Western accents. One can only hope that, with the constantly increasing number of Chinese international students and immigrants, the public will come to ‘understand that not everyone who looks Asian in Australia is a new arrival’ and that prejudice held against appearances and accents can hold potential flaws.
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