This feature investigates issues of cultural identity and integration for two migrant generations by following the story of a first generation Chinese-Australian, Ying Lee, from her poignant and heart-wrenching journey to Australia, to her struggles in integrating into the Australian society, and then to her cultural gap with her children who are born in Australia. Her story echoes the discord between many first-generation migrants and their Australian-born children today. These children, the second generation, are all trying to find their place when wedged between the vastly different Chinese and Australian ideology and culture.
“Embracing the blue sky and white clouds, at the end of 2003, I stepped onto Australian soil with anticipation and uncertainty. Fast forward 15 years, my husband and I are now settled in Sydney’s Willoughby with 3 children, enjoying the harmony and freedom that Australia has to offer,” Ying told me.
The power of Australian values
Migrating to Australia is an enormous step in anyone’s life, and without full preparation, no one dares to take that huge step into an unknown world. Fortunately, the Australia government’s respect for humanity saved a torn couple.
Ying was born in Tianjin, a Northern Chinese city, and attended university in Shanghai. During our chat, I could sense a strong fusion of both north and south within her personality. She told me that she met her current husband through an introduction by friends in 2001. They both practice Falun Gong and had a lot in common. They fell in love, got engaged, and as her husband is an Australian citizen, they wanted to start a family in Australia. Just as he was preparing the visa for her to come to Australia, she was unlawfully arrested by the Chinese police and thrown into a re-education labor camp for two years for being a Falun Gong practitioner. Falun Gong is a spiritual practice that has been banned in China.
They lost contact. “During those two years when I lost my freedom, I heard that he came all the way from Australia to Shanghai wanting to see me, but was deported back to Australia by Chinese authorities.” Back in Australia, in order to rescue Ying, her fiancé started an SOS campaign where he cycled from Sydney to Canberra, calling on the Australian government to intervene and help his incarcerated fiancée.
Two years later, Ying was released. “But that did not mean I obtained freedom! They kept on threatening me that they could arrest me at any time.” Ying said that was when she cast all her hopes to her fiancé in Australia to save her and take her away. “He entered China using a new name, spent three days traveling to Shanghai without alerting the Chinese authorities. With the help of an Australian MP, the Australian Embassy sped up my visa application.”
When she received her visa, that same night, the couple took a flight out of China to Sydney. “On November 30, 2003, when the plane finally landed safely in Sydney, I took a breath of relief. That day, the sky was extra blue, the clouds were extra white, and the wind was extra soft — thank you Australia!”
Assisting new migrants with living in Australia
A beautiful yet unfamiliar environment marked the start of the second chapter in Ying’s life. Multiculturalism, harmony, and assisting new migrants with settling in have always been an emphasis and priority of the Australian government. This is especially the case in local governments, which have established many services to help with new migrants. I spoke with the mayor of Willoughby, one of the councils with the largest Chinese populations in Sydney.
Mayor Gail Giles-Gidney said: “In order to help new migrants settle in, the Mosaic Multicultural Centre was set up. The center provides many services for new migrants, together with Chinese leaflets and Chinese speaking staff. It also regularly hosts community events and performances. We wish to hear feedback and suggestions from the Chinese community so we can better understand how we can better support them.”
Willoughby is also where Ying currently lives. Ying said that although she has escaped her ordeal in China and arrived in this beautiful country, the realities of settling in hit home. She said that getting used to living in Australia became her first job. She first attended the free English classes that were offered to new migrants, which helped revive some of the English she learned during university. She was able to find a casual job that did not require much English and life slowly settled down. However, she found that despite physically living in Australia, she was still very removed from the real Australia. “I lived within a suburb that has a lot of Chinese people, I did everything within the Chinese circles, my friends were all Chinese. I didn’t have much to do with the real Australia and didn’t know where to turn for more information. My heart was filled with insecurity about the future, especially when I was pregnant with my first child.”
Luckily, Ying found out about the various initiatives and efforts by her council through the local Chinese newspapers, and this was when she found her confidence and hope in this unfamiliar new country.
The New South Wales (NSW) government also puts in large funding each year to help new migrants settle and integrate into Australian society. NSW Minister of Multiculturalism Ray Williams MP said to me: “We have a myriad of support that we provide to those migrants and refugees when they initially come here to our country. We also fund cultural festivals, which not only allow like-minded communities to come together and celebrate but also bringing in the broader community, which breaks down a lot of misconceptions about migration.”
Obtaining a deeper understanding of Australia
Ying reminiscences back to her children’s early days at school. “I was in disbelief at the way most of the curriculum and programs here are based on children’s interests rather than a rigid set of learning that they must go through. My children not only came home with big smiles but also big pockets full of sand.”
“My biggest challenge when my children started school was when the school required parents to sit with their child to do reading each day. This was a huge headache for someone like me who had almost zero verbal English skills. I started to teach my children word by word. Then after a while, it was my children who were teaching me and correcting my pronunciation! To learn English and grow with my children was the biggest benefit I got out of the NSW school’s home reading program.”
During my interview with Ying, her three children, Ivy (13 years old), May (11 years old), and Leon (9 years old) were seated not far from us, either talking quietly or doing their drawings and writing. Ying was very surprised at the way teachers were so understanding and patient in their methods of dealing with “challenging” children. “May is very different from Ivy and Leon,” Ying said, “She was always getting in trouble at school, talking back to her teachers, and quite often was asked to sit on the ‘Thinking Mat’ or called into the deputy principal’s office. In our eyes, May is a ‘problem’ child. However, her teachers never blamed us as parents, nor did they dictate to us how to discipline May. They continued to discuss with us how we can use positive parenting to help May to grow to her best potential, for us to find ways to give May more encouragement, respect, and listen to her more. If this happened in China, a child like May would be isolated by her teachers and laughed at by other kids. After 6 months, May’s behavior changed and no longer required ‘special attention’ by us or her teachers.”
From my research for this feature, I observed that when children start school, many Asian families find it hard to bridge the gap between the Chinese education characteristics with Australia’s education system. In Australia, children engage in interest-based learning and learn through interactions with people and things around them.
Chinese “tiger mum” meets Australian challenges
In a Chinese family, nothing surpasses the education of the next generation. In Australia, creativity and innovation are the cornerstones of children’s education, and most of this comes from play and interest-based learning. However, to many Chinese families, the notion that “prosperity comes from studying [books] and excelling in academics” is set in stone in the minds of many Chinese.
Many Chinese parents like Ying have changed schools numerous times in pursuit of a good academic education for their children. Within a few short years, Ivy, May, and Leon have changed schools five different times. Currently, they live in Willoughby, in Sydney’s north, which has the top academic schools in Sydney in the eyes of Chinese families.
“Due to our financial situation, we can only choose a public school. So we moved to a suburb with the top public school academic ranking. Then we saw that Willoughby Girls High School had a high ranking, so we recently moved to the area, as Ivy is about to attend high school. My son can also attend Chatswood High in a few years,” Ying said, echoing the choices and thinking, which are very much reflective of a typical Chinese parent.
The cultural gap between two generations
Currently, in Australia, many Chinese families are using Chinese ways to educate children with the emphasis placed on academics and extracurricular skills, such as music, dance, and art. However, their children, who are born in Australia, have been brought up with the Western freedom of thought and independent thinking, with an emphasis placed on mutual respect and personal privacy. The Australian education system works on the fact that children must learn to be the best they can possibly be in anything they may choose to do. This continuously clashes with Chinese values instilled by their Chinese parents. Many Chinese parents do not understand why their children become so rebellious by high school, despite them being brought up using the more strict Chinese ways.
Ying could also feel this looming in her family. Ying and her husband used typical traditional Chinese ideology to educate their children. Her children must study Chinese and study books written by ancient Chinese philosophers; they must also learn piano as well as violin. They have carved out a wonderful future pathway for their children.
“The kids finish school every day at 3 p.m. Apart from school homework, they need to write Chinese and practice piano and violin, etc. On the weekend, they attend various classes, including Chinese school. Of course, they will protest and ask why they need to write Chinese and learn piano.” Ying said: “But when kids are young, they shouldn’t be given that choice to learn whatever they want and waste their time doing whatever they like. If you miss this peak learning period, it will be too late.”
When I asked the children what they thought of this, May said with a very innocent expression: “Mum said we must learn Chinese and practice our piano and violin. But my friends just need to do their homework and can play and watch TV. Why do we have to do all this? Why can’t we just play?”
“I don’t know, mum said we must do our homework, practice our instruments, and can only play on the weekend. But sometimes, I just don’t want to do it. I just want to play,” Leon was very straight with me. “Mum says we must do it, so we just do it. I don’t know why,” Ivy said with a sweet smile.
“Remember your heritage and at the same time be a valued member of Australian society”
Earlier this year, Belvoir Theatre hosted Michelle Law’s stage performance Single Asian Female, which described a first generation Chinese mother trying to instill traditional Chinese ideology in her Australia-born children, resulting in a series of cultural conflicts and upheaval within the family. The issues raised in this show resonated with many Chinese families.
When asked about this phenomenon, NSW Multicultural Minister Ray Williams MP said that this kind of cultural conflict is quite common in migrant families from all cultures; it’s not unique for the 514,000 Australians with Chinese ancestry in NSW. “Quite correctly, they [first generation migrants] will have strong links to their culture, to their heritage, to their values, and to their educational qualities which they have grown up with. And of course, when they move to a new country, especially like Australia, where we have a unique and broad culture, the dilemma rests with second-generation children because they, especially as young teenagers, feel conflicted. They were born in Australia, they are very much Australians, but when faced with values instilled by their parents, to that I always say: ‘You can be both,’” he said.
While researching for this feature, I noticed that Australia-born children from Chinese families are coming in contact with Australian society’s values and interactions from day one when they enter childcare. However, their parents are so busy with their livelihood and running the household and living only within the Chinese circles that they are becoming more and more disconnected from their children.
To this, Williams said: “We want everybody to maintain their strong culture and heritage links, and we support that. The government commits millions of dollars each year to supporting migrants and multiculturalism, from English lessons and interpreting government services to help accessibility, community hubs, workshops. Chinese media play a key role in disseminating very important information from governments directly back to the community.”
“This country is built on multiculturalism and we see people being bilingual and multilingual as an absolute asset and a great strength to this country both economically and socially,” Williams said. And lastly, to all those second-generation children, he added: “Don’t forget your parents have worked very hard to come to this country, and it has not been without challenges. So you need to respect that. Don’t forget where you come from, remember your Chinese heritage, but also know that you are a very proud and valued member of our Australian society.”
The Australian government has put in much effort and funding for new migrants to enable them to reach their best potential and lead the most prosperous lifestyle that they can in this society. However, during this process, the second generation must continue to find their place between two cultural identities. This is also an absolute reality which has no straightforward solutions.
Written by Carole Lu