Current controversy surrounding Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen’s groundbreaking win of the 200m medley at this year’s Olympics brings to mind a conversation I had with one of Amanda’s classmates parents about the challenges of being Asian in Australia. For ease of reference, we’ll call this parent Hillary. Unbeknown to almost everyone at school, she has a PHD in something or other and teaches critical thinking at university. I found this out when we introduced ourselves and she asked what I do for a living. I told her an abbreviated version of my story about coming to Australia to join His Royal Highness, armed with an Australian degree, then discovering – to my almighty consternation – that I couldn’t work.
I was barred from working because the visa I held as His Royal Highness’ dependent came with no work rights. He was already a doctor and should have been on a visa that allows dependents to work but because he had embarked on surgical training, was on an occupational trainee visa instead. The then-human resources officer of his hospital, a woman named Leonie, thought it was fitting since His Royal Highness was in training, even though this training involved working as usual for the next 10 years, and the immigration officer who processed the visa concurred with her.
So there I was, at an age when most people enter the workforce, at home hugging my Australian degree while recruitment companies advertised ten or more positions daily commensurate with what I was qualified to do. Notwithstanding how nauseated I become at the sight of balance sheets and profit and loss statements, I was prepared to give it a go. Alas, by the time I secured a visa with work rights, I was living in Wanganui, New Zealand, where almost everyone is a sheep farmer.
For years, I watched classmates who queried me on how to do their undergraduate assignments, complete their MBAs. Smart-aleky younger cousins who’d struggled through school were now job-hopping all over the world, with others who look up to them claiming they always had the goods when I remember otherwise. But perhaps most difficult to bear witness to was His Royal Highness’ progress in his career. On one hand I was cheering him on like that boy in Free Willy who fervently wishes for his whale friend to reach the ocean. On the other, every time he took a step forward, I was forced to recall how many steps I had taken back.
Hillary could relate to this, in so far that in her marriage, she was my husband and her husband was me. I am unaware of how her husband came to be a stay-at-home-dad, but she said he’d expressed all my frustrations about being the lesser of the two in a seemingly dynamic duo.
“But do you know what makes it worse? Hearing that patients refuse to be treated by your spouse because they expect their doctor to be white,” I said. “They question your ability.” Some of His Royal Highness’ Asian colleagues have said the same. One told an unreasonable patient, “You can either let me treat you or you can go home.”
I dare say that if Ye Shiwen had swum for Australia or the United States, her achievements in the pool would have been applauded by the critics, most of whom are from the west. What makes them think that in a country with 1.3 billion people, a person of her calibre can’t be found? Australia only has 22 million plus people yet they’ve produced swim stars by the truckload. By levelling unfounded accusations of doping at Ye Shiwen, are they saying that Asians can’t excel at sport or that we can only beat whites by cheating?
“You have to understand,” Hillary said. “All our doctors used to be white.”
“Times have changed. You wouldn’t have us living and working in Australia if the government didn’t see a need for our presence. Would you rather the country have inadequate skilled people to power the economy and cater to the needs of society or would you prefer to elevate unskilled people to professional positions to fill the gaps?”
“But how would you feel if these people you’d welcomed into your country were doing a lot better than you? If their children were taking the places of your children in top schools?”
“If we do well, its only because we work extremely hard. Most of us have had to learn another language and adapt to ways and customs that are far removed from what we’re used to. We’ve left our families, our friends, whole worlds behind, in order to make a go of living here. And while your kids are out having free time after school, ours are doing homework, attending extra tuition or going through workbooks. On weekends, ours are playing the piano or attending lessons in our mother tongues. If you say a kid should get into a school just because his or her grandparents were in this country first – bearing in mind we’re all migrants – then you might as well say that only the rich should inherit the earth for yours is just as ridiculous a premise for privilege.”
Hillary responded by saying that she’d love to have a coffee with me to further our conversation. Until today, some months later, we still haven’t had one.