Beyond the dumplings and Asian festivals

It was a typical hot summer’s day in Melbourne and a middle-aged South Korean man had just packed up a stall, finishing his volunteer work at one of the city’s many popular community events. He was an inconspicuous man who was quiet and whose English was poor, so no one took much notice of him. Those who volunteered with him though knew him to be a committed and regular volunteer but they wouldn’t have been able to tell you much else.

Geoff*, a man of Chinese-Australian heritage, offered to drive him home after the event. During their drive the South Korean man spoke, in English, about his story. As he spoke, Geoff was amazed the man had led a colourful life as a former South Korean colonel and had also been responsible for the implementation of the security system in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. He was obviously a very interesting and capable man with a myriad of skills on offer, however due to his poor English no one else had taken the time to find out more.

This story is just a glimpse of the thousands of examples in the Asian communities. One might think these are just the exceptions, but the truth is -- it's not! After all, it was only recently that Chinese Australian real estate mogul Hui Wing Mau was revealed as one of Australia’s wealthiest people, landing at sixth spot on the BRW Rich List 2014.

Australia's multiculturalism needs to move beyond eating the odd goat vindaloo, pad Thai, dumplings and mango puddings, or occasionally enjoying taiko drumming classes, Chinese New Year festival, k-pop competitions or participating in “buka puasa” (Indonesian iftar).

There is clearly a missing link between the Asian-Australian diaspora and the value they bring to Australia, especially to international affairs -- trade, diplomacy and cultural exchange.

This year the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in its strategy have started to recognise the importance of “diaspora diplomacy”. There are reasons to be optimistic, but I am not. I have attended (or participated in) too many consultation sessions to know the government and businesses alike only see the Asian communities as a consultative body rather than respecting them for their unique insights, networks and skills.

So why is having Asian-Australians in decision-making roles so important for Australia?

It wasn't too long ago that Ansett had to change its Chinese name because it translated to “rest in peace”, becoming the laughing stock of aviation worldwide. It is not rocket science to see the problem of having a name “rest in peace” for an airline. The problem would have been rectified if at least one of their senior executives was Chinese before marketing commenced. It is comforting to think that many companies have improved in the past decade, but the reality is many others still make the same mistakes.

In other cases, businesses or government bodies 'consult' the Asian communities after an Asian strategy is made. At the consultation, the community politely tells them the assumptions made in their strategy are wrong, but after the session they proceed with the original strategy because the decision is already made by the board and can only make minor changes on the fringes. The 'consultation' is a complete waste of people's time who kindly contributed their time (often not remunerated) and a waste of money implementing a strategy that is likely to fail. A workable strategy would have been developed if there were Asian-Australians who picked up on the wrong assumptions made in the first place.

Underutilised, but impressive Asian-Australians are living among us. According to the 2011 census data, 12.9 per cent of Chinese-born people in Victoria have a postgraduate degree and 24.5 per cent have a bachelor degree. This is compared to only 3.9 per cent overall of Victorians who have a postgraduate degree and 12 per cent with a bachelor degree. The story is the similar for those born in other Asian countries such as India, Japan, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia.

If Australia wants a place in Asia, the government and businesses need to move very quickly to engage the local Asian-Australian communities beyond foods and festivals. They need to start respecting their skills, contacts and networks they bring with them by embedding them into key decision making roles and start to increase the number of executives of Asian heritage in their companies.

*name has been changed

Wesa Chau is the director of Cultural Intelligence and was the 2012 inductee to the Victorian Women Honour Roll.