In the late 1980s, my parents packed up their life into a few bags and, with a couple of hundred dollars, left everything they knew behind in southern China and Hong Kong to come to Australia.
Back then they crammed into overcrowded share houses in the now-gentrified Melbourne suburbs of Brunswick and Carlton, fitting more than 10 people into three-bedroom homes.
Warning: This story included details of personal experiences with racism and offensive language.
Despite barely understanding English, they worked multiple jobs — at dry cleaners, restaurants, factories and markets — while studying at TAFE.
I was born here and all I can remember is my parents going to work seven days a week, 365 days a year. Their goal? Working hard in the hopes that my brother and I would never have to struggle like they did.
They made the most of the opportunities afforded to them; they had access to healthcare, education, work rights, and migration policies that allowed them to eventually build a home and settle down.
Australia is thousands of kilometres away from the majority of the world. We have beautiful beaches and we live in what political scientists have called the “most successful multicultural society in the world”.
It’s why migrants and their children are often told to be grateful to be here.
The darker side of migration
In high school, I was regularly targeted and picked on because I was one of a few non-caucasian students. I tolerated slurs like “chink” and “slit-eyes” and being asked what “ching-chong-ling-long” means.
I hid away from physical violence by being involved in as many activities as I could, so I would be safe in the schoolyard.
And it didn’t all stop at graduation. In the workplace, a colleague frequently commented on East Asian physical features — despite how uncomfortable it made me.
More recently, as my partner and I were doing our groceries in an Asian supermarket, a Caucasian couple asked us whether people could eat anything in the store, because “everything was dog food”.
For years, I have lived on an unhealthy diet of “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?”, “If you don’t like it here why don’t you leave?”, and “Are you planning on staying in Australia long-term?”
These experiences are part of a bigger story, where racist abuse and violence — particularly towards Asian communities — increased during the pandemic. These attitudes always existed, but were described as insidious and invisible.
It is clear that, despite being born here, some people don’t think I should call Australia home.
Australia’s migration policies have never actually been welcoming
I was born right before Australia — the “most successful multicultural society” in the world — elected Pauline Hanson to federal parliament, where she used her maiden speech to declare: “I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians.”
But even before that, Australian migration policy was never truly welcoming to people who aren’t white. There was the 1855 decision to impose a tax on Chinese migrants entering Victoria. The White Australia Policy made it difficult for non-European migrants to enter Australia from 1901 to the ’70s. And since the 1970s, migrants from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa have continued to face racism.
People from migrant communities, like my parents, have succeeded in the 20th century in spite of the various hoops they had to jump through to call this place home. Many of their peers have toiled away, but not experienced the same success.
But it may be even more difficult now for migrants to achieve what my parents and others have.
My partner — who has lived in Australia for almost a decade, while working and studying for multiple university degrees — still doesn’t know if she’ll be able to live here long term. Many of our friends are in a similar situation.
Migrants can live and work in Australia for decades and still be uncertain about whether they’ll ever be able to make a permanent home. There are some 12,000 asylum seekers in Australia with no permanent rights to work or study, while offshore processing still has bipartisan government support. And a 2021 study found three in four international students were being paid below minimum casual wages by their employers.
Meanwhile, migrants with disabilities or health conditions continue to be denied visas and permanent residency under the Migration Act’s health requirement.
We are wanted for our cheap labour and interesting food, but we are still not fully welcome.
I won’t be grateful while Australia continues to market itself as a welcoming country when in reality our policies tell migrants and refugees that we do not belong.
Finding my community and learning to speak up
To counter the hatred I have experienced, I have found solace in community activism, youth work and advocacy.
It is here that I have connected with other people with similar lived experiences, listened deeply, and learned that I was never alone.
Being in safe spaces where we can talk vulnerably about some of our worst experiences has helped me find my voice.
Along the way, I learned about the brave people who have fought tirelessly for years to make space for us. Like William Ah Ket — Australia’s first lawyer of Chinese descent — who in the early 1900s took on high-profile cases about racism in Australia’s policies and won.
Now I work in the community sector and am determined to make Australia a fairer place for everyone.
My parents’ sacrifice has paid off, but I am not grateful — and I won’t accept being merely tolerated.
We have every right to live and make a home here. We belong.
Thomas Feng 冯子晋 is a writer and photographer based in Naarm/Melbourne. He is passionate about equity for under-represented communities and ending racism and works at the Human Rights Law Centre. Twitter: @ThomasFengAU