Philip Burdon: Born a Kiwi - still seen as a foreigner

New Zealand citizens of Asian descent remain at risk of being perceived as outsiders, writes Philip Burdon

Recent research shows the more contact non-Asian New Zealanders have with Asian people, the more positive they feel about them. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Recent research shows the more contact non-Asian New Zealanders have with Asian people, the more positive they feel about them. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Earlier this year, Auckland doctor Sudhvir Singh was filling out a customer survey when he came to a section asking his ethnicity.

The first option was "New Zealander of European descent"; the second, "New Zealander of Maori descent". Nine other ethnicity options followed, none accompanied by the word "New Zealander".

Palmerston North-born Dr Singh ignored them all, ticked the "Other" box at the bottom and wrote "New Zealander/Indian".

His experience was hardly an isolated one. More than 150 years have passed since the first Chinese and Indian immigrants arrived in New Zealand. But their descendants are still vulnerable to being seen as outsiders. Many have been asked: "Where did you come from?" or "How long have you been here?"

The results of the 2013 Census show New Zealand's Asian population has climbed to 472,000 people, up from 355,000 people in 2006. Nearly one in eight people identify themselves as being of Asian ethnicity, a proportion that rises to one in five in Auckland.

This is a good occasion to remind ourselves the term "New Zealander" is not exclusive to people of Maori or European heritage. Likewise, the words "Asian" and "foreign" are not interchangeable. The two words continue to be confused, particularly during times of economic or social insecurity. This year has seen considerable heat around Auckland's real estate market, with "Asians" accused of driving up property prices.

Emotive language around such issues has potential to hurt New Zealanders of Asian heritage. As Aucklander Mindy Chan, a New Zealand permanent resident, remarked to the Herald in August, "people see us as foreigners just because we are Asians".

In fact, New Zealand's Asian population is very diverse, made up of New Zealand-born people of Asian heritage, people of mixed ethnicity, those who came to New Zealand as children (often described as the "1.5-generation"), and more recent migrants from all over Asia - and beyond.

Census data shows that of the 307,000 Asian people living in Auckland, more than 64,000 were born in New Zealand. And tens of thousands of Asia-born Aucklanders have been living in New Zealand for 10 years or more.

Every person who decides to settle here embarks on a process of change. These changes and the efforts of immigrants may not always seem obvious to those of us who have been born in New Zealand. It can be easier to notice differences than similarities.

However, research released by the Asia New Zealand Foundation in October bodes well for the future. New Zealanders' Perceptions of Asia and Asian Peoples: 1997-2011 tracked New Zealanders' opinions over 15 years and found that as immigration led to increased contact with Asian people, positive feelings about Asia grew. The more contact non-Asian New Zealanders had with Asian people, the more positive they felt about them.

The survey also found Maori are less likely to support Asian immigration - an issue that deserves more attention as the number of Asians resident in New Zealand is projected to equal Maori in coming decades.

The foundation's research has consistently found most New Zealanders agree Asian people bring a valuable cultural diversity and that they contribute significantly to the economy. Positive perceptions have increased. One reflection of the changing attitudes is the response to South Korea-born golfer Lydia Ko. A decade or two ago, she may have been seen as a foreigner living in New Zealand. Today, she's embraced as a Kiwi.

I return to Sudhvir Singh, a doctor at Middlemore Hospital and one of the leaders of Generation Zero, a group of young New Zealanders working to cut carbon pollution. Dr Singh says it can be frustrating to be seen as somehow "less Kiwi" - but adds he is grateful for the extent to which New Zealand supports multiculturalism. His parents came from South Africa, where their ethnicity meant "the law considered them inferior".

We have much to be proud of as a country but there is ongoing work to be done - particularly for the sake of our children.

Coming up behind Dr Singh and his peers is a growing number of New Zealand children of Asian descent, who are changing the demographic mix in our schools. They should never have to ask themselves if they are really New Zealanders.

- NZ Herald

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