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Dialogue: We can learn a great deal from our Asian migrants

By MANYING IP*

Immigrants from China and India were among this country's earliest pioneers, opening up many mining and rural communities, working side by side with Maori, and servicing mainstream New Zealanders for more than 150 years.

Yet many still mentally regard them as intruders rather than fellow citizens. How else could offensive phrases such as "Asian invasion" gain such wide circulation in the 1990s?

The crucial blinker to New Zealand's vision towards Asia is not geographical or historical (that is, how long the Asians have been in New Zealand) but attitudinal.

Asian people have been playing a positive role, particularly in the past couple of decades. I am not referring to the stereotypical model minority folklore, although it is a fact that local-born Chinese New Zealanders are high achievers, law-abiding citizens and hard-working. Nor am I referring to the investment dollars brought here by the more recent Asian arrivals.

Instead, there are the positive but less measurable impacts that Asian citizens have made as a group.

The Asian communities have given New Zealand a taste of what a vibrant and multicultural society could be like. That means more than sushi bars and noodle houses. Asians are giving mainstream New Zealand advanced exposure to what our part of the world is really like - a world that we shut out for more than 150 years when we deliberately turned our back to our own geographical region and looked to "mother England".

The new migrants, with their diverse skills and outlook, are also harbingers of the dynamic success stories of Asia, a part of the world which New Zealand knew so little about.

New Zealand used to think in one way, the monocultural European way. We remained content to be Britain's backyard farm for more than a century. Right up to the early 1980s we were trapped in our Eurocentric mindset, even though it became obvious that we were heading down a blind alley as a nation.

Today, the new Asian migrants have not yet worked the economic wonders that some optimists hoped for, but they do offer a third model (besides the European and Maori) for New Zealand.

Today, the role that many of the Asian migrants will play are as transnationals, furthering New Zealand linkages with their country of origin using their considerable business acumen.

Trade has to be export-led. New Zealand has been overdependent on primary produce, and our Asian neighbours, who excel in servicing primary products, are our obvious partners.

No matter whether it be value-added production of manufacturing particle boards for export to Malaysia, or the intensive cultivation of wasabi plants in clear stream water for export to Japan, or the establishment of a harvesting, refining, and retailing network for deer velvet marketing between New Zealand, Singapore, and Korea, the new Asian migrants have demonstrated their considerable ingenuity and alertness to opportunities.

In today's world order, New Zealand is no longer closely tied to Europe economically, nor is the contemporary European model of much relevance.

A paper written by two Treasury researchers compared the situation of New Zealand with that of Finland. By drawing a circle with a radius of 2200km centred on Helsinki, they showed that the circle encompassed 39 nations, with a population of 300 million.

A similar circle centred on Wellington encompassed a vast stretch of ocean and little else besides our own population of 3.8 million. We, therefore, have to depend on our own citizens, as well as our neighbours in the near north.

What has often been overlooked is the impact of the presence of Asian citizens in our society. It is probably most noticeable in schools and tertiary institutions, among our young people. No longer is there such a fear to excel.

Remember how it was almost embarrassing to do too well academically, that it was a shameful thing to be too brainy or a tall poppy?

It is no longer so, thanks to the Asian work ethic and the belief that being successful does not necessarily mean that you have ripped somebody off, but it is more likely the result of your ability, diligence and brainpower.

New Zealanders are now noticeably less apologetic about doing well and getting ahead.

Besides infusing new values and attitudes, the Asian citizens are also forcing mainstream New Zealanders to confront the reality that our part of the world is not exclusively white, but a country of an increasing mix of colours.

In the rest of the world, especially the part where we are situated, the whiteness has been fading fast. Burying our heads in the sand or wishing the clock back will not help us.

The world is not going to wait for us to change our outlook. If we refuse to come to terms with our environment, we are only excluding ourselves from opportunities. We either get on the train on time or miss out.

If we still needed a jolt to awaken us from the European dream, it came with the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

New Zealand is in the Pacific hemisphere dominated by China and other Asian nations, which remains relatively unaffected by the social disruption and economic downturn that struck the US and its Western allies.

No one knows for how long the economic powerhouse of the world will be put off its stride. Meanwhile, China and East Asia will continue steadily to move forward.

The new Asians in our presence will give us a sample of how things are done in Asia. Recently, New Zealand has embarked upon the knowledge wave. Experts are busily working out new paradigms to propel the country forward.

Asian philosophies have underpinned the development of eastern societies for centuries. There were imperfections, but there are also many proven success stories.

The Asian model gives us the close-knit families, the harmonious relationship between generations, and the respect for public good over small-group interests (the hallmarks of Confucianism) as well as the gentle tolerance and acceptance of differences and the shying away from extremist doctrines and drastic measures (the hallmarks of Daoism and Buddhism).

These philosophies have given Eastern societies sustained prosperity, characterised by high saving rates, a social culture that is pro-business and welcoming to foreign investments and a labour force that is well-educated as well as highly disciplined.

* Manying Ip, who lectures in Asian languages and literatures at the University of Auckland, was addressing the Asia 2000 Foundation.

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