Monthly Archives: April 2014

Cooking up racial expectations

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Chefs can find it hard to escape cultural stereotypes, writes Ada Lee.

The doorbell rings. You wait at the strangers’ door, not knowing what to expect. When it opens, two small Asians stand timidly before you, their eyes bright with excitement and fear. You might not say it or even think it, but your tastebuds are expecting oriental dishes for dinner tonight.

“Talking to all the other contestants, they all expected, the minute they saw us, that we’d cook Asian food,” says Shannelle Lim, recalling her team’s first round instant restaurant on reality TV show, My Kitchen Rules (MKR).

Advertised as the “Newlyweds”, Shannelle and Uel Lim were the only Asian team on MKR 2014. They represent a small but growing minority of people of colour making their way onto Australian reality TV.

Despite expectations, they cooked Western food in the first two rounds. Both times, they received poor marks. That’s when the “hints” from judges, Pete and Manu, started emerging.

“They kind of said, ‘Cook from your tradition, cook flavour combinations that you’re comfortable with,’ so we kind of thought, you know what – if you really want Asian food that bad, we’ll cook it for you,” Uel says.

I asked them what food they actually are more comfortable with. “Well, now, Asian food,” Shannelle says.

From then on, their Asian cuisines received high praise, taking them as far as the top nine.

Shannelle, 23, was a North Shore private school girl, born and raised in Sydney by Indonesian parents. Uel, 25, was born in Singapore to missionaries and spent half his life in Tasmania and Spain before moving to Western Sydney 10 years ago.

As embodied through their lemongrass soufflé and Uel’s recent photography exhibition, the “Modern Australian” is from a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds.

“We thought we’d be able to break out of the mould and cook a variety of different things but I guess on a whole, even looking back on the journey, our Asian food was received a lot, lot better,” Shannelle says.

Uel agrees. “I think after a while, you’re kind of afraid of cooking anything but Asian food because you’re not sure if they’re going to take it well and Asian food just seems to work.”

This expectation seemed to weigh heaviest upon Shannelle and Uel. No one assumed the Greek twins, Helena and Vikki, would cook Greek food. In fact, when they did, they were sometimes criticised for playing it safe. Similarly, no one ever questioned why the two Caucasian surfer dads, Paul and Blair, often decided to cook Balinese cuisine.

Shannelle and Uel, when asked why they think this was the case, share a long pause. “I don’t know,” Shannelle finally says. “I think the twins, no one really expected them to be the Greek twins that cook Greek food and because of that [lack of] expectation, people were like ‘Why are you always cooking Greek food?’ Because it’s not as blatantly obvious in terms of appearance and things like that maybe.”

Overall though, Shannelle and Uel loved being on the show. When Queensland contestant David asked early on why they weren’t cooking Japanese “Tem-pan-yaki”, they laughed it off. “I didn’t really feel offended by it by any short stint,” Uel says. He seems optimistic about Australia’s multiculturalism. “I think the racism, in Sydney particularly, has been broken down to an extent. Maybe not in the wider Australia but in Sydney particularly, I feel really comfortable calling myself Australian.”

Published in Honi Soit, p. 10, 29 April 2014

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The problem with small town racism

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On the Easter long weekend, I took a trip with my family to a place three hours down the coast from Sydney. The water was crystal blue, the white sands were beautiful and live music filled the town street at night.

But something tainted my escape from the city: small town racism. It wasn’t from everybody, and it wasn’t necessarily vicious, but it was there.

On Saturday night, we were walking back from dinner when six teenagers walked past. The only boy in the group started waving profusely, and with wide eyes said “good morning”. I smiled at them, and my sister replied “good morning?”

It was night time.

It seemed pretty innocent until I heard one of the girls say to the boy: “oh, they speak English!” They then all walked off giggling. Sorry to shatter your small-minded stereotype of Asian people.

I don’t know whether they thought it was wrong or even racist, but it does touch on issues regarding the government’s proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act. The reality is that it can be difficult for the dominant race to identify when something is racist, which is what makes the proposed subsection (3) so problematic.

The subsection states that whether an act is reasonably likely to vilify or intimidate is “to be determined by the standards of an ordinary reasonable member of the Australian community, not by the standards of any particular group within the Australian community. In other words, not by the ethnic group being vilified.

The question is who is the ordinary Australian? If ‘ordinary’ means the norm, and the norm is white people, then we could have a problem, writes Waleed Aly. “Plenty of white people (even ordinary reasonable ones) are good at telling coloured people what they should and shouldn’t find racist, without even the slightest awareness that they might not be in prime position to make that call,” he says.

I don’t think the small town boy’s remarks warrant legal punishment under the Act. Even though I was offended, I think, to an extent, people should have the right to say stupid things. But there must be a limit. The idea that the market will automatically self-correct itself and oppose racists is flawed because it overestimates Australia’s tolerance and underestimates entrenched inequalities within the system.

To me, my coastal weekend experience indicated a deeper entrenched racism that has the potential to manifest into the humiliation, vilification and intimidation of people because of their race. This potential is especially ripe if the standard of racism is to be determined collectively by people who have not experienced it. And I’m not just talking about white Australians. An Asian may struggle to understand how racism affects Aboriginal people. Likewise, a person with a Middle Eastern background may have different experiences to a European.

Most of all, it’s the victim’s voice that matters.

As a person with Malaysian-Chinese heritage that was born and raised in Australia, this is not the first time I’ve been faced with racial slurs. But I must say it hasn’t happened in a while and I wasn’t expecting it. It wasn’t terrifying or extreme. I didn’t fear for my life. But these nuances of the small town frustrated me. It made me wonder for the Chinese kid growing up in a rural school or for the Korean tourists who are mocked behind their backs. It certainly made me realise Australia isn’t the multicultural nirvana that I sometimes think it is.

After that incident, I walked the streets hyper aware that I was one of the only Asians in that town.

This is understandable. The town has a population just over 700 people, and according to local statistics more than 80 per cent of them were born in Australia. Only 0.05 percent of its population were born in China (the only Asian country represented) meaning this small town probably doesn’t encounter Asians very often. When they do, it’s most likely to be international Korean and Indian tourists who dress differently, speak loudly in another language and seem to take up a lot of space during tourism season.

Lack of exposure is a problem in Australia, but it’s no excuse. There comes a point where you cannot blame the small town society that shaped you for the wrongs you commit.

Mostly, what they said made me wonder whether I would have been treated worse if I’d turned out to be one of the Korean tourists. If I don’t speak English well, or I don’t share the same cultural norms as the locals, does that make me more fair game to be mocked? I found myself feeling – not for the first time in my life – that I had to prove that I was a westernised Asian, that I was well-spoken in English, that I had the Aussie accent, that I dressed like an Aussie and that I was from Sydney.

Even growing up, I remember how the few Asians that did appear on TV were usually ridiculed stereotypes, like this guy:

Flynn on Australian Idol was so popular he go invited to sing in the grand finale. But, if we’re being really honest, we weren’t laughing with him. We were laughing at him. Only in hindsight have I realised how depictions like these influenced my perception of my own ethnicity. The message from both the small town teens and Australian Idol was this: Asians are people with funny accents who are oblivious to how silly they look.

The cultural implication that my ethnic roots are inferior or sillier than Western culture is, quite frankly, offensive. The implication that I need to disassociate from my heritage in order to be cool or accepted, I find offensive. When I was a kid, I was more inclined to believe them. Now I know better. Cultural diversity is to be celebrated not mocked, and no one should be made to feel like they are worth less because of their race.

Published in Hijacked, 24 April 2014.

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Modern day thought police

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“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” – George Orwell.

You sit at your dusty desk at the Ministry of Truth, where your job is to alter historical records in favour of the Party. The Ministry is currently implementing a new language called Newspeak where certain words are deleted from the dictionary.

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

Thoughtcrime is the worst crime of all. Wherever you go, Big Brother is watching through telescreens. Wherever you go, there is the irrepressible murmur of political propaganda in the airwaves. The outside world is your enemy. Food is scarce. The torture of dissidents is rife.

Everything is great. Because that is what they tell you and this is all you know.

“The masses never revolt of their own accord, and they never revolt merely because they are oppressed. Indeed, so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware that they are oppressed.”

It sounds like a fictional story because it is. This is the world of George Orwell’s 1984. But it is also harrowingly similar to the world of today’s North Korea.

“I had to be careful of my thoughts because I believed Kim Jong-il could read my mind. Every couple of days someone would disappear. A classmate’s mother was punished in a public execution that I was made to attend. I had no choice – there were spies in the neighbourhood,”writes Yeonmi Park, a young woman who escaped North Korea.

In Nazi Germany, it was the Gestapo. In Orwell’s 1984, it was the thinkpol. And now, the mental and physical repression of the masses in North Korea is nothing short of a modern day thought-policing system. Both the past and the fiction exist in today’s reality.

For the first 15 years of her life, Yeonmi Park grew up in North Korea literally believing Kim Jong-il was an omniscient god. “I never doubted it because I didn’t know anything else. I could not even imagine life outside of the regime.” Earlier this month, she appeared on SBS Insight to share the harrowing reality of the North Korean regime.

“It was like living in hell. There were constant power outages, so everything was dark. There was no transportation – everyone had to walk everywhere. It was very dirty and no one could eat anything.

“It was not the right conditions for human life, but you couldn’t think about it, let alone complain about it. Even though you were suffering, you had to worship the regime every day.”

When her father, a government worker, was accused of doing something wrong, he was sent to prison for three years. The regime’s policy of generational punishment meant that Park’s entire family was exiled from Pyongyang to the countryside near the Chinese border.

The UN Commission has also heard many testimonies indicating there are currently 120,000 political prisoners in North Korea. Many are systematically starved and instructed to burn dead bodies into fertiliser. Mothers are forced to kill babies that are of ‘impure’ blood.

As a teenager, Park fled the dictatorship, crossing a frozen river and a winter desert to get from North Korea to China to Mongolia and finally, to South Korea. After years of brainwashing, it was difficult for her and her mother to let go of their indoctrination.

“I realised that everything I thought was a lie. I had not been a real person – I was created for the regime to work for them. If they ordered us to die, I would’ve died for them,” she writes. It took Park three years to overcome the brainwashing.

“My mother took longer than me. When Kim Jong-il died she couldn’t believe it…she said, ‘he can’t die because he’s not a human, he’s a God!’”

While Park may have escaped, some of her family and many more North Koreans have not been so lucky. In 2014, it seems unfathomable that this could be a reality for anyone. But it is.

Published in Hijacked, 23 April 2014.

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Why journalists make great pets for corrupt governments

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If the detainment of three Al Jazeera English journalists in Egypt has taught us anything, it’s that journalists make great pets for corrupt governments.

For a preview, all you have to do is Google “journalists in cages” and you’ll get plenty of totally non-sickening images of grown men literally caged like animals in a Cairo court room (note: if your search results have been replaced with pictures of your Supreme Ruler, it’s probably because you live in a heavily internet-filtered country like China or North Korea).

The cute cats and exotic birds of the world better watch out – they’ve got some stiff competition and here’s why:

Caging journalists because you believe they have portrayed you badly in the media is a great way to show the international community how un-bad you are.

Since December last year, Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed have been imprisoned in Egypt, accused by the current military government of aiding terrorism and the Muslim Brotherhood by publishing lies.

Egypt has been in political turmoil for the past three years whether it’s been under ousted President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, elected then ousted Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi in 2012-2013 or the current military government who took power in a coup.

There’s no better public relations strategy for restoring your nation’s international reputation than by jailing a few journalists. It’ll be as if the political violence, government retaliation and thousands of deaths never happened.

Like animals, journalists are unable to expressly communicate against any punishment you inflict because your court system is corrupt and refuses to hear any exonerating evidence. That, or you don’t have a court system.

In their fourth hearing in Cairo on Monday March 31, the Al Jazeera journalists denied any connection to the Muslim Brotherhood. “After three hearings, it’s apparent that there’s no case against us. No witness has anything that incriminates us,” Mohamed Fahmy told Agence France-Presse, just before proceedings began.

At the end of the fourth hearing, they were denied bail. Time will tell whether their voices are heard.

Unlike birds, journalists can’t fly so you’re less likely to find yourself in the backyard with flailing arms trying to catch your little sister’s pet budgie journalist that you accidentally let loose.

It has now been around 100 days since the three Al Jazeera English journalists were detained and as of yet, there have been no signs of wing-development.

Journalists eat human food so you don’t have to get your hands dirty with smelly cat food or dead mice.

If you’re lucky, the pet journalist might even go on a hunger strike meaning you can save yourself the effort of cooking. Such is the case with another detained Al Jazeera journalist, Abdullah al-Shami, who has been on a hunger strike for almost 80 of his 240 days in Egyptian prison.

Keeping journalists on a leash rather than letting them run wild means preventing them from airing your dirty laundry

With the latest UN Commission’s findings of North Korea’s atrocities, who would want a journalist cramping their style further by telling the world all their secrets?

If the world heard you’ve been forcing mothers to drown their babies, systematically starving 120,000 political prisoners and getting them to incinerate the dead bodies into fertiliser, the world just wouldn’t get it, ya know? Really, you’re doing everyone a favour. Nobody will feel obligated to do anything if they don’t know about it.

Animal rights abuse is a thing but luckily, human rights abuse isn’t

If anyone ever hurt my dog, I wouldn’t hesitate to go all Legally Blonde 2 on their arse.

Luckily for all the corrupt governments, people don’t care about stuff like free speech and it’s not like there’s a Universal Declaration of Human Rights or anything…

So if you’re the leader of an oppressive, corrupt dictatorship and you happen to be searching for a new pet, look no further than that cute, fluffy journalist. They might need some taming at first, but not to worry! It’s inevitable that they will bow before you O Great and Fearless Leader.

Published in Hijacked, 7 April, 2014.

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A different kind of protest

AYCC-LendLease-GBR-AbbotTraditionally, the stereotype of social justice action portrays angry placard holders shouting slogans of condemnation at institutions. However, an Australian environmental youth organisation has taken a different approach and it has proven successful.

Walk past an Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) campaign and you are likely to find Nemo costumes, flowers being handed out on Valentine’s Day or a summer beach party.

These were the tactics used by around 40 Sydney campaigners and many more across Australia in AYCC’s latest four-month campaign calling on Lend Lease, Australia’s biggest listed property developer, to withdraw funding from the controversial Abbot Point X (AP-X) Terminal expansion on the Great Barrier Reef.

On January 31, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) approved a proposal to dredge three million cubic metres of spoil from the Abbot Point coal terminal in the marine park. The port’s expansion is to make way for the transportation of millions of tonnes of coal from Queensland’s Galilee Basin via rail.

There have been several debates over the environmental impact this project will have. The GBRMPA has pointed to “47 stringent conditions” placed on the project to protect the reef but many environmentalists still fear the dredged sediment of sand, silt and clay will drift and smother corals, hindering coral regeneration.

Underlying AYCC’s fun snap actions was a serious message about protecting the Great Barrier Reef for future generations. Throughout the campaign, AYCC representatives attended Lend Lease’s shareholder meetings and together with petition website, SumOfUs, AYCC collected almost 170,000 signatures from individuals and 36 community groups who expressed concern for the reef’s future.

It worked. On February 26, Lend Lease announced it would withdraw its funding from the AP-X coal port project.

The journey

When AYCC first heard in October last year that Lend Lease agreed to participate in a joint bid with transport provider Aurizon Holdings to fund the AP-X terminal, they were “shocked” because it seemed to contradict Lend Lease’s reputation for sustainability, said Ella Weisbrot, AYCC NSW Co-Coordinator.

Lend Lease’s core principle was stated by Founder, Dick Dusseldorp, in 1973: “Companies must start justifying their worth to society, with greater emphasis placed on environmental and social impact rather than straight economics” (published on Lend Lease’s website).

Considering Lend Lease’s “really good reputation for sustainability”, AYCC decided to give them the benefit of the doubt, targeting shareholders at the Lend Lease AGM with a positive message.

“It’s giving people the opportunity to do the right thing rather than assuming that they’ve already done the wrong thing,” Weisbrot said. “Instead of just getting angry and waving a placard in their face, we had all these positive messages we could take to them and I don’t think it’s surprising that people respond better to positive messaging than to telling them that they’re awful human beings.”

Economic interests

However, not all companies interested in the AP-X coal port are also interested in environmental sustainability. For many, including Lend Lease, commercial interests are highly influential in decision-making.

In a call with analysts, Lend Lease CEO, Stephen McCann, said the withdrawal was partly due to “commercial drivers”. He also pointed to environmental considerations among “other aspects”.

With Rio Tinto pulling out of the AP-X project in 2012 and BHP Billiton pulling out in 2013, the recent withdrawal of Lend Lease has left campaigners optimistic that other companies will consider the project’s lack of economic viability. “There is starting to be this sort of domino effect where companies are looking at the global coal market and looking at the kind of money that would need to be put in to tap this coal in Queensland and saying ‘it’s just not economically viable’,” Weisbrot said.

Though coal prices are dropping, there are further concerns that this will push companies to compensate by extracting higher volumes, according to AYCC’s other NSW Co-Coordinator, Millie Anthony. “It’s like they can see the end point so they’re just going hell for leather in the last 10, 15 years of the industry just trying to make as much money as possible with completely no regard to the impact that’s going to have,” Anthony said.

AYCC looks to the future

The latest success with Lend Lease has boosted AYCC’s enthusiasm to fight for a safe climate future. “Sometimes a situation seems so vast. We’re campaigning against organisations full of power and money,” Weisbrot said. “But when things like this happen, it just shows you that we really do have power as young people and as a movement.”

The AYCC’s newest campaign, Safe Climate Roadmap, has just been launched to call on the government to not go backwards on climate change. Its three government policy goals are: moving away from coal and gas; moving to 100 per cent renewable energy within ten years; and reducing carbon pollution by 40 per cent by 2020.

“That’s what science has told us needs to happen for a safe climate future. There’s no point aiming for anything less because if what we’re trying to do is avoid catastrophic climate change, those are the things we need to do,” Weisbrot said.

For more information, go to: http://www.roadmap.org.au.

Published in the South Sydney Herald, April Issue 2014.

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Staff super funding detention centre contractors

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USyd staff unions have called for investment in detention centre contractors to cease, writes Ada Lee.

Last Wednesday, the University of Sydney branch of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) unanimously passed a motion calling on UniSuper to withdraw its investments in companies linked to asylum seeker detention.

UniSuper are the superannuation fund for the majority of USyd’s 7500 staff. Staff super contributions are part of Australia’s detention supply chain, with UniSuper investing in companies such as Transfield services, Serco and Decmil Group Ltd, who build and operate Australia’s detention centres.

The NTEU’s USyd branch has asked the NTEU to pressure UniSuper to reveal any further connections to the detention network and to withdraw all investment.

Michael Thomson, NTEU USyd branch President, was adamant that UniSuper divest from these companies and that Manus Island be shut down.

“Transfield is playing a role in jailing people who are fleeing poverty and persecution and Transfield is making profits from it. As far as I’m concerned, we want to take as much social action as we can to stop them from doing this,” he said.

In February, Transfield Services entered a $1.22 billion contract with the federal government to operate both the Manus Island and Nauru offshore detention centres. UniSuper also has almost 780,000 shares in Decmil, a mining contractor awarded nearly $200 million worth of government contracts to build and expand the Manus Island detention facilities.

The motion, passed at the NTEU USyd general meeting of 50-80 people, calls mandatory detention “wrong and harmful”, and points to UniSuper’s investment profile as a “major point of influence for the NTEU”.

“A decision by UniSuper not to invest in firms that collaborate with the Australian Government in the mandatory detention regime can make a significant difference to the capacity and willingness of those firms to participate in this abusive regime, as well as the capacity of Government to find commercial partners through which to implement the policy,” the motion stated.

The union branch’s move comes after the Sydney Biennale severed ties with Transfield earlier this month due to pressure from artists pulling out. “We have listened to the artists who are the heart of the Biennale and have decided to end our partnership with Transfield effective immediately,” Biennale organisers said in a statement.

The NTEU has one representative on UniSuper’s board. The campaign is only in its early stages, with Michael Thomson holding discussions with NTEU members across NSW and Australia. As to the sway NTEU holds over UniSuper, Thomson says we will have to wait and see.

Published in Honi Soit, p. 4, 25 March 2014.

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