Images by Ash Gowan
A month after I moved to Australia, when I was on the tram in Melbourne, a man in his early 20s hurled a racial slur at me and told me to go back to where I came from. Australia, he said, was “full,” then cackled with satisfaction. Having grown up as a biracial woman of Okinawan and European descent in Hawai‘i, I was accustomed to my background being normalized, even privileged. This was my first experience of outright racial abuse. I had no clever retort, no scathing comeback. I just sat there, stunned, my heart beating in my throat.
In the two years since, this memory has lingered. As Donald Trump gained power in my home country across the Pacific, the One Nation Party, a far-right relic from the 1980s, clawed its way back into Australia’s political scene. Though One Nation holds the support of only 10 percent of Australian voters, the party’s racialized discourse foments xenophobia, contributing to a creeping feeling that if you don’t look or speak a certain way, you are not wanted in Australia.
But despite One Nation’s inflammatory politics, nearly one-third of Australians were born overseas, and Aussie culture, if there is such a singular thing, is far more than beach-blonde surfers throwing “shrimp on the barbie.” (Australians, it turns out, don’t customarily use the word “shrimp,” preferring “prawn” instead.) So, when my second visit to Sydney coincided with a weekend-long storm, I decide to postpone trips to the beach and the Opera House, and instead seek the diversity of Sydney’s suburbs.
On my first morning in the city, I board a train headed west. Each stop brings a new wave of people that embark, and slowly, the scenes outside my window begin to change. Skyscrapers give way to new-build apartment blocks, which give way to single family homes and small fish-and-chip shops. Eventually, the train pulls up to Cabramatta, home to Australia’s largest Vietnamese community.
Cabramatta sits well within the bounds of Sydney’s sprawling suburbs, but it feels like a different world. Outside the train station, on the footpath leading to the central markets, elderly men and women sit on milk crates, selling bitter melon, water spinach, and choy sum from their gardens. I buy xôi from an old woman with withered hands and carefully unwrap its banana leaf covering to reveal a sticky rice cake sweetened with steamed banana.
Inside the market buildings, stalls are packed with produce, seafood, dry goods, and bootleg DVDs. The unmistakable rhythm of commerce pulses—merchants herald their wares, customers haggle over prices in a cacophony of Vietnamese, Thai, and Lao. Almost none of it happens in English. In Cabramatta, nearly 70 percent of residents were born outside of Australia, and only 20 percent of households speak English at home.
Vietnamese refugees began to settle in this suburb in the 1980s, just a decade after the official end of the White Australia Policy, which restricted immigration of non-white people. At first, the public was sympathetic to the plight of refugees escaping Communist Vietnam. But in the early ’90s, racism toward Asians began to intensify, as changing demographics transformed neighborhoods like Cabramatta into ethnic enclaves that challenged the dominance of Anglo-Australian culture. Such aversive attitudes were deepened by news of a growing heroin epidemic and organized crime networks in the area.
Pauline Lee Hanson, a first-time political candidate with a track record of outspoken hatred toward Aboriginal people, jumped on the opportunity to harness these attitudes in service of her anti-multiculturalism agenda. In a now familiar act of alchemy, Hanson, who went on to found the One Nation Party, transmuted the racial anxiety of the white working class into political momentum by railing against Aboriginal land rights and Asian migration. “I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians,” Hanson said in her maiden address to Parliament in 1996. Her policies would explicitly advocate for an end to Asian immigration and the abolition of multiculturalism.
But hard times in Cabramatta were answered with equally hard work, and many refugees became councilmembers and politicians, securing the social services and resources needed to lift up their communities. Gradually, the Southeast Asian community planted roots in Australia, and the hysteria surrounding Asian communities dissolved. One Nation lost its footing in national politics, and for two decades, most of the country came to see the party as an unfortunate political accident.
After browsing market stalls, I make my way into the main food court and order a steaming bowl of bún bò Huế. Beads of red chili oil swim through the broth. Beside me, two second-generation Vietnamese teens work their way through heaping plates of food from the Thai stall nearby, and two white women from the nearby salon sit with their heads wrapped in plastic wrap, slurping down phó while waiting for their hair color to set.
Six miles from here, and only 10 miles from Sydney’s center, lies Auburn. Like that of Cabramatta, most of this suburb’s population was also born overseas. Here, Nepalese grocery stores sit beside lively kebab shops, Chinese restaurants, and bubble drink stands. But out of Auburn’s familiar landscape rises a wide blue dome adorned with stained glass and flanked by two towering minarets. This is the Auburn Gallipoli Mosque, built lovingly by the Turkish community in the image of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque. It draws more than 1,500 people each Friday for jumu’ah, or Friday prayers. In its early years, nearly all of the mosque’s congregation was Turkish, but today, as a result of new waves of migration from the Middle East and Africa, around half come from other diverse Muslim backgrounds.
The mosque makes Auburn especially important to the Muslim community, and it has been integral to managing relations in a time of increasing Islamophobia: Here, daily tours are offered to anyone interested in learning more about Islam. When I arrive for a visit, the grounds inside are quiet, save for the gentle sounds of padded footsteps on the cool marble floors.
Ergun, my guide, was born in Turkey but moved to Australia as a teenager. Speaking with a distinctly Aussie twang, he talks about the history of the mosque before inviting me into the prayer room. As he flips through the pages of a Quran and explains the basic tenants of Islam, the sun shines through the stained-glass windows, casting shards of light across the carpeted floor. “Ask me anything,” Ergun says after a few minutes. “Maybe you wonder about everything that is happening in the media?” There is silence, because though it is difficult to admit, that is precisely why most visitors come here. “We know that we are not the most loved people in Australia, especially because of people like Pauline Hanson,” he says.
In 2016, at the peak of the global refugee crisis, Hanson launched her campaign for a Senate seat, this time pursuing an ideological attack on Islam. She made her way into Parliament with 10 percent of the vote, and brought three One Nation candidates with her. In March of 2017, not to be outdone by Trump’s ban on travel to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries, she called for a complete ban on the practice of Islam in Australia. Though the call went unanswered, One Nation’s renewed presence in Australia has skewed public discourse toward the hyper-nationalist sentiments that make life especially hard for communities of color.
Despite this, Ergun says that requests for tours have increased drastically in recent years. And the tours continue, despite the threatening calls that the mosque receives each time an attack occurs anywhere in the world. “We have lots of school groups and church groups, and people who just feel that the media is not telling them the whole story and want to learn more about who we are,” Ergun says, hopefully.
As the mosque’s call to prayer begins, I walk upstairs to where the women pray. A mother and her young daughter settle into a corner, and I look on as they kneel and slowly lower their heads to the floor in prostration. From my perch on the balcony, I also see a row of men and young boys below, doing the same. The imam calls out prayers, the echo of his voice dancing across the vaulted ceiling. In between verses, the reverential silence moves me to tears.
On my last afternoon in Sydney, the sun comes out from behind the clouds for the first time in days. I walk through Haymarket, home to a bustling Chinatown, and Surry Hills, a hipster haven where the food is organic and the single-source coffee flows like wine. Then, I hop on a bus to the beach.
Along the coastline from Bondi to Coogee, rugged sea cliffs give way to sandy beaches, and everywhere, there are people walking, running, sunbathing, surfing. A crowd gathers to watch skaters carve lines across the bowl at the Bondi skate park. Surfers clamber over rocks to join the lineup at Tamarama Beach. Children brace themselves to withstand the waves breaking on the walls of the Bronte Beach rock pool. The scenes are quintessentially Sydney, but no more so than those in suburbs like Cabramatta or Auburn, areas where Hanson has claimed that “real” Aussies are made to feel foreign. Despite her protests, Australia has many faces, each as authentic as the next.
Walking along the coast, I stop to sit on a grassy bluff perched above Bondi Beach. Everywhere I look,
there is activity. And yet, even with all the life being lived here, there is still so much more to Sydney, so much more to Australia, if you look beyond the beach.