Australia, we have a problem when we can’t look ourselves in the mirror

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Image Credit: Girl in the Mirror, artist unknown

I was standing outside Strathfield station when I saw four burly men walk towards me, dressed in Wallabies supporters gear.

“Check out the legs on that thing,” one of them called out. “I love a bit of San Choy Bow.”

Somewhat confused, I turned around and noticed they were talking to a petite lady, possibly of Chinese origin, standing behind me. I turned back to them, but they had disappeared inside the station. Having just returned from spending 6 years living overseas, I was a little shocked to hear such a casual, brazen comment.

What had I missed in the last few years? Was this the norm now?

I took to Twitter and posted two tweets on what I had witnessed.


Instantly, the second tweet was seized upon. In a series of comments that could only ever happen on the internet, I was called an “arrogant wanker”, an ingrate (for what Australia had given me), and told to go back to my “home country” of Cambodia.

Other arguments against my 18-word comment were put forward, including, and I quote:

  • It doesn’t stop Asians wanting to move here en masse. You know what weve (sic) built is superior
  • I think you need to grow a thicker skin then
  • Australia is less racist, xenophobic or misogynistic than most other countries – which is why so many people want to come here.

I should point out that there was a lot of agreement as well, and even some apologising for the comments I’d received.

But overwhelmingly, the loudest voices were those who were shocked that I would even state a problem, and insisted that I therefore wasn’t deserving to live in this great country.

We have a problem when anyone feels like it’s okay to casually refer to a woman as a “thing” and single her out on the basis of her race.

We have a problem when we cannot identify our own country’s deficiencies without overwhelming defensiveness and hate.

We have a problem if we’re so afraid to look in the mirror out of fear of what we might see.

Previous research has shown that people’s receptiveness to something depends less on the message, and more on the messenger who is giving it. In the US, conservatives will believe whatever is said by a fellow conservative and disagree with whatever is said by a liberal, regardless of the content of that message. The same is true if I reverse the words conservative and liberal in that sentence.

Stating the obvious, would my comments have provoked such a reaction if the messenger had a more common name (in Australia) than Weh Yeoh?

To those people who told me to go back to where I came from, I replied that I was born in Carlingford, which is a lovely suburb and wouldn’t exactly constitute punishment to go back to.


As a five year old, outside the family home in Carlingford
As a five year old, outside the family home in Carlingford

But here’s the thing. Yes, I was born in Australia and I love this country. I also love cricket, rugby and drink beer. I can almost recite The Castle word for word.

But I’ve also spent a huge chunk of my adult life living in Asia, and as such I’m fascinated by Chinese etymology and the folklore behind Cambodian city and town names. My favourite wine is Malbec. The one place that I’ve felt most at peace is in the countryside in Mongolia.

Every time I have an opinion about Australia, I shouldn’t need to clarify that I was born in Australia. I shouldn’t have to justify it by saying “it’s okay, I support the Wallabies too, even if at times I wish I didn’t.”

If we’re having a discussion about racism and intolerance, there’s a real problem with only accepting the opinions of those who were born here, or worse still, those with surnames like Jones and Smith. We’re encouraging a reverberating echo chamber.

Coming back to my home country, Australia, has at times been confronting. The online abuse that I received was nothing compared to what the woman at Strathfield station probably receives on a regular basis. It’s nothing compared to what other minorities, including Indigenous people, women, LGBTQI or Muslims must receive.

I recently joined a new gym in Sydney, and the manager, who had only started a week prior, asked me with genuine interest after my first session – “got any feedback on how we can improve?”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we asked new migrants to Australia that question: Got any feedback on how this country can improve? Imagine how much of a better place we could create for ourselves and for others.

Instead, we do the complete opposite. We ask people who have arrived in Australia to fit in with the existing norms. To adapt to the Australian way, and not dare comment on how as a society, we could change for the better. I think this is a missed opportunity.

We have to move beyond a viewpoint that loving Australia is mutually exclusive with identifying its weaknesses. Surely nothing indicates a love of country more than a desire to improve it.

Here’s a challenge we can all take up. Ask one recent arrival in Australia what their impressions of this country are, and how they would improve it. And then, try, in even the most minute way, to realise their vision of a better country.

Imagine a place where we listened to what people said, rather than where they had come from, or the type of surname they had. That’s a country worth aspiring to.

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