I’m 10 years old and I’m in school. I grab a Vietnamese spring roll from my friend Tash’s lunch box. My Romanian friend Abi takes one of my curry puffs. I poke my head up and scan the courtyard. I know someone somewhere has some mee goreng and I want to get my hands on some before it runs out.
We celebrate Harmony Day in school. But today is not Harmony Day. It’s just a regular lunchtime at school. And my friends and I are sharing food.
I’m 22 years old and I’m in the office. It’s one of my first jobs. I’m one of three people of colour.
I bring leftover nasi lemak I had for dinner last night as lunch. The smell has begun to drift from the microwave over to the workspace.
“What’s that smell?” someone asks. They can smell the ikan bilis sambal no doubt.
We celebrate Harmony Day in the office. A staff email is sent out. A few of us bring some morning tea. Someone (white) gives a speech.
It’s an entirely forgettable affair.
Moving through two worlds
My primary school was in a low socio-economic area full of kids from different countries and cultures. It was here that I first experienced multicultural Australia.
As I became an adult, it became very obvious that my experience of multicultural Australia in primary school was quite unique.
It was difficult to reconcile this with my experience post-school. When you’re a kid who grew up with multicultural friends and then you’re thrust into a working world where people of colour, migrants, First Nations people are rarely in senior leadership positions, it can be confusing.
The 2021 Census found over seven million people in Australia were born overseas, more than 27 per cent of the population. Almost half of all Australians have at least one parent born abroad.
But research conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2018 found almost 95 per cent of more than 2,400 senior leaders had an Anglo-Celtic or European background.
Those with non-European or Indigenous backgrounds made up only 5 per cent of senior leaders.
For many, Harmony Week has become known as a really joyous celebration of multiculturalism.
But often it feels like a corporate social responsibility rather than an authentic celebration of the cultural diaspora in our society.
The workplace can be harmful for many
It isn’t enough to celebrate multicultural harmony and gloss over the racism Australia has yet to tackle.
Chinese-Australians experienced significant racism and xenophobia during the COVID pandemic.
For me — and a lot of other South-East Asians living in Australia — racism comes in the form of microaggressions in the workplace.
Workplaces that are so quick to celebrate Harmony Week are often the same environments where people of colour need to change their appearance to fit in.
The media continues to portray Asian women as uneducated or sexually submissive, who can only communicate through broken English with strong accents.
I’ve never felt like my Malaysian accent had a space in corporate Australia.
At work, there are times when I have to put on my “white voice”. Once I picked up a phone call from my mother in the office and when I hung up, a colleague told me it was so cool to hear my “Asian voice”.
Can Harmony Week be more than a Band-Aid?
Harmony Week acts as a Band-Aid for these issues. It’s one day for us to eat some food and listen to speeches and then move on.
And I’m often left wondering if we’re doing anything past this to ensure multicultural people are able to live happy, thriving lives. Or if this is just another tokenistic celebration of culture to add to the list?
When I close my eyes, I’m 10 years old again and we’re celebrating Harmony Week at school. I’m wearing my favourite baju kurung. It means I can’t play chasey at lunch, but I don’t mind.
For lunch, the whole school is bringing in cultural food from around the world to share. My mum comes in with tom yum fried noodles for lunch.
When I was in school, Harmony Week was an extension of what we were already celebrating. Multiculturalism was part of our daily life and it was evident in the people we had around us.
Sometimes I think going to this school was a burden, because I assumed the rest of Australia would be like this. But if I stop and really think about it, I feel lucky.
Lucky that I truly got to experience multicultural Australia.
And maybe my experience will help show others what Harmony Week could look like when we’re working to include migrants, people of colour and First Nations people all year long.
Not just for one week.
Emma Ruben is a Malaysian-Australian writer based in Perth. Instagram: @_emmaruben
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