Nguyen Van Tuan
When I was interviewed for a Senior Scholar position at Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) over a decade ago, a council member asked: “You are the lead author of several scientific papers, but were you truly the leader of that research team?”
All of the council members were white. My application failed.
Another interview a while after set me up with a different board, but the question was familiar.
“You have many scientific papers where you were credited as the last author, so did you actually contribute to it? Or did someone else do that for you?”
This time I passed and became the first Asian to be a senior member of the NHMRC. But the funny thing is, after I got to interview potential candidates as part of the council myself, I never heard such questions asked of my white colleagues.
Geographical and racial biases aren’t always obvious and come in different forms. It would take some sensitivity to sniff them out in, say, a meeting with multiple parties of native Australians and Asian immigrants.
A white American professor may compliment his Vietnamese colleague on how well they speak and write English. For some, that is discriminatory: why should one’s English skills be any lesser just because they’re Asian? Or when you’re at an international conference and see how an Asian scientist’s questions are met with lukewarm responses or even ignored outright. That’s discrimination, too.
In a social experiment a while ago, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania forged e-mails and sent them to 6,548 professors at 259 U.S. universities, pretending to be applicants for their PhD programs. While the profiles are almost the same, there was one key distinction: their names. Some had names like Steven Smith and others with European and American roots; and others had names that were African or Asian, like Chi-Chiu Wang.
The experiment showed that applicants with more European or American-sounding names were much more likely to secure an interview than those with names apparently from racial minorities by a ratio of 87:62 percent.
European and American male applicants are 29 percent more likely to get interviews at universities than female applicants with Chinese or Indian family names. Such biases can also be found in Australia, where applicants with an English family name are likely to have a better shot at landing a job offer than their peers with Asian family names.
Anti-Asian racism in Australia is partly a legacy of the White Australia policy implemented in the early 20th century. While generations of Australians have tried to shed it, striving to make the country a more equal place for all, racism is very much alive and kicking in the country. It can be experienced on a daily basis, at schools, workplaces and outside on the streets, even after third-generation Asians are already a part of local society.
To this day, there are certain people who do not think highly of Asians and are also resentful because they believe these “model citizens” are taking away all their jobs.
Michael Daley, then the Leader of the Labor Party in New South Wales, said at a Blue Mountains electorate session in 2019: “Our young children will flee and who are they being replaced with? They are being replaced by young people from Asia, typically with PhDs.”
Those with Masters and doctorate degrees only account for 1.8 percent of Australia’s population. But among Australia’s Asian community, they account for 10 percent, or more than five times the national average. Daley forgot that few natives choose to pursue a PhD degree, while many from Asian countries do so. In fact, so many pursue doctorate degrees that there are not enough guides for all of them.
Demonstrators at the ‘Stop Asian Hate March and Rally’ in Koreatown on March 27, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by AFP.
As human beings, we expect that our governments, especially those in developed nations, have more altruistic and practical ways to stop the irrational abuse of people with Asian descent, both mentally and physically.
But from my own experience as a Vietnamese who immigrated to Australia, our people in European countries and America also need to change to adapt and establish our own personal values.
Vietnamese often lack what I call socio-cultural wisdom, which is a vital aspect of Western societies. This lack is what results in many Asians being treated like second-class citizens. Some say they feel like a fish out of water, unable to blend themselves into the “native tribes.”
I often tell my Vietnamese students that to be treated equally, they would need to work twice as hard.
We Vietnamese, like many of our Asian peers, tend to be humble and shy. It shows in our reticence in classrooms and meetings, where we are reluctant to ask questions and express our opinions. When I ask my interns why they didn’t say anything during meetings, they usually say they had nothing more to contribute, or that someone had already said it first. This non-assertive attitude can prove to be their downfall, showing colleagues they are not intellectual leaders. Instead of waiting for their turn, they should make the first move, I tell them.
Then there’s the language barrier, an obvious roadblock for many of us. Communication skills can be limited even for those who are considered fluent in English, because it isn’t just words and conversations, but also ideas, reasoning and personal styles.
Expressing one’s opinion can be considered the most important skill to establish competency and leadership. Many Asians, despite having stellar knowledge in the fields they’re in, lack coherence, persuasiveness and conviction, giving their words less weight than they deserve.
“When in Rome, do as Romans do,” we keep hearing. To survive and thrive in new and different environments outside our home country, Vietnamese need to work on their socio-cultural knowledge base to adapt themselves, sense hidden biases and, most importantly, squash them on sight.
If we don’t decide which class we belong in, others will keep making the decision for us.
*Nguyen Van Tuan is head of the Genetics and Epidemiology of Osteoporosis Lab (Bone Biology Division) of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research. He’s also a professor at several Australian universities. The opinions expressed are his own.