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Asian label masks migrant diversity

May 17th, 2010 | By | Category: Diversity, Front Page Layout, Latest News, News

KIWIS may have recognised the regular growth in the country’s Asian population but have yet to truly understand its diversity, says Dr Andrew Butcher of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

asianpop graphStatistics continue to show New Zealand’s Asian population will be the fastest growing ethnic group over the next 16 years.

Dr Butcher, the foundation’s director of policy and research, believes the real challenge lies in forecasting the growing diversity within the Asian community.

More people coming from Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam, for example, present different challenges, he says.

“We must be careful not to assume all Asians are the same homogenous group”, says Dr Butcher.

“Even within the Chinese community there is considerable diversity – they don’t all speak the same, or think the same.”

Government statistics released last month estimate Asian numbers will increase 3.4 per cent each year, by far the highest compared to European/other (0.4%), Maori (1.3%) and Pacific (2.4%).

The Asian population is projected to reach 790,000 by 2026, an increase of 390,000 (or 97.5%) from 2006, confirming previous trends.

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KIWI CAMBODIAN: Eng Sam feels accepted in the Wellington community.

Dr Butcher says while these numbers may look high, they are not as high as the increases seen in the last 20 years where actual growth outstripped projected growth for the next 20 years.

He says the projections are based on reasonably easy predictions of known birth and life expectancy trends, but less easy to predict is the migration trend which can be affected overnight by a change in government policy.

These trends make it easy to lump many nationalities under the one term “Asian”, as a group that would eventually overtake Maori in number, but Dr Butcher urges Kiwis to recognise the diversity.

Eng Sam from Cambodia is a good example of the increasing diversity Dr Butcher highlights.

Mr Sam says while he is happy to call Wellington home, he will always be Cambodian, it’s who he is.

Mr Sam (47) came to New Zealand five years ago with his family to escape the instability of his native country.

He has always lived in Wellington and says it is safe place to live – just colder and windier than his former home.

Learning the language has been the main challenge for him, and the long hours spent working in the family-run bakery makes it difficult for him to meet more people in the community, he says.

Mr Sam says learning to speak and understand every day expressions with a voluntary English tutor from the English Language Partners  programme, has helped him to feel more confident.

Dr Butcher says all New Zealand cities will be affected by the increase in ethnic communities.

With a younger, growing Asian community, the main impact will inevitably be seen in the workforce and in the schools where the need for Asian language and Asian studies will be greater, he says.

He says historically, Wellington has one of the oldest, established Asian communities in New Zealand and many people of Indian and Chinese ethnic origin are now fourth or fifth generation – older than many Europeans. 

A survey on the Asia New Zealand Foundation website says 80% of New Zealanders believe Asia is important to the country’s future.

The Foundation was established 15 years ago to help New Zealander’s and New Zealand businesses engage with the Asian community here and overseas.

“But we should not forget the informal encounters through the workplace, in shops, at school and in the community”, says Dr Butcher.

“Increasingly that’s going to be the case and you have to figure out a way of communicating.”

“It’s not rocket science, the more interaction people have with Asians the better the perception they have of them.”

Where are Wellington’s Asian leaders?

The lack of Asian leadership in local government was highlighted at last week’s Ethnic Forum staged by Wellington City Council at Te Papa.

Delegates were told that diversity around the council table was important to reflect the diversity of the city by Wellington City Councillor Ian McKinnon.

Members from the ethnic communities were encouraged to run for the local authority elections in October, and workshops from Mid-July were planned to help prospective candidates understand the process.

Wellington City Councillor, Ngaire Best, says the council is acutely aware of the demographic shifts already happening within the city, and a number of community planning projects have been undertaken to ensure decision making is representative of the entire community.

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CELEBRATING DIVERSITY: The SEAsian Night market held earlier this year. (Photo supplied: AsiaNZ)

She says recent focus groups undertaken in Churton Park included three Asian language groups to assess all the needs and issues for community facilities is a prime example.

Councillor Best says the council’s commitment to ethnic diversity and community acceptance is demonstrated by the full time employment of an Ethnic Communities Advisor to liaise between the ethnic communities and council departments.

Speakers from various ethnic communities who spoke at the Ethnic Forum listed the challenges they faced living and working in the city.

Language barriers, communication of essential information within their own communities and having their overseas qualifications recognised were key issues for them.

It was also important to preserve their culture, saying experience showed people assimilate better when they keep their cultural identity.

However, they felt attitudes to ethnic diversity in Wellington was good and were happy to call the city their home.

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  1. Rather than splitting the groups up smaller and smaller, I think we should think bigger! Everytime I fill in an official form asking what ethnic group I belong to, I answer “Human Being”.

    Does it really matter to anyone where my parents were born? “Earth” should be enough, surely.

    – Jack M.

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