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Monday, September 18, 2000
Exactly what is Australia?

 CABRAMATTA, Australia (AP) -- From the outset, it was one of the jewels in Sydney's crown, deployed to entice the 2000 Summer Olympics to Australia: a diverse society where athletes from every nation, every culture, could find a bit of home.

 Probably true. But Olympic athletes also find a country unique in its location and identity -- one that, behind its own sense of self, is at once European, Asian and aboriginal. And one that has debated long and vigorously where it's going and what it should be.

 "People are always asking each other who we are as a nation. It's an Australian indoor sport," says Alison Broinowski, author of "The Yellow Lady: Australian Impressions of Asia."

 Most people, no matter their politics, agree that Australia is changing. A mobile society, cheaper air fares and regional economics are ensuring that, while it may be a large island, it no longer can operate as one.

 That means more contact with neighbors. And although Australia is a member of the Western European grouping in the United Nations and has no real neighborhood of its own, the next town over is Asia -- the very place this nation has long worried will overrun it.

 Australia's Asian population has gone from less than 1 percent to nearly 7 percent in less than three decades. Its main trade partner -- and source of tourists -- is Japan. And the Chinese-speaking population all but outnumbers the indigenous Aborigines.

 "There is increasing acceptance of the proposition that Australia is part of Asia," Australian-born Jason Yet-Sen Li wrote last month in Amida, an Asian culture magazine.

 Much of it is pragmatism. When Asians want to travel outside their region, Australia is the natural alternative. The reverse is true, too, so Australians come home with exposure to -- and a taste for -- things Asian.

 "If you go out for a meal these days, you're more likely to go for a Thai meal than almost anything else," says Stephen Castles, coordinator of the Asia-Pacific Migration Research Network. "People become more familiar with Asian culture, and it becomes less threatening."

 And with immigration that isn't so different from American patterns, they're finding that diversity.

 Everywhere in urban Australia, it seems, lurk chunks of Vietnam, Malaysia, China, Thailand, even Middle Eastern nations. Take a ride out on the Campbelltown line into Sydney's southwestern suburbs and you'll see it.

 You'll see the Arabic-language pizza place next to the Vietnamese diner in Auburn, the China Shipping truck pulled into Future Auto Repairs near Yonnora, the "Australian Chinese and Descendants Aged Hostel" in Canley Vale.

 Nowhere is this more evident than Cabramatta, a bustling, rough community where, the story goes, a hundred languages are spoken. Step off the train and you'll hear a half-dozen of them within five minutes.

 On the main drag, the accountant is named Paul Huy Nguyen, the dentist Wilson Wong and the piano tutor Mai Chi. A Vietnamese man passing the Jip Hong Butchery with his small son greets a passer-by with his adopted nation's vernacular: "Hey, mate."

 "Everyone is coming. It's not just Asia," says Linna Amestica, a Chinese Indonesian who married a Spaniard and is now an Australian. Behind her, in Cabramatta's Jesus Family Centre, Christians of many hues and cultures listen to an English sermon.

 Decades ago, after it was settled by convicts, Australia's people fell into two broad categories -- white (usually of British stock) and aboriginal. Royal subjects would undertake arduous journeys across oceans and arrive, lie back and think of England.

 The so-called "White Australia" policy, which effectively excluded non-European immigration, institutionalized this. But by the end of World War II, many Australians recognized the importance of engaging the region.

 In 1966, the Liberal-Country Party permitted the migration of "distinguished" non-Europeans and, finally, non-native English speakers. By the mid-1970s, "multiculturalism" was the buzzword.

 But when the previous Labor government virtually declared Australia part of Asia, many weren't happy. After the "Asianization" fear spread by Australia's One Nation movement in the late 1990s, a new government, the conservative Liberal Party, pulled back a bit. And the 1997 Asian economic crisis didn't help.

 "People were saying, 'Here are people whose armies are shooting citizens, whose cities lack running water, who have never had a fair election,"' Broinowski says. "Australians were saying, 'We want to be Asianized?"'

 Still, last year, Neville Roach, chairman of the National Multicultural Advisory Council, pronounced Australian multiculturalism "alive and well." And Prime Minister John Howard acknowledged Australia's "very special intersection ... of history, geography and culture."

 It is in that environment that the Olympics convened.

 At Friday's opening ceremony, an entire portion about "arrivals" emphasized recent immigrants. "Our time is just beginning, our race is yet to run," performers sang. "But if you'll take us with you, then we have already won."

 Broinowski is writing a new book -- about Asians' impressions of Australia. This much is certain: She'll always have more people to interview.

 "It was so different when I came. It was a very closed society," says Hong Xiaoming, proprietor of the Australia China Bookshop in Sydney's Chinatown. But now, he says, "if it stays open, we'll keep coming."
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