News and views of Bangladeshi community in Australia

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Evolving face of Australia
M. Adil Khan

M. Adil Khan

My lived life in Australia (in Brisbane) can be divided into three parts – an international student (1977-1981); a working immigrant/citizen (1988-1996) and finally, (2009 -) a settled retiree. I first came to Australia on a Colombo Plan Scholarship in 1977. I came to undertake post-graduate studies in development and planning at the Department of Anthropology and Sociology (currently, School of Social Science), the University of Queensland (UQ), Brisbane.

I vividly remember my first day in Brisbane. I landed at the Brisbane airport on a hot summer afternoon in February in 1977. I had no idea what to expect though I had in me the image of Brisbane as a typical modern western city with big buildings and flashy shopping malls. There were none in those days. My first shock was the Brisbane airport – during those days it was a Second World War vintage tin shed, a far cry from Heathrow or other western airports that I have had the images of, through magazines and Hollywood movies. As a matter of fact, by comparison, the Dhaka international airport, the one that I had departed from couple of days ago which had just shifted to its newly constructed current location, appeared immensely more modern than the one I had just stepped on – the Brisbane Airport!

Engaging with Australia

After going through the lengthy and not so pleasant immigration process, we (there was one other Bangladeshi with me - Mr. M. M. Reza, then a Deputy Secretary and currently a retired Secretary) finally got out of the unfriendly part of the airport. We were greeted by someone from AIDAB - the Australian government aid agency. The AIDAB gentleman drove us to a university accommodation called King’s College. This was our first cultural education in Australia. We learnt that in Australia student hostels are called colleges. After putting us into our respective rooms, our AIDAB minder gave us a tour of different facilities at the college. It was well past lunch time. Our minder told us that the next meal – the “Tea” (another cultural education – dinner is called “Tea”) would be at 5:30 PM. At the “Tea” which was our first encounter with the Australian gastronomical creation, we were given each a hunk of half-cooked piece of tasteless meat. Something that would repeat many times during our stay at the College. Indeed, meals at the King’s College were a challenge, but we, the two brave and resilient Bangladeshis survived.

The world outside the college was not particularly enchanting either. At nightfall, entire suburb, St. Lucia, where King’s College is located, would descend into pitched darkness with no sign of life anywhere. Those days Brisbane, a predominantly country town was a real backwater of Australia so much so that some dwellings had their toilets outside the main house. There were not many ethnic eateries and not a single Indian restaurant where we could occasionally visit and fulfil our native gastronomical aspirations.

In fact, Brisbane was so devoid of anything ethnic that wherever we went, we stood out. More importantly, every time we opened our mouths and spoke, people used to be shocked that us ethnics “speak such fluent English”. Understandably they also failed to realize that we ourselves were shocked enough hearing them speaking a language that sounded like English but not exactly English. For example, try and convince an Englishman that ‘fairdinkum’ is an English expression that means a good person or “tucker” is food.

At the University, there were not too many “ethnic” students either. However here we were treated kindly, which at times felt patronising. For example, the Secretaries at the Department – lovely ladies, would often ask us whether we were having cultural shocks. These kindly secretaries who probably meant well, may have thought that before coming to Australia we might have lived in trees (as some primitive indigenous people of Malaysia apparently did). We did find Australia confronting but for different reasons, say for example, 99% of Australians did not know nothing about Bangladesh. After a while these kinds of patronising questions regarding “cultural shock” got to my nerves and one day I commented, “So far, I have been experiencing many shocks, yet to see the culture!” I was never asked this question again.

Another thing I was warned of, before I came to Australia, was that Australians are racists and that Queenslanders are the worst. Frankly, apart from occasional silly puns, I personally never experienced any racism during my entire lived life in Brisbane. This may have to do with the fact that during my student life I spent most of my time within the University and its precincts. Most of the people there were (are) cosmopolitan in outlook and accommodating in behaviour. Similarly, my work life in Brisbane has also been one of collegiality and mutual respect. My social life during my university days in Brisbane was most enjoyable and given that those days I myself used to be quite a social guy and loved partying. I was able to connect easily with a circle of friends who made hedonism their only aspiration in life and included me in their midst with open arms. These guys have remained friends ever since and some of them despite their addiction to hedonism seem to have done well in life.

I found my learning journey at the University of Queensland most rewarding. It is not merely because the faculty were great which no doubt helped but mainly because Australia’s education system was (is) such that it gave me the liberty to think daringly critically and, in the process, helped me to grow and mature intellectually.

Returning to a Different Brisbane

After finishing my studies, I left Brisbane in 1981 and went back to Dhaka and re-joined my previous post in the Bangladesh government.

After re-joining and working for few years with the Bangladesh government, I resigned in 1988 and joined World Bank as a staff consultant. This job, funded by the Australian government, eventually brought me back to Brisbane to work on a regional programme. The programme was eventually placed at a research centre at the very university, the University of Queensland, where I graduated from. I helped establishing the centre and became its founding director. From the centre we implemented numerous research and training activities in the Asia/Pacific region.

In 1997 I resigned from the Centre, joined UN and left Brisbane to work first, in Myanmar, then Sri Lanka and finally at the UN Secretariat, at the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) in New York. I retired from the UN in 2009 and returned to Brisbane, this time to live more permanently. Currently, I hold an adjunct professorship position at the School of Social Science, University of Queensland, Brisbane where I teach and undertake research on development and public policy.

Thus intermittently, I have lived in Brisbane for over three decades. During this period, I have experienced many changes in Brisbane and in Australia and the most important among these, to me at least is this country’s march to multiculturalism. Below I describe my story – my own impression of Australia’s incremental march to multiculturalism and ethnic qualities that are key to ethnic integration into the evolving multicultural Australia.

Australia’s march to multiculturalism

As I lived in Australia intermittently, I have been in a unique position to see how much Australia has changed over the years. In the last decades or so Australia has transformed itself from an insular monocultural to a vibrant multicultural society. In Brisbane, the first hint of change came in 1988, the year I returned to the city for the second time and the year the city hosted its first ever international event – the World Expo ’88.

Expo ’88 was Brisbane’s first serious international engagement; it made the city and Queensland in general markedly more cosmopolitanism. For example, while in 1970s (during my student days) there were no Indian restaurants in Brisbane, post-Expo Brisbane witnessed mushrooming of ethnic eateries including Indian restaurants. There are now hundreds of Indian restaurants, one in almost each suburb and the largest, the Sitar Indian Restaurant which has several branches all over town is owned by a Bangladeshi.

Kids representing Australia’s multiculturalism

While Expo ’88 did its transformative tricks to Brisbane, Australian government took major steps to promote Australia as a multicultural society especially during eighties and nineties – the period of globalization and liberalization. Measures such as equal opportunity employment policies; open immigration; admission of greater number of foreign students, mainly Asians in educational institutions; greater refugees’ intakes from Africa and Middle Eastern countries. Introduction of ethnic languages at the school levels, patronisation of ethnic clubs and societies etc. etc. contributed significantly towards the growth of Australia’s ethnically diverse society. Notwithstanding, Australia’s multicultural identity took time to grow and in fact, still evolving.

Australia’s evolving multicultural identity

Sometime in mid-1990, I was travelling from Tokyo to Sydney. I was then the research director at the University of Queensland. Seated next to me was a lady whose name I have forgotten — let us call her Jane, a journalist and a columnist at the Sydney Morning Herald. As we started to chat, one thing led to another and finally, we got to the subject of multiculturalism and ethnic integration in Australia. I argued that Australia has indeed made progress but not enough to call itself a full-fledged multicultural society yet. In order to prove my point, I shared with Jane a personal encounter of mine that happened a year or two before.

It could be either 1992 or 1993. I was visiting Jakarta, Indonesia as the team leader of an AusAid evaluation team. It so happened that our visit coincided with Australia Day celebrations at the Jakarta Australia Embassy. The Embassy knew of our presence and invited us to the Australia Day reception. At the reception, I got into chatting with a middle-aged woman with a strong English accent – I guess she was English. We would have talked for about 15 minutes, then following exchanges occurred:

Woman: By the way, Mr Khan, what nationality are you?
Me: Australian.
Woman: But you don’t look like an Australian.
Me: I appreciate your confusion; I do admit that I am not dark enough!

She got the message, looked embarrassed, left the conversation and walked away.

After narrating the story, I then turned to Jane, my newfound friend on the Tokyo/Sydney QANTAS flight and told her: “You see Jane, so long I would announce myself as an Australian, people then would look at me and say that I do not look like an Australian, I would infer that Australia’s multiculturalism is not working.” Jane said, “I agree with you but how about I share one of my own personal stories?”

Jane told me that one day her seven-year-old son, Paul, a student at the Sydney Grammar School, asked for a favour from her;
“Mum, you need not pick me up after school this Friday. I shall come back home with a friend of mine. However, another mate of mine called John, whom you haven’t met yet will be waiting to be picked up by you to be brought to our home. You will find him wearing a red cap. John and the other friend would be spending the weekend at our place.”

Accordingly, Jane went to the school, saw John in a red cap, picked him up and brought him home. Kids had a great time together during the weekend. Next day, after dropping John and her son's other friend off at their respective homes, Jane asked her son, “Paul, I just don’t understand. There could have been hundred other kids in that school with a red cap on and I would not have known which one is your John. Why didn’t you simply tell me that John is a black kid?” According to Jane, her son Paul looked confused and said: “Is he?”.

This is the direction Australia’s multiculturalism is taking. Australia’s younger generation cares less and less about colour of the skin of fellow Australians. They judge people by their character though this is not to say that there is no racism in Australia. Like most societies, there are Pauline Hansons in Australia as well, but the good news is that they are in minority and on the run. Contemporary Australia is vastly more diverse, inclusive and tolerant where we members of ethnic communities must play our due roles to earn mutual trust and integrate.

Mainstreaming/integrating with diversities: my perspective

As an immigrant myself may I say that I have done reasonably well in Australia and never felt differently nor was ever discriminated against. The reason for this may be that I never saw myself as an immigrant. Indeed, if we migrants wish to be part of the larger Australian society and flourish, the very first thing we need to do is, not see ourselves as immigrants nor as outsiders. We must see ourselves as Australians, as equals and only then we would feel equal, act equal and be respected and accepted as equal.

Among many things, religion seem to create barriers in integration. True, many of us come from different religious backgrounds to live in a society which is staunchly secular. Thus, many find spiritual incongruities a major obstacle to integration in Australia. Should it be so?

Here may be the answer. Several years ago, I was visiting Ottawa, Canada where I attended the Eidul Fitre congregation. There, during the Khutba, the Imam said something that left a deep impression on me, a message that I believe solved my conundrum regarding religious beliefs and integration in a secular society such as Australia. Let me share - among other things, the Imam said, “Dear, Brothers and Sisters, if you read the Canadian constitution carefully you would find that Canada is guided by three main principles – rule of law, human rights and social justice. These are also the values that the Holy Quran teaches us to follow and be guided by. Therefore, if you wish to be a good Muslim, be a good Canadian.”

Indeed, Australian constitution also rests on these three inalienable principles and these coincide with core values of all religion including Islam. Therefore, let us embrace these values and live in Australia as proud Australians and as proud faith-holders too!!

M. Adil Khan, Brisbane, Australia

The author is an academic and a former senior policy manager of the UN ( This article has incorporated some narratives from a similar article of the author published in Independent Australia. The author can be reached at:

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