Canberra, Australia. -- Gareth Evans, the foreign minister of Australia, likes to talk about an incident in Jakarta during a regional meeting of Southeast Asian countries a couple of years ago. Looking for a place to read quietly for a few minutes, he opened a door and realized he had interrupted a private meeting of ministers from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand. "I'm so sorry," he said, backing out.
"No, no, come in," one of the ministers said. "Yes," said another. "You're one of us."
He was the only white man in the room. The white Asian is a symbol of what many Australians see as their national future since the country's colonial master, patron and (former) principal trading partner, Great Britain, joined the European Community.
"We are finally coming to grips with the reality of our geography," said Mr. Evans as we talked last week, a day before he flew to Malaysia for another series of regional meetings.
Economic reality, too. That point is made live in Kuala Lumpur, where the two tallest buildings in the world are now under construction, the 1,463-foot-tall Petronas Towers. (More than $5 billion was invested in Malaysia, a country of 19 million people, last year by foreigners -- a total greater than all the investment in all of Eastern Europe during the year.) Australia's two largest trading partners now are Japan and South Korea.
Becoming "Asian" has been a long time coming for a country of white Europeans calling themselves "Anglo-Celtic" who ended up on the wrong side of the globe. Or, perhaps it will never come because of Australia's institutionalized racism for most of its 200-year western history, beginning when England established penal colonies there. A continent as large as the United States, Australia was populated then by a couple of hundred thousand black aborigines, who had never seen anyone who looked different from them until Capt. James Cook sailed into what is now Sydney Harbor in 1770.
Until quite recently, Australia officially discouraged Asian immigration under a program titled "White Australia," recruiting
immigrants from Europe to build up a population that has now reached about 18 million. The country's second city, Melbourne, with a population of more than 3 million, is a city of Greeks, Italians, Portuguese and Yugoslavs, but newer immigrants tend to be from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam.
In Sydney, Asians now account for 9 percent of a population of more than 4 million -- an alarming fact for the many opponents of a brown or yellow Australia.
"Lifestyle" or "quality of life" are the words Australians use now to question the impact of the new immigrants. As in California, there are questions about how long the good life can last with all these strange people around speaking their own languages, eating their own foods and crowding into the colleges. (The strange foods, though, have made Sydney and Melbourne, like Los Angeles, into two of the world's better restaurant cities.)
In a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald on February 7, Peter Field, a reader from a suburb named Strathfield, wrote: "These areas have become Asian villages. . . . I cannot remember ever being asked if I wanted the face of this country changed forever."
A week later, another Strathfield resident, Ron Inglis, took the other side on Asians, saying that he was more worried about the wind from America: "I am not concerned about the ethnic invasion. . . . They are good friends, excellent neighbors and fine citizens. . . . I am far more concerned that my children follow American basketball, eat at McDonald's and have a steady diet of American rubbish on TV."
Foreign Minister Evans put the Australian dilemma into two separate questions: "How do we perceive ourselves? How do we want others to see us?"
Most still tend to see themselves as homogeneous Anglo-Celts, even if Nguyen has become the eighth most common name in the Sydney telephone directory, passing Johnson and Martin this year. But they are trying to get ready to do business with their neighbors -- who are far away by the standards of the Northern Hemisphere. One indicator is that Japanese has just replaced French as the most popular foreign language course in high schools. In the past two years, the number of students learning Asian languages has increased from 35,600 to 107,000.
The British tie has been broken, at least economically. The next step will probably be a political break with the British Commonwealth, and the declaration of a republic with an elected president replacing Queen Elizabeth as official head of state. Then, having said who they are not, Australians will have to deal full time with who they are going to be in the future.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.