Ms Pung joked that it was too late for her to have an abortion. But her husband, who is Anglo-Australian, was deeply disturbed. Her friends urged her to call the police. “I thought: ‘What a waste of public resources,” Ms Pung recalls. “It wasn’t a threat.”
Ms Pung, whose parents survived the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, was not surprised by the overt racism. “The bigger shock to me is not that it happens, but that people don’t believe it happens,” she says.
Eighty-two percent of surveyed Asian Australians have experienced discrimination, according to a study conducted ahead of the first Asian-Australian leadership summit in Melbourne this week.
The study, which was conducted by the Centre for Social Research and Methods at Australian National University, interviewed 2547 people – 765 of whom were Asian Australian – on their experiences of discrimination.
The most common setting for discrimination was at a shop or restaurant.
Sixty-five percent of the Asian-Australians who reported discrimination had the experience in the workplace.
Their responses included being less outspoken at work, less aggressive in their work style and choosing an occupation where discrimination was less likely.
Jason Yat-sen Li, who runs corporate advisory firm Yatsen Associates, recalls a client asking his boss at a law firm if she was sure his English was good enough.
“He recently topped the state in English,” his boss replied. Mr Li, who was born in Australia, says prejudices are not necessarily born out of malice but people making judgements based on appearance.
Asian Australians make up 12 percent of Australia’s population.
But Australian Racial Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan says they are seriously under-represented in senior leadership positions.
“Less than four percent (are in) the most senior roles in our companies, government, universities and community organisations,” Mr Tan says.
In a recent speech – “Breaking the bamboo ceiling” – ANU Chancellor Gareth Evans identified five potential barriers to leadership positions for Asian Australians.
These included racial discrimination, stereotyping, cultural characteristics, “hyper anxiety in some quarters” about Chinese political interference and workplaces that do not value cultural diversity.
The ANU poll identified stereotypes and discrimination as the top two most commonly cited barriers to Asian Australians achieving leadership positions.
“The findings of this survey are a stark illustration of the challenges faced by Asian-Australians in our society – and particularly in the workplace,” Mr Evans says.
Mr Li says discrimination may not be overt. “It may be as simple as you get on with people who are like you and have the same background. You may find them easier to relate to and they are the people you promote or hire.”
Only 14 percent of the Asian Australians surveyed supported mandatory quotas for Asian Australians in the workplace and 34 per cent supporting optional or recommended targets. (This was more than the rest of the population surveyed.)
Mr Li does not support mandatory quotas. “I do think if organisations set aspirational targets for representation that would be a very positive thing,” he says.
Ms Pung was named Alice after Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland because her father saw Australia as a wonderland.
But she grew up in Braybrook in the 1980s, a working class suburb hit hard by manufacturing jobs moving offshore.
“Back then we were considered a threat, we were Asian gangs, we were heroin smugglers, we were job stealers,” Ms Pung said.
Someone once hurled a rock through their window. Ms Pung was taunted with the line “Me love you long time” from the film Full Metal Jacket. In her family’s electrical appliance shop in Footscray, customers would sometimes ask for “an Australian salesperson”.
“Diversity is valued when people feel safe,” Ms Pung says. “Diversity is looked on with fear when people think their livelihood is at threat.”
Today Ms Pung is feted as an author. She works as a lawyer with the Fair Work Commission. “The open hostility doesn’t affect me as much now,” she says.
But a couple of years ago Ms Pung was on the Number 19 tram to Coburg: “My husband was asked how much he paid for me.”
The Asian-Australian Leadership Summit will be held in Melbourne on September 12 to 13.
Jewel Topsfield is Melbourne Editor of The Age.