Moving between different cultural worlds

Wednesday, Jan 30, 2019, 01:54 AM | Source: Pursuit

Babak Dadvand, Rimi Khan

Australia’s multicultural youth have strong but complex connections to their families, often coming with cultural obligations and responsibilities – but it’s a dynamic that allows them to confidently navigate their different cultural worlds. That’s according to early findings from the 2017-2018 Multicultural Youth (MY) Australia Census Status report.

Young people’s pressures and complex family dynamics can shape their experiences. Picture: Getty Images

The research – a survey of 1920 young people aged 15 to 25 from migrant and refugee backgrounds – shows that most young multicultural Australians are close to their families. Along with the familial responsibilities, these relationships can come with significant forms of cultural labour – the diverse practices and efforts of young people involved in effectively moving across cultural differences and barriers.

But, according to the My Australia Census, many young people have a strong sense of optimism and a desire to belong – despite pervasive experiences of racism and discrimination.

The Multicultural Youth report, a collaboration between the University of Melbourne and nine government and community organisations from around Australia, tells us how this diverse group are faring socially, economically and culturally.

It also provides crucial evidence at a time of heightened anxieties about cultural difference and a heavily racialised political discourse.


More than three quarters – around 76.7 per cent – of those who took part in the MY Australia Census live with their parent(s) or guardian(s).

Four out of five say they get along with their family members either “always” (42.7 per cent) or “most of the time” (40.2 per cent). And many emphasise the importance of family as a source of support and friendship.

However, these young people also describe how the pressures and complex family dynamics shape their experiences. And their sense of connection to family often co-exists with tensions arising from family responsibilities and cultural expectations.

One in five of the young people surveyed say “family expectations” can be a barrier to achieving their study or work goals. Picture: Getty Images

Many describe the responsibility they feel for the care and support for parents and younger siblings. As one participant stated:

I am thinking about supporting my family… to get [them] like accommodation, a house or something so they can relax because Mum and Dad grew up us. It is time for us to support them because they cannot speak English. I am the person in the family who can speak a little better English; I’m the person working. I have to support them.

A lack of support services, or inadequate English language classes, can often add to the pressure faced by our multicultural youth. To put it in the words of another participant:

I feel like I am responsible for like the whole family, like in terms of paying the bills. Mum and Dad, they can’t speak English so I have to do all the house… If your parents can’t speak English and you’re responsible for the family, you feel more pressure. … Sometimes my mum has appointment at hospital. Sometime, they have interpreter, but sometimes they can’t find an interpreter, so sometimes I have to miss a class from uni. It doesn’t stress me, but sometimes I feel it is a bit difficult. I am under a lot of pressure.


For many of these young people these forms of caring labour can mean taking time away from study, work or leisure activities.

Of those surveyed, 17.4 per cent view “family responsibilities” as a barrier to achieving study or work goals. This contrasts with 8.1 per cent of non-migrant young people who saw family responsibilities as a barrier to achieving their goals in life.

The burden of family expectations is also experienced differently based on gender.

Family expectations can also differ based on gender. Picture: Getty Images

Almost one in five of these young people (18.9 per cent) identify “family expectations” as a barrier to achieving their study or work goals. But girls, in particular, say uneven expectations can affect them:

Girls have more expectations, clean before you leave the house, things like that. Boys just they leave, they come back when they want. They are not really questioned about it. … [B]aby sitting, looking after siblings, all those things… Boys don’t have that responsibility.


Time spent fulfilling family expectations, as well as generational and cultural differences with parents, can also create tension.

For 10.1 per cent of those surveyed, “family conflict” is an important issue of personal concern. This conflict also means that multicultural youth sometimes have to seek alternative avenues for help – friends, siblings, other relatives or family friends, or online support.

Around 61 per cent of multicultural youth, compared to 77.7 per cent non-migrant youth, say that they would seek help from their parents.


Despite these challenges, many multicultural young people are highly engaged across a range of cultural and social activities. Four in five say they seek out different cultural experiences, while also maintaining their own cultural heritage.

Questions about participation in arts and cultural spaces, sport, civic engagement and community leadership show that multicultural youth are still energetic and intercultural participants in Australian life.

Multicultural young people are highly engaged across a range of cultural and social activities. Picture: Getty Images

While forms of care and cultural labour in their families can be a barrier to participation, many young people describe the importance of cultural mediation in navigating these tensions. As one participant suggests, “communication is everything” and this enables them to move effectively between their different cultural worlds.

This points to one of the key assets of this diverse group of young people – their ability to navigate and manage intercultural differences and conflicts. While they may carry cultural responsibilities, their experiences help to cultivate strong skills of cultural mediation.

Given that Australia’s cultural diversity is set to expand, a capacity for cultural brokerage and translation are becoming increasingly vital.

The ability of multicultural youth to belong in diversity is a unique attribute that allows them to thrive in the face of challenges and limitations. Their hybrid identities and cosmopolitan outlook are capacities that all of us should acknowledge and celebrate.

Banner: Getty Images

University of Melbourne Researchers