When Diversity Means Cultural Richness
by Nicola Mele 
The presence of various ethnic communities and different cultures is one of the trademarks of the modern metropolis and Sydney, with its ethnic and linguistic diversity, prides itself on being the most multicultural city in Australia. In fact, whether you are sitting on the train or dining at a restaurant, attending a lecture at university or simply walking on the street in the downtown area, you might easily hear people around you speaking other languages.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed that 31.7 per cent of the Sydney population  was born overseas. It is not surprising if we consider that the 21st century has reached an high volume of immigration everywhere in the world; at the same time it is astonishing if we consider that Sydney has the seventh highest percentage of a foreign born population in the world, overtaking cities like Paris and London, whose history was marked by the immigration phenomenon.
Immigration to Sydney had its boom after World War II, and again at the end of the 80’s, shaping the face of a city where multiculturalism is part of the society and bilingualism is one of its key elements. Besides the foreign born population, over 55 per cent of second and third generation immigrants are fluent in the language of their ancestors. Arabic (predominantly Lebanese), Mandarin, Cantonese, Italian, Tagalog and Greek are the most spoken languages.
Being able to speak a second language and having a non-British ethnic background offers a unique opportunity to its carriers, a chance to build a richer and stronger identity that mixes elements from different cultures. “I feel that growing up in Australia made me slightly different. I’m different on the outside as in my skin colour and the colour of my hair, but I feel the same as my fellow Australians in terms of values that I share with them,” says King-Wei Ling, born in Sydney of Chinese-Malaysian parents. “I identify myself as Australian but with a Chinese heritage; I have a mixture of values that I share from both the Chinese culture and the Australian community,” adds Ling.
Among the others, bilingualism is an important advantage in the work field. Both international and Sydney-based companies consider the ability to speak another language an important element to be considered during work recruitment, as they constantly trade with foreign markets where speaking English is sometimes not enough. “Nowadays knowing another language really takes you one step up. I work for a marketing company that operates in the Mexican market and I probably would have never got the job if I didn’t speak Spanish,” says Francesca Parodi Martinez.
Diversity however, is not always a synonym of integration and tolerance. Episodes of racism and cultural intolerance are not common, but surprisingly still present in a society that, considering its multiculturalism and cultural richness, should have developed a higher level of acceptance and tolerance. Professor Kevin Dunn from the University of Western Sydney conducted a survey on the presence of ethnic intolerance and racism in the Sydney metropolitan area. The survey revealed  that people in the south-western areas of Sydney (Wollondilly, Campbelltown and Camden) are 20 per cent more racist than the general population, with 32.8 per cent of them believing that Middle Easterners don’t fit into the Australian society and 32.2 per cent having xenophobic sentiments towards Asians. “I’ve never been victim of racism, but I know some people who have, and it is unacceptable in a city that opens its doors to thousands of immigrants every year. The New South Wales government needs to take some actions to address the problem,” says Ling.
Xenophobia is a problem that needs to be solved at a grassroots level and a solution could be the promotion of anti-racism campaigns in primary and secondary schools as part of the curriculum. “Racism is one of those outdated ideologies. When I hear someone use the word ‘wog’, I feel my innards sink to my boots and I feel like asking, ‘What rock did you crawl out from under?’ People are people and differences between us enrich society,” says Devi Neronha in an opinion piece recently published by the Sydney Morning Herald . “Most of us understand this. Behaving like an animal rather than a human who exerts a capacity for rational thought is the one thing that degrades our status as ‘humane’ beings,” says Neronha. And the lack of tolerance might result in the isolation of certain cultural groups, with many foreign people preferring to stay within their own ethnic communities.
However, some isolated episodes cannot cancel the prestige that Sydney achieved during the past century, becoming a modern Babel and an internationally recognised model of a metropolis where different cultures mingle together to reach the perfect balance between diversity and preservation of values and traditions. The various immigration flows, especially the post-war one, brought nothing but benefits to Sydney that nowadays is proud to celebrate its diversity through a wide variety of festivals, cultural events and restaurants with food from all over the world. The New South Wales capital city wouldn’t be what it is today without the economic and cultural contributions made by the different ethnic communities.
In 2008 and 2009 Australia will open its doors to 300,000 immigrants , the largest number since World War II; it is expected that around 100,000 of them will choose Sydney as their destination, contributing to the further enrichment of the city.
The Sydney municipality is aware of the importance of bilingualism and is promoting its development through the teaching of a second language from early primary school, even for people with an English-speaking background.
The comparison with the legendary Babel, then, has never been more appropriate.