Book Review: “Visiting the Neighbours: Australians in Asia” by Agnieszka Sobocinska (@asobocinska) (#AWW2016)



Visiting the Neighbours: Australians in Asia (2014) is a thoroughly researched academic work. Elegantly written, unbiased and thought-provoking, it deserves to be read by every Australian who has ever wondered about our nation’s place in the Asia-Pacific region.

In Visiting the Neighbours, Sobocinska provides a detailed examination of the history of Australian travel to Asia. In the same way that how we see the world reveals much about our own characters and attitudes, traveling to Asia has helped Australians to reflect who we are as a society. Specifically, the complex and fluid nature of “Australianness” as conceptualised by those who identify themselves as Australians is fully demonstrated in their writings about Asia’s diverse peoples and cultures.

More importantly, Sobocinska argues that tourism is increasingly seen as an integral part of Australia-Asia relations. Millions of Australians have shared their personal experiences of traveling to Asia publicly and in private, both in print and online. This helps to shape not only the Australian public’s opinion about Asia, but also the political, economic, diplomatic and defence decisions made by the Australian Government in its dealings with Asian countries.

In Visiting the Neighbours, Sobocinska describes Australians traveling to Asia as imperialists, fortune hunters, warriors, good neighbours, humanitarians, seekers, adventurers and troublemakers, tourists, and sons and daughters. Her detailed analysis of the cultural history of their impact on Australia as a nation makes it clear that our mainstream society has always perceived Asia as a formidable “other”. Even those Australians of Asian descent have to constantly negotiate between their “Australian” and “Asian” identities, whatever they mean, with some trying to bridge the gap, others learning to benefit from their “Asianness”, and still others struggling to cope with being different. While some Australians intending to visit Asia for business or pleasure may consciously choose to ignore such a challenging thought, it ultimately influences their contemplation on the possible reasons why they feel and behave the way they do while traveling.

The same also applies to this reviewer, who is inclined to examine Visiting the Neighbours with a critical eye in accordance with personal experiences and research findings. Indeed, much more could have been included in this book, including those Australians of other Asian descent and their perception of “motherland”. Also worthy of investigation are the individual accounts of those Australians who arrived from Asia under extraordinary circumstances, such as refugees and adoptees. How would they have felt about Asia when they visited there? Finally, what are the stories of those Australian diplomats and media professionals ever stationed in Asia, and how have these impacted on the ways in which we understand, and further imagine, those individual Asian countries where they lived and worked? The list of potential topics goes on and on.

But that is exactly what academic research is about, i.e. to share and inspire, so that more can be done in the future to enrich the scholarship. As for “ordinary” readers, perhaps we are just delighted to have found a book that is both informative and entertaining, such as Visiting the Neighbours, which well illustrates the evolution of the Australian national psyche throughout the history of our engagement with Asia.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: February 2016 Roundup: History, Memoir, Biography (HMB) | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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