Back in Shanghai, Xueli Zhao was a hospital doctor.
Now living alone in a public housing flat in Melbourne’s inner-east, 84-year-old Dr Zhao relies heavily on her children to communicate with various authorities as she is lacking English language skills.
- The Australian census forms are only available in English, despite information about the census being available in 48 languages
- A member of Sydney’s Chinese community has translated the 2021 Census forms into Chinese
- The Australian Bureau of Statistics says some terms on the census are not easily translated into other languages
Knowing that census night is coming, Dr Zhao again turned to her daughter Xiaoming Ji for help.
Ms Ji is keen to lend a hand as usual, believing it is a part of her responsibility to look after her elderly mother.
But this time, she faces the complication of another snap lockdown in Melbourne.
“Now I cannot visit her in person. So, I am planning to fill the census form online otherwise I will have to request a paper form for her,” Ms Ji says.
Dr Zhao and Ms Ji’s situation is not uncommon among Australia’s culturally diverse communities.
With two generations living apart — sometimes two states apart — helping family members to fill forms can be a big ask.
Lockdowns being in force across three states don’t help either.
Dr Zhao, a former president of the North Richmond Chinese Elderly Association, says there are many like herself where she lives.
“Most of them seek help from their sons and daughters, sometimes close friends, even grandsons and daughters, ” Dr Zhao said.
Grassroots effort helps Chinese community understand the census
In Sydney — home to the largest Chinese speaking population in Australia — many members of the community report feeling helpless in filling out the census form.
Erin Zhao, a migrant from China, decided to help by translating the online census forms into Chinese and compiling an unofficial census guide.
She first distributed the resources to her friends, and then to the Chinese community more broadly.
“It is like a snowball effect, gradually the guide has been passed onto more people through WeChat,” she said, referring to a popular Chinese social media app.
“Later on, some local Chinese online media groups asked me if they could publish my translation to help even more people. I said yes to it.
“My aim is to reach out to as many people as possible.”
Ms Zhao said the Chinese community is at the forefront in terms of adopting new technologies, such as smart phones and internet, however many who have newly arrived in Australia or who live alone encounter language barriers.
She does not understand why the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has translated census-related information into community languages, but not the actual census form.
“Believe me, I tried so hard to find the Chinese version of the online census form,” Ms Zhao said.
“After many attempts, I found out the census is in English only. Then I tried to use online translation software to automatically translate the form, it ends up with hard-to-understand gibberish.”
It took 10 hours for Ms Zhao to translate the census form.
Her efforts have been recognised by many users of her unofficial guide.
“I feel very much appreciated by many people, especially the elderly. They say to me otherwise they would be helpless and have no clue as to how to complete the form,” Ms Zhao said.
“I feel my work bears fruits … [it is] not being unnoticed.”
Ms Zhao says at this difficult time of weeks-long lockdown, people are seeking kindness and assistance from each other.
In Melbourne, Dr Zhao agrees, saying many community members of her age group end up communicating with each other only through social media platforms like WeChat.
Translation presents ‘data quality risk’, says ABS
The ABS told the ABC that it had conducted a feasibility assessment regarding translation of census forms into several languages for the 2021 Census.
“While we appreciate that this would be beneficial to people whose first language isn’t English, it would be a complex process that creates a risk of incorrect translation,” an ABS spokesperson said.
“This presents a data quality risk as responses may be influenced by that translation.”
The ABS said it had translated census information into 48 languages and would provide help to multicultural communities for completing the census form.
It said help would be available at many locations across Australia and also through a interpreting telephone line, as well as language-specific live online seminars to provide opportunities for questions to be answered via Facebook Live and YouTube.
But Dr Zhao is still keen to see an official Chinese version of the census forms, hoping she might be able to fill it in herself one day.