Generation global

Shanina Shaik's exotic looks and globetrotting life make her the poster girl for a new breed of young traveller.

"Where are you from?" It's a question loaded with assumptions and prejudice, and Melbourne-born model Shanina Shaik encountered it most days of her childhood. She'd reply calmly, and truthfully, "Australia" – only to be met with disbelief. Her exotic Eurasian features did not fit the Anglo image of a dinky-di Aussie kid.

"They'd say, 'No, really, what's your background?' " says Shaik, now 21, by phone from London where she is working for a couple of weeks before returning home to New York. "My mum often used to say, 'I wish I had a dollar for every time someone asked me where you were from.' "

Where Shaik is "from" doesn't matter any more. She's hotter than a backyard barbecue after walking in the Victoria's Secret annual fashion extravaganza last November.

Her schedule this year has included modelling at fashion weeks in New York, Paris and Milan, plus a two-week visit to Melbourne and Sydney for Christmas. Throw in ex-boyfriend Tyson Beckford (the pair announced their split just after this interview), an American model with Jamaican/African/Panamanian/Chinese heritage, and Shaik is the embodiment of what social analysts have been banging on about for years: Gen Y (now aged from their late teens to early 30s) are global with a capital G.

This generation treks in Kathmandu as readily as their parents holiday in Noosa; they expect to work overseas, not just pulling beers in London to finance the next Contiki tour but as a career stepping stone; they are hooked up with friends all over the globe through email, Facebook, Twitter and instant messaging; and they're likely to have a partner from a different cultural background.

"They'll live anywhere, work anywhere, marry anywhere," says psychologist Hugh Mackay, who has been researching Australian social trends for more than 50 years. Although he cautions against generalisations, Mackay says today's 20-somethings tend to have a broader global outlook than previous generations. "They do certainly represent a culture shift and are a signpost to a new era in politics, business and marriage."

Shaik, for example, moved to New York at age 17. Three of her best friends – from Lebanese, Greek and Spanish backgrounds – still live in Melbourne. In New York she hangs out with Brazilian and Russian models as well as Sudanese, West Indian and Spanish girlfriends. She's in contact with her half-Lithuanian Melbourne-based mother, Kim, several times a day through her BlackBerry instant-messaging app. Her father, Hanif, who grew up in Singapore with a Pakistani father and a Saudi mother, is now married to a Chinese woman, and Shaik has two half-brothers, as well as a full brother, Shay, now 18. Confused? "I always joke that our family is the United Nations," she says.

Then there's Beckford, whom she met in 2008 when he was a judge on the Australian version of the reality-television series Make Me a Supermodel. (Shaik came second to Rhys Uhlich.) Although the couple copped the occasional racist remark – the day of the interview someone with a bent against Shaik's "whiteness" has tweeted disapprovingly about Beckford: "You could be with any black woman in the world" – Shaik says that's unusual. "People these days are more open to mixed relationships, more open to different cultures."

In Australia, at least, it's no surprise that cross-cultural relationships are becoming the norm, especially for Gen Y. More than 40 per cent of the population was now either born overseas or has one or both parents born overseas, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. As KPMG demographer Bernard Salt puts it, "Sixty years of significant non-Anglo immigration has had its effect. Other cultures are not unusual any more."

It goes beyond sheer weight of numbers, though. We've also learnt to enjoy and embrace the different food, fashion and thinking that cultural diversity brings. "In the 1960s, we didn't value anything that wasn't Anglo," says Salt, recalling an era when children of Italian immigrants were mocked in the playground for their salami focaccias. "In the '80s, we realised their food was better than ours; in the '90s, we started eating out on the pavement. Cultural conditioning over 60 years means we now better appreciate the sophistication and depth of other cultures."

Of course, many of us enjoy Vietnamese pho soup or a fragrant Thai green curry, regardless of our age. The key with Gen Y is that they've never known anything different; they've grown up in a culturally diverse society. "What you're exposed to in your formative years becomes embedded in your psyche," says social researcher Mark McCrindle. "This generation has grown up with cultural diversity, with technology that connects them, with cheap travel. They have global concerns; they have a bigger view of things."

This generation has also grown up with the children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren of successive waves of postwar immigrants, who are more likely than their parents to marry "outside" their cultural origins. In a book chapter, published last year, on "intermarriage, integration and multiculturalism", Dr Siew-Ean Khoo from the ANU's Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute analysed census and marriage registration data and concluded that about 30 per cent of all marriages in Australia were between spouses from different countries or ancestries. (This figure is likely to be higher when data from the 2011 census is released next month.)

"Intermarriage is considered one of the most definitive measures of the dissolution of social and cultural barriers," Khoo wrote. Of course, intermarriage also results in so-called "mixed race" children; according to Khoo, 28 per cent of the Australian population ticked the "mixed ancestry" box in the 2006 census, but the true figure, she suggests, is closer to 40 per cent.

Adding to the cultural mix is Gen Y's love of travel. While their baby-boomer parents might have backpacked through Europe before returning home to marriage, kids and a mortgage by their mid-20s, Gen Y have pushed these adult markers out a decade. Coupled with the post-school "gap year", cheap airfares, more favourable work visa requirements and a globalised job market, Gen Y can pop off overseas without thinking too much about it. It helps, too, that if they come home broke, these "boomerang kids" can move back in with Mum and Dad.

A 2011 survey of recent graduates by the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers Australia found that more than 85 per cent of respondents thought it was important to work or travel overseas, and 91 per cent expected to work in their profession overseas. "You have a generation much more comfortable ... about making a move overseas if something takes their attention," says social analyst David Chalke. "The notion of moving to New York for a job is nowhere near the daunting thing it was for previous generations."

Shaik, who recently read Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel The Help, set in 1960s Mississippi, says she loved the book but couldn't understand why a mother would send her mixed-race child away. "Mixed race is so beautiful; the more mixed you are, the more gorgeous you are."

Kim Shaik says that her daughter Shanina was gorgeous from birth. At six weeks, she won her first baby show in Melbourne, and went on to win about 10 more – a 100 per cent strike rate. "That mocha-cino colour, her royal-blue eyes and very dark hair, she stood out," recalls Kim over coffee near her work in Melbourne's Docklands.

When Kim was growing up in Melbourne, the kids who were bullied at school were from Italian and Greek backgrounds. She too was the child of an immigrant, but her Lithuanian father gave her pale blonde hair and fair skin, so she blended in with the "Australian" kids. She was lucky, too, she says, when she married Hanif Shaik, who grew up in Singapore with a Pakistani father and a Saudi Arabian mother: she says the couple did not suffer any real prejudice.

It was tougher during Shanina's teenage years. At 16, when she was a finalist in Girlfriend magazine's model competition, she copped it from the "cool girls" at school. "I was considered black, a gangsta loser, the 'N' word was used," she says. She skipped school for a month until her mum found out. "Shanina would say to me, 'I'm not even black,' " says Kim. "I'd tell her, 'Well, they're not going to call you brown; just be proud of who you are.' "

- Sunday Life