Politics: What is Australian?

I’ve been thinking about Australian-ness for a while, partly inspired by a friend’s blog posts about nationalism in France, and partly inspired by the new Citizenship Test and other acts of idiocy currently being perpetrated by our government.

And I’ve come to the conclusion that I have some ideas about what being Australian is all about that are perhaps more unusual than I’ve thought. Because to me, the key thing that makes Australia Australia is immigrants, immigration, and the stunningly diverse population we have as a result of these things. Let’s face it, with the exception of the few people of Aboriginal and Koorie descent, we are all immigrants here. And most of the waves of immigrants, now I think of it, have been from classes or races that were at the time considered socially unacceptable (criminals! Irish! Miners! Chinese! Greeks and Italians! Chinese again! Vietnamese too! Muslims! Sudanese!). I find it both sad and ironic that the descendants of these earlier settlers now feel the need to turn around and reject classes of immigrants based on religion, colour or alleged criminal tendencies. And this from a country whose most long-established families take pride in being descended from… convicts. Or, less romantically, economic refugees fleeing the Highland Clearances. Or, if they were lucky, Catholics, which carried a fine set of prejudices in its day.

I don’t know what proportion of the Australian population actually has four grandparents who were born in Australia. My gut feeling is that the number is maybe half or at most, two thirds; perhaps it’s lower than that. In my suburb, it is definitely much higher, which is how I like it. It feels more Australian to me.

My background is, to my mind, quintessentially Australian.

One grandparent was born in Australia (descended from large, poor, working-class families of Anglo-Irish descent; a cliched but true tendency to drink, with bonus religious in-fighting and a random Spaniard in among all the nice Irish Healys, Doyles, and the rest). One branch of his family actually does go back to the very early days of the colony – I have a great-great-great-something-grandmother born in Hobart in 1815 – but we aren’t entirely sure how they got here. I suspect we are happier not knowing.

One grandmother was born in Austria, of Jewish parents (singers, doctors, and other upper-middle-class types) who originated in Poland and all over Eastern Europe. Most of her family fled to England before WW2, and she met and married my Australian grandfather (an RAF man) and moved with him to Australia.

My other grandparents are both from southern Italy, and came to Australia in the 1950s with my father, fleeing extreme poverty. But even this apparently straightforward Italian heritage isn’t entirely straightforward – my Nonna’s family has North African banditti and Arab pirates in the family tree, along with some rather hair-raising stories about how they got there (not to mention an almost-saint from the 19th century and a heretic imprisoned by the inquisition some centuries earlier).

I was brought up knowing that *of course* immigration is good for the country. It never occurred to me that it could be otherwise. I went to school with a girl whose parents had fled Romania after her mother had written something indiscreet about Ceaucescu – but also with many, many others whose families had fled Europe after the Second World War (in some cases fleeing poverty, in others, memories), as well as quite a number of girls whose families were Malaysian, Vietnamese or Chinese. Many of these girls had been born overseas. This was normal.

I was brought up knowing that immigrants are courageous people, determined people. People who understand the value of education – because that’s one of the things that nobody can take away from you when you leave your home country. It was no accident, I think, that my class, the accelerated class, contained so many students from immigrant families.

Immigrants aren’t here by chance, either. They really want to be here, and that is something we should value. I have two friends who recently moved to Australia from Colombia. They are two of the most impressive people I have met. They are determined to get permanent residency. They work full-time jobs during the night as cleaners to raise enough money to pay for the overseas student prices of university study. C works two jobs, in fact, because the job related to his recently-completed degree is casual, and they really need the money from the other job. They are both involved in their union and in getting better conditions for themselves and other Australians working the same job. They are also both members of our choir (and in fact walked in off the street to audition in their first week in Australia). U spoke hardly any English when she first arrived, but has nonetheless been working full-time, improving her English incredibly fast, and is now studying full-time at University and winning awards. They are intelligent, talented, warm, determined, courageous, magnificent people, and I’m proud to know them. If they are unable to get their permanent residency, Australia will be the poorer for it.

I was brought up knowing that immigrants don’t take away jobs from Australians. They create jobs. They take, very often, the jobs that nobody else will do, they send their children to school (even the girls – many of my mother’s girlfriends, from middle-class Australian families were not allowed to finish school; my father’s sisters both went to university, even though his parents did not finish primary school back in Italy), and their children become the teachers, the doctors, the lawyers, the administrators of the next generation. But in the meantime, they are all consumers, they all create a need for more nurses, more bakers, more builders, more electricity plant workers.

And immigrants do integrate. Yes, they often form small communities, maintain their languages, and help each other out. But this doesn’t mean they don’t make links in the wider communities, putting down roots. And their children go to school with children from all kinds of backgrounds, and make friends from all kinds of backgrounds, and in many cases marry fellow-Australians of entirely different cultural backgrounds.

Yes, I idealise immigrants and immigration. That’s because for me, immigration, celebrating these people who have travelled across the world to build new lives here, often under extremely difficult circumstances, is the key to what Australia is, to what makes Australia the country I love to live in, to what will make us a people worth admiring. I’m lucky, because I live in a country which, despite the best efforts of our politicians, still embodies this diversity – where people of every colour and creed walk down the street and nobody turns a hair because we *expect* everybody to look different. (also, and while this is unimportant in the greater scheme of things, I still have to mention it: we have the best food in the world, because we get the best food from all the different countries in the world which is wonderful before you even start mixing them to make new ways of cooking and new ways to combine flavours)

I’m lucky because I live in Australia – and the more so because I live in Melbourne, and perhaps more again, because I live in Coburg, which to me is one of the most wonderfully Australian suburbs in Melbourne. Here’s a picture of Coburg for you.

Walking down the street, I hear English spoken in every accent from the ocker, trying-to-keep-flies-out-of-your-mouth Aussie drawl to slightly more cultivated middle class Australian accent, to a strong Malaysian chinese accent, a variety of Greek and Italian accents, and several others I don’t entirely recognise. I also hear plenty of Greek and Italian spoken, particularly in our local shops, as well as various Arabic languages (sadly, I don’t know enough about Arabic to be able to discriminate), Mandarin, what I suspect is Cantonese, something that is either Malaysian or Indonesian, and at least one African language that I can’t even begin to identify. I also hear plenty of Greek and Italian spoken without leaving my house, because people of Greek and Italian origin speak loudly! About everything! On the tram, my list of languages is augmented by some German tourists and French spoken with a regional accent that also turns out to be African.

The area I live in has a big Muslim population, so I get to see an entirely magnificent array of hijabs. My favourites are the brilliant yellow, pink or orange ones worn by the tall, very black, African women – who are elegant and happy and gorgeous. But there is also the cream headscarf worn by a young woman in a suit who may be Indonesian; the coloured scarf that wraps tightly to the head and around the bun, the uniform headscarf worn with tracksuit pants or a very long skirt as part of a school uniform by the girls chatting to their un-headscarfed friends (one blond and blue eyed, two with mediterranean colouring, and one of asian descent), the teenager with a colourful headscarf, tight jeans and her bellybutton showing (!), and occasionally, the woman in full burkah, head-to-toe black, with mesh over her eyes. I always feel uncomfortable looking at her, but I always make an effort to smile – if she has chosen it for herself, then I can only respect her religious convictions, especially given how uncomfortable I felt merely reading the Koran in public. If she didn’t choose it, then all the more reason to be friendly.

And of course, the Muslim women don’t have a monopoly on headscarfs, either. Headscarfs are also big with what I think of as the Nonna set – the elderly, black-clad Greek and Italian ladies, who know what they want and are frankly scary when queuing at the deli counter or at the market. And we can’t forget the Indian women in their saris which also have a head covering whose name I don’t know. Within a block of my tram stop we have the Islamic dress shops and the Indian Sari shop, and all the wedding shops, and also Sussans and the discount jeans shops and the $2 shops.

Plenty of students on our tramline still – we’re not too far from Melbourne University, and this adds another layer of young people from previous waves of immigration to our already eclectic mix. Lots of international students, of course, but also people much like myself, whose looks proclaim that they are not entirely of Anglo-Irish descent, but probably have a set of Italian grandparents, a Malaysian chinese mother, Australian-born parents whose own parents were all from Turkey. All very much Australian, thank you, and probably sharing accommodation with other Australian friends of whatever variety you like.

The men I tend to notice less, perhaps because the variety of dress is much narrower, but we certainly get a wide variety of beards, moustaches, turbans and the like. Not to mention the real perq of living near Sydney Rd – you don’t need to turn on the TV to know who won the soccer. Between the wildly cheering Turks running up and down Sydney Rd with their flags, the Italians hooning around tooting their horns and doing appalling things to their engines, and the Greeks, who fall somewhere in between, we’re pretty much covered. I wonder how much Aussie Rules and cricket is actually played in the backyards of Coburg? I know I grew up on soccer and cricket, with Aussie Rules football never having a chance – and I’ll bet I’m not the only one.

Walking home at night from the tram, I get the wonderful smells from the Turkish and Greek restaurants nearest my place, as well as the smell of the organic roast chicken place up the road. I can smell the barbecue from the house halfway up my street, the spices in the food my Chinese neighbour is cooking, the fried-garlic smell that wafts from virtually every house in Coburg (my own most emphatically included). In summer, I can smell everyone’s lemon tree, lavender bush and rosemary plant (these are virtually compulsory in Coburg). I can go down the street and purchase anything from glace pineapple (all year round at the Turkish shop) to rabbit or kid (from the local butcher) to halal anything, to pasta flour, to four different varieties of date (at least). Pomegranates and quinces can be found at the supermarket, as can Durian, starfruit, asian greens, feijoas and kangaroo sausages. I can tell you three different places to buy rosewater or orange flower water, and where you can find the fennel biscotti that taste like the ones my Nonna used to make.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I suspect there is nowhere else in the world quite like this. And, even though I fall in love with York, and with Paris, and turn green with envy at the prospect of living somewhere where you excavate to build a shopping centre and find a roman temple to Isis, I don’t think I could live anywhere else. I don’t think anywhere else could be as good as this.

Which makes me respect immigrants all the more. Imagine leaving a place you felt like that about, knowing you could never live there again…

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2 thoughts on “Politics: What is Australian?

  1. Pingback: Federal Election 2013: One Nation Under Hansen | Cate Speaks

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