The pull: why migration caused my cultural dilemma

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, Mr Chewbacca and I have had a tough time fitting into life in Australia. He is British, so it makes sense that he’d struggle to identify with the change in culture. I grew up here, but I don’t feel very Aussie. In fact I never have.

Until I went to the UK at age 18, I always considered myself ‘European’. Both my parents were born in Europe and I wasn’t brought up in a very typically Australian household. My parents never owned a Barnsy or Farnsy album, or for that matter listened to the Skyhooks or Midnight Oil. We never watched Prisoner or The Sullivans or A Country Practice. We didn’t eat lamb chops; in fact we didn’t even own a barbeque. We never had a Holden or a Ford. And because we lived in Canberra, which is a couple of hours drive from the coast, I didn’t go to the beach much.

Nelly Times - Welcome to Australia Booklet 21 March 1950
The booklet my non-English-speaking grandparents would have received upon arrival in Australia from war-torn Germany with their four children in 1950, only suitcases and a bundle of now-worthless over-sized German banknotes to their name.

That’s not to say that all those things are requirements for being a real Aussie. Most of us are immigrants, after all. I’m sure that many of the immigrants escaping war-torn countries with political unrest and harsh social restrictions are just grateful to be somewhere like this, where anyone can be free to express whatever makes them tick, whatever makes sense to them. Every country has its discrimination, it’s human to judge, after all. But we’re pretty lucky here in Australia.

For me, though, being Australian is a confusing thing. While I agree that loving Barnsy and owning a ute does not an Aussie make, I still don’t feel Aussie. Being here feels just a tiny bit wrong. There’s so much about Aussie culture and life that makes no sense to me, doesn’t resonate. I really don’t like the Aussie accent; yes, I know, I have one, and it became dangerously occa* while living in London with two far north Queenslanders. I flick between a semi-dinky di twang and a neutral style of speaking that people whose first language isn’t English find much easier to understand. But overall, I find the Aussie accent a little harsh on the ears, and although our constant shortening of words is pretty funny (service station becomes servo, fire fighter becomes firey, electrician becomes sparky, and it goes on), there’s something inherently lazy about Australian expression which I find off-putting and I often feel uncomfortable and conflicted when I find myself speaking that way. Does that sound snobbish? It’s not meant to, it’s just an example of my inner cultural conflict and confusion.

Even the Australian landscape, the bush, the mountains, the trees, I find beautiful, but not in comparison to the northern hemisphere. The desert is amazing, that red dirt incredible, and I love the thought of driving across the Nullabor listening to Midnight Oil. But it doesn’t really grab me deep inside. There is no pull. And that’s what this post is getting at, that deep, gut-wrenching, persistent yearning for home and what makes sense. There is just something in me that forces me to feel I belong in a northern hemisphere setting. I belong somewhere where it snows in winter, somewhere with ancient stone walls and grass so green it rubs off on your shoes.

The house my grandparents finally managed to afford to build sometime in the '50s.
The house my grandparents finally managed to afford to build sometime in the ’50s.

I have a massive amount of respect for the indigenous people of this land. I feel such sadness at the thought that their ancient and unique culture was so violently interrupted, and as someone who is desperately trying to find a sense of belonging and knowledge of and participation in my own culture, I feel such regret at the thought that indigenous Australians can never go back to their true culture and will always have to struggle forward with a hybrid mix, a watered-down substitute. But despite the decimation, there is a sense of envy in me. I wish I could feel such a link to this land, such an inherent love for it. I just don’t. There’s an appreciation, and a temporary sense of wonder, but there is no pull.

I am pulled to Europe. I don’t regret that my parents migrated here; after all, if they hadn’t, I would never have been born as they’d never have met. And I’m so grateful for the opportunities that growing up in this ‘lucky’ country has given me. I believe my life would have been a lot more difficult had I grown up in the context that my dad did in London, or my mum would have had her parents stayed in post-war Germany. The decisions each family made to migrate were right, I don’t dispute that. But I struggle to embrace this country as my own, despite having been born and grown up here.

Just a tree, right?  Yeah, but it's a deciduous tree in Autumn, it's pure beauty to me.
Just a tree, right? Yeah, but it’s a deciduous tree in Autumn, it’s pure beauty to me.

So what to do? Do we go back? Mr C would go back to live in the UK in a heartbeat. But there’s something about it that doesn’t sit right with me. Perhaps I’d miss the space here; I’d probably miss my mum. Before leaving Canberra, I’d have said I miss the ease of driving everywhere, but in Sydney there’s nothing easy about it, this place is so badly planned and traffic and transport are abysmal. I think I might miss the summer. Not the whole summer, it’s too long and hot here for my liking, but I’d definitely miss a few weeks of hot, high 20s summer. I wouldn’t miss the pathetic excuse for winter here in Sydney. I’d really miss my friends, although I don’t see them that much as it is. In truth, there’s not much here for me. But there’s something more ‘easy’ about living in Australia that I can’t quite nail down. Or perhaps it’s that there’s a sense of ‘hardship’ about living in the UK. In addition, because things have been so difficult for us since we arrived, and life has felt stressed, unstable and like we’re not on the right path, there’s a curiosity in me: would life settle down if we moved back? Would the Universe show me that’s where I should have been all along? I wonder. I wonder if all the hardships and ups and downs and frustrations and arguments and stresses we’ve had since coming to Australia have all been signs that we don’t belong here.

Is Scandinavia still in Europe? I don't know. But this is a sunset and sunrise happening concurrently in Tromso, Norway. What an amazing town!
Is Scandinavia still in Europe? I don’t know. But this is a sunset and sunrise happening concurrently in Tromso, Norway. What an amazing town!

Given our British passports, we could live anywhere in the EU, although Italy seems a smarter choice because I speak the language. I would dearly love to live somewhere else, but it’s such a huge risk, to move to a foreign country. We’re at a stage now where we still have that adventurous spark, we want to explore and see the world, but having a family and providing a stable environment for bringing up children is really the most important thing. We both have romantic notions of the Dude being able to walk to school, of a smooth and happy childhood for him where he can expect consistency in schooling and at home. So moving around the world, the upheaval it would create for us as a family, is a very daunting prospect. We both want a beautiful family home that we build up and establish more firmly over the years, somewhere our children know they can always come back to, somewhere we can relax and enjoy life together, somewhere we can really make our own. Moving around, especially across the other side of the world, and potentially back if it doesn’t work out, seems like too much.

I wonder, did my grandparents have this kind of dilemma? I can imagine my mother’s parents, living in an apartment in Augsburg, trying time and again to get a mortgage, buy a house, only to be rejected because of my grandfather’s Serbian nationality. It would have been the only real option, especially given the state of Germany at the time. America was ruled out because one of my grandfather’s relatives had gone and been unhappy or something. I’m not really sure why Australia was the choice, probably some good incentives and cheap passage for a family with four children. I can picture my dad’s parents, my grandmother reluctant to leave the familiarity of London, my grandfather itching for change, an adventure, a taste of the newness he’d glimpsed while in the military. They were ten pound poms and ended up in Melbourne. But life had other plans. There was a crucial event that changed the course of the family’s history and meant they went back to the UK. Now that was the wrong choice. But again, I wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t made it.

I once stayed in a hotel in Brussels. I was so tired and hung over and hungry when I got there, I ordered a huge amount of food, then forgot about the tiramisu in the fridge. I still regret not tasting that tiramisu.
I once stayed in a hotel in Brussels. I was so tired and hung over and hungry when I got there, I ordered a huge amount of food, then forgot about the tiramisu in the fridge. I still regret not tasting that tiramisu.

These kinds of dilemmas, the urge to find myself conflicting with the urge to establish a simple, family home, are a constant source of conflict, both within myself and within our family. For now, we’re staying put, planning our future and ever so slightly excited the possibility of finally feeling settled in Australia.

*One of those ‘Aussie-isms’ – means very exaggerated Aussie I guess. Hard to explain. Perhaps the Urban Dictionary can do it better.

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Cabramatta and the refugees

I caught the first part of the documentary Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta on SBS last Sunday night.  It was well done and I’ll definitely be watching the next episode.

This area of Sydney features fairly prominently in some parts of my family’s story in Australia, and I found a lot of the stories told by the migrants about getting to Australia, how and why they came, and what their lives were like when they got here bore many similarities to those of my mum’s family.

The way the documentary was presented gave the impression that the ‘multiculturalism’ label was first applied when Malcolm Fraser gave permission for the Vietnamese migrants to settle here. It gave the sense that, because of the white Australia policy, multiculturalism and migration could not have existed previously. Which is if course wrong, because it did. Australia is virtually all migrants. And I know this because my family arrived from Germany in 1950. But let’s back up a bit here.

Watching and listening to the migrants’ stories of what it was like having to run from certain death in your own country, to possible death on the journey to a strange country you know little about and where you don’t speak the language, just made me cry. It was an absolutely gut-wrenching story. Who knows, for example, what traumas were experienced ever after by the young children and babies who were shipped out without their parents to this place. I can’t imagine the horror of the ordeal and my heart breaks for those people who had no choice but to endure it.

I also understand that this documentary was about the Vietnamese migrants and the creation of Cabramatta, a drug infested, dangerous slum full of gang members and other criminals, as we knew it (or as it was portrayed) in the 80s and 90s. I realise they had to stick to the topic at hand and I wouldn’t expect such a documentary to go off on tangents to explain the stories of other migrant groups in the area.  But I feel the need to point out that just because you’re a migrant whose parents spoke no English and worked 18 hour days and beat you up when they were drunk doesn’t mean you can join a gang.

I was 10 in 1988, and I was one of six flower girls at my cousin’s wedding at a church in Cabramatta. My grandfather was one of the founding members of this church, having mortgaged the tiny family home sometime in the 60s to finance its construction. The wedding began with everyone gathering, as you do in Serbian tradition, at the bride’s family’s house. In Cabramatta. John Street, to be exact. We had photos and got dressed and had our hair done and oohed and aahed over the electric blue polka dot organza the bridesmaid dresses were made of (1988, remember), we ate gibanica and icing-sugar dusted cakes, and tried not to mess up our hair while exploring the massive house. This was the family home, where my aunt and uncle brought up their four kids. It was the typical wog mansion: white stone balustrades, statues of lions on posts either side of the drive, and two flag poles, one for the Serbian flag and one for the Australian flag. Brown glossy patterned tiles covered the floor downstairs, there was a bar with miniature decorative opanke hanging on the wall, and the huge formal dining room featured lots of red plush velvet and massive pictures of romanticised mediaeval battle scenes in thick gilt frames dominated. This was Cabramatta for me. I knew nothing of the murders and drug deals going on just down the street.

These poor Vietnamese refugees were escaping from death in their own country, due to war. There were few places that would accept them. Australia was a good option because it had plenty of space and still needed more people to populate it. They spoke no English. They had nothing but the clothes on their backs. They worked hard. They drank to get through the trauma of what they’d experienced, and the hard life they’d come to know in Australia. They didn’t get much time with their children, of which they had many. Their children had to fend for themselves, and there was something of a void between them, especially given the fact that the kids spoke English and would carry on conversations in English so their parents couldn’t understand. Kids who spoke English often advocated for their parents. The kids grew up doing it tough, making do with little attention, bigger siblings caring for and lording it over littler siblings.  Everyone ended up better off financially in the long run, but they all suffered huge traumas and were significantly psychologically scarred, which manifested in various negative ways throughout their lives.  This is also my mum’s family’s story.

They came, as I said, from war-torn Germany in 1950 on a boat with hundreds of others. My grandparents spoke only Serbian and German, as well as a smattering of some other languages like Hungarian and Turkish, but no English.  They had four children, the youngest, my mum, not yet two years old.  There had been talk of going to America, or Canada, who were offering similar opportunities for migration at the time, but Australia was chosen  because some distant family members had less than favourable experiences migrating to north America.  There was nothing left for them in Europe.  They had been rejected by a landlord for a house because my grandfather was Serbian.  My grandmother got things for the family on the black market.  Money was worthless; my mum remembers cutting the pictures out of the big German notes as a child.  My grandfather was a strong, stocky, positive man, a shoemaker by trade, and a very talented, quick-witted man.  He had been poor his whole life, the eldest of 14 children, having left home at age 10 because his father abandoned the family.  My grandmother was from a slightly higher class background, although her family had been torn apart during the war, her mother tortured and killed in a work camp by the Russians, her sisters dumped somewhere in the middle of Eastern Europe, her father and brother taken as translators, others just slaughtered. She reluctantly left, with the children she had never really wanted to have, to a life she couldn’t imagine enduring, across the other side of the world.  There was an outbreak of some contagious virus on board the ship and my mum was taken into a quarantined area for some time; she still has nightmares about it, despite being so little.  Upon arrival in Australia, they were herded into a migrant camp somewhere round Liverpool for a few months.  Their eldest son, who was ten, spoke some English he’d learnt at school, and paperwork was sorted out and land was granted; temporary land, upon which my grandfather built a two-room shack.  Life was hard and Australia was a harsh, crude environment.  My grandfather barely saw his family six days a week, getting up at 4am to work constructing Sydney’s railways and bridges.  He worked so hard, and his only vice was alcohol, which he indulged in when pay day came around.  It wasn’t that he drank away all the money, far from it in fact, as within a few years the family were living in a larger house and the land was a fully functioning farm with food crops and animals, the picture of self-sufficiency, thanks to my grandmother as well who slaved away in the garden from dawn til dusk, all the while giving birth to five more children.  Alcohol was not my grandfather’s friend.  He became violent, uncharacteristically so, and the violence was arbitrary.  Needless to say, more trauma was experienced by his wife and children because of this, and I can imagine he felt incredibly ashamed.

This was the life of European migrants to Australia.  The White Australia policy may have still been in place, but it had absolutely no bearing here.  Migrants arrived, they had virtually the same experiences as the Vietnamese migrants of the 70s and 80s.  Yes, some turned bad.  But not all.  In fact, despite the traumas and psychological injury suffered, the rifts caused in the family, I can safely say that not one of my mum’s siblings or her siblings’ children became gang members or drug dealers or lived on the street.  I don’t want to downplay the experience of the Asian migrants to Australia, as in some ways it was worse than what my family experienced (although it’s all relative of course), but what struck me about Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta was that they were somewhat blaming their choices to join gangs and take drugs on their terrible experience as migrants.  They were ignored by their parents, their father beat them in an alcohol-fuelled rage, their parents’ spoke no English, life was hard, and they ended up joining a gang.  More than that, I got the distinct impression that the documentary would have us believe that it was Australia’s inherent racist nature that made life so hard for the migrants.  It made me think, is racism worse when there is more difference to be noticed?  So, okay, my grandparents didn’t speak English; but they were white European, their language was really the main difference, not the way they looked.  They ate a little differently, but they were Christians.  So they were not as ‘different’ from the Aussies as the Vietnamese refugees were.  Perhaps this made it that much harder.  My grandparents were used to discrimination, the rejection by a German landlord back in Augsburg because of my grandfather’s Yugoslav ethnicity a case in point, whereas the Vietnamese had come from a country where 99% of the population were the same race, colour, creed, religion, retained a very similar cultural identity.  So discrimination may have been even more of a difficult thing for them to deal with.

What I wonder is this: does the very nature of the Vietnamese culture, being perhaps significantly more removed from the Australian culture than the European culture, make the Vietnamese migrants’ assimilation as new migrants nearly impossible?  And therefore is it inevitable that Asians will have a more difficult time fitting in to life here?  Or was it the timing that did it, the fact that it was the 70s and 80s, drugs and gangs were more prominent, there to fall into?  Was it because they had to leave their country so suddenly in fear of their lives?  Or were us European refugees just lucky not to fall into that cycle of drugs and gangs?  I don’t know the answer.  But I must highlight this: migrants did it tough, no matter where they came from, and multiculturalism in Australia is far from real today.  We have a long way to go before we realise what a true multicultural society is, how to be civil to each other.  I myself use words like ‘wog’ arbitrarily, without even thinking; that’s a product of the society we live in today.  Maybe one day we will truly know what it’s like to truly embrace other cultures, assimilate without being forced out of our own identities.

Other stuff happend in the war too you know…

So you always hear about World War II and the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps etc.  There’s been so much written/spoken/filmed about it all, and why not, it’s such a historically significant period, such important events which changed the world.

But other stuff happened too, stuff that was connected to the Nazis and probably at some level the Jewish plight, but it wasn’t all about Nazis and Jews.  What about the people who lived in the places that constantly changed borders as a result of the goings on during the war? I can’t say I know a lot, as I was born over thirty years after the war ended, but I’m learning…

What I want to talk about and research is what happened to the Danube Swabian people (known in Bavarian German as ‘Donauschwaben’) who lived in the former Yugoslavia (now Serbia), right near the border of Hungary. These are an interesting group of individuals. They originally came to the area from Bavaria, and not really of their own choosing. I haven’t done a lot of research yet into what exactly happened, but as far as I know, the Austro-Hungarian Empire got their hands on that part of the world and realised that no one lived there (this was in the 1700s). So they decided to populate the area by bringing in some of their Germans. They gave them an incentive to go, setting up some houses, giving them food and money to help them establish in their new home.

So these Donauschwaben spoke German, and were very Germanic in their customs, but they actually lived for generations in what is now Serbia. I am descended from these people. My grandmother was one in fact. She spoke Serbian as well, but apparently the Serbs in the area were considered beneath them, or like peasants, and it was frowned upon to fraternise with them.

My grandmother was wilful, and probably quite spoiled. The family, by 1914 when she was born, lived in a large, pentagonal dwelling, with a courtyard garden in the centre, and were obviously doing quite well for themselves. I’ve since found out the name of the village was Torschau (Torzsa in Hungarian, Savino Selo in Serbian), and it was located in the Batschka, an area in or around the Banat.

Being, as I said, wilful and full of confidence, as a young girl of 14 or 15 often is, my grandmother wanted to do what her friends were doing – get married. She told her father she intended to marry, just like the others, and have babies etc. Luckily my great grandfather wasn’t standing for any nonsense and he told her there was no chance she’d marry now, just to be with the ‘in’ crowd. To deter her and make it easier for her to steer clear of an early marriage, he arranged for her to start working as a nanny in nearby Belgrade. She went to live with a family there, no doubt fairly well off, and in what was then quite a cosmopolitan city. Little did my great grandfather know, but his plan to educate her in fact brought her to her future husband.

My grandfather – a native Serb and apprentice bootmaker – was short and stocky but a handsome, open-faced, charistmatic young man. He and my grandmother courted in secret, and he would walk ten paces behind her down the street in case they were ‘seen’ together. I’m sure my great grandfather wasn’t impressed that his daughter was now keen not just to marry but to marry a Yugoslav; but by this point almost ten years had passed and perhaps his daughter, now a twenty-three-year-old woman, was quickly becoming an ‘old maid’. They married in 1937 and lived in Belgrade to begin with. My great grandfather visited them and was appalled to find they didn’t have bread in the house – for him, the quintessential sign of a properly domesticated household.

My grandmother was actually able to claim German citizenship, with documentary evidence of her Danube Swabian ancestry, even though her family hadn’t actually lived in Germany for many generations. She managed to get my grandfather out of a work camp during the war because of this.  But that’s another story…

What is interesting to me is that these Donauschwaben were uprooted and deposited – granted in a very organised and calm manner – to another country first of all, developed such a sense of pride in who they were and where they came from, their Donauschwaben identity. They were actually content in their German village in the middle of Yugoslavia; but being quintessentially German, and the Germans knowing this, the children were recruited into the Hitler Youth Movement, just like any German young person of the time. It was a good thing at first. But of course we all know what happened…