History is a bitch

I say that in the most spiteful, selfish way I know. I say it that way because I know now that I should have paid proper attention to the lessons history was offering to teach. If only my judgment hadn’t been so clouded. If only I’d felt strong enough to confront the next steps.

Exactly where I’d like to be now

As we reached the end of 2015 and tumbled abruptly into January and a sudden return to work, study and hectic family life, Mr Chewbacca and I knew we had to make a decision and get the ball rolling based on that decision. It wasn’t an easy choice, whether to stay in Canada or return to Australia. It wasn’t a good time to be making such a decision. It was finally really cold, which was lovely but also beginning to present difficulties. I was facing a whole new set of courses at uni and I found myself feeling relieved that this was my final semester as it was hard work. The schedule of work, school, daycare and uni, then family time fitting in around that, was a challenge. And Canada hadn’t been kind to us, with Murphy’s Law dominating through much of our early months. We were still in shock, trying to adjust. I was tired. Weary, as my dad would say. I wasn’t up for yet more paperwork. I certainly wasn’t in love with Canada, and think that was because Toronto, for me, isn’t the most inspiring city, and then Oakville, while nice, is sort of devoid of character. “No love”, as I wrote at the time.

I met half-heartedly with an immigration advisor at the uni to find out the next steps for staying longer in Canada. Two separate applications were needed, one to work immediately following graduation, and one to set the wheels in motion for PR, which wouldn’t be a quick process and required proof of our good financial standing (ie money in the bank). With, let’s face it, a low salary, plus all the expenses and having shelled out so much money for uni fees, the thought of a hard slog to get these applications going was just too much for me to bare. I think I just gave up at that point. Staying was in the too hard basket. And I wanted the stability and familiarity of home. Canada was pissing me off, it was just too different and not in a good way. I know Mr C tried to get me to see why we should stay another year but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to be receptive to him, plus he was feeling a little disillusioned and raw as well I think. So we decided. Home in July, as soon as Dude finished school.

I knew what had happened previously when my grandparents came to Australia from the UK. That move, and subsequent ping-ponging between the two countries affected the family to a depth that still impacts today, over 45 years after the last move. The ties to Britain are so strong, even stronger than my ties to Australia. I’m sure more than one member of the family would argue that they should never have come, they should have stayed at home. But it was my grandad who was perhaps idealistic and had itchy feet, yearning for a more relaxed lifestyle after having travelled quite a bit during his time in the army.

And now the same is happening to us. I have this desperate need to find a place we feel at home. I thought it could be Australia but I’m not so sure any more. I can’t believe it took coming home again to realise this. I feel like a fool.

I’m writing this post two weeks exactly after getting back to Australia and we aren’t even in Melbourne yet, where we plan to live. Maybe it’s too soon but we’re feeling entirely regretful about leaving Canada. I have no interest in going back to Toronto or Oakville but I think the positives over there may just outweigh the positives here. I’m not sure I want to stay in Australia.

I won’t publish this yet, it’s too shameful. But when you read this, know that I had only been home two weeks when I wrote it so maybe, just maybe, I was wrong.

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Never love

It’s been about four months now since we landed in Toronto. I’m proud of how we’ve managed to pull ourselves together and make a life here. I hate that we have no money and are financially so much worse off here. I knew that would happen but somehow it’s a worse prospect now it’s actually happened. The weather is beginning to cool down, not enough really, and the amount of snow thus far has been pretty pathetic, but Torontonians assure me there is plenty of time for that and I should just be grateful for the continued lack of it for the moment.

I miss Australia desperately. I don’t remember ever missing it like this. It’s not so much because I don’t like Canada, there’s a lot to like, the weather and the nature being two of the best aspects. I like that my son has made friends and we know our neighbours. I love my uni course even though I don’t know how I will get through the amount of work I’ve got. I’m not really liking how conservative Canadians are and how they don’t seem to get saracasm and are a bit up tight, but they’re not all that way – you get different people everywhere, it’s silly to generalise. I absolutely hate the safety obsession though and I’m not overly impressed with my son’s school. The way they’re teaching, the behavioural policies, the way they relate to the children, everything is sub par. People are nice, but that doesn’t account for everything. The systems and processes and ‘the way things are done’ are all pretty lame here in Canada generally. Well, no, I can’t speak for the whole of Canada. Here in the GTA, there are a lot of crazy, convoluted, ridiculous, weird, confusing, illogical and just plain stupid ways of doing things. I come across something every day that make me pause and say, what the fuck?! So that drives me insane on a daily basis.

Autumn leaves I collected while waiting for Thumper to wake up – she fell asleep during a drive to Niagara on the Lake

My course is great, really. I kind of wish I wasn’t doing the Book History program, as, aside from it being yet more work, I’m not particularly inspired by it. I am enjoying aspects, like researching the assignments, but the reading is a little boring and the size of the class just isn’t conducive to good discussion. I find myself wondering whether it’s all much ado about nothing a lot of the time. Like seriously, who cares what database storage application you use to access your journal articles and whether it changes the way you approach your reading of those articles? Okay, well maybe some people do care about that. I don’t. On the other hand, I’ve been privileged to be able to handle some very rare books, read some interesting articles, hear about really fascinating topics, and study some wonderful primary source material. I’ve used a hand printing press and flipped through a first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I think my feelings about this course are telling me that I really don’t have a future in pure literature, like I’m not meant to do this sort of stuff.

The varsity stadium, I think they call it. The oval, sports ground, at the uni

So what is thrilling me? Well, my favourite course is philology, although there’s a lot about that which is just fun and interesting rather than something I’m actually going to pursue at the next level. I think the course that’s made me realise where my future lies is one on a particular diaspora. I am really inspired by the process of gathering the stories of exiles and emigrants, by this question of home and cultural belonging. It’s something that plagues me constantly, and probably always will, and I feel as if I have a lot to say about it and I just want to know more. So if and when I do a PhD, it will be something relating to that. I would like to do comparative literature but you need a third language for that so I’d need to learn one. Maybe German? Or would French or Spanish be easier? Because of my German blood, it would make more sense to learn that I think. But it’s a hard language. At least I don’t have a mental block about it like I do with French which drives me mad with its ridiculous pronunciation! Anyway, that’s the plan.

I got into a subway carriage that was only Star Wars ads, and lots of them!
 
But I digress. What this post is really about is what I’m feeling about staying here in Canada. Mr Chewbacca wants another year, and I do too, kind of. I can see why it would be an advantage. I feel terrible about uprooting my kids, the Dude really, as Thumper is still little. I guess no matter what he’s going to be uprooted and sent to a different school regardless. I feel like I’m working so hard and not getting enough time to enjoy life here, plus the constant worry about money and when we’ll ever settle is really getting to me. I want to go home, find a niche. But at the same time I know we still won’t have money. It’s all gone, all that we could have used to buy a house in Australia. I don’t know if I can come to terms with that just yet. I feel like we might have made a mistake. And yet, I know if we didn’t come here, we’d always have wondered.

On my side of the family, they did it, they took the plunge and moved across the world. Twice, in fact. Both sides of my family actually.  On Mr C’s side, they didn’t. There was talk of that possibility and it just never eventuated. Lots more stories to be told there. It certainly feels like history repeating itself for me, anyway.

One thing’s for sure, and I thought about this as I glanced out the window as my train approached the city: I will never love Toronto.

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.