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.

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.

Sydney is a bum

“Sydney is  hard to love. If it were a person he or she would have no stomach and heart and would eat and drink too much.  I see Sydney the way I always saw it from the very first day I arrived in 1968. Sydney is a derelict man, addicted to booze and clutching a bottle of cheap grog wrapped up in a  brown paper bag, camped out in Hyde Park; blighted and victimised, having lived a long time without a moral compass.”  This is what my dad wrote to me in an email recently, in response to my latest whinge about Sydney.  I like the analogy.

Image courtesy of http://abhishekdebsikdar.wordpress.com/2010/12/18/self-destructive-ways/

My dad’s family first came as ten pound poms in 1959 and then again in 1970 (he arrived about 18 months before them, long story for another post). It’s interesting to me that he says he saw Sydney the same way all those years ago, as I have a perhaps somewhat idealised view of this city and what it was like in the 70s, which I believe was its heyday.  So perhaps I should just realise that Sydney has always been the way it is.  I guess it comes down to how it began, as a colony, a penal colony at that, and mixing pot of criminals and unfortunates and misfits.  No one built Sydney because it was a fantastic place to start a fantastic city; no one planned it and dreamed it and made it beautiful.  It was never anyone’s utopia.

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, Sydney just doesn’t do it for me. But I’ve ranted and raved enough; am I ever going to shut the hell up and focus on where I want to be? It occurs to me that I waste a lot of energy thinking about the bad rather than looking for the good. In my life, that is.  As part of the email conversation that the quote above came from, my dad said that I should think about what really makes me happy and go for that.  But what does really make me happy?  I don’t think I know.

What I do know is that Sydney is not where I need to be, ever.  It’s not where my son needs to grow up, and it’s not where my husband belongs either, I know this to be true one hundred per cent.  He argues that, yes, we don’t like Sydney that much, but can we be certain we’d love somewhere else?  What if we moved to Melbourne and within a year I realised I hated it and wanted to move on again.  It’s true, there is no guarantee that won’t happen, that’s a risk.  But isn’t that what life is about, taking a chance, a risk, to get something better than what you’ve got?  What’s the alternative?  Continue to exist superficially in this mud hole of mediocrity?  Sell ourselves short for the rest of our lives?  We only have one (even though I do believe in reincarnation).

We’ve gotta get out of this place.  And please, universe, don’t let it be the last thing we ever do.

As it stands, it looks like we might be moving south west, but it’s not set in stone yet.  They have virtually offered us the place but there’s something about it that’s not sitting right with me or with husband.  We are considering our options over the weekend, as we’ve got to leave where we are because it’s too small.  We realise living near the beach is actually pretty fantastic, and maybe we want to keep doing that rather than moving to suburbia.  We’re going to pay through the nose anyway, so why not?

I’ll leave you with one of my favourites from the awesome Jethro Tull.  Makes me think of my dad’s Sydney analogy.

Northern lights and southern poverty

So there’s a lot going on for me at the moment and I’m just going to pour it all out as much as I want into this blog.

In the immediate future – tomorrow – I’m going to Tromso in Norway for three nights and four days and it’s going to be amazing.  I’ve got an odd obsession with Scandinavia, and I just know I’m going to love it regardless of what happens.  Of course I’m keen to the see the Northern Lights, but that’s not my main reason for going and I won’t be completely disappointed if I don’t see them. Just being anywhere in Scandinavia and particularly 350km north of the Arctic Circle in an amazing place like Tromso is just the ultimate getaway for me.

My partner is excited, of course, but he’s so down in the dumps about money at the moment it’s really difficult.  I completely understand, we really can’t afford this, given we’re moving permanently back to Australia from London in January, and there is so much to pay for. We’re also getting married in April, so there’s lots to organise and pay for there, and coming back to Australia we’ll have no jobs and no house, it’s going to mean starting from scratch with no real savings to speak of.

Last night we talked about it a bit and were asking ourselves, what are we doing? We came to the conclusion that we’ve still got to go, it’s what we want and there’s nothing to be gained by waiting around in London and prolonging our temporary living situation here. Of course we both have jobs here, but we’re deliberately not establishing ourselves as we’ve known for a while that we’re going back to Aus to live.

I think a massive issue is that we’ve decided to move to Sydney. I didn’t want to at first at all, and he didn’t want to go to Melbourne, which was my first choice as lots of my friends are there. I have a lot of family in Sydney, and I know they’d happily put us up temporarily but I just don’t want to do it, I don’t want to stay with them. There’s this feeling that I want to keep my life separate, that I don’t really want to spend that much time with them, that being around them doesn’t actually do anything for me as a person, it’s not the right path to take, in a sense. It’s such a strange and irrational feeling that it frustrates me to even try and articulate it.

I think about flying into Sydney in January and I can’t picture it, I can’t picture how it will be, how our first moments of our new life will play out.  I feel really lost going home, not because I don’t know it or don’t want to go, but because I don’t have a niche or a home there any more and I have to begin again.  The lack of money is a huge issue I guess, and if that wasn’t dominating things then the transition would feel a whole lot easier to digest. I think the way I’m going to handle this and get through it and find a workable solution is just to have a brainstorm. It’s different for my partner as he is not from Australia and really is starting a new life. I must make a lot of the choices about establishing ourselves there as I know the place, I know how things work etc.

I feel a bit weird not having a job at home. I’ve never been in this situation before, and while of course I have job hunted a lot in London it works totally differently in Aus. There isn’t this big market for recruitment agents over there, you just apply for jobs as best you can.  I’ve been applying, but there’s really not much out there and until I’m in the country I can’t do that much.

I guess up to that point I’m planning to get some extra money by selling a whole lot of stuff on ebay before we leave, and then when we get back I’ll hopefully get some tax back from the UK government plus perhaps National Insurance.  God knows what my tax situation will be like in Australia after not having submitted a tax return for two years!  But to be fair, I’ve been out of the country.  The only problem is that I’ve technically been earning income, as I own a house that I’ve had rented out the entire time.

It’s all very stressful but I do have faith that it’ll be okay in the end, it will somehow work out because this is my life and everything happens as it should, even bad things, it’s all for a reason which will reveal itself eventually as long as I keep my eyes open and learn the lessons coming my way.