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Letters from Downunder

Viva la difference

Submitted by Lindsay, Melbourne Australia!

Australia and America have many things in common, and one of the most profound is the heritage our migrants have given their new land. Your main migrations began some 300 years ago, ours much later. Many from the British Isles came here in the years up to 1948, but from 1946 people from all over Europe and the Indian subcontinent came in droves, so that today there's not one country without it's communities, pretty much as in the USA, although the proportions are wildly different.

But because of your greater migrant time span the mix and benefits of other cultures, other voices, other tastes has had longer to be appreciated and assimilated. When news first traveled back to Europe that this new land was one of plenty, boundless opportunity and adventure, the excitement spread; when it was realized that there was this plus freedom from persecution, intolerance and warfare, the exodus from the old to the new was staggering. The new land needed new arrivals, and it proclaimed the benefits with excitement. There's an old song I love, called 'Uncle Sam's Farm', a kind of migrant recruiting tale: There's plenty of room, an abundance of riches, so come along, come along, uncle Sam's farm welcomes you. (There's also a certain statue in a certain harbor with the same message.)

All these new arrivals brought with them their own rich veins of culture and tradition, which they planted so their children would grow up with a knowledge and understanding of their heritage - but these veins also became part of the whole landscape for all to see and perhaps share or admire. In doing this they became the country in which they reside - and as all of us are the descendants of migrants, (unless we happen to be part of the original inhabitants, a true 'native of the land'), we have not just our own original culture to draw on, but the opportunity of experiencing the riches that the forebears of those around us brought with them as well.

Isn't it strange, then, that after migrants have become assimilated, they often start to look down on the next wave of new arrivals as being 'hated and despised foreigners', unfit to live in OUR land, taking OUR jobs, destroying OUR culture and so on. Knowledge of their history is soon forgotten, memories of their original culture become insignificant, but because they are individual humans they're in desperate need of finding something to feel superior about, something they can call 'theirs'. These folk become fearful that their way of life is in jeopardy, close ranks and minds, come to believe they're the only ones that matter, that everyone should be like them, and deny the rights and freedoms of others. Fear and loathing of outsiders is xenophobia , which can become entrenched in a society that allows some of these folk to become powerful.

Many years ago I remember regularly walking past a backyard farm that some Italian migrants had created; it was a thing of real beauty, and the farmer would happily talk to passersby about his wonderful new home - very different to the dried slopes of Calabria - and invite one in for a coffee and a chat. His children, still at primary school, had absorbed the language and idiom like natives born, and his wife would try to teach us Italian. I got to know them quite well, and grew to admire their endeavour and positive outlook - but one day he said, out of earshot of the family, " You tell me, please, why the government let these Indians in? They spoil the country. They dirty it. Lazy, greedy. They no deserve this beautiful land."

I was able to point to his certificate of naturalization, just three years old. As a look of understanding dawned, I asked him "ever eaten Indian food?" At his nod, I asked, "enjoy it?" He could only smile as he slowly said "si…"

Every culture has it's unsettling practices, it's weird culture, as well as its crooks, idiots and lowlifes, but each has it's own vibrant facets to add to ours, enriching and enlarging it. When avocados were introduced I bought one, took it home and tried to eat it. Horrible. No one had told me they needed to be ripe. Same with Kiwi fruit, which were originally called 'Chinese gooseberries', but for certain reasons were rechristened. Green, they're awful - but I wouldn't like to be without them today. Same with Tandoori, Kebabs, Borscht, pasta - you name it, and it's nearly always worth trying. And as I'm rather involved in the music broadcasting industry, where would we be today without the oud, the shakuhachi, the marimba, the rebec, and so on? How would we get on without jazz? Or the tango? We'd be deprived of wonderful food for the senses.

So I respect the cultures that have brought us so many new, vibrant experiences. I don't eat Kosher, but respect those who do. I don't practice Ramadan, but again respect those who do. The list could go on, but instead of getting upset at the foreign-ness all around me, I try to embrace it. I've never been disappointed. And do I have friends from around the world? You bet I do. And I still have my heritage, my values, my ethics, the things of value inherited from my forebears, hopefully to be seen and considered by those around me. We can have the memories of our history and trappings of our culture, we can follow the time honored rituals, but when we try to impose that on others, do we not demean their culture and history? Resentment blooms, division occurs, splits in the fabric of society develop. Anyway, how do you make people like and respect you and your beliefs? Not by hitting them over the head. Ask a horse. But would be dictators still try to.

The business I'm with has new owners, husband and wife, whose forebears came here about 150 years ago. They're fifth generation Australian, lovely folk who have distinctive Chinese features. My wife's father's folk got here in 1780 with the British army. Mine arrived in 1898. I'm the new kid on the block.

So, here's today's quiz: (1) How many generations have you been in your country? (2) How many different countries of origin are the people, or their ancestors, in your town from?

Call it what you like, multiculturalism is great. Vive la difference!


Read Past DownUnder Columns by Lindsay Coker