Finding home in a new land
Today is the first day of spring. I am at a playground, sunning my winter skin. My four-year-old is pretending to be a shopkeeper. She piles tanbark into my one-year-old’s palms. He shovels some into his mouth and she demands 63 dollars from him in return. They are free to live in their imaginary world (albeit one where tanbark costs its weight in gold).
They look nothing like me, my children. They have milky skin and waves of gold-flecked hair. My son has just learnt to speak but the few words he uses have a distinct antipodean twang. My daughter, with her blue eyes and dimples, wouldn’t be out of place running along a beach in some Tourism Australia ad. In reality they are half Lebanese, a quarter Chinese and only a quarter Anglo-Celtic Australian. But they are Australian-born and, for now, there is no ambiguity about their home. The only house they have ever known is a single-fronted weatherboard in inner-city Melbourne.
I’ve been thinking about identity a lot lately. As someone of mixed race, who has spent half her life in Australia and half her life in Hong Kong, identity is not something I have ever taken for granted. But it came to a head recently, and somewhat unexpectedly, on applying for a writing prize. The prize was for writers from migrant backgrounds and I wondered if I would qualify. My native tongue is English. I can only speak a few words of Cantonese. I have double-lidded eyes and brown hair and people are forever telling me I don’t look Chinese. But I met the prize’s eligibility criterion of having at least one parent who was born overseas. So I forged ahead. Yet I was surprised when, on mentioning the prize to a close friend, she said, ‘But you’re not from a migrant background.’ The friend later apologised but that initial response—which mirrored my own uncertainty—caused me to reflect on what defines a migrant, or indeed, a person from a migrant background.
The Oxford Dictionary is pretty clear; a migrant is ‘a person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions’. Most would agree this definition is too simple. People move countries for many other reasons: to reunite with family, to study, for curiosity, adventure. Lately ‘migrant’ has become an umbrella term for a diverse group comprising economic migrants and refugees. In Europe, where people from Africa and the Middle East are contributing to migrant numbers not seen since the Second World War, newspapers are coupling the word ‘migrant’ with some frighteningly negative ones. ‘Migrant mayhem’, ‘Migrant invasion’ and ‘Migrant chaos’ are just a few I have encountered in the past year. I fear the word itself is becoming contaminated.
When my father left Hong Kong in the mid seventies he did not see himself as a migrant. Having graduated top of his year at university, he could have had any job he wanted. And while his family was not wealthy, he had always been well provided for. If he was fleeing anything it was the mounting expectations from friends and colleagues in the wake of his academic success. By 1975 word in Hong Kong had spread about prime minister Gough Whitlam’s open migration policies. My dad knew that, as a doctor, his skills were particularly sought after. He did not know anything about the White Australia policy—a historical approach to immigration that restricted applicants from non-European countries. He had never visited Australia before. His preconceptions amounted to an image from a school textbook of a smiling blonde woman hugging a lamb to her chest.
On his arrival in Australia he was shocked. In Hong Kong nobody—except the obscenely rich—lived in houses; in Adelaide everyone had a three-bedroom brick veneer in the suburbs. He was struck by the vastness. How big and flat the sky, how black and silent the night. He found the people confusing too. On the one hand, they were friendly—sometimes overfamiliar—bestowing on him nicknames after meeting him only a couple of times. On the other hand, they were individualistic. Male friends did not make physical contact unless it was absolutely necessary. People, as a general rule, did not live with their extended families. The tidy suburban landscape seemed to reflect these modern values. Unlike in Hong Kong, where people literally lived on top of one another, Australians were neatly divided by a stretch of lawn and a Holden parked in the driveway.
Twelve years later, in 1987, my future husband, Dani*, sits in similar amazement in the back seat of his aunt’s Datsun. But instead of the luxury of space he is stunned by the lack of security. He and his family have just left Lebanon, a country in the throes of a civil war. To him—accustomed to bomb blasts and retreats to his apartment block’s basement—the easily scaled fences and bar-less windows of Melbourne houses seem grossly inadequate.
His family of five moves into his aunt’s three-bedroom Coolaroo home. He is ten years old. He speaks almost no English. Having always attended Catholic schools in Lebanon, his father assumes the local Australian Catholic school will take him and his younger brother. But it takes weeks of arguments with the school before the principal finally agrees to enrol them. He and his brother are the first and only Muslims in the school. Weeks pass. One day Dani appeals to a classmate—a quiet, non–threatening boy—to help him write down the homework. When the student obliges, Dani is so grateful, he kisses the boy on the cheek. But what is a routine gesture in Lebanon is met only with disgust by his Australian classmates. Immediately and for weeks afterwards he is taunted for being ‘gay’; an accusation he finds confusing coming from boys who chat naked in the school change rooms—something unheard of in Lebanon. He makes no friends that year. But he is smart and with the encouragement of his parents, he focuses on his studies. Eventually he masters English and finishes top of his class. It is an achievement normally marked by an award. But not that year.
My father is also mistaken for being gay. An Australian friend and fellow doctor quietly professes love to him. My dad—shocked—declines his advances, explaining that he is heterosexual. ‘I just thought,’ the embarrassed doctor explains, ‘the way you put your arm around your friends’ shoulders …’ Soon afterwards, my dad meets the woman who would become my mother. She is an intern and a fifth-generation Australian. He thinks she has a nice smile. She, apparently, feels sorry for him. One day, she buys two tickets to the Rocky Horror Picture Show. The rest, as they say, is history.
The year is 1978. The Galbally Report, commissioned by prime minister Malcolm Fraser, outlining measures to ‘make migrants more welcome’, has just been released. My father has been in Australia for three years, he has friends, a wife and a mortgage. He feels at home in what was once a strange and quiet land. Wanting to remain in Adelaide, he applies for a training post in renal medicine. He gets it. But his future boss warns him that there will be no permanent job for him at the end of it. That position, he informs my dad, has been reserved for his Australian-born colleague, Tim. A keen golfer and regular at the local pub, Tim is one of the boys. My dad knows he can’t compete. In what is a feeble attempt to justify his actions, the specialist reassures my father that he ‘can always go back to Hong Kong.’ Which is what he eventually does.
In spite of these experiences, my husband and my father are some of the most patriotic people I know. My husband loves Australia. When the Socceroos lost to Italy in the 2006 World Cup, nobody—except perhaps the players and the coach—was more distraught than he was. Similarly my dad can’t sleep after watching a Wallabies match. If they win, he is too excited to rest. If they lose, he is too distressed. But it isn’t just about the sport. Both men, in their respective countries, will staunchly defend Australia—its democratic politics, its freedom, its openness, its values. My husband argues that Australia is one of—if not the—most tolerant of countries, while my father has always maintained that he never experienced racism, only parochialism.
But they get homesick too. When I hear Arabic music emanating from the master bedroom I know my husband is missing Lebanon. And while the nightlife and general convenience in Australia have come a long way since 1975, when my dad finally retires in Melbourne I know he will long for the organised chaos of Hong Kong. As I do. Because no adopted home will ever replace the country, city, or town where you first learnt to navigate your way in the world. That special place where you get your bearings not from street names but from a series of treasured memories: the speed bump where you fell off your BMX bike; the cinema where you watched The Goonies; that spot on the beach, behind the toilets, where you got drunk on homemade Long Island Ice Tea.
Migration is hard. To a great extent, the smoothness of the transition depends on the circumstances in which the individual migrates. My dad’s move to Australia was easier than Dani’s because he had not been forced to leave Hong Kong. Perhaps more importantly, he lost no status through his migration—if anything, my father knew his foreign training would be looked on favourably by colleagues back home. Dani’s family, on the other hand, would have preferred to remain in Lebanon. If not for the civil war they may never have moved to Australia. My father-in-law—once a lecturer at a prominent Lebanese university—owned and ran a milk bar when he came to Melbourne. As a result of inflation of the Lebanese lira, savings from his once enviable lecturer’s salary were worth next to nothing in Australian dollars.
But there were good times. My family and Dani’s family both experienced great friendships over the years. Thirty years down the track, my in-laws are still in touch with their first-ever landlords in Australia—two wonderful and generous Italian women—and my parents remain in contact with our original neighbours from southern Sydney. And then there are the laughs. Because there is something inherently funny about the mishaps that result from well-meaning people from different backgrounds. Like the time my dad’s friend, an Indian doctor, freaked out when the smiling woman in the hospital cafeteria asked him if he’d come to Australia ‘to die’. It wasn’t until much later, once he’d grown familiar with the Australian accent, that he realised the woman had said ‘today’. Or the time a neighbour paid a visit to my mother-in-law to warn her that he would be hosting a house party the following night. And how my mother-in-law had confused this for an invitation—because in Lebanon it would be rude to let someone know about a party and not invite them—and she had turned up bearing a cake and wearing a fancy dress.
The relationship a migrant has with their adopted home can be an extraordinarily complex one. Unfortunately such complexity is rarely explored in the media today. We tend to hear rags-to-riches tales about migrants who are eternally grateful or—at the other extreme—stories of radicalisation and extreme hatred. But much like Australia’s attitude to migration over the years, a migrant’s love for their new home can ebb and flow over time.
• • •
It is more than 50 years since Donald Horne wrote The Lucky Country. Since then the phrase has lost much of its intended irony. Horne meant it as a warning: ‘Australia is a lucky country, run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck.’ The book is critical of Australian politicians and intellectuals for their complacency and lack of imagination. Horne urges them to stop resting on their laurels and to start contributing to the country’s good fortune. In particular, he stresses the importance of large-scale Asian migration in the continued prosperity of Australia.
In a section entitled ‘Migrants—how assimilated?’ Horne reflects on Australia’s success as a multicultural nation in the 1960s. Horne compares the ability of people from different parts of Europe to ‘lose their sense of difference’, eventually asserting that the ‘Greeks may be the slowest assimilators of all’. The word assimilation has since gone out of favour, and rightly so. It has been used to justify terrible initiatives such as the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families. But the notion that people should be able to shed their culture like a coat so as fully to participate in Australian society still exists. Even for my husband, who is fair haired and blue eyed and can talk cricket and footy with the best of them, this has not always been an easy task.
On 11 September 2001, when al-Qaeda attacked New York’s World Trade Centre, things changed. Soon afterwards, my husband was nicknamed ‘Terrorist’ by a couple of his Australian colleagues. He played along because, in Australia, as Horne points out, ‘a usual form of social intercourse is “chiacking”, pulling someone’s leg’. But it hurt: it highlighted that no matter how many hours my husband spent hanging out with these guys at the pub, no matter how many years he spent working alongside them at the hospital, he would never truly be one of them.
Around the same time the word ‘un-Australian’ was everywhere in the mainstream media. It was and still is a perplexing term, which presumes there is some widely accepted definition of what makes a true Australian. In The Lucky Country, Horne devotes an entire chapter to answering the question ‘What is an Australian?’ He describes a people who are recklessly optimistic but also sceptical and suspicious; who lack imagination but have an enviable talent for improvisation. Australians, he says, have a ‘rough and ready capacity for immediate affection’ but are simultaneously wary of public emotion and sentimentality. Even as he criticises his fellow writers for failing to ‘come to grips with their own people’, Horne struggles to harness something inherently nebulous and changeable. In 2007 John Howard tried—and failed—to distil the answer to a few questions on a citizenship test. But does knowledge of the national gemstone or familiarity with Australia’s colonial past really prove someone to be a fair dinkum Aussie? This and terms such as Tony Abbott’s ‘Team Australia’ do nothing to heal the fractures in our multicultural society. Rather than encouraging integration and cohesion, they foster a mentality of us and them, love us or leave us, fit in or fuck off.
The language around migration is equally divisive. ‘Skilled’ migrants, like my father, who filled a workforce shortage, are often looked on favourably by politicians. They satisfy Howard and Abbott’s rhetoric that ‘we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’. But my in-laws, officially economic migrants, were educated people too. My father-in-law was a university academic, my mother-in-law a high school principal. They had skills, just not the ones Australia was in need of at the time. And although sponsored by family in Australia and not officially refugees, they, too, were forced to leave their country because of war.
People do not always fit neatly into predetermined categories. And yet the category a person falls into has a significant effect on the way they are perceived. Rarely do politicians point out that refugees may have skills we can use in Australia. The perception is almost always that they will be a drain on our community, that they will be competitors for, instead of creators of, jobs and opportunities. Horne acknowledged that it is ‘the talent of immigrants, or their unusual cultivation of talent in their children, that has helped to keep the whole show going’. My husband and I studied medicine with the sons and daughters of refugees. Together we service our community. We pay taxes. We contribute to economic growth.
It is undeniable that multiculturalism has and will continue to shape Australian society. As Horne points out, Australia cannot ‘swallow its migrants whole’ and not be altered by their digestion. Today’s Australia is very different from the one described in Horne’s book. This is, in large part, a result of immigration and multiculturalism.
As I watch my children roll in the tanbark, blissfully oblivious to the ‘sense of difference’ Horne referred to, I feel immensely proud of their diverse and colourful heritage. In our household we celebrate Christmas, Easter, Chinese New Year, Ramadan and Eid. My children’s daycare centre acknowledges these and other festivals. My family and my husband’s family can easily source the ingredients necessary to re-create our childhood meals. Rather than a hindrance, I believe my children’s cultural literacy will be an advantage in an increasingly global world. But I am no clairvoyant. I don’t know what the future holds for my half Lebanese, one quarter Chinese and one quarter Anglo-Celtic Australian children. I can only hope that one day, when they stop to consider where they were born, they will count themselves lucky.