What an extraordinary week it’s been for viewing.
On the world stage there’s been the brilliant Paralympics, where every athlete has a story worth telling; in Australia there has been the brilliant SBS series, Go Back to Where You Came From, which has stirred some fiery debates; within Australasia the YouTube video of New Zealand troops performing a spine-tingling haka to welcome home the bodies of their comrades who died in Afghanistan went viral, and for good reason; and here in Melbourne I was priviledged to see the Black Arm Band perform their celebration of Aboriginal culture and music, Dirtsong.
The wider debate stirred up by the second series of Go Back to Where You Came From has been good, if only because I think the only people who watched it were probably the left-of-field folk (me included) who wanted to watch Peter Reith squirm and see how much heart was hidden under Angry Anderson’s tough, tattoed skin.
Former shock-jock Mike Smith had to be included so we really had someone to bag for being such a bastard. And that Imogen Bailey turned out to have some brains as well as looks I think surprised a lot of people – possibly even the producers.
But I digress. One of the conversations that sprung from this was with a woman at my gym who hadn’t seen the program; I was trying to describe the format, journey and outcomes to her.
She’s a lovely, compassionate person who I’ve seen support dozens of women in all shapes and sizes as they battle with fitness and body image at the gym, so ‘gobsmacked’ doesn’t convey how shocked I was when she said: “Well I’d be one of the ones turning back the boats around and shooting anyone who tried to land; they should wait their turn like everyone else.”
So few words, so many urban myths; where do you start?
Do you mention that Australia is legally obliged to give (a) protect those at risk in our waters and (b) give at least temporary asylum to those found to be genuine refugees; or point out that shooting is just a tad more illegal than any ‘illegality’ attached to landing without a passport?
How about that old chestnut about “waiting your turn”, when there’s no official list and no-one can tell you how long you have to wait (some on the show said they’d been living in limbo in Indonesia for years, accepted by the UN as refugees but still in danger of being arrested and not allowed to work).
And what about that “like everyone else” bit? – the vast majority of refugees arrive by plane then apply for asylum when they get here, and most of the ‘illegal immigrants’ expelled from Australia each year are Kiwis and Poms who’ve overstayed their visas or non-citizens who get deported after a stint in jail.
After all, I was an illegal immigrant for a year or two, I told her.
“But you’re different – they don’t assimilate,” was the reply.
OK so here’s the even bigger can of worms.
Did I assimilate because I speak English, have a reasonable level of education, some work experience, know how western ‘civilisation’ works and have been introduced to deodorant?
Or because I’m white and, for all intents and purposes, a Christian?
Let’s face it, assimilation is a two-way street. To fit in you have to both be willing to adapt – and be welcomed in by the dominant culture.
And, by definition, that ‘home’ culture will then take on an infinitesimal change because it has taken in that new person.
Surely it’s unrealistic to expect the Australian culture to be static, as some more ‘whitebread’ conservatives would chose? Even if no more migrants moved here for the next decade, the national character would still change: children would still want a new lexicon to their parents, TV shows would bring their own catchphrases and trends, magazines and visiting chefs would influence foods and flavours, and overseas fashions and music would have their impact.
Which is why Pauline Hanson got such a rude shock when she headed back to the Mother Ship of England and was met by Jamaican accents and the world’s best curry. I’ve met some Greek yayas who’ve had the same shock on going ‘home’ after decades, too.
In fact it’s ironic that the Gym Lady even considers assimilation an issue, as her family is part of the 40-50% of my suburb who originate from Italy; whole villages migrated here in the 1960s and their combined influence on the area – along with that of Greeks, Slavs and other Europeans – has been huge; there are many shops (the best delis and bakeries) in the area where you could barely work if you don’t speak Greek or Italian, and many of my elderly neighbours still struggle with English, even after 40+ years.
There are two official meanings to the verb assimilate:
- to take in and understand fully, as in integrating ideas and culture (and to absorb and digest/use – either literally or metaphorically)
- to cause to resemble/liken or to come to resemble/be like something.
Surely to fully assimilate, not only do you need the understanding and “becoming like” bits happening, but also the acceptance.
That will always be harder for people who look different to what is perceived to be the norm, whether it’s in skin colour, disability, clothing or behaviour. Once you get past the looks and get to know people, naturally you discover what you have in common (or not) and can a better view of the sort of person they are.
I’m sure some of our Paralympic champions know all about that.
And I’m dead sure our Aboriginal community knows far more than they want to.
In fact, the difference between the story of fighting for acceptance in their own land that underlines Dirtsong, and the way New Zealand’s white community has embraced the Maori tongue and culture – such as the haka – is quite revealing.
I was amazed on visiting NZ that Maori words are used throughout children’s programs such as Playschool, and that news readers greet their audience with “Kia Ora” instead of “Good evening”.
Sitting in the Recital Centre on Saturday, I reckon I could safely challenge any non-Aboriginals in the audience to know even one word in any of the hundreds of languages once used by indigenous Australians. To mark their loss, eleven languages were used in Dirtsong – although sadly the writers had to ask academics for help in the translating because so much of the knowledge has been lost through colonial attempts to ‘assimilate’ Aboriginals.
Yet where is the evidence of non-Aboriginal assimilation with the land of Australia?
Experts still disagree on how best to manage the land and my interest in Australian plants is regularly met with surprise and admissions of ignorance by those who are otherwise proud to be 4th, 5th, or 6th generation Australian; knowledge of its bird and animal life, or understanding of its climate and seasons is equally woeful for most city folk.
So perhaps we should consider the true meaning of assimilation before we go accusing others of sticking with the people and cultural norms that make folk feel ‘at home’.
After all, it’s the unfair judging of people before you get to know them that gives rise to the word prejudice.