Floating Life 4/06 ~ 11/07

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Multiculturalism is not (necessarily) the enemy…

In today’s Sun-Herald there is a piece by Kerry-Anne Walsh called “Multiculturalism isn’t the enemy.” Unfortunately, given it is an excellent piece, it is not online. It should be. So here most of it is:

…Twenty years ago, a folk festival in Australia was a homage to all things Celtic. It’s a sign of Australia’s extraordinary growth and maturity that the four-day [Canberra Folk] festival now attracts the cream of domestic and international acts and honours the music, dance, arts and cultural life of an extraordinary number of nationalities in the Australian family.

This year, as the poisonous war in Iraq and the turmoil in Afghanistan continue, the music of the Middle East was deliberately honoured.

As his Government readies to whistle up so-called cultural values as an election issue, Howard, if he’d attended, would have witnessed a microcosm of the miracle that is our new multicultural society.

Kevin Andrews, the staunchly Catholic Immigration Minister whose added title of Multicultural Affairs was ditched in January as the government moves to ditch multiculturalism altogether, might also have received divine enlightenment.

Traditional Aussie bush poets performed alongside a wide variety of Middle Eastern music and dance groups. Irish fiddlers jigged and reeled; Aussie bands played bouzoukis alongside didgeridoos. A Sunday morning ecumenical Easter service was themed in the celebration of diversity, with prayers for the narrow-minded, the war-torn, and the bigoted.

The broader political backdrop, in this election year, is an ideological battle over the future of multiculturalism with the government ramping up its “integration” rhetoric as the poll date nears.

Howard explained that dumping “multicultural affairs” from the ministry name and adding “citizenship” expressed “the desire and aspiration that immigrants become Australians”.

Does that mean that the 7 million people from 200 countries who have successfully made Australia home while retaining their own proud heritage haven’t wanted to become Australians?

Why not applaud the successes of our melting-pot society… instead of finding fault and political opportunities?

Multiculturalism didn’t create the Cronulla riots. White and black Australia led the way long before the term “multiculturalism” was coined in the 1970s. And white blokes sitting in radio studios are a bigger threat to racial harmony than a word.

The word “multiculturalism” is now loaded by some politicians and detractors to send the erroneous message that multiple cultures threaten the Anglo one.

They should get out more.

I despair at the anticorrectness correctness that infects the Howard government. They are tossing many a healthy baby out with the bathwater, I feel.

See also Shan Jayaweera, “Sharing two cultures shouldn’t be a test of allegiance.”

WHEN you are the child or grandchild of an immigrant, you live in a state of cultural limbo. Your culture is part of who you are, but the pressure is on to “integrate” into the “mainstream”. It is bad enough that this pressure to conform comes every day at school, at work and in the media.

But when you have politicians and commentators wanting to remove multiculturalism from the vocabulary, it is time to take a stand…

A beautiful illustration of what may happen for the good and for integration and community harmony at their best — that is when we simultaneously accept and celebrate diversity — may be found, according to the Encounter on ABC Radio National this morning, in Dandenong Hospital in Victoria. “The City of Greater Dandenong is one of Australia’s two most diversely populated municipalities and its local hospital has substituted a multi-faith ‘sacred space’ in the place of its old chapel.”

…Max Oldmeadow: Max Oldmeadow, and I guess I am here because I am old and I have been associated with the Christian Church. But I was born in Dandenong so of course when I was born there wasn’t a hospital. It was in the forties, early forties that it was opened and it was a locally run show right from the beginning.

Margaret Coffey: Creating a Sacred Space, on Encounter, – people of Dandenong telling a story of transformation in their community. I’m Margaret Coffey – and Max Oldmeadow is old enough to remember the groundwork, and the young men who cleared and drained the swampy rubbishy land in their own time, to make sure Dandenong would get a hospital.

Max Oldmeadow: I mean it was a broad group in the community that felt the need, both the medical practitioners, and there weren’t a lot of them in Dandenong in the forties. It was you know a fairly small country town, a market town at that stage,

Carmen Powell: Very much a country town, very safe. You could wander as a child for miles around and get tadpoles – I mean it seemed miles – now it is only a few streets. But no streets were formed, it was very much country. I would go to bed of a night to the sound of the town hall clock chiming. Very comforting feeling. Monday nights to the sound of the cattle being penned ready for market the following day. A blink of an eye. Mm…

Max Oldmeadow: Well my background is the Methodist Church which then became the Uniting Church. I’ve been closely associated with that I guess all my life. I was a lay preacher I have to say for fifty plus years and you know I do remember the Churches played a very big part at the beginning. They were determined there should be a chapel. I’m doing a history at the moment of the 150th anniversary of Methodist and Presbyterian Churches in Dandenong – I’m doing the Methodist bit – and reading minutes I read where the appropriate committee of the Methodist Church saying we’ve just got to support the ministers fraternal in getting a chapel. And of course it was appropriate it should be a Christian chapel at that stage because the population of the city was almost entirely Anglophile (sic). There were virtually no people even from Europe pre Second World War

Carmen Powell: My first contact with another culture was the beautiful Steve Manias.

Max Oldmeadow: There was just one famous fish shop belonging to Steve and this was quite unique. And he was a Greek and this was quite unique.

Carmen Powell: If you went past their house and they were talking all this, as I thought then, yabber, that was really scary stuff. So you sort of got onto the other side of the road. There was just none around…

Carmen Powell: Being a timid person – I’ve always been pretty scared of anybody that was a different colour than me. But a couple of years back I did a New Year’s resolution that I was going to get to know some of these other cultures and through the Historical Society I’ve become involved in a work for the dole program and I work with these people two days a week, from as black as pitch through to all grades of colour. Fabulous. Muslims, Sudanese, Chinese, Vietnamese. It has just been so good because they are just ordinary. Yes, I am surprised, myself. I haven’t spoken it out before.

Norma Dickson: We see an awful lot of different cultures coming through here now. You accept them. That’s what they are. And I think on the whole everyone at Dandenong gets on really well – we’re a very happy hospital. The little lady who was dishing out the cappuccinos this morning, said Oh I just get sent to here and she said but I have just found everyone so friendly here, she said, it is just no nice to be here, and that’s what Dandenong Hospital always has been since I’ve been here.

Max Oldmeadow: You know this sacred space, I just love it. I just think it is a beautiful spot and just so important in our community…

That sounds like success to me.


I have mirrored this post on the English and ESL site.

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Written by Neil

April 15, 2007 at 10:21 am

4 Responses

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  1. This is a really great post on immigration and I was wondering if you would be interested in a link exchange with Immigration Orange. Email me at beausset at fas dot harvard dot edu if you’re interested. I hope this comment finds you well.

    Kyle de Beausset

    April 15, 2007 at 12:49 pm

  2. Thanks for calling, Kyle. I commend your site and have blogrolled it.


    April 15, 2007 at 2:16 pm

  3. There is an important element to the success of a multi-cultural society that may be overlooked. That is, how much of the foreign culture must be let go, in order for the immigrant to integrate into the host country. This is a critical element because without it, immigrants can live their entire lives in an enclave without learning the language of the host country. My parents are immigrants and my wife is an immigrant. From my observations, they all have had to adapt to this country in order to integrate. Certain cultural values have been discarded in the process of becoming a successful immigrant. I can give various examples from the trivial such as a woman shaving her legs (which is frowned upon in Europe) to the profound such as new moral values (where young girls have more freedoms) that are different to the old culture that has been left behind in the home country.

    This shedding of culture may be invisible to rest of the community but is traumatic and difficult for the immigrant.

    To me, this is the key factor that makes multi-culturalism successful. Without this willingness to change we end up with enclaves of communities that are self-sustaining and shut off from the rest of society.


    April 16, 2007 at 12:03 am

  4. There’s a lot of truth in what you say, Lexcen. A process of acculturation (which I would carefully separate from “assimilation”) definitely occurs in migrant communities. You are right too about the trauma. Even English migrants can be affected: hence the “whinging Pom” stereotype. I had a Lake Country great-grandmother (or perhaps great-great-grandmother — oral history can be vague) who died believing Dulwich Hill in Sydney was actually the Lake Country… Alzheimers, perhaps, but also grief and dislocation. My Chinese friend M, who has acculturated very successfully, still is in many essential ways Chinese, yet when he is in China he tends, he once said, to feel Australian.

    Many old people never come to terms with English. Even today you can find elderly Italians in Leichhardt whose English is not very good and who far prefer to talk Italian, and not only Italian but their regional dialect.

    As generations go on much is shed, but sometimes younger people seek to rediscover what they feel is missing. The photographer William Yang is a good example, not that he is young any more. He is a third generation Chinese Australian who was brought up deliberately without any Chinese cultural input. His parents, especially his mother, decided there was not much point in being Chinese in rural Queensland in the 1950s. He has said on many occasions that he spent the first thirty or so years of his life pretending (despite the obvious physical signs) not to be Chinese, as if, to use his words, it was some kind of curse. (The talk in which he says all this is in my book From Yellow Earth to Eucalypt.) Only through rediscovering Chinese culture did he become whole again, and, I might add, wholly Australian.

    There are all kinds of adaptations people make one to another. What I like about the Dandenong example is that the adaptations are multi-faceted and not all on one side. Some of them have been brought about because deliberate policy as well as social change have impacted on that community, but policy and social change have married a willingness to adapt on all sides, and have flourished as people find “the other” is “just ordinary”, as Carmen Powell so beautifully said.

    We have been moving too far towards forced or one-sided models of adaptation in recent years, I feel, a revival of a “be like us you bastard or else” mentality which is not good for any of us, in my view.


    April 16, 2007 at 12:29 am

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