Migrant reflections (by Sushi Das)

Letting go is harder than a fair go

THE beginning of the year is a fascinating and bewildering time in Australia.

It is marked by the somewhat predictable discussion about national identity and what it means to be Australian.

The usual celebration of the nation’s achievements, sacrifices and pioneering spirit is, more often than not, tempered by a passing nod to past horrors and present injustices.

Yet every year the nation gets no closer to nailing its identity and then moving on.

Interestingly, this annual ritual of prodding nationalism, for that is what Australia Day evokes, might be a useful thing. A nation of migrants needs a glue to keep its people together – and there’s no better glue than hand-on-the-heart, sentimental nationalism.

This year, I mark 20 years of being a migrant to Australia and I’m still learning what it means to be an Australian. I wonder if I’ll ever get the hang of it.

I didn’t come on a boat, I came on a plane. I wasn’t escaping from anywhere brutal, or looking for a new home. I came because life circumstances brought me here. I didn’t actually mean to stay. Like the story of so many relatively recent migrants from Britain, I came for work reasons but ended up remaining here.

Everything seemed so big when I arrived, and it still does. The sky was huge, the roads were wide, the cars were massive, the fridges were enormous, even the people seemed big. It all made me feel small.

Australia likes its migrants to be forever grateful for the opportunities it provides, and, believe me, I am. But perhaps because I didn’t embrace Australia with sufficient passion, Australia felt the need to teach me a lesson or two.

A few days after my arrival, I went into a post office in Carlton to buy stamps. ”Two first-class stamps, please,” I asked the man behind the counter. He looked at me, incredulous.

As he leaned across the counter, his face darkened with an expression that blended disgust, fury and pity.

”In Astraya,” he said, straightening out a gnarled finger in front of my face, ”we only have one class.”

Egalitarianism, I now know, is an ideal that Australia aspires to with all its heart. The fact that it hasn’t yet been achieved is neither here nor there. It’s the thought that matters.

”There is a whole set of Australian characteristics summed up in the phrase, ‘Fair go, mate’,” Donald Horne wrote nearly 50 years ago in The Lucky Country. ”This is what happened in Australia to the ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.”

Every new migrant who has set foot in Australia, from the British with their class system to the latest Indians with their caste system, must be subjected to at least one lesson in those Australian shibboleths: a fair go and mateship.

Armed with these characteristics, the migrant is then free to start a new life, a fresh beginning, be a success story, move from rags to riches, become the prime minister no less.

The migrant story, so familiar to Australian ears, is not only about wonderful new beginnings, it’s also about painful endings.

Like so many other migrants, I have learned my lessons through teary homesick eyes. There cannot be a single migrant who has not felt the sharp pain of letting go, letting go of the life they once knew, letting go of friends and family, letting go of a little bit of yourself.

A significant aspect of the migrant story is about pain – the type of pain you feel when you have a broken heart.

Loneliness, homesickness, the tyranny of distance, the yearning to go back one day are all part of what migrants feel at some stage.

In Australia, this aspect of the migrant experience is rarely discussed.

Even when it is, it is often drowned out by the whoop-whooping over this sunburnt land, God’s own country where the weather is beautiful one day, perfect the next.

Of course, there are many migrants, particularly refugees, who are overjoyed to be given a chance to start a new life here.

But even they must navigate the hardships that accompany starting from scratch. Dislocation is never easy.

Australia’s migrant experience is not simply a triumphant march of progress.

It is a journey that has countless stories of heartache in personal exile. The nation’s identity would be greatly enriched if the other side of the migrant story was brought into sharper focus.
Sushi Das – January 29, 2011- the Age Newspaper ” National Times’ )