Coming and going in the global village

‘I never thought that globalisation would mean that I would lose my kids,’ the well-travelled woman across the lunch table complained. Her son is a banker in London, her daughter a lawyer in New York, her other son an aid worker. Lose is too strong a word, her children come and go and, thanks to the internet, remain almost as close as if they lived in the same city. But her sense of loss is real, and to her mind their departure is one of the unexpected, and unwelcome, consequences of globalisation.

Globalisation is more often thought of in terms of the spread of logos, slogans and brands, of free-trade agreements, instant communication and technology that sends exponentially increasing dollars flitting around the virtual world. Yet it is the movement of people that holds it together.

There are now more than 200 million people working outside their homelands. This number roughly divides into the cosmopolitan élite who move with apparent ease between glamorous jobs in global cities; wanderers and travellers looking to experience whatever the world can offer; exiles who left or were pushed out of their homelands; guest workers whose labour fuels struggling home economies and keeps their families fed; refugees on dusty roads and in ramshackle camps seeking new opportunities; and the most desperate group of all, those trafficked in the re-emerging global slave trade.

These categories have recurred in varying proportions for centuries in each era of globalisation. From the time of the earliest empires to more recent colonies there have been people prepared to move and people who were forced to move, those who never looked back and those who could never find a way to belong in a new land. The tales of immigration, of suitcases packed with dreams and memories, of success and failure in new lands, of never returning and learning to belong in two places, have become a central part of the rich mosaic of the Australian story.

Some of these stories are captured in the new edition of Griffith Review, Our Global Face Inside the Australian diaspora (ABC Books), which will be available next week, but they are given a new twist as the sons, daughters and grandchildren of earlier migrants rediscover their mother tongues, seek ancestral passports, bring back packages of dirt from distant homelands to scatter on their parents’ graves, and pack their bags and depart, repeating a quest that once brought their forebears to Australia. In the process they redefine what it means to be Australian or Greek, or German, or Lebanese, or Hungarian, or Polish, or Chinese, or Indian, or Italian in a global village, where more than four million Australians hold dual citizenship.

It is hardly surprising that Australia, itself a product of many, many earlier migrations, should now have become a place that people leave in an era of global opportunity. The same spirit that brought so many here on voyages of adventure and discovery is drawing their grandchildren away. The realisation over the past couple of years that nearly five per cent of the Australian population lives abroad, that the Australian diaspora numbers nearly one million people, brought us up with a jolt when we first heard the numbers.

Surely that was the experience of Britain or Italy or Greece or Turkey or Vietnam or India or, especially, New Zealand. People left other countries to come here. But at the beginning of this century, the numbers began to tell a different story “ the Australian diaspora was comparable in scale to that of many of the countries that traditionally sent people here. Certainly, more people are arriving than leaving but the number leaving is large and growing and accounts for a significant portion of the population, especially those who are highly educated.

The initial panicked reaction was to fear a brain drain and devise strategies to get people back, to blame ourselves for their departures, to grizzle about tall poppies. Then it dawned that this spread of talented people, who still thought of themselves as Australian, was an opportunity. The Lowy Institute for International Relations found in its comprehensive review of the reaction to the exodus, Diaspora: The world wide web of Australians (2004), that most Australians welcomed the energy and initiative that took people away, seeing in this movement both opportunities for personal growth and national development. Other countries with longer histories of emigration have been quick to use networks of expats to advance national interests and political, economic and cultural agendas.

As recognition of the number of Australians in high-ranking jobs around the world grows, the potential to tap into the diaspora has emerged as a political and economic issue, triggering parliamentary inquiries, special initiatives to lure expats home and the use of the networks to extend trade and cultural contact. Thanks to the assiduous work of the advocacy organisation Southern Cross Group, reviews of citizenship legislation and voting rights are now squarely on the political agenda.

Extending the voting rights to non-resident Australians, as has occurred in other countries with big diasporas Italy, Greece, Philippines will be the acid test of acceptance of the continuing role of non-resident citizens. Should they be able to exercise their political power it may be considerable. Fewer than 20 000 registered to vote at this year’s election, but arguably 500 000 may be eligible to do so. Recognising that not all Australians live here, but that many who leave continue to think of themselves primarily as Australian, is an important new way of thinking.

The way that people come and go in the global village is now quite different to the earlier patterns of immigration and exile. Many find they can see their homeland more clearly from afar. Certainly there is both a push and a pull that entices people to leave, but the experience today is not that of an earlier generation of expats who fled a land that bored them, as Germaine Greer once wrote, or ended up in another country as a result of a leisurely job application, or as a result of falling in love, or with a desire to proselytise about Australia. Nor does it fit the pattern of immigrants and refugees fleeing as far as possible to escape the pressures and privations of war-torn societies.

Although some of those who leave now do so because of the restraints of gender or opportunity, more leave as they follow careers, education, or loved ones. As such, it is the product of an adventurous spirit, a response to the new possibilities that enable people to come and go, often stopping only when they find love or a really good job.

The dream of returning recurs, yet the way back is often harder and more complicated than they could have imagined. Many of the national characteristics that pushed people to leave in the first place taunt them on return. The fatted lamb may be prepared to welcome the prodigal, but often, once the feast is over, they are left bereft feeling that they have lost the ear for local nuances and feeling derided as tall poppies if they seek to apply the fruits of their international experience. At an emotional level, homecoming can be very troubling.

This global movement is not as uncomplicated as the personal success stories suggest. At every turn, the enthusiastic explorer encounters the limits of what is possible, of visas and bureaucracy, of rules and regulations, and of social unease about the consequences of a highly mobile world. Capital may be free to move, but people are often caught in a knot of red tape and xenophobia. Some of the most urgent political debates of recent years have had at their core the questions that trail this movement of people around the globe, debates that have been as divisive in other countries as they have been here. Those without the advantages of the cosmopolitan élites refugees and those trafficked in the re-emerging global slave trade are much less able to navigate the rules and red tape to find a tolerable life.

Of course place and belonging are intimately entwined and the emotions raised are not simply triggered by moving abroad a move to Melbourne, Cape York or the Kimberley can be as profoundly challenging as a move to New York or Paris. Diasporas of the mind can occur within and between countries, triggering the pressures of dislocation, and the unexpected responses. Yet even the most experienced expat sometimes needs the mirror that only compatriots can offer, just to see themselves.

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The Current Issue
The current issue is titled Our Global Face and explores the nature of the Australian diaspora. It is full of stories of coming and going and belonging in the global village. It is a delightful read, but with some serious issues as well.

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