Last Friday, I celebrated my third Australia Day living in Britain.
Here in Oxford, where the University is home to a tight-knit community of Australian postgraduates, the occasion was marked as it has been for some years now with an afternoon barbie in one of the college gardens (think snags, VBs and backyard cricket, but with gloves and scarves) and with a party in the evening in a college hall throbbing to the beat of Cold Chisel and INXS.
Not your average Australia Day, but it’s enough to make your average Aussie feel right at home.
Which leads me to a strange paradox of being an Australian expat. Take away the cold and permanently grey weather, and sometimes I feel more Australian here than when I’m back in Sydney.
You see, I find myself considered an ‘Aussie’ in Britain but never in Australia. I am, in short, an Aussie everywhere but at home.
I should explain. I’m not your quintessential Aussie male. In fact, I’m probably about as far removed as you can imagine from Chesty Bond, or the bronzed lifesaver type immortalised in the photography of Max Dupain. Being of Chinese and Laotian extraction, I have thick black hair, almond-shaped (for some, slanted) dark-brown eyes, and I’m a modest five-foot-nine-inches (1.75 metres) tall.
I’d be the first to admit that not being called an ‘Aussie’ in many ways represents a trivial complaint. It takes nothing away from either my Australianness or my underlying love of my country.
At the same time, to be regarded as an ‘Aussie’ as opposed to merely an ‘Asian’ (or for that matter, a ‘Leb’ or a ‘Muslim’) lends a certain legitimacy to one’s cultural identity. Only authentic Australians get called ‘Aussies.’
This isn’t a matter of the ethnic taking himself too seriously. For one thing, talk about ‘Australianness’ has become a much more pointed matter these days. And being Australian has taken on a different character at a time when we’ve generally become more ‘patriotic.’
It’s easy to forget now that outward displays of patriotism (flag waving, anthem singing, etc) weren’t always part of the Australian way an ethos previously defined by our phlegmatic temper and aversion to narcissism. As the critic Peter Conrad noted in his 2004 Boyer lectures Tales of Two Hemispheres, ‘self-celebration is not our mode.’ Three years later, you wonder whether Australians have moved on.
Thanks to Bill Leak
Whereas it could once be said that stumbling over the words to ‘Advance Australia Fair’ was a national character trait, many of us now sing it with our hands on our hearts. Ten years ago, we all cringed at Pauline Hanson wrapping herself in a cape of blue; today, it seems there’s nothing more fashionable than for young Aussies to drape themselves in the national flag at the cricket (or at Big Day Out, if the recent fuss in Sydney is anything to go by).
This isn’t to say that patriotism is a bad thing. But it needn’t involve an attitude of ‘my country right or wrong’ or ‘Australia: love it or leave it’ (as one bumper sticker I saw during my visit to Sydney earlier this month said). Where it stands for feel-good sentimentalism or jingoism, patriotism is more a vice than a virtue.
A more challenging patriotism a critical, liberal patriotism asks us not simply to follow national traditions blindly, but rather to embrace our national identity and values on the verdict of our own reason. More than this, it requires us to demand that we live up to the best of our traditions.
Thus, on the one hand, when we invoke ‘Australian values,’ we should do so not as a code for something malicious, but out of a rich awareness of our history and civic culture. On the other hand, when we do criticise our country, we should do so not out of gratuitous pleasure, but out of moral distress and indignation. Good citizens are unapologetic about demanding their nation is worthy of loyalty and affection.
Moreover, a liberal patriotism leaves room for us to acknowledge the complexities of a national identity in a multicultural society. It recognises the challenge of social cohesion in the face of diversity without leading us to draw straw-man caricatures of multiculturalism. It understands that diversity needn’t entail an endorsement of shallow relativism justifying everything that’s made in the name of ‘my culture,’ but can be based on the shared bond of citizenship.
Indeed, our cultural differences can allow us an occasion to reaffirm our common values. A liberal patriotism helps bring the pluralistic character of our national identity to fuller consciousness. It understands that the real question isn’t whether one is a true blue ‘Aussie,’ but what kind of Australian one should aspire to be.
Let’s not then be triumphant in our national pride, but be more demanding in our solidarity. If we are to be more patriotic in our ways, we should strive for a patriotism that makes everyone in our national family feel right at home.
This may seem like unfamiliar territory for many, but then so is having a barbie in the middle of an English winter. Even the most peculiar practices can become fond traditions.
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