There’s a question I dread being asked. It’s enough to get me all confused and then depressed, as I admit to not really knowing the answer even though I clearly should. That question, so innocently asked, is: ‘So, where are you from?’
It’s a question that’s quite simple for most people but in my case, as a second generation migrant from Egypt, nothing could be further from being simple.
If I say ‘Australia,’ the usual response is: ‘No, well, err, what I meant was where are you really from?’ This is often said with an innocent, shy-girl laugh, to hide the obvious non-acceptance of me being so ready to be labelled ‘Australian,’ just yet.
If I say ‘Egypt’ I feel like I’m lying because I was born in Australia and have never been to Egypt. I am actually proud of Australia and its people (though some of our politicians disappoint me) and like most Australian-born, second generation migrants, this has been my only home.
If anyone has proven that multiculturalism works, it’s second and third generation children. In a modern Australia that’s hacked the concept of multiculturalism to death and called for across-the-board integration, they’ve managed to balance Anglo-Australian culture with the culture and expectations of their parents.
But with such polar opposites competing for their allegiance, appeasing both sides hasn’t been easy.
In the red corner, they have their parents and the traditional ways, religion and ethics in which they’ve been brought up. In the blue corner, they have the Government, a heightened sense of nationalism that’s recently swept the nation, the intense attacks on multiculturalism and a new dislike (or, at least, suspicion) of all things foreign (aka ‘un-Australian’).
The second and third generation immigrant children are standing in the middle a link between both cultures, but also feeling wedged between them.
For some of our parents, Australian pop culture equals a lot of what they see on TV in other words, drugs and alcohol, and a deviation from the good, wholesome upbringing they’d hoped for their children. Some even fear that their children might become ‘extremist bogans.’
For the nationalistic Anglo mafia, if second and third generation immigrant children show any signs of another culture it’s seen as a failure to properly integrate. And if these children are Muslim or of ‘Middle-Eastern appearance’ and appear different in their dress, then the Anglo mafia immediately fears that they might become extreme Islamists. Regardless of how many pies they eat.
Sudanese youth in Noble Park and Lebanese gangs in Lakemba are used as examples of migrant kids failing to accept the good Australian way of life and being influenced by their old, backward culture.
This begs a number of question: if migrants and their children do fully integrate and take on the dominant Anglo-Celtic culture, will the notion that ‘Australian = White’ or ‘Australian = European’ ever be eroded? And when people like me answer the ‘So, where are you from?’ question, will ‘Australia’ ever be acceptable as a legitimate answer? Will we ever be considered Australian, if we don’t appear to be from the dominant cultural group here?
I don’t have the answer to these questions yet.
But, if you look closely at this question of ‘what is an Australian?’ the truth is that, despite more than 200 years of White settlement, not even our convict children are fully integrated.
In 1788, European settlers arrived in Australia. But it was only in 1931 that the Statute of Westminster formally ended most of the constitutional links between Australia and Britain. But Australia did not adopt the Statute until 1942 and some residual powers linking individual Australian States and the UK were not removed until the passage of the Australia Act in 1986. That took 198 years.
As the Principal Historian at the Australian War Memorial, Dr Peter Stanley, writes, Australians early in the 20th century remained ambivalent toward ideas of Australian nationhood. Most thought of themselves as ‘Australasian Britons,’ bound to Britain by ‘the crimson thread of kinship’ and were proud that their country was a junior partner in the British Empire.
With the outbreak of World War I, the new Commonwealth of Australia found itself willingly at war on the Empire’s side. Australian leaders demonstrated their unqualified loyalty. Andrew Fisher, Labour Prime Minister from 1914 to 1916, declared that Australia would support Britain to ‘the last man and the last shilling.’
It was only after World War I 130 years after the first White settlement that British Australians began to develop a sense of Australian national identity. But even then, many perhaps most, remained proud of their dual loyalties. ‘This war,’ a South Australian wrote from Gallipoli, ‘has made me intensely British and absolutely Australian.’
In 1999, 211 years after settlement, a referendum was held to decide whether Australia should become a republic and, once again, the Australian public refused to entirely cut its ties with Britain.
Now, 219 years since Europeans arrived on this land, it seems that White, predominantly Anglo-Australians have begun to form an identity. Australians struggle to set our values in concrete because, for the most part, we don’t know what they are. We’re still desperately trying to become something after two centuries of being in this land.
But what is most disturbing is that it’s expected that migrants become fully fledged, beer-swilling, cricket-playing Aussies before they’ve even walked out of the airport.
Sure, I’ve been here for a bit over two decades. And like you, I struggle with two cultures, but please, don’t expect me to do overnight what’s taken you 219 years (and counting).
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