Cross-cultural exchanges

When we came to know the locals better, some of the ladies would greet us with a kiss. Yuk, and how embarrassing. We had never been kissed in our lives – not since babyhood. (Kissing a girl with unspecified ambitions was a different matter.) And then there were those ladies who rushed up and shook hands. How unladylike! And all that touching!

Another interesting cultural interchange occurred in a school preparing post-secondary students for university, with emphasis upon upgrading the standard of written English. A Chinese Malayan friend of mine prepared an essay, as did everyone else in his class, on “My cultural heritage.” The objective was also to offer the students some cross-cultural sensitisation. His effort included the gem that he was very proud of his ancestral culture. This went back five thousand years or more, long before European man had “descended from the trees.”

That must have gone down well when he read it aloud to his class. At the end of the session, the kindly teacher explained that, while my friend’s claim might have been correct, it would be more courteous to phrase it differently. Confident of his place in the universe, my friend agreed.

Who was my friend? A second generation Malayan, whose parents were shopkeepers. But they had tremendous pride in their cultural heritage – and quite correctly so.

Another Malayan, at his guest house, put his shoes outside his door, expecting them to be polished overnight. We did not know where he learnt that, but he certainly had to buy another pair the next day – someone had stolen his shoes. As the landlady said, you clean your backside, you polish your own shoes. We could not argue with that.

When it came to food, Sunday night dinner was the one to avoid with Aussies. Cold roast meat and raw, cold vegetables – all tasteless. The mouth-watering sweets which followed did not compensate. And the way they ate scones – first butter, then jam, then a lot of cream on top. Then open the mouth like a hippo, and push it all in. Only the rich in Asia could eat like that.

In contrast, I vividly remember the scene one night back home, just before I left. A wealthy Chinese businessman had taken out to dinner the members of a newly-formed orchestra, which was led by our Goanese music teacher. Beyond the wire fence of the outdoors restaurant were a number of half-starved children looking at us eating in style. I knew how those children felt then. The apparent gluttony of the Aussie was therefore difficult for me to adapt to, until I too learnt to eat like a hippo.

The old Aussie, reflecting his tradition of tasteless food, did not like spices. The European, the new Aussie, did. I was introduced to Italian food by a Pole, and taught how to fork spaghetti. Now we knew where to find almost-proper food. A Greek immigration clerk introduced me to Greek food – better and better. A Yugoslav introduced me to other European eating places. Gastronomically, our life was improving rapidly. And, in time, the foreigner introduced tasty bread, tasty sausages, and other improvements to the marketplace and, gradually, to many Aussie homes.

Eventually, some of us got together and rented accommodation where we could cook our own food, and where we could invite foreigners to cook their foods. Often, these places were owned by migrants – this meant that there were no complaints about the smell of the spices. Of course, none of us could cook to start with. We had not been allowed into the family kitchens. We therefore started to cook the way we vaguely remembered the women cooking back home. If they had seen us, we would have been a source of great amusement. But we experimented and we improved. And who was there to tell us that what we did was not the correct way?

(This extract is from my first memoir ‘Destiny Will Out,’ which brings out differences that were ironed out by the flood of immigrants influencing the younger generation of Anglo-Aussies. Young multicultural Aussies now probably know a lot about culinary and other cultural aspects of ethnic communities everywhere.)