One-sided hospitality

Many years later, my mother arrived … … She refused to eat a particular dish that I had cooked because I had omitted one step in the process. … … All the relatives I have eaten with cook individual dishes in an identical fashion – no variation whatsoever, whether they live in Australia, Singapore, or sundry parts of Malaysia.

We invited many Aussies to eat with us. They did, and said they enjoyed our cooking. They would like to come again. And they did. But, irrespective of their wealth, reciprocity was rare. So, the old Aussie and his offspring turned out to be spongers. After forty-five years in the country, and still offering Asian hospitality generously, I find reciprocity rare. European migrants agree with my conclusion. And this finding very clearly applies to the better educated, with their higher incomes. The question is why is it so?

‘Eaten food is soon forgotten’ is an old Hungarian saying. Is that why? Is it Anglo-Celt tradition to treat one’s home as a closed castle, with entertaining done only in the backyard (the ubiquitous but enjoyable barbecue) or to go out to eat (Dutch treat – pay your own)? To be fair, only the middle class behaves like this.

The old Aussie worker was the one (I thought) who made Australia unique. He had dignity but not pretence, and offered no bull about his importance. His door was open once he accepted you. I have been to many barbecues and drunk a lot of beer with many ordinary Aussie folk. And he did not accept that Yiddish adage (which cannot surely be true): the constant friend is never welcome.

What is so special about the middle-class home? Apparently, it is based on the ancestral home in Britain. And even the Irish and the descendants of the convicts all uniformly aspired, according to a recent writer, to the visible architectural and living styles of the very people who had caused the original exodus. So, I wondered if it was an English tradition to treat the home as a closed castle? My English friends deny this. In fact, they too complain about the non-reciprocity of the well-off Aussie. … …

My explanation is that the self-conscious middle-class wife cannot hope to offer culinary skills comparable to that offered by foreigners. And behind this kind thought lies the niggling guess that the newly-rich are simply house-proud and want to preserve their new carpet. By contrast, our standard of hospitality is that friends are expected to drop in, no appointments necessary … … A visitor is not kept standing at the door, but invited in and offered light refreshments. It is courtesy to accept and to partake of at least a token amount. When we say “drop in,” we mean it. … … To visit in Australia, without a prior appointment one to three weeks away, would be unthinkable – so I found. What is the value of friendship then?

… … Right until the Nineties, I have had the disconcerting experience of a so-called friend, or a boss (a very senior public servant), or the president of a club for retired professional and business men, as well as others, open their front door when I knocked, greet me, step outside, and shut the door behind them! In the worst cases, I had done them a favour by delivering papers that they had needed urgently. … … I thought that they were weird and very bloody rude. Perhaps, these people had just been dragged up (not brought up), as some of my neighbours used to say.

(The above extracts are from my first memoir ‘Destiny Will Out.’ What I have described applied until the mid-1990s, when the book was written. I have to point out, however, that since my retirement more than a quarter of a century ago, I have served civil society continuously – until recently. In spite of contributing to 4 community organisations for 4 years in my first retirement location, and to 6 committees in the last 20 years in my present location, I have never been invited to a cup of tea, barbecue or anything else by those in control of these organisations.)