Social cohesion matters

It became clear that most of those who tried to change our religious or political beliefs were working-class characters. Those from the middle and other classes rode around in natty little sports cars or had large family cars at their disposal. They enjoyed life, before turning to the practice of making money for themselves.

Of these, some identified themselves as Jewish. These reached out to the Asians early on our arrival. Many firm friendships were formed. A migrant Jewish girl, who had survived a concentration camp, befriended me. I heard her tell some people that she had been raped in the camp. She took me in my first month of arrival to buy casual clothes; we both finished up wearing yellow sweat-tops and mission-brown slacks. Yuk! We must have looked like a pair of colour-blind twins. I know better now. Hopefully, she does too.

To get on with the wealthy, I felt that one had to wear suede “desert boots” or “brothel brogues,” corduroy slacks and, perhaps, a scarf. A lot of money also helped.

The overseas students generally gathered together, to share experiences as well to talk about the families we all missed and the countries and cultures we had left behind. At an early stage, a number of us formed the Australia-Overseas Students Club at the university.

In the first year, we held a weekend conference, at which there were twenty-one different nationalities out of the eighty-five people present, including a Mexican and a French lass. What a fabulous experience that was – a great part of the world represented by young people, with hope and ambition driving our studies, and building international understanding in the process. When numbers of each nationality or ethnic group are small, people tend to mix more widely than when numbers are large enough to sustain a particular national or ethnic community. So it was with us.

Many years later, when I was guest speaker at a dinner hosted by the Indian Association of Victoria, the president asked me to suggest to his members that they should stay together as Indian Australians rather than break up into the language or regional groups of India. … … Over the years, it was quite hilarious to meet a fellow brown-skinned chap and have him ask me if I was from India (that was the key phrase). When I said no, whoosh, there went my new-found friend. This happened all over Australia, and to many others.

More recently, I mentioned this ritual to a group of Hindus celebrating Deepavali at Hyde Park in Sydney. It was a family gathering, with migrants from India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, and New Zealand. One of the Indians added to my story to the effect that, when he answers the usual question in the affirmative – yes, he is from India – he is asked another question. And that is, “Are you a doctor?” when he says no, whoosh, there goes his enquirer, obviously a doctor (unless he was looking for free medical advice).

Enquiries from Sri Lanka were different. Most of the students from this country were Tamils. Their first question, after identifying me as of Ceylon-Tamil origin, was about the village my people came from. There we go, I used to think – he is less interested in me than in identifying my ancestors. How would that enhance our possible friendship? Anyway, we are (in all likelihood) related by marriage, if not by blood.

The Malayans were a different pot of pickle. They would mix with anyone, and they were comfortable to be with. Very early, we formed the Malayan Students Society in Melbourne, covering all the institutions in the State. Gradually, a support network was being formed all over Australia, with increasing involvement by Malayan diplomatic officials, and Australian authorities backed off from their intrusive role as guardians and policemen.

(These extracts from ‘Destiny Will Out,’ my first memoir, highlights: the tribalists from the multiculturists among the Asians; Australian class distinctions at university; and a colour-blind refugee Jewish-Malayan friendship. Jewish-Australian students were the most friendly of the locals to us Malayans. Subsequently, I acquired close friendships with some, including a few with a number on a forearm.)