EARLY MEMORIES: Culture shocks in Oz (1)

Growing up in a nation-in-the-making had inured me to a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multicultural population. Mutually tolerant co-existence, with necessary co-operation and courtesy, was the widening norm.

When I boarded my small ship in Singapore, there were labourers available to load my heavy tin trunk. Disembarkation in Sydney, train travel to Melbourne, and a taxi to the YMCA there were effectively self-service. White Australia had been premised with the objective of creating a nation of white people who would not reject any kind of work, under the umbrella of a ‘fair-go’ ethos; but I had to pull my weight and drag my trunk everywhere myself. Self-sufficiency is indeed a virtue.

At the YMCA, no one spoke to me who did not have to. I realised much later, that I may have been the very first coloured person (in the Australian language of that period, a ‘black’) to use its facilities. My shower was in a communal bathroom, but no one mentioned that I should not drop the soap.

My university campus was set in a desert; the accommodation was in retired army huts. Our food was basic, challenged by huge bush flies which sought to decorate our meal with their offspring. The winter was so cold that I eventually ended up with 9 army blankets. Yet, one night, sleeping in the open, a number of us sighted the glorious Aurora Australis. Then, for a change, we experienced a sand storm for a few days. A high wall of light sand bashed its way into all occupied quarters. Apparently the red sand ends up on the slopes of volcanoes in North Island of New Zealand

At my dining table were 2 young Australian men of European descent with educated voices – an Italian and a Yugoslav. The son of English stock, also well-educated, would occasionally speak in the Australian vernacular, but with an exaggerated back-of-throat delivery. The fourth was a ‘dinky-di’ Aussie in his speech, proud of his working-class origins. All 4 were courteous, correcting my pronunciation as appropriate (eg. steak as not in teak), and introducing me to Australian colloquialisms.

The fifth member spoke from the front of his mouth, but as if had had a large pebble in each cheek. He had a weird accent, reflecting the social ambitions of his Irish antecedents. His demeanour suggested that he had been a boarder at school, and whose teachers had included catarrh-ridden Englishmen. I have met many Australians, in senior positions of course, who had copied the accents of such teachers.

During a casual conversation on colonialism, when I made my position clear – but quietly – this chap suddenly burst out with “That nigger Gandhi should be shot.” I suspected that he had been influenced by Churchill, who had previously described Gandhi as ‘that nigger,’ That outburst explained his earlier questions to me, such as, ”Do you sit at tables on chairs?” He was my first racist. That was a new experience for me. But one does not respond to ignorant yobbos.

In the normality of existence, a weirdo can enliven the scene, can it not?