During my boyhood, I noticed that, when a stranger from the family’s homeland met my parents, an early exchange would refer to the village of origin. We were then in British Malaya. Since I was a third-generation Malayan – my maternal grandfather having worked in Malaya until he retired – I had neither knowledge nor interest in villages of origin.
Yet, it made sense to ask that question. Are we possibly connected? Do we share friends? Thus, the question was a search for bonds in a foreign land. I have observed Indians in Malaya asking questions about the origins of others. Yet, the ethnically diverse Indians seemed to know, in many instances, by appearance, and by the inflexion of language, one another’s tribal origins.
In a comparable way, the various Chinese dialect-groups could be seen seeking to know about origins, arrivals, and such like, in spite of the language barrier. During the Japanese Occupation, Chinese and Japanese were seen to communicate through their ideograms.
It was the same when Australia brought in (by selection) a smorgasbord of Europeans in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I have often observed with interest 3 or 4 such immigrants attempting to converse with one another in public places, using hand movements and a mixture of languages – all in an effort to identify, and to bond. After all, they were the ‘wogs,’ much wanted by the government but not necessarily welcomed by many of the host peoples.
“Why don’t you speak effing English?” was frequently spat out at these recently-arrived foreigners (a ridiculous requirement, obviously).
As for the early Asian students in Australia – from British education systems in the colonies – we bonded with one another freely. Many Europeans reached out to us; and many of us reached out to those Aussies who were receptive. Multiculturalism was in the making.
However, as the number of each ethnic community in Australia grew, there tended to be more intra-tribal than inter-tribal connections. For instance, I noticed that many Malayan Chinese students stayed within their ethnic group, thereby missing the depth of inter-cultural relations I experienced.
There is, however, a funny side to such implicit chauvinism. Many a time I have been asked by a brown chap “Are you from India?” When I replied in the negative, whoosh, there would go my enquirer. A few years later, celebrating Theepavali in a Sydney park with an admixture of Asians, an Indian told us that he had comparable experiences to relate. When he replies that he is from India, he is then asked “Are you a doctor?” When he says “no,” whoosh, there would go the enquirer.
A sense of being part of a collective is, of course, emotionally uplifting, especially in a Western milieu based on individualism. We are all born into a collective; and family, clan, and tribal pride can anchor one in an ocean of swarming souls seemingly swirling in a ‘Brownian’ motion in their intersecting destiny-paths.