I’m a pretty typical and untypical Sydneysider – I was born overseas (31% of Sydneysiders were) but I have lived here since I was 4 (many Sydneysiders, if they were born in Australia, came here from somewhere else).
I think of myself as Australian, but my parents think of themselves as New Zealanders, even though they’ve both lived here for longer than they’ve lived in New Zealand. That’s probably about as easy as immigration gets to Australia – Australians, being sport mad, are willing to forgive New Zealanders continuing support of the All Blacks, and don’t usually realise how culturally different from Australia New Zealand is these days (there is a very strong Pacific Island influence, which doesn’t really exist here in Sydney).
Still, I think there is a pang, watching your children growing up feeling a part of a culture that you yourself don’t belong to. My brothers and I are staunchly Australian. New Zealand has a place in our heart, but it’s second place.
So how much harder it must be for the many immigrants in Sydney who haven’t come because the jobs are just a bit better in Australia. A friend of mine came here at the age of 7 from Vietnam. She and her sisters are a classic refugee success story. Her parents worked hard at low skilled jobs, but the children all got degrees and have successful careers. But even though they have bought a safer and probably more prosperous life for their children, it is at the cost of their children losing a part of their culture. My friend is Australian, and thinks of herself that way. Her children will be too.
Multiculturalism (mouthful that it is) has been a mostly successful attempt to help our immigrants hang on to the parts of their culture that is meaningful for them. But there has always been resistance from the mainstream.
The more I talk to english speaking immigrants from first world countries (who are the ones I encounter at work – my close work colleagues birthplaces include South Africa, Russia, the US, the UK, Malaysia, Hong Kong, China) about their experience of immigration and how Australian they feel these days, the more I realise how hard it is for the immigrants who have moved from a seriously foreign (to Australia) culture. And I wish people would think a bit harder about the enormous leap it is for anyone to move into a foreign culture before complaining about lack of assimilation.
Identity and culture is such a personal thing. If you come to a country, you come knowing that you are adopting that culture, particularly for your children (if you have them). But our world is so much richer for sharing .
This post was partly inspired by Charlotte, who writes about her mixed feelings about living as an expat in Germany. She is South African, and fiercely loves her country, but, nevertheless, is bringing up her children somewhere else. Any immigrant faces and deals with that complexity of belonging. The least the rest of us can do is empathise.