I spent some time talking with a young women of Indian heritage the other day. She told me how as a young bride she came from India to join her husband who was studying in Australia. As they walked out of the airport she gave her new husband an ultimatum: finish your studies and then we have to go back to India. She was insistent that she wouldn’t live in Australia permanently. She felt very much the difference between her home and the culture and society she could see even just outside the airport doors. 20 years later she’s still in Australia, loves it her and now calls this place home.
What she was describing was something I had also felt when I spent time working on Nauru. I missed home. I missed “my people.” The Nauruan people are lovely and I made many good friends. But Nauru is not home. As wonderful as palm trees are I missed gum trees. As lovely as it is to be in summer all year round, I missed the change of seasons, missed wearing warmer clothes. I longed to see a sea of white faces, people who looked like me.
It is this sense of “my people” that my Indian acquaintance missed when she first arrived in Australia. It wasn’t that she didn’t like white people or that she was racist. She just wanted to be among people who instinctively understood her, got her sense of humour, viewed life the way she did. And I know there are many white Aussies who are tired of being labelled “racist” when they make a comment that distinguishes between one race or culture and another.
One thing that became crystal clear to me in my time on Nauru is that people are people, regardless of their race, culture or religion. I loved being part of communities that were diverse in language and faith. But there were times when I just missed Aussies, people who “got” me.
Aussies sing with pride, and often a tear in the eye, “No matter how far or how wide I roam I still call Australia home.” I think the same is true of the many races of people who now call Australia home: there will always be some part of them that longs for their “home”, for the people who see life just as they do, the people that they don’t have to explain themselves to. It’s easy to criticise newer arrivals to Australia for wanting stay within their cultural groups but I’m sure that if I moved to another country in which my skin colour was not the norm and where people did not speak English that I would gravitate to those who are “like me.”
As Australia moves more and more to being a multicultural, multiracial and multifaith nation these two things will need to be held in tension: we are the same but our differences are real.