I’ve had several conversations in the past months with Australians whose families have been here for generations as well as more recent immigrants. I’m noting that Australia, and this is really generalising, does not offer a strong sense of common cultural identity. There just isn’t a critical mass of shared history, art, language and literature that acts as an underlying core for people to hold. In contrast to, say the UK, which can look back at a thousand years of 'place'; regardless of who people are or where they come from they can have some sense of place in where they have arrived. This just isn’t apparent in Australia; the Aboriginal past is so completely wiped from the culture that even Aboriginal people struggle to grasp it—so that’s not a viable thread (and would not really be for the majority of people living here anyway). The Colonial history doesn’t offer much in the way of a positive underpinning to society either. I sense that, for the majority of white Australia, there is this general unease over one’s identity. It’s as if there is a projected form over the envelope of who they are that doesn’t quite fit.
There is this great fear of ‘the other’ that I don’t think would be so prevalent if people had a stronger sense of their own identity. People seem wary of the perceived dangers posed by immigrants who have other ideas about culture and society; I just wonder if there was a much more lively sense of cultural identity if that fear would diminish.
Part of the issue with that may be the lack of integration the last few generations of immigrants have been offered here. I regularly meet Greek immigrants that came here forty and fifty years ago who are still struggling to speak English. I was recently part of an interview panel at work where several (quite capable) candidates could simply not communicate with us. One had been in Australia well over a decade. All over Sydney, there are suburbs that are almost wholly one ethnic group or another that keep to themselves in their own cultural enclaves. Even the public schools, in which parents can actually be quite self selecting, some are often almost wholly one ethnic group or another. That is going to inevitably lead to ‘otherness’ and potentially toward a situation of conflict; it’s ultimately a fractured state if the citizens are unable to have a cohesive shared set of cultural markers. If people can't, at a basic level, even communicate in a common language, there is going to be disenfranchisement and lack of societal engagement.
I don’t think that means that anyone needs to lose the originating culture; there are plenty of examples where forcing that issue caused overt damage over generations. Immigrants must be allowed to identify ‘from’ and have a clear sense of personal and familial history. But if we cannot identify the ‘in’, we remain adrift and unconnected. Both are part of one’s identity; it’s not either/or. One can be simultaneously ‘from’ a place and ‘in’ another. The first identity is not lost to take up the second—nor must the influx of ‘other’ diminish a culture unless it has lost its moorings to begin with. You can’t code switch if you don’t have the material to work with from one cultural set to the other.
Welcome home and carry on
If Australia isn't a distinctive place that welcomes the newcomer as 'The People of Australia', it will be lost—not that the culture we have now will be inundated by others, but there will be a more serious loss of soul from lack of cohesion. It will be the loss of a shared sense of place. Many people will come from a multitude of cultures, of other distinct places and, in lieu of a presented and shared civic culture, be obliged to shelter in enclaves of cultures without a connecting thread. Or, worse, people will flee here with a damaged sense of identity, from war or distress, and be able to find no solid ground to land upon.
A couple months ago, I had a frank discussion with a Lebanese man who has been here for thirty years. I asked him if he feels Australian now; he thought for a moment and said,
I later spoke with another Lebanese man who has been here for eight years. There is an ongoing discussion about 'what is to be done' with young men of Arab descent who become radicalised. The government wants to treat it as a law enforcement issue. The ‘public’ say that Islamic schools and mosques are to blame. I think that neither address what’s happening. This is mostly occurring in second or third generation youth. The second fellow I spoke with said, ‘What do these kids know about Islam? There isn’t a strong enough Muslim culture here to give them any kind of real grounding in it. They don’t have that as an identity and they can’t fit into white Australia either so they are looking for something that lets them know who they are. That’s what ISIS is pumping out!” He showed me some pictures of his brother back in Lebanon; he’s a corporal in the regular army. Lebanon is, of course, fighting off incursions by ISIS all round. His brother said that the ISIS fighters are from all over the place but they share this ‘we are in this together for the cause’ kind of mentality. I just wonder how many of those young men are from places where their parents immigrated to a generation ago; how many of them could not find a place there and who are now looking to prompt the crisis that gives them a sense of identity.
I also wonder what difference it makes that one can now so readily choose an identity. Perhaps we haven’t evolved enough culturally to be able to do this smoothly. It’s only within the past few hundred years that people have been able to do this en masse (it’s been so much accelerated over the past century and looks set to be the norm by either choice or force in the coming one). It’s not something that one used to have much say in; one’s identity was a given—something formed over generations. A sense of place that offered stability of mind and social structure; that’s all increasingly cut adrift. Even if one became an immigrant, because of the limitations of travel and economics, that reception and absorption was gradual. We are going to see migrations now that are exponentially larger and faster than ever before. I wonder what that’s going to do to both the existing societies in place and those who come into them? I was reading this morning an account from the Iraq War; when the country began to fracture after the American invasion. People began to flee to the relative stability of Syria; I wonder how many of those families seeking asylum in Europe now are doubly displaced? How does one maintain identity in the midst of that?
The layers of ourselves
There are obviously many layers down through that to explore; those are just some initial musings and I realise that there are numerous complexities that I'm not addressing here. I'm observing this all from a quite narrow urban view; I'm also aware that there are obviously people in Australia who have a wholesome healthy sense of self-identity! I'm just commenting on what happens at the edges and as an immigrant myself. Having a core sense of identity that can be shared with the people around me is paramount; equally so, a respect for the history and cultures that everyone brings must be fostered as well. My reflection on this is because I sense we haven't quite found the way to do this—and it's a skill we need to develop quickly.
I say all that, not from a fear of losing my own identity or a lack of it, I’m simply wondering about this sense of a collective loss around me. Perhaps I am looking back at a time when I did feel more ‘a part of something’ and now I’m having to better define my own identity as an individual. I can see the benefits and pitfalls of both situations. I have lived abroad for a decade and, in some ways, feel more at ease in places where I am obviously distinct and apart. Again, I think this comes from having a healthy sense of one’s own identity; however, there is a flip side this also allows me to step aside out of conversations and engagement with the adopted culture. I always have an excuse as the outsider. I’m exploring the reasons behind this for myself; I need to understand if I’m moving from something or towards. I can easily feel immersed and at ease almost anywhere now but that does not mean I am of that place. I’m just wondering where my heart is and where it needs to be. Where that is, I’m not sure I can wholly answer on my own. It’s a question that I am accountable for but it involves the hearts of 'the other', the land under my feet and perhaps some larger measure of destiny than I have the scope to comprehend.