Note: I have rendered the name of the commenter on the now deleted comment thread anonymous.
Poor Jim Belshaw probably doesn’t quite know what hit him.
After a quiet run of blog entries attracting few if any comments (same here — I think blogging in general is down in this area, almost certainly because social media attract more attention) his (I think) excellent post China’s apparently expanding Great Wall against Australia has now reached 24 comments. Mind you, they are all Marcellous, X—-, myself or Jim. They do tend to wander off Jim’s main points — and I am as guilty as any on that. Marcellous (who I thought had been disrespectfully treated by X—-) returned with some detailed amplification, X—- held out an olive branch to me (which I accepted) and then responded to Marcellous’s latest.
Which was kind of interesting. Marcellous had said: “Are you saying today’s Chinese in Australia just need to toughen up?” X—- replied:
marcellous, I wouldn’t simply dismiss their concerns with a throwaway such as “they just need to toughen up” – but it is close to truth that successive waves of mostly successful immigrants have at first been looked down upon as a group, then gradually respected for who they are as individuals, while discarding the basically monolithic identity they arrived with.
From the Jewish and other middle Europeans before and during WW2, through the 10 pound poms, and Italians, and Greeks, Vietnamese, etc. they’ve each and all had to “fit in”, rather than maintain a separation of group identity. “Today’s Chinese” are no different.
“They’re A Weird Mob” is one of the best commentaries upon 50s Australia ever written, and that’s now old history, but its lesson is still relevant imo.
“toughen up” is not the right term, but the attitude, individually, would help.
To be fair, X—- hedges what he says there. But he is expressing a view I have often heard. I replied with a no-comment comment, and some incidental bitching about Blogger. Since I am not on Blogger now, I have done some corrections and a slight edit.
For consideration, not in any way to be taken as dogma. Glad to see Marcellous amplifying his remarks. I can tell you that my … friend Michael Xu from Shanghai, who also has warm regard for the Taiwanese — indeed finding their version of Chinese culture in some respects superior to the Mainland — and yes, he has spent time in Taiwan not long ago — reacts to the more (shall we say?) Fierravanti-Wells/Abetz characterisations of China with greater rather than less desire to stick up for what the motherland has accomplished, to be more rather than less China-patriotic in reaction to what he sees as ignorance, hypocrisy or even racism. I can well understand his position and am sure it is not uncommon among Chinese-born Australians. As he puts it, Australia is my father and China is my mother.
That is a rather more profound expression of the way people really feel than sentimental memories of “They’re a Weird Mob” which is both outdated and actually quite patronising and embarrassing now. Actually, it was both of those even at the time.
(A side matter for a second: the comment thingie on Blogger is also outdated and sucks — you cannot for example add a video, which I want to do, nor can you revise a comment once sent. It is still as crappy as when I gave up Blogger over ten years ago.)
Now back to my next point. There is a brilliant 12-year-old Chinese Australian violinist called Christian Li.The only way I can show you how good he is is to refer you at the end to one of my posts — but he understands what being Chinese in Australia really means in 2020, not 1950. If you go to my post at the end — and it is pure enjoyment, not politics — you must watch “Fisherman’s Harvest Song.” It is lovely. He says of it “I chose this piece because it connects me to my Chinese heritage through music. The beautiful melody in the opening expresses the fisherman’s strong emotion as he returns to his village after being at sea. I love being able to express this heartfelt song through the singing quality of the violin.”
I would also strongly recommend searching out anything by French writer Amin Maalouf. “On Identity” is a key book. Search because crap Blogger does not really allow for hypertext.
I also very strongly recommend that you do not reply to this post, X— — and I say that respectfully. I am not setting up arguments here, just doing what I would hope to do if we were face to face: show you some things and leave you to take or leave them. I am definitely not being contentious, but rather speaking of what I know.
Here you will find Christian Li. Simply enjoy it. Do not bother arguing with it or me. This is a very different kind of comment. I do not look for a response. What you make of it is up to you.
And of course I want you to enjoy Christian Li again.
On Facebook I did a version of the no-comment comment.
Given all the argy-bargy about China-Australian relations, and the neo-McCarthyism of such as Fierravanti-Wells and Abetz, this then 12 year old (now 13) says something quite profound about identity — which that pair of migrant-sourced senators really should understand but apparently do not: “I chose this piece because it connects me to my Chinese heritage through music. The beautiful melody in the opening expresses the fisherman’s strong emotion as he returns to his village after being at sea. I love being able to express this heartfelt song through the singing quality of the violin.”
Or as my friend Michael Xu has said: “Australia is my father; China is my mother.”
Or as Amin Maalouf wrote: “To those who ask, I explain with patience that I was born in Lebanon, lived there until the age of 27, that Arabic is my first language and I discovered Dickens, Dumas and “Gulliver’s Travels” in the Arabic translation, and I felt happy for the first time as a child in my village in the mountains, the village of my ancestors where I heard some of the stories that would help me later write my novels. How could I forget all of this? How could I untie myself from it? But on another side, I have lived on the French soil for 22 years, I drink its water and wine, my hands caress its old stones everyday, I write my books in French and France could never again be a foreign country.
“Half French and half Lebanese, then? Not at all! The identity cannot be compartmentalized; it cannot be split in halves or thirds, nor have any clearly defined set of boundaries. I do not have several identities, I only have one, made of all the elements that have shaped its unique proportions….”
First, let me say that They’re a Weird Mob is bloody funny, and still is. I am not pulling a “cancel culture” trick on it. I am generally speaking opposed to cancel culture. But both the book and the movie are dated, and certainly do not address the complexity of the reality of cultural and personal identity. While it on the one hand did much to address prejudice — the book especially — against what at the time were often called “wogs” or “reffos”, its message basically was the official policy of the time — assimilation, which unfortunately tended to involve the elimination of the culture, customs and language of the home country in favour of those of the new.
This policy was basically unrealistic and sometimes destructive. In the 1970s we heard of “multiculturalism”, a term much misunderstood and mistaken for encouragement of ghettos. In reality it is a policy of enrichment, of integration into Australian society but also of recognition that this works both ways — that what we know as “Australia” grows with the addition of other ways of life and thought.
Consider this meditation on the subject, published in 2008:
Every family has a claim to fame and ours is this: we’re related to Nino Culotta. That counted for a lot as a child of the ’70s and surpassed all other family feats, past and present, including a grandfather with a dozen published books and a great-grandfather (his father) who became a barrister in his 50s after being forced off the land due to drought with eight children and a piano.
It’s 50 years since Nino Culotta published his rollicking bestseller They’re A Weird Mob, about arriving from Italy on a ship and finding work as a brickies’ labourer in Punchbowl, where he struggled to comprehend and eventually master the Aussie vernacular and ingratiate himself by bellowing, in a near perfect Aussie accent, “Howyergoinmateorright?”
But what I have never understood is how he got away with it. How did John O’Grady write a book pretending to be Nino Culotta when he was actually someone else entirely and still be warmly embraced, revered even, by the nation? Helen Darville was hammered 35 years later for wearing peasant blouses and feigning Ukrainian ancestry for her award-winning novel. James Frey was rebuked on Oprah for fabricating large parts of his memoir. And Norma Khouri was pilloried for not being a Jordanian woman who had witnessed honour killings, as she claimed in Forbidden Love.
And this: Frank Bongiorno, Island stories –Negotiating identity between different Italies.
Many of my own generation of Australian-born Aeolian Australians became quite detached from the cultures of their parents and grandparents, even as they also experienced fragments of these cultures in their daily lives – through food, snatches of the Aeolian dialect and barely articulated habits of mind – such as the instinctive turn to extended family when you needed or wanted something, and the desire to touch government only with a very long pair of tongs. Some, like me, entering their twenties, donned backpacks and used the financial rewards of professional jobs of which their grandparents would not have dared dream to visit their ancestral homelands. Now, as we get older, we travel there in more comfort. Relatives on my father’s side of the family assemble on Salina every few years for a family reunion.
Their Australian story has been the familiar one of migrant success, as celebrated in From Volcanoes We Sailed: Connecting Aeolian Generations, an exhibition at Melbourne’s Immigration Museum in 2016. Curated by my cousin, Cristina Neri, the Aeolian-Australian experience was seen to be embodied in business and professional success, cultural continuity and a thriving family life. There was a great deal of nostalgia about food and families, and a sense that modernity and the passing of the migrant generation threaten both. When Russo wrote about the Melbourne Aeolian Club in 1986, she thought its future ‘precarious’, since the migrant generations were getting old, the community was well integrated and the young seemed little interested in maintaining these connections.
“They’re A Weird Mob is one of the best commentaries upon 50s Australia ever written, and that’s now old history, but its lesson is still relevant imo.” Yes it is still bloody funny! But no, it is not at all adequate if you are trying to understand how identity works in 21st century Australia. Michael Xu is much more informative when he says “Australia is my father; China is my mother.”
This August 2019 post visits some of the same issues, and also shows how different in many ways 2020 has become — thanks to COVID-19.
The post covers much more that is relevant to China policy than the following personal story — but that story encapsulates how so many Chinese people must see their country’s progress and how they most likely feel about it. It also has the advantage of being relatable and easy to understand.
What M knows from personal experience — and he was last in China just this year — is that the lives of his family in Shanghai and of the people around are immeasurably better than they were, materially and also spiritually, in that however much the government tries to control them travel and access to foreign ideas, including democratic ones, are far more possible now than they were at any time in M’s first 25 years. He can remember the final phase of the Cultural Revolution, and famine (in part man-made of course) when there was nothing to eat but cabbage. As a child M recalls enviously watching his neighbours eat.