Archive for January, 2010|Monthly archive page

a friendly country

Wipe away your tears

This will be my second account of how reading something concerning Australia nearly made me cry. Some may start to wonder if there’s something wrong with me. Those who know me well can shake their heads at how sentimental I can be.

I wear my heart on my sleeve, and don’t mind what people think. But it also pisses me off if I slip and come across as naïve. There’s a difference between being open and positive, and being foolish. In fact I think it might be one of the most important boundaries we negotiate in this world.

In this case I wonder if someone might read about my emotional reaction to Life in Australia, a government pamphlet about immigration, and assume I am completely ignorant of some of the difficult issues facing this country.

It’s been a bad few months here on that front, with a series of violent assaults on Indians actually provoking a diplomatic situation between India and Australia. The Indian media and government have portrayed Australia as a dangerous place for its citizens. Indian officials have gone so far as to issue a travel alert — as if this were a terrorist state.

It’s been bitterly ironic and dispiriting to have this go on as I settle into a new life in a country I find so friendly and welcoming. I’ve boasted to friends about how nice it is to roam Sydney and meet folks from literally everywhere, all with charming Aussie accents, and observe how they’ve integrated into a peaceful society in a beautiful place. It’s maddening that hate and misunderstanding have damned this vision in the eyes of many.

I can’t deny a lot of Aussies have attitude problems about immigrants. Just last week an otherwise affable used car salesman made a very sharp and disagreeable comment about foreigners to me and my wife. He must have somehow thought it wouldn’t bother us at all. (I wonder how he comes across to his many immigrant customers?) It was a dreary moment; and not the first time it’s happened to me.

You get this in America too, of course; and lately the French and Swiss have been at it. People are naturally suspicious of others, naturally tense about perceived threats to their ways of life. It’s important to work on changing this, but I don’t think it automatically equates to violence. Especially in a place as stable and prosperous as Oz.

I’ve been angry about the attacks, but also angry at the idea that Australians have a fundamental or unusual problem with foreigners. I would like to think the Indian media is overreacting. (And I’ve talked to at least a couple of Indians here, guys I met at my new job, who agree with me.) I think the intense media coverage, both Indian and Australian, could even be pouring gasoline on the fire. Just two days ago there were more “attacks” in Brisbane, though they may have just been muggings. What is taking place? Is it random? Is it copycat crime? Is it really somehow condoned by the society at large? Meanwhile the Australian cricket team was threatened with reprisals on its upcoming tour by an Indian nationalist party.

Sometimes it seems there’s a sinister connection between the paranoia and the violence.

I refuse to recognize either, and will stand by my vision. Australia is self-evidently one of the most progressive and, yes, friendly places on earth, and Aussies of all backgrounds should be proud of that. They’ve worked hard for it. We shouldn’t let a couple of mindless lowlives dictate the perception of life here. But of course it’s less likely to make the news when people get along.

Anyway, this is personal for me because Indian culture and philosophy have had a profound impact on my life, and I’ve found Indian friends and communities wherever I’ve been. So I guess my wife and I and our friends will be steadily counteracting the confusion and intolerance, just by being ourselves. If a few people can cause a problem, a few people can help fix it. Love is stronger than hate, or so we are taught.

Indian film composer and superstar A.R. Rahman played a concert here last Saturday to promote peace between Indians and Australians. Many thousands attended. That is a beautiful thing — you gotta love Rahman, I think Richard Horowitz was right, he is some kind of musical messenger — and it made me happy to hear about it. But, really? Promoting peace? This is not Belfast, nor Kashmir. Do India and Australia need some great reconciliation? Aren’t there much worse problems in the world right now?

Or maybe Australia’s detractors are right to take the attacks so seriously. Maybe they are symptomatic of all the war and hate we’re dealing with, and peacemaking really is necessary.

If so, a tremendous example any Aussie should take to heart was given in 1934 by the Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic. It concerns the battle of Gallipoli, which took place on Turkish soil twenty years before. Many Americans are not aware of what took place there, especially if they’ve not seen Peter Weir’s heartrending Gallipoli, which captures as well as any film the nightmare of that “great” war: the grinding horror of young men made to charge into fields of raining metal, slaughtered like insects, as battle lines were fixed in place for months. The anonymous writer of Life in Australia provides a good recap.

World War I had a severe impact on Australia. In 1914 the total population of Australia was approximately 4.5 million; yet 417,000 Australian men volunteered to fight in the war and more than 330,000 did so. Around 60,000 died and more than 152,000 were wounded by the time the war ended in 1918.

Out of this experience emerged one of Australia’s most enduring values: the Anzac ethos of courage, spirit, and ‘mateship.’

Every year on 25 April, Australia commemorates a brave but ultimately failed battle which was fought in 1915 by the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps — known as the Anzacs — and other allied troops at Gallipoli, in Turkey.

The Anzacs (together with British, French and Indian troops) landed at Gallipoli with the aim of defeating Turkey by forcing a passage through the Dardanelles and bombarding Constantinople. However, the rugged, steep coastline and the staunch defence by Turkish soldiers held them back and the Anzacs withdrew on 20 December 1915. The campaign, which lasted eight months, resulted in the deaths of an estimated 8,700 Australians who were killed in action or died of wounds or diseases.

To get an idea of the scope of this bloodshed on the Australian psyche, imagine six million Americans died in just four years of war — and nearly a million in one campaign.

Note that allied Indians were there at Gallipoli too.

The Atatürk, known then as Mustafa Kemal, was the charismatic leader of the Turkish troops the Anzacs faced in that miserable conflict. Famously he told them, “Men, I do not ask you to fight — I ask you to die.” So they did, in shocking numbers, but eventually prevailed.

Years later, as president, he wrote a tribute to the Anzacs who died in Turkey. I saw it for the first time on my friend Charlotte’s facebook page a few months ago, around the time my Australian visa was approved.

Heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives! You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries: wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

I believe this text is pretty basic stuff for most Aussies, but I had never read nor even heard of it before, so it hit me all at once. Yep, sure enough, there I was, reading facebook, with tears welling up in my eyes. (Was I just tired, after working on the film festival for six weeks straight?) You go about your daily business, you live and breathe, and everything might be fine; and then once in a while something comes along to remind you of how different things could be, how much better this world could actually be.

Since I was raised by a soldier, I instinctively recognize in these words a soldier’s outlook, a deep respect for those who willingly gave up their lives — for their country, but maybe also for something that’s harder to explain. It’s a sense of brotherhood that transcends national boundaries, can even be felt for opponents in battle, so long as it’s not polluted by zealotry.

I believe this way even if I’m against the war in question. The Great War was a great exercise in stupidity, ultimately meaningless mass murder. But something important is paid forward by that kind of sacrifice (a potent, and accurate, term for the transaction). That’s why the Anzacs are so revered to this day. The fact that Gallipoli was a failure doesn’t enter the picture.

But there’s something bigger at work here. These words are officially memorialized in Australia, New Zealand, and Turkey. There are statues of the Atatürk in places of honor in Canberra and Wellington, while the beachhead at Gallipoli was renamed Anzac Cove by the Turkish government. These are small but extraordinary instances of reconciliation. I can’t think of others like it. None of King George’s generals or admirals have such tributes in America. Nowhere in the northern States is that great enemy Lee enshrined, decent and noble as he was. Nor can I think of a place in Mexico or Vietnam named for invading US troops.

It must mean a lot to the 150,000 or so Turkish Australians. (Maybe one of these days I’ll get round to asking the guys at the pizza place what they think.)

Can we imagine having a memorial in our country to the bravery and spirit of the Ho Chi Minh, or the Taliban? Maybe we should try imagining this for the future? Maybe this kind of thinking is the only way forward?

We live in a dark time. Americans are supposed to be paranoid about foreigners with bombs. Australians are supposed to be filled with all kinds of hate. Sometimes it seems like our governments and our media are fine with this state of things. Peace, love, and understanding ain’t cool anymore. It’s with redemptive examples like this that I can sometimes see out of this mess we’re in. It’s a concrete demonstration of what “peace” actually entails beyond just putting the guns down — what generosity, forgiveness, and regard for the suffering of others, are required to maintain it. It’s a blueprint.


spider wasp

When my wife told me it’s not uncommon to encounter large spiders in the home in Australia, the thought of it stayed with me, lurking in the back of my mind for years as we planned to move here. Oh, did I mention I don’t like spiders?

I know. If I have a problem with spiders, I didn’t choose a very good place to migrate. But I’m not sure if I’m really arachnophobic. Fear is not quite the word for what spiders make me feel. I fear drowning, or being run over by an SUV. My feelings about spiders are much more vague and diffuse, a sickening sensation. Sometimes when I enter a dark space where they might be found, my imagination (which seems located on my skin) takes over. The creeps is the most simple and eloquent description for this state. It’s something I suffer quietly. If you were with me you might not notice my increased heartrate and hesitant movements.

Anyway it doesn’t really interfere with my life. But it’s there in the corner somewhere. It’s something I think about, maybe more than other people. Morbid fascination is part of it.

There are spiders common throughout Australia called huntsmen. These are just the spiders Amo was referring to. They are pretty big, a couple of inches or more, with splayed, crablike legs. They look something like little tarantulas.

As their name suggests, huntsmen are one of many kinds of spiders found in every part of the world that roam about looking for prey rather than building webs. It so happens these are the ones I have always hated to be around. The orange or yellow-and-black orb-weavers don’t bother me at all, as long as they stay on their webs. I can even find them almost pleasant, if not exactly cute. On the other hand the hunting spiders — usually grey or black or brown and often, uh, furry — are the ones that creep in sheds and woodpiles and dark corners. The ones that go looking for trouble. The spiders most likely to appear in the bathroom at two in the morning.

Needless to say I’ve been wondering how I’ll handle having huntsmen in my life on a regular basis.

Australians will inevitably point out that huntsmen are harmless. True enough. They rarely bite people, and their venom is not enough to cause serious harm. (And there are, of course, other horrifically dangerous spiders to worry about here; that’s another story.) But the way spiders make me feel has little to do with how poisonous they are or aren’t.

Once I trapped a relatively large black widow found in a box of organic grapes. My arachnophobia did not come into play, maybe because I was facing the situation with a purpose (and a pair of gloves). The adrenaline I felt was natural and sensible; it had to do with real danger. I might have felt the same way around a rabid dog or a loaded gun.

No, arachnophobia, the kind that I have anyway, is all about the creepy way even harmless spiders move, how they seem to come out of nowhere. The unseen or imagined: something that takes place in my mind while getting in bed in the dark. It’s how a harmless little animal can be the stuff of nightmares.

I’ve always loved learning about nature, especially animals. I’ve read a lot about spiders since I was a boy. The idea that intellectual knowledge will help arachnophobia has no bearing on me. I appreciate them. They are remarkable creatures. I don’t want them in my bedroom.

The day we arrived here in Sydney, Amo and I decided to take a walk in the afternoon to prevent jetlag. There’s a big park with extensive bushland and hiking trails about ten minutes’ walk from our North Shore home. (One of the great things about life here — even in the city, there’s more nature than people know what to do with.) As we were stepping through a wooded housing area close to the park, something on the ground caught our eye. There was a brilliant flash of yellow and movement across our path. The next thing I knew a large huntsman was right in front of me. I froze, and stared at it, with my pulse quickened slightly, making sure it could not get close enough to me to come in contact — the same familiar reaction I have whenever I see a spider. Only I realized the huntsman was not walking, but was being dragged along by a huge, wicked-looking wasp.

I knew about spider wasps, of course, but had never seen one in action. She was quite a sight: brutally hauling her prey by the face, at impressive speed. Her yellow markings gleamed fiercely in the afternoon sun, offset by an intense, chromelike midnight blue. The unfortunate spider was rather limp, already subdued by the wasp’s own venom, utterly helpless. If you know anything about these wasps, you know that the spider was not dead, and that an awful fate awaited it.

I didn’t take this picture, but this is exactly what I saw (except on the ground, not a fence). The scale is fairly accurate. Note the casual great strength of the wasp in carrying the deadweight of the huntsman up the vertical surface.

Spider wasps are badasses. They’re the Bengal tigers of the insect world, the queens of their own little jungles. They hunt the hunters. They’re painted like race cars. Just look at the wasp in this picture — she looks like a machine, like a biomechanical weapon.

I just couldn’t believe it. There I was on the very day I landed here, stepping into the bush, quietly wondering when my first unpleasant encounter with a spider would take place, and knowing I would eventually just have to get over it. But of all things, I had this vision: my nemesis, my little nightmare, in the clutches of a cruel enemy.

Does it mean something? Does it signal an opportunity for sympathy, a path to even more understanding for the little buggers?

Or maybe the spider wasp is my new power animal.

happy day

Yesterday I finished my previous post, about seeing Andrew Bird at the Sydney Opera House, then looked on youtube for a good-quality video from the show to illustrate. There was just one fan video with poor sound. (You can’t hear the whistling — what’s the point?)

But since I had searched for “andrew bird sydney,” I discovered these two pieces, produced by a local crew called Shoot The Player here two years ago. They’re live performances shot on the fly in public at Mrs. McQuarrie’s Chair, the famous outlook on Sydney Harbour at the Botanical Gardens.

They really capture what’s great about Andrew Bird. His unique sound is often accomplished with electronics, which is the thing that hooked me in the first place, but his reference points in folk and blues and country are old as anything. It’s my kind of musician who uses new technology and experimental forms, but is not limited by them, and could just pick up and play and sing anywhere.

“Plasticities,” the first clip here, is a great mix of these factors with its off-the-cuff troubador manner belying the eerie, droning post-folk sound. It’s strange and cool to hear this on a sunny day in the park. He makes his violin sound like an electronic instrument. The performance also highlights his whistling. (Listening to it I wonder if I was wrong about him whistling on an intake of breath. Anyone happen to know?)

The second piece is more pure; it sounds like an old gospel standard. It’s just all about a guy playing a fiddle in a park, a song about happiness tinged with the blues, gospel yearning. And Bird seems like such a friendly guy; it looks like he’s glad to be out here. Love how he waves at the boat at the end of “Plasticities.”

These videos could not go better with the mood of my piece about him, and my overall mood about migrating here. The Bridge and the Opera House are here. The sun, the sky, the sandstone. The latent happiness of summer. But also something deeper, more haunting, a little harder to put into words if you’re not Andrew Bird.


On Sunday I caught Andrew Bird’s performance at the Sydney Opera House. If you’ve not heard of him, Bird is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, composer, and whistler from Chicago. (Yes, whistler; more on that in a bit.) His eclectic, orchestral folk/pop and improvisatory performances have inspired the most passionate acclaim. My friend Mike, one of the few whose taste I trust almost completely, was blown away by his show at Radio City and wouldn’t stop talking about his music. It was Mike (back in New York) who made me aware of the gig at the Opera House and told me I should go.

I’d read about Bird and heard a lot from Mike and others, but somehow managed to miss hearing his music. Despite this I succeeded in convincing my wife and two other friends, who had also never heard him, to join me. I’d already missed Animal Collective, Neko Case, and a New Year’s Eve set by French house producer Pépé Bradock. Being new in town, I’ve been keen to check out whatever scene is out there, especially as it’s summer, the peak of the party and festival season. I was not going to miss this show too. The others were happy to have their arms twisted — maybe because heading to the Opera House on a summer’s night, it’s hard to go wrong. And it felt like part of an ongoing celebration of our migration to Oz.

The evening began with drinks at the Opera Bar, which is simply a large enclosed area right on Circular Quay at the foot of the Opera House steps. A crowd reveled in the overcast, cool, but very pleasant evening air, and two guys played Stevie Wonder covers on a PA. As I settled into a schooner of ale, I took a look around.

It doesn’t get much better than standing in that spot, beer in hand, looking out on the Harbour and the magnificent bridge, which still had the huge yin-yang light display from the New Year’s fireworks show a few days before, insistently glowing in the mist. Then you turn around and there’s the famous building right in front of you, taking up all your vision. The wide sandstone steps seem to cascade upward to the massive windows in the front hall. You don’t often see it from this perspective in photographs, and it’s familiar but eerie, like seeing the face of someone you love at an odd angle.

The overcast day did not spoil the impression either. Of course in sunny weather the vision of the sail-like roofs, arcing and shimmering against the absurdly blue Australian sky, is merely perfect. But in this diffuse cloudy light, the curving roof tiles were the rich color of cream against the pale grey sky, seeming to glow from within, to be more immediate.

I’m not tired of looking at the Opera House yet. To be honest, I don’t think anyone is. I don’t intend to go on about Jørn Utzon’s genius right now, but he sure as hell designed a building you just want to look at.

Drinks finished, it was on inside. I’d not been to a show here before, and it was pretty grand to climb those steps and file up the very wide carpeted stairs inside to our seats. On the way up I noticed the un-tiled interior of the roof “shells.” The slate-colored concrete at first seems dreary; but as you look, its intricately fluted and bevelled surface becomes really fascinating. This raw, unfinished look is mainstream now but must have been pretty astonishing in 1973.

As we climbed, the Harbour opened up in the huge windows along the staircase; the Bridge seemed to loom closer; the yin-yang was pulsating and lighting the grey dusk on fire. Quite a way to get your seats at a gig.

The interior of the Concert Hall is subtle, but grand. It impressed me more and more as I sat and gazed at the quietly severe space-age vaults. It’s like a postmodern cathedral, really quite a space. As they quickly filled it up in an orderly Aussie way (the show had sold out completely), I noted that many in the crowd, a couple of thousand strong, were hipsters dressed down, or dressed up in fun/ironic ways. Nice to see not all Sydneysiders are so buttoned down. Our eyes were drawn to the large device on stage shaped like two phonograph horns fused together: the famous spinny horn.

Hip or no, the crowd was immediately captivated by Bird as he limped winsomely out on crutches, his body language affable and friendly even from our distant seats. The hall was suddenly filled with the shrill, ethereal sound of audience members whistling. Seemed like just an extra-enthusiastic Aussie cheer, but it made more sense very soon.

He opened solo with a violin, gorgeously manipulated by digital delay pedals to absolutely fill the big chamber with unusual sound and melody. Sometimes playing it like a guitar, sometimes drawing a bow, Bird folded layer upon layer of chiming, buzzing, ringing noise, creating something huge out of delicate pieces. This is his general approach, and with the restrained yet subtly intense light show illuminating the detail up in the vast darkness, and the spinny-horn spinning, it was easy to feel joy in experiencing this postmodern, post-rock orchestral mode in this particular place.

Bird felt the same way and said so. “It’s not every day you get to play in an icon of the planet,” he gushed in his low-key way. Being new here and still getting used to the differences in culture, it was nice for me to see thousands of Australians paying rapt attention to an American, especially one who talks in that slow, soft-spoken, rambling way that drives some Brits and Aussies nuts.

As his set progressed, Bird added elements to the tapestry, starting with his voice, which has a lot of power lurking behind its twee-ness and at its best recalls Jeff Buckley. (There I said it.) Then out came a three-piece band to interpret if not approximate the very lush recordings. Buckley, Pet Sounds, Radiohead, and Sufjan Stevens are some of the immediate comparisons trailing in my head. You can throw Belle & Sebastian and Arcade Fire in too for what it’s worth. But these are my own surface impressions; Bird manifests deep strata of influences in blues, country, jazz, Latin, and Middle Eastern music. The band was strong, and went right along with his complex but playful vibe.

Then there is the whistling. It’s hard to explain its effect in person. It’s poignant: comforting and strange at once, amazingly accomplished and melodic. From where we were sitting, it was hard to believe it was being done live — it pierced right through the thickly-arranged sound and seemed to occupy all the air in the room. (A sensation especially strong for me as he whistles just the way I do, on an intake of breath, with a deep sound centered in the throat.) Whistling connects Bird to his folk roots — what more natural instrument for a person to play? It’s also a bit silly; some might think just a little whistling goes a long way. But it’s hard to deny. After the show, walking along the quay, the yin-yang absolutely exploding in the full darkness, I fought very hard the urge to whistle. With other showgoers all around, it would’ve been too corny. We might have all been whistling and that would’ve been too much.

Bird played a long time and could do no wrong for the crowd or me, whether encoring with a bluegrass tune (plucking his fiddle, he and two of his backup guys singing into one mike just like in the old days) or rambling on about how his wonderfully catchy tunes are about sociopaths, mad cow disease, Chicago housing projects, or mean children. The cover of the Sesame Street tune “Capital I” was sublime. My wife and friends were pretty delighted too. It would be hard to care about music at all and not be won over by that much talent and verve.

Not long after I was having breakfast on a nice suburban morning and thinking of the show, and couldn’t help but whistle a little bit of “Oh No,” the first track on his terrific latest album, Noble Beast. (If you know the song, you know just why I would have it stuck in my head.) Then I heard some birds whistling in the trees outside the window. Loud Aussie birds, loud whistling, full of exhuberant life, summer in Sydney. Birds of all kinds, piping, squawking, laughing obnoxiously, are the soundtrack, the constant music of life here, a wonderful presence in my first few weeks. And I thought, of course! Birds. Andrew Bird. Of course!

a fair go

There’s a booklet published by the Australian government’s immigration department called Life in Australia. Anyone applying for residence is expected to read and sign off on it. I applied earlier this year while still living in New York and so came across it one evening in a PDF on the department’s website. It’s basically a 42-page civics lesson, running down history, geography, and facts about government services, along with an overview of Australian democracy and daily life. I actually read it cover to cover, instead of clicking right past as if it were a disclaimer. I was curious what my prospective new government had to tell me.

As I read, I became more and more pleased with the thoughtfulness and eloquence of the official copy.

Australians value equality of opportunity and what is often called a ‘fair go.’ This means that what someone achieves in life should be a product of their talents, work, and effort rather than their birth or favouritism.

Australians have a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect, tolerance, and fair play. This does not mean that everyone is the same or that everybody has equal wealth or property. The aim is to ensure there are no formal class distinctions in Australian society.

Australians are proud of their peaceful society. They believe that change should occur by discussion, peaceful persuasion, and the democratic process. They reject violence as a way of changing peoples’ minds or the law.

Many Australians contribute to the community in their daily lives. They may demonstrate this through caring for the environment, lending a hand, and working together in times of need in pursuit of the public good.

Australia has a strong tradition of ‘mateship,’ where people provide help to others voluntarily, especially those in difficulty. A mate is often a friend but can also be a spouse, partner, brother, sister, daughter or son. A mate can also be a total stranger…

The values outlined above have been promoted and discussed by Australians over many years. They have helped Australia to welcome and integrate successfully millions of people from many ethnic groups and cultural traditions.

Australia’s cultural diversity is a strength which makes for a dynamic society. Within the framework of Australia’s laws, all Australians have the right to express their culture and beliefs. But at the same time, all Australians are asked to make an overriding commitment to Australia – its laws, its values, and its people.

Caring for the environment as a national ideal. Multiculturalism as patriotism. Aussie slang in a state publication — was I imagining this? Impressed, I was moved to start reading this passage out loud to my wife. As I read, I was very surprised to find my voice becoming heavy, and that if I proceeded I would soon be shedding tears! I paused to take a breath, and hoped Amo didn’t notice.

Ridiculous! Sure I have a sentimental streak, but it was hard to believe this government boilerplate had made me so emotional. Was I tired?

All right, I know. Governments are obligated to say nice things no matter how they act. Fascists make the same claims. Furthermore the Australian government has done enough to deprive people of their rights, starting with the first inhabitants; and many Australians don’t welcome immigrants at all.

But I don’t think it was fatigue or the beer I was drinking that caused the text to have an impact. I’ve often thought of it over the months as I’ve gone through the tedious process of getting my visa and packing and migrating. Reading it again, it holds up.

It’s well-written, far more than it has to be, smart, deftly concise, and readable — the way a good textbook can be oddly readable. Better still the inclusive spirit noted in the passage above extends to its view of history.

Australia’s first inhabitants were the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, who settled the land at least 40,000 years ago and possibly as far back as 60,000 years ago. By the time the first European settlers arrived in 1788, it is estimated that around 750,000 Indigenous Australians were living throughout most areas of the Australian continent.

Indigenous Australians had their own unique spiritual beliefs, a reverence for the land, a rich and diverse culture and an ongoing art tradition that is one of the oldest in the world.

…Although there was early contact with seafarers and traders, Indigenous Australians were largely left alone until the arrival of the Europeans. The initial contact between the Europeans and Indigenous Australians disrupted traditional lifestyles and practices and the Indigenous population declined dramatically during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Until the 1960s, little or no recognition was given to Indigenous Australian culture and history or to citizenship rights and responsibilities. For example, the right to vote in federal elections was not extended to all Indigenous Australians until 1965.

Pretty pointed and challenging stuff for a lightweight pamphlet. (Come on, would an official United States publication be that real with Native American history?) In similar fashion the contributions of convicts and Chinese and Eastern European immigrants in building the nation are noted.

Life in Australia also has a very Aussie frankness — a stern attitude coupled with generosity and a generous wit — especially in the wonderful passages describing local customs for the culturally disadvantaged.

Many Australians live close to the beach and the sea. On hot days, they may wear swimming costumes or little clothing on the beach and surrounds. This does not mean that people who dress to go to the beach or swimming have low moral standards. It means that this is what Australians accept on and near beaches. In some Australian states, there are also a small number of designated ‘nudist’ beaches where people may swim without any costume or clothing. People from other countries can choose to wear culturally appropriate dress.

…The midday meal is called ‘lunch,’ and the evening meal is usually called ‘dinner.’ Some Australians also refer to the evening meal as ‘tea’ and can use the term to mean either dinner or, literally, a cup of tea or ‘cuppa.’ If invited for tea, the time of the event is a good sign of whether your host means dinner or just a cup of tea. An invitation to tea any time after 6 pm usually means dinner.

Elsewhere is a glossary explaining terms like “bloke” and “no worries.” What government bureaucracy endorses lingo like this? It’s funny, but also genuine and real, especially in the focus on “a fair go” and “mateship.” The down-to-earth manner touchingly frames the potent ideas of law and democracy being expressed. But it’s also low on bullshit (as in the gently disarming statement that not everyone is the same). In fact the tone matches my experience of talking to most Aussies.

Mind you not everyone believes in equality and peace and justice. I don’t take it for granted anymore.

This text would have been written and published anyway good or bad, but clearly some very talented and thoughtful policy wonk got handed the job, and it transcends mere correctness. I believe governments, the same as people, should set aside cynicism and put their best foot forward; to speak of their higher ideals and goals even if problems or contradictions exist. Martin Luther King invoked the words of the US republic’s founders, knowing well most of them were slaveowners, in pursuing freedom for all Americans. The anonymous writer of Life in Australia must be aware of such dynamics, and the power of words.

If that’s farfetched, still it’s hard to explain why reading it almost made me cry. Anyway it was at least great sign I’d made the right choice about migrating. Something in it spoke to me directly.

Curious, I looked up the United States’ guide for new immigrants. As I somehow expected, it’s an inferior document. It means well, outlining the same concepts of democracy and freedom. It has pretty good advice about finding a home, a job, or a school. But at 114 pages it is far more cumbersome than its Aussie cousin, and the copy is clunky and indifferent. It has a curious focus on bad news: warnings about crime, school gangs, and poor childcare facilities, and a chart showing the colors of terror alerts. And it makes no reference to Native Americans, nor to slavery. Its “history” section is bland as it is brief. I can’t say I’m disappointed by that — it just underscores how delighted I am by Life in Australia.

Over Christmas I discussed at length US healthcare legislation with my British-Australian father-in-law. A retired corporate executive, as reserved, sensible, and “conservative” as anyone of his generation, he’s a big supporter of President Obama. He follows him closely, has read all his books, and even has a caricature of him framed in the study. Naturally he was pulling hard for him to get the bill through the Senate on Christmas Eve.

At one point my father-in-law, in a completely natural way, used words that recalled my emotion on reading that text, and made me realize how well it captured the Aussie mentality. He admitted that as an Australian he doesn’t understand the objection to universal healthcare, because everyone deserves a fair go, and felt America had betrayed its Christian principles.

Hey, he said it, not me.

crux australis

I spent the last few days thinking about how to “redesign” the Australian celebration of Christmas using colors and symbols adapted to this country and more suited to summer, and some of my thoughts formed the last entry here.

My wife and I wanted our Christmas cards to be “Australiana,” but not the usual bikini girls in Santa hats or kangaroos with antlers. We ended up with a nice set of cards from Oxfam featuring contemporary Aboriginal art. The cards were blank and not specifically Christmas cards, but the mostly abstract and very colorful paintings featuring kookaburras, gumtrees, and fiery red dust perfectly suited the season for me.

While I was imagining that Christmas could look very different down under, I couldn’t help but think of some of the proposals for a new Australian flag. A growing number of Aussies think their flag should not refer to distant Great Britain, but should be distinctly and proudly of this country. 

Perhaps paying tribute to the northern yuletide during the subtropical southern summer is much like having the Australian standard plastered with (dare I say colonized by?) the Union Jack. Getting rid of it is the starting-off point for all critics and designers; from there the design elements of new flag proposals vary.

Some refer more or less explicitly to indigenous culture and the Aboriginal flag; some incorporate the national (and sporting) colors green and gold. Some have kangaroos and some do not. Almost every one of them features the southern cross, the chief design element on the current flag — inarguably antipodean and widely cherished.

I love pondering flags and their design and could go on about this for much longer. Naturally it’s a controversial issue as a lot of Aussies are pretty attached to the flag they’ve got and aren’t keen on giving it up anytime soon. I don’t mean to enter this debate right now.

But as I was looking at some of the new proposals online with Christmas in mind, I was struck by how they seemed to go with my theme. Most of the designers make use of the colors and elements of this continent, especially the sun, the red soil, and the iconic monolith Uluru.

Since I was considering native flora in thinking of how a truly Aussie celebration might be decorated, I was pleased to take note of the waratahs and wattles found on a few of the flags.

Best of all everywhere I looked there were heaps of festive, Christmasy stars. 

I was happy with my indigenous art Christmas cards. But the great thing about these new flags is the notion of reconciliation. Here are artists and designers finding symbols for all Australians, visual keys to the land and all its people and their many ways. Since among these is insisting on keeping a “silly” holiday that combines European paganism and Eastern philosophy, there is hope it can have a new visual tradition on this continent too.