Friday, February 15, 2008

DON'T PANIC - the hitchikers guide to a multicultural world

While I sometimes describe myself as old fashioned and talk often about the past, I actually live just at present in a throughly modern polycultural urban world. This sometimes gives me a fair bit of fun, especially in my self-appointed role of bridge between present and past.

This week I have been a bit manic. I work in a project environment, we are building a new team, so I tend to perform a bit.

With new work coming in I have been rushing around, pointing in grand gestures to the end of the office (the Executive Suite) and saying can't you see those huge words at the end of the universe, DON'T PANIC.

This always gets a laugh and eases tension, which was my objective. But it was only this afternoon that I thought to ask my immediate boss L., a rather nice Chinese women, if she had ever heard of the Hitckhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. She had not. I then checked with some other Chinese colleagues. They had not either.

I then tried to explain, struggling a little. I quote from the description of the film:

While purists will pout at this feature film version of Douglas Adams' classic sci-fi satire, fans and the uninitiated will laugh all the way to Ursa Minor. Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) is having a bad day. He's just discovered that his best friend, Ford Prefect (Mos Def) is an alien and Earth is about to be demolished to make way for an intergalactic highway. Thankfully, Arthur and Ford escape before the planet is destroyed. To stem Arthur's rising panic, Ford introduces him to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (narrated by Stephen Fry), which is full of useful facts and figures about life, the universe and everything. Douglas Adams was a certified genius and bringing his brilliantly bizarre universe to the silver screen was not going to be easy, populated as it is by Marvin, a manically depressed robot (voiced brilliantly by Alan Rickman); Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), inventor of the Pan Galactic Gargleblaster and President of the Universe; and megalomaniac prophet Humma Kavula (a character created by Adams especially for the film, played with relish by John Malkovich).

How does one make sense of this?

Then, too, I was talking to our executive assistant. She is a nice Indian woman who has been in Australia for a little under two years.

She really struggled when she first arrived because she could not understand the social isolation of modern urban Sydney. After finally becoming the little mother of the block of flats they lived in, the person who provided the social glue now so lacking in many parts of Sydney, she and her husband have moved to a new development marked by a sense of community. She is as happy as larry.

M did something for me, and I said that she was worth her weight in little gum nuts. I had to explain. Now I have to find a copy of Bib and Bub for her so that she can read it to her new child.

I find that many new arrivals have an absolute fascination with this country's past and current strangenesses, a fascination not easily satisfied in a world dominated by current concerns.

Dz is a Bosnian who works closely with me. Back in January 07 I ran a story on the burqini. I showed this to Dz and she bought one. She thinks that it it the greatest thing since sliced bread because she can now going swimming with her kids for the first time since she was covered.

Dz and her husband have fallen in love with the Australian countryside. They take the kids out to Young to get cherries. I entertain Dz with stories about Australa and told her about the moleskins that my daughters had bought for me. Today I wore them to work for the first time, and she noticed at once.

C. who is Chinese works across the row from me. She was the front end of the Chinese dragon I mentioned in my post on Quong Tart back in February 07. She was also the source of my story on the ABC of Cultural Change.

In return for my stories (including stories on the Chinese past in Australia) and help, she agreed to answer all the questions I could think of on the current Chinese in Australia. She reminded me of this today. I will do so next week.

There is a large map of NSW in our office. Over the last twelve months I havs spent hours there suggesting travel spots, explaining points about life and history. And not just to overseas born staff.

I find that there is an enormous hunger to find out about Australia, current and past, one that is simply not being fulfilled.

Our current new arrivals are no different from those Europeans who came after 1788 nor, I suspect, the first Aborigines who arrived on the then vacant continent.

All new arrivals have to adjust to their new environment, to new light and colours and smells. All have to overcome the barrier of strangeness.

Links to home and the familiar help. But the process of assimilation, and I use that word advisedly and in the technical sense, depends upon finding things in the new that you can link to. Otherwise you remain, as I sometimes feel in Sydney, a stranger in a strange land.

I find the interest in Australia among our new migrants very reassuring. I just wish that I could do more to meet the apparent need.


Anonymous said...

M says that in Australia he feels Chinese, and in China he feels Australian. Martin Krygier's 1997 Boyer lectures are well worth revisiting, Jim. (They disappeared from the ABC site a year or so back; I like to think I helped restore them.)

You emphasise what your colleagues are gaining from you, but it is a two-way process, isn't it? You indicate ways in which they are changing you too, or adding to your range of cultural reference. Multiply that out through all our experiences and you can see we assimilate, if you will, to one another. I call that multiculturalism in action. Great, isn't it?

Good post though, Jim. I hope you don't think I am being picky. I am sure you are a great resource for people (even me) in our ongoing acculturation.

Jim Belshaw said...

Good points, Neil, and no I do not think that you are being picky.

Of course I gain from my colleagues. I do so at a number of different levels. I would not behave in the way that I do if I were not getting a response.

There is friendship and support. Then for someone like me who is curious and interested, there is the sheer pleasure of finding out about new things.

To me, assimilation and acculturation, and I have our earlier discussion in mind here, are two sides of the one coin.

I remember your post on Professor Krygier's lectures, but was remiss in not following them through to read them - did not hear them at the time. I have only scanned, but will read them properly.

M's case is interesting and not, I think, unusual. It even happens to me!

It's time for Saturday morning musings. I might pick up all this up in a reply to LE's nomination of me for the blogging meme.

Lexcen said...

Jim, I cannot find anything to dispute what you have expressed in your noble sentiments. In a perfect world we would not need to even discuss such matters, they would be taken for granted. BTW, did you watch Donkey in Lahore on SBS?

Jim Belshaw said...

Neil, my thinking on SMM went in a somewhat different after all.

Good morning Lexcen. I did not see Donkey in Lahore. What was it about?

Lexcen said...

Jim, the program I refer to is a documentary following the progress of an Australian lad as he travels to Pakistan, falls in love with a Pakistani girl, converts to Islam, and has to meet numerous demands from the parents of the girl before he is allowed to marry her. I found it relevant to what you were saying about cultural assimilation. From my point of view, it was a one sided compromise. I felt it reinforces my view that as far as Muslims are concerned there is no give and take when it comes to cross cultural exchanges.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks Lexcen. There is no doubt in my mind that religious divides can be important.

After all, its not so long ago in Australia that some parents disowned children who married across the Roman Catholic/Protestant divide. In the early 1960s a very popular book on the Roman catholic faith concluded that protestants were at risk of going to hell.

There is also no doubt in my mind that there are particular features of Islam today that create difficulties. You have pointed to a number of these.

To my mind, the central challenge we face as a county is to maintain unity and cohesion in what is, and will become more so, a multi-ethnic community.

You know that I write a fair bit on demography and demographic change at global and local level. I do so because to my mind demographic change is the single most important challenge the world faces.

If you look just at the migrant/locally born mix, Australia has become a striped community. So far we have largely avoided the problems that you can see in Europe. One reason for this is that we have managed to avoid individual ethnic ghetos. Areas with large migrant populations are also generally diverse, with many different national groups.

In writing about these things I have tried to tread carefully because my words risk misinterpretation.

We are as we are and will become more so. As part of this, the muslim proportion of the population will rise. I set out the reasons for this in an earlier post.

We have to deal with this. Given that I have now done so many posts linked in some way to all this, I should perhaps bite the bullet and make my thinking explicit.